Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Big Top is about to Come Down

And I thought I now had the time to resume this blog on a regular basis!
I assumed that the open house on our other property marked the end of that particular preoccupation. But the open house was too succesful. We had 3 offers, one of which was $125,000 over the asking price, a cash offer. So, of course, we accepted that one, but they wanted a 10 day close, so immediately we had to begin the process of de-staging and knocking out the punch-list of minor unfinished items that the new owners wanted done before the deal could be finalised. We also decided to host a cocktail party at the house on the final Monday before we turned over the keys for about 25 friends and family. My wife did most of the preparation over the weekend while I was at work, but cooking still managed to take up my entire day off. I spent a good deal of that time making a Moroccan soup called Harira, a rich, fragrant, full-bodied, meaty concoction for which I will attach the recipe below.

But finally the punch-list was knocked out, the money transferred and the keys handed over! My wife and I are now in the "post-Barranca Drive" era.
Life with Cirque du Soleil is approaching its end. The final performances are on March 16th, which happens to be our wedding anniversary, so I will not be working that day. My last day will be Saturday the 15th, so I have 4 more working days to go, and I will be relieved when it's over. My days have settled into a tedium, the only lighter moments coming in the hours I spend working with LuAnn of the permanent staff, who is great fun, and the malicious pleasure that all of us temporary Cirquadors take in bad-mouthing Nathan and his unpleasant behavior.
My daily walk reflects the changing in the weather as the rain has taken its leave and the sun is taking charge of the skies. The trees are beginning to bud or blossom, the transients gather to sun themselves on the cement picnic tables, and the clunk of baseball on bat signals the approach of Spring. Four times in the last week I have found baseballs next to the path I walk on each day back and forth to the Circus. On the far side of the path from the field. So I ask myself, "Who do I sue if I get clocked by a flying baseball?" Or, perhaps "Who does my wife sue on behalf of her husband who is now a drooling mental defective?"
So, after next week I will be taking a short "sabbatical" from cooking for a living, but a good friend of mine, who was also my boss in the restaurant business for about 3 years, is about to open a new restaurant after spending several years in real estate, selling restaurants. He has the itch to get back into the craziness of owning a restaurant, and I was the first person he called to manage his kitchen. It should take a couple of months for the property to change hands and remodeling to be completed, so I have some free time until May. I have a number of projects to keep me busy (including this one) so there is little chance I will be bored.

Harira: Garbanzo and Lentil Soup ( adapted from Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon by Claudia Roden)

Serves 10
1 pound beef or lamb, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
2 large onions, chopped coarsely
1 cup dry chickpeas (garbanzos) soaked overnight
3/4 cup brown lentils, rinsed
1 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped (see note)
4 celery stalks, diced
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. ground ginger
2 sticks cinnamon
1/2 tsp. saffron or 1 tsp turmeric (I used turmeric)
salt, to taste
5 tbsp. all-purpose flour
5 oz. orzo pasta
juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup chopped cilantro (coriander)
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

Put the meat in a large pot, along with the onions and drained chickpeas. Cover with about 13 cups water and bring to a boil. Skim off the scum and simmer, covered for 1 hour.
Add the lentils, tomatoes, celery (include some leaves), tomato paste, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and saffron or turmeric. Simmer 15 mins. more adding more water if necessary, and add the salt when the lentils begin to soften.
In the meantime, put the flour in a small pan and gradually add 2&1/4 cups cold water, a little at a time, beating vigorously to blend well and to avoid lumps. Put over medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens, then simmer for 10 mins. Pour this batter into the soup, stirring vigorously, and cook for a few minutes, until the soup acquires a light, creamy texture.
Add the orzo 15 minutes from the end of cooking so that it doesn't get mushy (or pre-cook it in salted water and add when you serve). Add the lemon juice, cilantro and parsley at the same time.
Serve with lemon wedges.

Note: The easiest way to peel tomatoes is to cut a small, shallow X into the end opposite the stem and drop the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove immediately, shock in ice water and the skin should come away easily starting at the X. (In restaurants we used to just drop them in the deep-fryer for about 30 seconds!)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I say goodbye to the Circus, almost!

I'm now into my 4th week with Cirque du Soleil and I'm wondering if it will be my last even though the stay in San Jose has another 4 weeks to run. The truth is that I actually gave my notice after the 1st week. I don't have a problem with being told what to do by people who may have less experience than I do. I have, from time to time, worked for agencies that specialise in food service employment and have been sent out on assignments where I was over-qualified for the position that I was filling, but I was paid the same whatever the work, so I did the work as instructed just like everybody else. But I have always expected to be treated with respect and courtesy whether the employer knew my background or not. Being talked down to occasionally comes with the territory and you simply have to accept that with good grace.

One afternoon during that 1st week Nathan handed me some beef bones and asked me to start a beef stock. So I roasted the bones to give them some color then threw them in a pot with the basics: coarse-chopped onion, celery and carrot, covered them with cold water, brought it to a boil, turned it down to a simmer and left it on the stove. As far as I'm concerned, good stock should simmer for several hours and I was due to leave soon so I left it in Nathan's hands.

The next day Nathan handed me a container of chicken scraps and asked me to make chicken stock, then he said "Don't do what you did yesterday and take it off the stove and leave it in a corner without telling anybody." Not, "Did you...?" or "Do you know who...?" So I wasted no time in telling him that I hadn't done it and his response was "Well, somebody did." The implication of that was clear enough to me: he didn't believe me.

One of my responsibilities is to keep the lunch line stocked and refreshed throughout the lunch period which runs from 12:00 to 5:00. With 5 or 6 different items that can be an almost constant task when it's busy. When things slow down, less so, but periodically, even if there's little traffic, items start to look a little old and dried out and have to be replaced. So, on one occasion, I had just changed out 2 or 3 items and paused to take stock of what I might need next when Nathan came around the corner and said "It's not cool to be standing around doing nothing. There's plenty of work that needs to be done." This happened twice.

So after 3 or 4 days of this, my working day fell into a certain pattern. For the first 5 hours or so I worked with LuAnn who is a pleasure to work with: good-natured with a sense of humor and no need to browbeat or patronise. With LuAnn the work gets done with energy and enthusiasm. Then Nathan arrives and the change in atmosphere is palpable, and I'm not the only one who feels it. 2 other members of the temporary staff (Cirquadors as we are called) have described the same experience. There is tension and edginess in the air and the primary motivation is to avoid the sharp edge of Nathan's personality. It is an uncomfortable environment, not conducive to getting the best out of people, regardless of their talents.

So at the end of my Saturday shift I told Cynda that she needed to find a replacement for me, that I enjoyed working with her, with LuAnn and Karine, but Nathan was an ass; arrogant, patronising and sometimes downright insulting and they couldn't pay me enough to take that kind of crap.

She wasn't pleased, but I agreed to work through the following week to give her time to find a replacement. She asked me to inform the Manpower people, who have an office on site to manage the 150 or so temps who work for Cirque at any given time. By the time I got to their office, Cynda had already been and gone, so they knew that I had given notice. We sat down and I gave them my reasons which they understood, but they asked me to reconsider on the understanding that the situation would be dealt with. Not wanting to be a hard-ass I agreed to give it one more try, with the proviso that if there was one more instance of that kind of unacceptable treatment I would be out the door. They accepted that and I headed home with 2 days off to look forward to and the prospect of an interesting Wednesday when I returned to work.

The first 5 hours on Wednesday were, as usual, fun-filled but productive. When Nathan showed up I was on the look-out for some kind of reaction, either some attempt to apologise for "hurting my feelings" (which would hardly have done the matter justice) or maybe even some kind of retaliation but...nothing! He was polite though not exactly friendly, he didn't bother me, he didn't ask me to do anything for him, he pretty much left me to get on with whatever work LuAnn had for me, and I've made sure every day since then that I have plenty of prep to do in the afternoons. I can't honestly say that I'm enjoying this assignment, but in the absence of a really good excuse to leave, I can't, in good conscience, just quit. Mind you, one day last week, I got 2 phone calls on the same day from 2 different people asking me how soon I was going to be done with the Circus because they both had work for me to do. Both are in the process of opening new restaurants and want me to run their kitchens. So now I have a dilemma. Which way do I jump? and how soon? Both propositions appeal to me in different ways. One is from a friend and former boss who I know well, and his menu is more appealing, Mediterranean with Persian influences (he's Persian) but the commute is longer than I really care for. The other is closer, a couple who own a German bakery and who want to create a European-style cafe, with a strong German flavor. Both are anxious to move forward. I need to make a decision by Friday. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Life not under, but slightly to one side of the Big Top

I know this blogging business should be an almost daily affair, but I've been so busy with the damn circus, plus preparing our other house for sale after over 2 years of remodelling that it has been virtually impossible to get this done. The following was started several weeks ago. The house is now finished and on the market so from now on I should have much more time to relate my misadventures with the Cirque, and more. And maybe even some more useful stuff about food and cooking which is what we're supposed to be about!

Friday the 25th was day one of my stint with the Circus. All of us temps were asked to gather at the main gate, 7:45 a.m. sharp to meet with Cynda, the kitchen manager. So we duly gathered in the rain. We were on time . Cynda wasn't. No matter, we were officially on the clock and getting paid for milling around. The fortunate thing for me is that I live a mile from the site and I walk to and from work each day. It's hardly a country stroll, with its carwash and run-down machine shops and busy intersections but I do pass a pleasantly grassy city park with handy toilets should the need arise, and, inexplicably wedged in with the baseball diamond and basketball court, 20, yes 20 horseshoe pits! When does this neighborhood ever attract enough dedicated horseshoe tossers to justify 20 horseshoe pits! Perhaps the city of San Jose hosts the World Horseshoe Championships each year and I just don't know about it.

Beyond the park the road bridges the Guadaloupe river, once a pristine salmon river, only now slowly recovering from years of pollution and neglect. In Summer the river is a pleasant meandering silver ribbon cutting through the canopy of green trees. Today it is a roiling brown turgid mess powering its way through banks of improbably green grass, studded with stark tree trunks, plastered with matted brown leaves and trash, witness to the height of the earlier flash flood, which left a quite considerable number of black and white plastic bags fluttering in the stiff January wind.

But the high point of this morning's walk was the view of our Eastern hills, capped with fresh snow, glimmering in the brief morning sunlight, a sight we are treated to only once or twice a year, before the clouds closed in and the rain, once again, began to pour.

The permanent Cirque du Soleil kitchen staff consists of Cynda, Nathan the head Chef, and Luann and Karine the other 2 chefs, none of them over 30 I would guess. Now regardless of the culinary skills and experience of the permanent staff, this influx of unfamiliar temporary kitchen staff in each new city requires 2 qualities above all others: a sense of humor, and the ability to put us all at our ease. If we are comfortable and relaxed in these new surroundings we are more likely to give of our best. Easy enough, right?

The 3 women have these qualities in abundance; Nathan does not. He tends to be humorless and patronising, occasionally downright insulting. The women work primarily the early shift, Nathan the later one. My shift spans the two. Needless to say, I enjoy the earlier part of my day more than the latter.

For the last 4 days we have been feeding only us local temps and the permanent travelling set-up crew, all hard hats and harnesses, about 100 in all. Today at lunch there was a sudden influx of young, athletic and attractive bodies: the artists were arriving. Let the Show begin!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Been gone too long! I joined the Circus

It's been a month since my last post, unfortunately. You may recall that I had scheduled myself to cook for 18 days straight, with 14 of those days cooking breakfast over the holidays after giving 3 of my cooks extra time off. So I worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, my birthday (the 29th), New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. That was the last day of my solo flight and my cooks were due to return, but I was still scheduled for 3 more days before I could take a day off. And it was on this day, January 2nd, a day that will live in infamy, that the owner decided to fire me! It was not a great surprise, but it was rather sudden, with no overt warning.

But it wasn't the owner who did the dirty work. It wasn't even the General Manager. Neither of them said a single word to me that day, or thereafter. It was left to Dean, their management consultant, whom I one described as an over-inflated Chuckie doll with better hair, who called me into his office, which was a bit of a clue, and, without preamble, began the conversation by saying "This is about managing the transition" and for a moment I wasn't sure what we were talking about. Then I was offered a "termination by mutual agreement", which would avoid the stain of being "fired" on my record, but still allow me to collect unemployment if I chose to. No substantial reason was ever given for the termination, only that "I was not a good fit". I couldn't agree more! Before I took this job I was warned by both the outgoing chef and the current GM that the owner would be my biggest challenge, that he was a constant presence and inclined to interfere. They didn't tell me that he was also boorish, foul-mouthed, insulting and totally lacking in charm. I thought that I could win him over with my natural charm. I don't think I've ever been more wrong in my life. By the end of the first month I was already looking for another job, hoping to have another position to walk into before I cheerfully announced my departure. They beat me to the punch, but I walked away with a great sense of relief.

Since then I have divided my time between job-hunting, working on our other house which we are preparing to sell, looking at small cafes and sandwich shops with a former boss of mine who now deals in restaurant real estate, with a view to buying my own place, and when I can get away, a bit of fly-fishing.

One of the more interesting postings on Bay Area Craigslist was by Manpower for a Chef to work with Cirque du Soleil for their 2 month stay in San Jose. I figured that the Circus would provide an entertaining diversion while I decided what my next move should be. It turned out that a lot of other chefs had the notion that Cirque du Soleil would look great on their resumes and Manpower was swamped with applications. I survived the first two interviews and the final interview was on Wednesday the 23rd, the final decision on the 24 th, and the first day of work on the 24th, which didn't leave much time for reflection. In the meantime I had interviewed with a German couple who had just bought a somewhat run-down cafe in an affluent neighborhood and had plans to turn it into a European-style cafe. They needed someone to run the kitchen and provide direction for the menu. So this was also an interesting opportunity and I really liked the people, so which way should I jump if both made offers? I knew that the cafe would need extensive renovations which might take a couple of months, so I clued them in to the Cirque du Soleil opportunity, and they said go ahead and we'll get back together when the Circus leaves town. I actually had both parties on different phones at the same time when Manpower called with the good news from the Circus folks. I didn't want to commit to the Circus until I had some sense that the cafe owners would keep me in the frame. But it all played out just the way I was hoping. So with luck I can move effortlessly from one to the other. We shall see! Stay tuned for my adventures with Cirque du Soleil.