I Advocate For Last Week To Be Over

One day last week while trying to recover from a difficult day at work with a cold Ommegang Hennepin and a fine turkey and Swiss on great peasant bread.  I admitted that I quit quitting drinking.  I’ve been having a beer after work or a glass or two of wine with dinner.  Probably more than I should but not nearly as much as I’d like, but that topic is for another post.

Last week wasn’t busy, but it was stressful.  I really won’t go into too much detail about what happened, but it caused me anxiety above and beyond my normally abnormal level.  What did transpire has caused me to look at the role of the chef in a non-chef owned restaurant.

We are considered management level employees that are typically in close communication with ownership.  Over the years of my career I have found myself talking with my employers about many things from baseball, to literature, to farm raised pork, to the Gypsy Kings, to the existence (or non-existence) of God.

I have also spent a great deal of time talking about personnel and the issues that go along with those people who do the largest portion of work in restaurants.  Dishwashers, cooks, servers, food runners, hostesses, and bussers make up the bulk of the workforce in our business and the leading of those individuals takes a large deal of effort from management.

As I have typically been a chef with ownership above me I guess you can call me middle management.  I should probably go to JC Penny and get a short-sleeved button down and a polyester tie, so I can look the part.  Middle management is exactly what it says, the middle.

I sometimes find myself working to advocate for individuals who work under me. Believe me, I do not advocate for just anyone at any time.  I do choose worthy people, or people I believe are worthy.  I’m often right, but I also get burned on occasion.  One of the things that can sway my thinking is the possibility of an individual getting fired or quitting and the domino effect it will have.  I also do try to watch out for people I think deserve a bit of leeway in life.

On the other hand, I am paid to do what is best for the restaurant and paid to the things I’m asked to do.  I’m also obligated to accept the decisions that are made and to work within the framework set by ownership. It’s an easy equation when we agree, but as individual thinkers we do not always.  It’s those times when I must decide who is worthy of my support and who is not.

The chef emails everyone the weekend specials on Wednesday or Thursday.  The chef posts a paper copy on the wall.  The chef asks if there are any questions about the specials at pre-meal. A server asks the chef to explain the specials at 8:00 pm.

Trying to change the oil in a fryer at 7:30 on a Friday (or any other night is a bad idea.  It can be done, but I don’t recommend it.  I made the mistake of giving an individual a bucket we use for the old oil, so we can bring it to be recycled.  I wasn’t considering that he may pour the hot oil directly into it before putting into a pot to cool.  Hot oil in bucket, bucket on floor, oil on floor.  It’s a good thing it’s a small table-top fryer with only three quarts of oil.

I started my work day on Friday by discovering that the garde manger cooler had shit the bed during the night. My kitchen staff did a great job reprepping everything in time for service. Thank you for the effort!

Question:  When the weather is beautiful do you give up some food quality and go to a restaurant that may not have great food to sit on a patio?  I do.

On Thursday we had far fewer indoor tables than we had on the patio which turned over several times.  The dining experience on gorgeous days includes people watching, a warm breeze and sunshine on your face.

Gossip and hearsay are like water. It goes its own way and is only as good as its source.

Gossip is unlike water in that the more it passes through filters the poorer quality it becomes.

Here I am in the middle.

The middle of a new week that is, and things look good.  We have a new cooler which takes a load of stress away.  I’m now working on rounding out the summer kitchen staff that has a solid core.  I’m also, with the help of my team putting the finishing touches on a new menu.

We’re going to have a busy, and smooth summer season.

Peace.

Advertisements

You Should Know…

…not to argue with morons on Facebook.  After entertaining yourself for a few minutes arguing with a less-than-bright individual on Facebook you come to your senses and realize that trying to convince someone that they’re ignorant is futile since they’re too ignorant to understand how ignorant they are.

…to wear an original costume to a brothel.  A friend in college dressed up as a urinal for Halloween one year with a shirt that said urine for a good time. Trump apparently wore the same costume to a Russian brothel.

…how to do the grocery shopping.

…how to change a baby.

…when to discuss having someone take their clothes off.  My doctor came into the Wine Bar for dinner this week.  When he arrived, I said hello and handed him a scant exam gown.  With a half confused and half angry look he asked “what?”  I reminded him that when I arrive at his workplace…………

…the limit of (breakable) plates that can be stuffed into a bus tub.

…how to listen.  As Judge Judy always says, “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

…when to parent, and when to not. At Stella’s softball game a father was giving his daughter some advice on hitting.  She proceeded to strike out.  Walking off the field she said, “OK daddy, I’m not using your strategy anymore.”

…not to ask for the chef’s personal attention during dinner service, especially on a weekend.  “Hi, we’re having an event there in September, we’d like to come in tonight to work on the menu with the chef.”  “On a Saturday?”

…how to cook scrambled eggs.

…how to make a decent meal at home.

…how to follow a recipe.

…how to make a proper cocktail.

…the menu.

…how to ring in an order accurately, with all the information on the ticket correct.  When I get an order ticket, or dupe into the kitchen I look for more than just what to cook. The first thing I do is read the entire ticket to myself to see if at first glance if it makes sense and to determine if there are any potential issues with the order.  If everything looks ok I call it out to the cooks starting with the first course, then the second and third courses.

Like I said, there’s more to learn by looking at the entire ticket.  The table number is important for several reasons.  One is that the food runner knows where to go.  Simple, right?  Also, since I know the size of the tables I can determine if all the food can fit on the table at once.  Let me splain.  If I get an order from a table of 2 at 46 that has 6 small plates I know to ask the server if they’ve requested everything at once because I know that table 46 is small and 6 plates would be a difficult thing to manage.  If they’re at 41 I don’t worry about it.  Accurate table numbers are important.  Trust me, not everyone can learn the numbers.  Our current staff has it down I’m proud to say.

…how to open Champagne.

Another piece of information I need to be clear is the number of people at the table.  There is more than one reason.  One of the things I do is to match the number of entrees to the number of people at the table.  If they don’t match up, then I check to see if one may have been forgotten.  It sucks for a table of six to have five of them get entrees while the other one waits.

There are other bits of useful information on a ticket that need to be precise, and over many years I have fought with servers for years who simply think I’m being an asshole for expecting that a simple little piece of paper be sent to me with the information I need to make their job easier, to improve the dining experience of your table, and to possibly improve their income a little bit.

…the specials.  …where the fire extinguisher is.  …where the wine key is.  …how to change a tire. …how to mow the lawn.  …how to do laundry.  …how to use a checkbook.

…personal hygiene.

…when to shut your mouth.

…when to speak up.

…that your job depends on performing specific tasks.

…perspective.

…when something is worth the trouble.

…the difference between creative input and just running at the mouth about the crap you’ve done before.

…that you finish pasta in the pan.

…how to go to an interview.  Without their mom.

…how to caramelize onions.

…how to eat a Whopper® while entering a highway.

…how to conduct an interview.  I once went to a working interview in at a small inn in Vermont where I was required to cook for six people.  I was told to purchase whatever I wanted to bring to cook and would be reimbursed.  The restaurant kitchen which was closed that day was available as a pantry.  About halfway into my prep the owner came in and told me that one person was a vegetarian.  That was fine.  Three quarters through the owner returned to let me know there’d be ten for dinner.  I made some adjustments and knew what this guy was up to.  Just a bit later, close to dinner time he informed me that there were too late additions.  I washed my knives and left. Hope they enjoyed their dinner, however many of them there were.

…how to order a coffee without looking like it’s your first time in a coffee shop.  …how to parallel park.  …how to sear a scallop.  …the difference between political bullshit and an honest person speaking.

 

 

Spinning The Stars

I’m often prompted to tackle a topic when I read either posts or comments on Table Hopping.  Steve Barnes typically has the inside track on what’s happening in the local restaurant scene so he’s a good source of inspiration and information.  Two recent posts grabbed my attention and started me thinking.

The first inspiration is about the Pizza and Sub shop Spinners expanding their menu to include vegan options for their standard fare.  Allow me to preface my discussion with declaring my lower expectations for culinary creativity and resourcefulness for a pizza joint as opposed to a chef-driven dining establishment. This is not really about the failure of a specific pizza shop in their effort to supply vegan options, but about the failure of restaurants and chefs in general to produce good food without having to lean fully on processed foods made to act as meat and other animal products. Not that a pizza and sub shop cannot have good food, but it’s not likely that they would employ a culinary professional who can do vegan food without relying on seitan as an across the board substitute for creative, and unprocessed choices for vegans.

Vegans deserve better than a  “here, we’ll put fake meat on everything so you can pretend you’re eating meat” approach.  I cannot speak for vegans, and I I’m sure each individual has their own personal reasons for not including animal products in their diets, but I would think they would prefer food choices that are fresh foods with minimal processing that are recognized as the foods they are.  I certainly won’t deny using some processed dairy-free substitutes in my home due to a severe dairy allergy held by my daughter, and I won’t deny that there are some quality items that I can thank the vegan market for, but they should be minimally used. Mostly we cook at home with good food and consume very little dairy as a rule.

Since I’ve come to the understanding that keeping at least one vegan entrée option and several small plate choices on the menu is good business and a fun task, I’ve grasped that vegan offerings do not have to employ fake and processed food, and I will continue to challenge myself and my kitchen to keep meatless options made with whole, fresh ingredients in a thoughtful and creative way.  Keep in mind that the prime NY strip is my favorite thing on the menu. Trust me, I’ll never be anti-meat or anti animal product, but I think I can and should be able to make my Mediterranean cuisine available to just about anyone.

The other topic is the removal of star ratings from the Times Union restaurant reviews.  It’s about time.  I could never understand why a restaurant could only achieve four stars if it were a fine dining establishment.  I have always thought that a hamburger spot should have the same opportunity to earn a top rating for the type of restaurant it aspires to be.

Since I’m not a writer by trade I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to have my words be a vital part of my work. The line from the post that I very much agree with is  “we’d much rather you read our words to understand the nuances of a dining experience.”  Steve is a craftsman and clearly demonstrates on a consistent basis what a good piece of written material should be. I’ve always enjoyed his work and it’s too bad he cannot be the regular reviewer, but he’s too recognizable (and perhaps too busy).  If the Times Union reviews are going to be written with clear, concise language and accuracy then that’s great.  If not, then not so great. No, big words don’t scare me, I’m pretty smart.  What makes some food writers difficult to read is the use of abstruse adjectives, misplaced references, and imagery with no culinary basis. If the reviews will be written with a coherent knowledge of food and the restaurant business then I applaud the removal of the star rating and good riddance.  Change can be good and is sometimes needed.

Not to be overlooked in this post is high praise for Malcolm’s on Union Street in Schenectady.  I’ve heard wonderful things and they appear to be a welcoming and accommodating place with great food. A welcome addition to that part of town.

Yet Even More Snippets, So Sous Me

Each snippet in this post is related in some way to a former sous chef, the qualities of a sous chef, or as my experience as a sous chef.

I’m working on a more personal post that talks about most of my past sous chefs in narritive form.  It’s fun thinking back on all of them and what they brought to my life.

If the chef you’re working under likes to smoke pot all day, get rid of him.  It ain’t easy but It can be done.

My lovely wife was filling out a shopping list this past Sunday morning and she asked me if we need (cashew and cow) milks.  I was pouring coffee at the time so in my generally sarcastic tone I said “I don’t know, I’m pouring coffee and cannot see through the refrigerator door.”  To that she reminded me that I know everything in my coolers at work  down to the ounce and should be able to channel some of that skill for home.

My wife has been my sous chef many times.

I’ve had at least six sous chefs that have worked with/for me at more than one time and/or at more than one place.  What that tells me is that I have worked in too many kitchens and that people want to work with me.  Usually.

My youngest sous chef was 17 years old.  I still owe him a phone call.

The sous chef that claimed my food was bad failed to remember the menu, and couldn’t make instant cous cous.

I once had a sous chef ask me about doing corn on the cob wrapped in bacon.  I replied that typically wrapping things in bacon is a way to hide a lack of good cooking or good product.

Not tasting your work is either arrogant, irresponsible, or both.

I did not write She’s Got Marty Feldman Eyes.  

I once had a sous chef who left without notice to do an audition for some Food Network show.  He was never seen again.

As a cook and as a chef it’s important to make a personal connection to your customers.  You need to meet as many you can, you need to get out of the kitchen to say hello when possible. and you need to enjoy cooking for them. Yes, there are annoying people in the world, but as a whole you need to like them, and look forward to their return.  Working in the successful kitchen requires people skills.

As I write here at Kru Coffee I can hear someone complaining that she couldn’t find a parking space closer to the gym.

I like to discover jerks from my youth on Facebook who peaked in high school.  Same car, same hair (or no hair), and same asshole expression.

If you give a man a fish he eats for a day.  If you need to teach him to fish he’s an idiot, it’s not that hard.

I dislike fishing, but I’ll do it if I need to.

Often my sous chefs move on to become head chefs.  Few have come from the other direction.

I once had a sous chef who had to be told many times not to lean back against the stove.  He caught on fire once.  I would have put him out but I was laughing too hard.

I once had a sous chef get arrested right before dinner service.

A good sous chef should be able to get inside of a chef’s head and know the direction he’s coming from.  My cooking is Mediterranean based and I like to approach food from that angle.  Not everyone can grasp that and end up suggesting taco pizza for the menu.

Be careful about getting too deeply inside my head, there are some dark corners that may cause discomfort.

I don’t want my sous chefs on salary working six-day weeks, twelve hours per day.  I don’t want them exhausted and bitter.  I’ve had to work under those conditions under a very bad and uncaring chef.  He’ll be depicted as a bull in the fiction piece I’m working on.  As in “bully.”

He also took credit for any of my ideas and creations.

If loneliness is a byproduct of your methods of success, then that’s on you. You’ll find that your success wasn’t real.

A good sous chef should take interest in all work stations.  A good sous chef should be proficient in all stations.

Giant ladle.

I generally hire well, though I have made a mistake or two.  Sometimes you get desperate and make a hire when the labor pool is shallow.  In all, I’ve had a pretty good run with some great people.  Some better than others, some more likeable, but all memorable.  A rotten apple or two, but I think I’ve done quite well in my selections. To almost all of you, thank you for your help over the years, and thank you for the memories.  More to come on this topic.

All The Noise Noise Noise Noise

The Grinch said it best when he complained about all the noise coming from Whoville.  I don’t like most noise unless it’s in celebration of a walk-off home run at Fenway Park.

There’s a difference between noise and sound.

To me noise is any unwanted disturbing sounds or distractions.  The tapping of a pen, loud gum chewing, excessive talking, motorcycles revving needlessly on Broadway in Saratoga,  disruptive music, and anything else I deem annoying.  Trust me, I deem most unnecessary sound annoying.

Yes, I know I may seem slightly insane.

I have neighbors who make noise late at night with music and general frolicking about their yard while drinking a bit and raising their voices in proportion to the quantity of alcohol consumed.  They seem to enjoy themselves as much as I now enjoy mowing my lawn and weed-wacking on Sunday mornings at 8:00.  I’m in the market for a new chainsaw.

I love peace and quiet in my home and I deserve it.  I work hard all week and when I’d like to relax I think it’s not too much to ask that others respect my wishes for reasonable amounts of noise.

I’m also not a fan of noisy bars, restaurants, or most public places.  Yes, I’m getting older, and I’m perhaps turning into a “get off my lawn” kind of person, but I’m entitled to a quiet environment when I’m in a personal space like my home and my kitchen at work.

My first few hours in the kitchen are spent alone as I get in 3-4 hours before anyone else to set up the kitchen, get a lot of my prep work done, check in any deliveries, and to enjoy the peace of being alone. I sometimes play some banjo music,  Johnny Cash, or Pink Floyd at a low, company-keeping level, but I often play nothing as I find pleasure working to the gentle hum of the exhaust hood and nothing else but my thoughts.

As my morning turns to mid afternoon the remainder of the kitchen staff starts to join me and I share my music at the same low-level, or turn it off in order to focus on communicating with them about the prep, and the upcoming evening.

Early in dinner service which starts at 4:00 there’s always a bit of noise happening as we finish up prep, more service staff arrives, there’s social activity among arriving employees because they haven’t seen each other in as many as two days, and final instructions are shared between management, FOH staff, and BOH staff.  It’s sometimes hectic and noise producing.  That’s when a shot of Irish Whiskey would help, but I know better.  I simply do not like a hectic and noisy environment.

That may cause you to ask why I work in a restaurant kitchen.  Remember I said I consider noise to be any sound that is disturbing or distracting?  The sound of a smoothly flowing kitchen during busy dinner service is like soothing music to me.  The cooks on the line are communicating well, the service staff is coming in and out with only a minimal amount of speaking with focus on the immediate needs of dinner service, and the music is either non-existent or on a rhythmic Spanish guitar station like Jesse Cook played at a level that allows regular speaking voices to be heard.

As the chef I have control of the music, I can train the kitchen how to communicate during service in order to keep us all on the same tone and working as a single unit, but I often find it difficult to keep the front of the house on same track.  They work in a different environment.  A busy dining room and bar can create a lot of noise, most of which cannot be controlled or blocked out.  They cannot control the conversations with patrons, the number of questions they get, or the general din of the space.  The sounds may be unpredictable, sudden, or in some cases uncalled for.  It’s the environment they have adapted to, and sometimes carry that into the kitchen.

My small kitchen has more predictability, and the sounds are smooth, constant, and usually necessary.  The issue comes into plat when the two environments mix.  A serve enters the kitchen to ask for butter and the presentation of their request may sound like this: “You know those two on table 45?” “Well they finished their apps and have some bread left over from their cheese plate and want to take their time between courses.  It’s their anniversary and they’re going to enjoy their wine.  They’re from NYC and they met here in Saratoga 10 years ago.”  “What do you need?”  “They want butter for that bread.”  All I needed was the last six words, the rest was noise.

The other  thing that can distract a kitchen is the server engaging a kitchen staffer or another server waiting for plates at the pass in idle, irrelevant conversation.  My kitchen is small, and I work only a few feet from the doorway.  I’m old and not very sharp of mind so I need to focus on what I’m doing.  Anything not immediately related to the dinner service happening currently is noise.

The kitchen, and restaurant at The Merry Monk was a real circus.   Zero leadership from the front and a long bred culture of running amok in the kitchen.

Noise is not always the fault of the service staff.  I once had a kitchen guy that could not stop talking, mostly about nothing.   Most of the seasoned professionals get that a smooth-running kitchen is to their benefit.  Folks that are new to the restaurant world don’t understand the difficulty of the job and that quality product and service requires focus on the task at hand.  I have a good staff right now and the front of the house has strong leadership.  With summer approaching we’ll see a few new faces that just need a shhhhhhh.

What the Chef is Going On?

Most of my posts are the result of both recent and long past events, thoughts, and observations of this chef’s world.  This however is a glimpse into the future.

A chef’s life is often a here and now kind of life.  We react to current situations like heavy or light reservations, strong weather, events in our towns like graduations, festivals, and various holidays (St. Patrick’s Day is slow for some of us, crazy for others).

Then there are the times when we cannot predict current events.  The dishwasher or a cook doesn’t show up, the power goes out, unexpected walk-ins, a 12-top doesn’t show up (speaking of graduations), a delivery doesn’t arrive, or a piece of equipment shits the bed.  A good kitchen manager will react well to the unplanned occurrences and the diners won’t know about any issues behind the scenes.

Working in the here and now is easy for an experienced chef.  We wake up with a pretty solid plan for the day, we know what the reservation list will look like, we know what staffing will be, and what products are expected to be delivered.

What about the future?  What am I as a chef planning for my kitchen, in my home, and for my writing projects?

I’ll start with home since it’s perhaps the least related to being a chef.  My work requires a lot of hours, but not as much as some might think.  If you’ve got a good kitchen crew with a solid sous chef then your life can be almost normal.  After almost four months back at The Wine Bar I am confident that I finally have a solid team in place after sifting out some less-than-acceptable characters.  So, I can start to do some Spring projects around the house, get the garden tilled and planted, fix up the fence around the yard, as well as paint the tool shed, the garage, and the front porch.  I also need to put up a hammock for my Sunday naps.  Easy and rewarding stuff when your work life is manageable.

In the kitchen I am constantly working on training my new staff, menu tweaking, and organization, and gearing up for the summer season.  Starting this weekend we’ll start running specials that reflect ideas for the summer menu (free-range veal rib chops this weekend).  I’m also getting a new inventory and budgeting system in place so I can more closely track food cost, labor cost, and have better control of overall expenses in the kitchen.

In the writing department I’m continuing to post my usual drivel about being a chef and life in the restaurant business.  It’s a good way for me to convey my thoughts and put some things into the light of day.  That’s beneficial to my sometimes fragile mental health.  I’ve also started developing a piece of fiction.  I have a basic premise and an outline for a story.  I’ve begun developing my character list based on some of the more colorful characters I’ve worked with over the years.  I’m also going to include many of the memorable customers from some of the restaurants I have had the pleasure or displeasure of working in, as well as some folks associated with the business like salespeople, bloggers, critics, and those folks who are simply restaurant groupies of some kind.  I hope the story is as good as I think it is, but the most fun for people locally will be trying to figure out who each animal character is it the real world.   Some will be flattering, others not so much.  Some will be subtle, some will be obvious.  I suppose it depends on how much you’ve cause me to respect and admire those of you that I decide to include.

I also have a very important personal project on the drawing board which has unfortunately slow-moving as of late.  Now that I finally have the solid and committed team in my kitchen that I require, I can get it on the move again.  Chefs 4 Chefs has been stuck in the planning stages, but it’s time to get it moving.  Many of you who read this blog know my story.  If you’re a new reader then here are a few links that can get you caught up.  link 1  link 2  link 3.  

In a perfect world I would never have issues with depression, anger, anxiety, and alcohol again.  I’ve been doing quite well on most fronts except for anxiety and alcohol.  I did quit drinking for a while then tried to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer after work on Saturday night.  Then I was able to justify a couple of beers on Sunday because it’s my day off, and a beer after work on Friday because we had a great dinner service.  That’s where the trouble starts.

Chefs 4 Chefs will be an organization locally where restaurant workers can get support for all the ills that are a part of restaurant life such as dealing with alcohol, depression and other mental and emotional issues, stress, drug use, career advice, wage disputes, and so on It hasn’t taken shape fully but I do have commitments from some people in our business who want to help, as well as people in the law profession, web design, advertising, and social media promotion.  I’ll be getting on this soon, so expect a call.  Experienced chefs and other professionals: If you think you can help out some of the younger cooks in our industry let me know. As I get this off the ground I’d like some input and help creating a network of mentors that can be part of this program. Contact me at dominiccolose@gmail.com 

I won’t go into the issues plaguing the restaurant life as I’ve covered the topic thoroughly.  I will tell you however that our business is made to be tough when it doesn’t always need to be.  Life in the kitchen can be more gentle, more caring, and a good place to be.  It should be a place of personal development, creative outlet, and accomplishment while earning a fair wage and being treated with respect.

Cooks: If you’re feeling down, unhappy, having trouble with anything at work or just want to pick my brain on any subject I’d love to help. PM me through Facebook, or email me. dominiccolose@gmail.com I’ll make time for you.

This thing is in the early stages but I’ve got some people on board and I think this thing will take  shape and be something that can really do some good.

That’s it. That’s what I’m working on.  Stay tuned.