Sunday, December 23, 2007

Breakfast Merry-Go-Round

The Holiday period brings a slowing down in our business. In a business hotel like ours, the guest count declines steadily in the week leading up to Christmas and does not start to build up again until Jan. 2nd. The level of occupancy is at such a low ebb that we open for breakfast only during the 10 days from Dec. 22nd to Jan. 1st. Regrettably, closing completely on Christmas Day or New Year's Day is not an option: our parent corporation demands breakfast 365 days a year.

My 3 cooks (2 of them brothers and all 3 Mexican) requested the Holiday period off. Since we weren't open for dinner for 10 days, it was no problem to give Miguel, my dinner cook, the time off. But as for my 2 breakfast cooks, one full-time and one weekend, if I gave them the time off, who would cook breakfast? You already know the answer.

In an attempt to create some goodwill in my attempt to turn this ragtag group, with their varying levels of experience and commitment, into something approaching a professional team, I decided to give all 3 the 10 days off. Given that I worked the week before this Holiday period began, and will work the several days after until the weekend blessedly rolls around, I've denied myself a day off for the best part of 3 weeks straight. The saving grace is that breakfast only requires my presence for about 6 hours a day, but that day begins when I roll out of bed at 5:30. I'm a quick mover in the morning, so after a 15 minute drive, I'm in my kitchen by 6:00

Turn on the lights, the ovens, the flat-top grill, the deep-fryer, the steamtable, the heat lamp and the hot well for the oatmeal. Start the oatmeal cooking (I don't believe in quick oats: even the 5-minute variety cook for 30 minutes in my kitchen, and I make it with half water, half milk for a rich, creamy, fully-cooked oatmeal that needs no additions, though we surround it with raisins, brown sugar and walnuts). Put the bacon and sausage in the oven, quiche if it's on the mneu that day, set the timer. The timer is critical: without it, something will burn, guaranteed. Toss a few pounds of cooked, diced potatoes on the now-hot oiled flat-top, leave them undisturbed to brown. Set out the bowls of fruit on ice; canteloupe, honeydew, watermelon, pineapple, sliced peaches, mandarin oranges and, oh yes, prunes. Fill the juice dispensers; orange, apple and grapefruit. Turn the bacon and sausage in the oven, re-set the timer. Put the scones and muffins in the oven, set the second timer. Make a small amount of pancake and waffle batters. Don't forget to stir the oatmeal.

Remove the browned potatoes from the grill, put them in the steamtable. Clean off the grill, grease it with fresh oil, dip the French toast in batter and lay it on the grill. Take the bacon and sausage out of the oven and put in the steamtable, saving the bacon grease (still one of the world's great seasonings). Flip the French Toast. Breathe. take the muffins and scones out of the oven, set them on a rack to cool. Grab the day's first cup of coffee (the opening server made that, one thing you didn't have to). Remember something you forgot. Put the oatmeal in a bain-marie and set it in the hot well. Take off the French Toast, slice it, dust with powdered sugar, set in steamtable. Clean of grill one more time,oil it and pour on a healthy quantity of beaten eggs, scramble quickly and set in steamtable. Set the scones and muffins in a basket in the serving area. Grab the container of serving utensils, do a quick dash around the stations, setting out tongs and spoons. Set out quiche, if it's a quiche day. Or maybe biscuits and gravy, or breakfast burritos, or......! Set up mini-pitchers of pancake syrup in the steamtable. Check supplies of omelette ingredients. Check the clock. 6:55. Just made it. Pause for another breath. Dash to the bathroom. Make it back just in time for the first customer.

I'm now into my 8th day on this breakfast go-around and one day blends into the next, especially over the Holiday season, so that I have a hard time remembering what day it is, which is a bit of a problem because I have particular obligations on certain days in terms of ordering from particular vendors. Christmas Day came and went without much fanfare on my part. I worked 7 hours, drove over to our other house which we're remodelling, spent 3 hours or so there, working on the landscaping and went home. The rest of the family was at my wife's mother's house, which I find dreadfully dull, so I pleaded exhaustion and spent a pleasant evening in my own company. Tomorrow is my birthday and yes, I'm cooking on my birthday too so that will pass without fanfare. Who needs to be reminded after 50? New Year's Eve? Yes. New Year's Day? Yes. My breakfast stint finally ends on Jan. 2nd, but after that I go back to my regular routine. I finally get a day off on the 5th. Time to go fishing!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Diary of a Mad Chef!

Maybe I should rename this site "Diary of a Mad Chef!" Being a chef is not all glamour and plaudits. Sometimes it's just bloody annoying and frustrating hard work. Yesterday was the Employee Christmas Party at the hotel, and who do you suppose got to prepare the food for the employees to enjoy? Me, of course! Now, this wasn't the first time I've cooked for a staff party at my own workplace, although the best companies I've worked for would host a catered party at a location away from the workplace, but whenever the party was in-house, accomodations were made to ensure that as many of the staff as possible could enjoy the festivities: the restaurant was usually closed for the evening, and the menu was kept simple so as not to burden the kitchen, so that chef, cooks and dishwashers could share the fun.
Yesterday, I bust my ass for 14 hours non-stop, first cooking lunch for the guests, then cranking up the pace to feed 80 or so employees and their guests, starting with hors d'oeuvres at 6:00. The menu was of my choosing, but I was left in no doubt that the owners had certain expectations: 4 appetizers, followed by 2 entrees plus a prime rib carving station, and dessert assortment. We began with Buffalo chicken wings, bbq meatballs, crab-stuffed mushrooms and jalapeno poppers, and, no, I'm not stupid enough to actually make those things from scratch! Then on to Chicken Parmigiana, Carne Asada, Rice Pilaf, Roast Potatoes and a sauteed Vegetable Medley.
Now, I was not alone in having to work my own employee party - the entire management staff was expected to pitch in to decorate the room, set up the bar, bus the tables, run the food and clean up afterwards, including re-setting the room for a lunch for 80 people the next day, an event that came with only 2 days notice! But I can guarantee that nobody else in that hotel worked as hard as I did. Usually I take a certain pride in turning out a good meal in the face of that kind of challenge, but not this time. My new recruit Matt, a recent graduate of a 10 month culinary program, well-intentioned but no real experience, and I cranked it all out without major mishap, but as the evening wore on I grew increasingly irritated at the stinginess of the owners, who were simply too damn cheap to pay somebody else to cater the party, and the wastefulness of the guests who would pile up their plates with food then not eat it. I got to watch that food being scraped into the garbage. Trust me there was nothing wrong with the food!
At one point during the evening I was presented with a Christmas card with a $100 bill inside. I didn't think much about it at first, but as my irritation grew, that $100 began to seem more like an insult and I wound up giving it to Miriam, one of my servers who has worked hard for me for a couple of years and become a respected co-worker, a friend and confidant. Miriam is a single mother with a delightful daughter, Christina, who calls me abuelo (grandpa). She was headed for Vera Cruz the next day to spend a month with her mother. So I said "buy something nice for Christina, tell her it's from her abuelo".
At one point my presence was requested in the party room for some party game or other. I simply told the messenger "Tell them I'm too f***king busy and I'm not having fun!" Miriam took my place for the drawing and pulled out a couple of $20 gift certificates to a restaurant that I actually like, the Poor House Bistro in San Jose (I rarely ever eat out). By the time I left the kitchen about 10:00 p.m. I was as tired as I've ever been after a day's work. And I still had to do some shopping for the event the next day. It was almost 11:00 when I got home and my wife was more incensed than I was! I had to be up again at 6:00 to start all over again on the lunch for 80, and the handful of jalapeno poppers that I had gobbled down in lieu of a decent meal did a number on my insides in the night. Not exactly restful.
It was clear the next morning that nobody who was working that morning really wanted to be there. I certainly wasn't bringing 100% of my attention to the job. At one point during lunch I made a pizza without the sauce - and it didn't dawn on me until about 3 hours later! The guest never said a word. Maybe she liked it! And then I discovered that someone had abandoned their soiled underwear in the mens room and I did the manly thing and disposed of it (in a sanitary way, of course and I did wash my hands extra thoroughly before going back to work).
And, as it happened, after Matt and I scrambled to put together the lunch for the 80 guests (a memorial lunch for a recently deceased friend of the owner's family) only 35 showed up! Leftovers, anyone?
I should run away and join the Circus! Cirque du Soleil is actually coming to town next month and they're looking for someone to cook for the performers for their 3 month stay. Interesting, but they don't pay enough. Can you imagine cooking for the stars of Cirque du Soleil for $12 an hour. That's pitiful. If they paid more I would do it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Know your onions? The French do!

These are my wife's favorite soup bowls and the ones we use on Christmas Eve
The latest copy of Cook's Illustrated landed in my mailbox today, and I was interested to note that there is an article about French Onion Soup. This is something of a tradition in my wife's French-speaking family, to be served on Christmas Eve. Amusing isn't it that I, an Englishman, a "rosbif" as the French snidely say, am the designated French Onion Soup maker in a family of French origins. Truth is that I am simply so good at it!
The process of putting that rich silken concoction on the table starts at Thansgiving. We take the turkey carcass and throw it in the biggest pot we have in the house, which is the turkey deep-fryer pot (yes, deep frying a turkey really works, doesn't result in a greasy bird and saves a considerable amount of time, providing you follow sensible precautions and don't burn down the house or garage. It should always be done outdoors!).
But in this case I use the pot on top of the stove. In go the usual complement of onions, carrots and celery and enough water to fill the pot almost to the top. Then I fire up the heat and bring the whole mess to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook until it reduces to perhaps a gallon, which may take all day and all night. This year it took 2 days on very low heat. By the time it's fully reduced that stock can just about stand up by itself, it's so thick and full of gelatin from the mass of bones. I fact, if you refrigerate it, the chilled consistency will be akin to jello.
You will often see the term demi-glace used to describe a thick rich beef stock. Demi glace means half frozen, in French, of course, which refers to the very solid texture derived from the high proportion of gelatin in the stock, when it is chilled.
In so many restaurants what passes for onion soup is a pitiful thing, consisting of a mass of quickly sauteed onions drowned in an over-salty beef broth, usually from a can, or heaven forbid, some instant thing called Au Jus mix! (Don't get me started on the mispronunciation and misuse of that term). Onion soup should NEVER be made with 100% beef broth! A mixture of chicken and beef broth is acceptable but the poultry should always predominate, by at least 2:1.
Obviously you don't need gallons of stock for onion soup on Christmas Eve, unless you're feeding 30 or 40 people, which is why I reduce it to a manageable gallon or so, because that's about all the room I have in my freezer.
Speaking of Christmas, it looks like I will be cooking breakfast at my hotel on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day and all the days in between, because all my cooks want the same week off and I'm trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, which may wear thin by New Year's Eve! Mind you, these days, I can barely manage to stay awake until midnight on New Year's Eve. All seems rather pointless at my "mature" age.
I will take the stock out of the freezer on the morning of Christmas Eve and throw it in a pot on the stove over low heat. No need to thaw out in advance. One of the the tricks with onion soup is to start out with a lot of onions, because they will reduce considerably in mass with the slow cooking that carmelization requires. Carmelization is simply the slow extraction of the natural sugars in onions and browning that sugar over heat. Don't try to make this process easier by using sweet onions like Maui or Walla Walla. They will simply make the soup too sweet instead of savory-sweet
You will need a heavy gauge pot, aluminum or copper-bottomed stainless steel. I put a splash of vegetable oil in the pot and turn the heat to high. When the oil begins to smoke I throw in all the onions. Quantity is not that important. If you wind up with too many carmelized onions, use them in something else. The onions will start to brown immediately. Stir them constantly for a couple of minutes to prevent burning. Despite what I may have said elsewhere carmelizing is not a euphemism for burning. After a couple of minutes turn the heat down to very low and let the whole mess do its work, stirring occasionally. The onions need at least an hour to release their sugar and turn sweetly brown. I quite often let them cook for at least a couple of hours. When they are reduced to a beautiful brown tangled mass of tangy sweetness, I throw in a handful of flour to create a simple roux amid the onions, with the oil that's already in there. I let that cook over low heat for a couple of minutes to let the rawness cook out of the flour, as always with a roux. Then I add a cup or so of white wine, maybe a splash of brandy (optional), a little thyme and a bayleaf or two, letting that cook together for another couple of minutes. Finally in goes the stock. Note, once again, this is a poultry stock not beef! Beef stock overwhelms the delicate flavor of the onions.
Again I turn up the heat to medium so that the mixture can come slowly to a boil, because a roux will not do its thickening work unless the liquid at least simmers. You don't want a really thick onion soup, but you do want body so there is just enough roux here to provide that, but no more. Once the soup has simmered for a few minutes and the roux has done its work, a little salt and black pepper is all that's needed to finish it. A slice or two of fresh baguette, brushed with melted butter and toasted in the oven floating in the bowl and topped with freshly grated Gruyere cheese melted under the broiler and you have a masterpiece, a meal unto itself.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Knife skills and other edgy subjects

I've already written about the value of a good knife, how to buy one without spending a fortune, and the basic technique to using a French or Chef's knife.
So let me expand on how to put that knife to good use, to make your cooking easier. As I stood at my work station today at the hotel, prepping vegetables for Thursday's minestrone (by decree of the owner, Thursday's soup must be Minestrone, just as Friday's must be Clam Chowder, a mandate which I find tiresome, but, hey, he signs my paycheck), it occured to me how often the simplest things that seem so obvious to me after 30 years of cooking are quite often a revelation to the home cook.
For instance I always tell my cooks to cut tomatoes with a good serrated knife rather than a conventional blade, and even some who cook for a living have never thought about this. Unless you have a super sharp knife, a Chef's knife will usually crush a tomato rather than slice it cleanly, hardly desirable if you're slicing tomatoes to garnish a sandwich. At home, consistent attractive slices may not be at a premium, but in a good restaurant professional standards demand that your slices are smooth and of even thickness. Now, there is a useful device for slicing tomatoes quickly and evenly, a Tomato King or similar brand names, but these are bulky and expensive and hardly suitable for the home kitchen.
That led me to thinking about slicing bell peppers and similar vegetables with tough skins. It's obvious to me, but perhaps not to everyone, that, once you have opened a pepper up it's much easier to cut it from the inside fleshy part out, rather than from the outer skin. You will find much less resistance to your knife blade that way. And, speaking of bell peppers, most of the bitterness in bell peppers resides in the seeds and the pithy ribs that line the inside. So always remove these before cooking. My standard method for dealing with a bell pepper is to slice off the top and bottom, then reach in and remove as much of the seed core as I can. I set the pepper on end and slice it into 2 equal halves, then lay each half flat, skin side down, and with my knife turned side ways, trim off the ribs. Then you are free to julienne, dice, chop, whatever.

A couple of weeks ago we were making devilled eggs for 100 people and I left the task in the hands of a prep cook and a dishwasher. When I checked on them I discovered that they had been slicing the eggs across the shortest circumference rather than lengthwise. When I asked them how the eggs were supposed to stand up for service I got nothing but blank looks. So I had to demonstrate the best way to slice an egg in half. Again a serrated blade works best, with a gentle rocking motion and not too much downward pressure. TIP: For perfect hard-boiled eggs, start with eggs in cold water, bring the water to a boil, then turn the water off. Wait exactly 8 minutes and you will have a perfect hard-boiled egg! If you are using them in a cold dish, shock them in ice water to cool as quickly as possible to prevent that dark ring from forming. And if you wonder why hard-boiled eggs are sometimes so hard to peel and other times the shell just about slides off, it all has to do with the age off the egg. As a raw egg sits in the refrigerator, over time a layer of gas forms between the shell and its contents and it's that layer that makes an egg so easy to peel. So, the freshest eggs are the hardest to peel.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sidetrack: Cooking for the Governor

Back in the early'80s I was living in San Angelo, Texas with my ex-wife's mother (my ex-wife once told me with great venom that I should have married her mother) and I responded to an ad in the local paper looking for a cook to work for the summer at an RV resort in Southern Colorado. I was ready for a change of scenery so I interviewed for the job and accepted when it was offered. I threw my few belongings in the back of my beloved baby-blue Ford Econoline van, fitted out with double bed, sink, stove and aluminum rocking chair and headed off to Hidden Valley Resort, a broad riverside meadow dotted with trailer spaces around a timbered lodge, hunched in a sheltered valley between Pagosa Springs and Southfork, Colorado.

Well, the job didn't exactly work out as planned and I was asked to leave about 5 weeks in. The owners claimed they didn't like my cooking, but to that point I was only cooking for the staff as they straggled in to get the place open for another summer, and the staff claimed to love my cooking. My suspicion is that the owners got wind that their Mexican maid, Virginia, had been meeting me secretly in the woods at night, away from prying eyes.

Truth is that Virginia wanted a baby with blue eyes to take back to Mexico with her at the first opportunity and I was the paternal candidate at hand. I can honestly say that I declined to co-operate fully with her plan, but I didn't entirely resist her advances. So I suspect that the owners had a suspicion of what was going on and decided to nip it in the bud.

As it happened, I knew a couple of people in Pagosa Springs, Wayne and Nancy Walls, who operated an outdoor outfitting operation, based at the Fairfield timeshare resort on the pleasant road between Pagosa and Durango. I had met Wayne and Nancy a year or so earlier when I spent several days participating in a "Long Dance" ceremony and sweat lodge near Socorro, New Mexico. We had all become quite close in our few days in the desert, as one does sitting naked in a rough brush shelter in the desert with a bunch of strangers sweating like pigs, and so I had already gotten in touch with Wayne and Nancy as soon as I arrived in Pagosa. The day that I was cut loose from Hidden Valley I stopped at the Post Office on my way out of town, with no destination in mind, and I bumped into Nancy who immediately offered me a job as a driver for the bus they used to ferry river rafters to and from the San Juan River. They had an empty trailer on their property, and I moved right in.
After a crash (!) course in bus driving I got a commercial license and started work. A few succesful runs later I was asked to take on other responsibilities and I wound up taking groups to the Durango Silverton Railroad, dropping them off at the station in Durango, then racing up the mountain to pick them up in the historic mining town of Silverton to pilot their bus along the steep and winding road down the mountain and home to Pagosa. The drive was gorgeous and the tips were plentiful.

I also drove groups to Creede, another historic mining town to the east, which had a particularly good summer theater company, as well as the grave of Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James. I would stop on the way up to Creede in a pretty alpine meadow, fix a pleasant picnic lunch for the group, then on to the matinee performance in Creede. Add to that Friday night Bingo runs to the Indian reservation and occasional 4-wheel drive trips and it was a busy and varied summer. But the highlight was always the trip to the Anasazi ruins on the Ute Mountain reservation, near Towaoc, south of Cortez

These ruins are less well-known and thus less-visited than the far more famous Mesa Verde, but well worth a visit. We had a special arrangement with the tribe that allowed us to enter the reservation through an unposted rear entrance and meet the local guides, at a simple thatched ramada near the ruins, where we set up a picnic lunch for ourselves and the guides. From there the Ute guides, led by a wonderful character by the name of Art Cut-hair, would lead the group through the ruins, along the cliffs, through the dwellings and we would almost always be the only group there. The highlight was "Eagle's Nest", a cliff house that could only be reached by an almost vertical 20 ft rough wooden ladder, with great views of the canyon lands beyond. I got to know the area and its history and the guides themselves so well that on one occasion, when there wasn't a guide available, I was given permission to lead the group on my own. I loved that trip! It was a beautiful and evocative place, and I hope it still is.

So, Roy Romer, the Governor of Colorado at that time, decided to bring his entourage down from Denver to spend a few days on the reservation. We were asked to outfit the trip and, of course, I was to be the cook. We all camped out in teepees, including Governor Romer and his entire staff, and bathed in the river, no showers, no comfy beds. I did some of my cooking over the campfire, although I did use a 2-burner propane stove for much of the work.

It was great fun, though I never had time to leave the campground. The Governor and his folks spent about 3 days hiking the area and visiting the ruins. Governor Romer was pleasant company, a down to earth fellow who enjoyed oatmeal for breakfast and chocolate cake with milk for dessert. I used to have a cheerful photo of myself taken with Roy Romer and his staff at the camp, but I haven't seen it in years.
I spent 2 delightful summers in Pagosa Springs, wintering in California. Then disaster struck. I was returning from a 4-wheel drive trip when the vehicle I was driving, which had been overheating all day, caught fire as we drove through downtown Pagosa Springs and burned to the ground. The guys at the local gas station nicknamed me "Sparky" after that and my relationship with Wayne and Nancy soured and I never went back. The paying guests who were with me on the trip were quite delightful and tipped me heavily out of sympathy, and their kids drew me a crayon rendering of the disaster!