A Couple of Pearls

Not Going to the Dogs

My last post told of a request near closing time after the kitchen had been cleaned for an entrée to be prepared specially for a dog.  I was telling the story to a friend a day or so ago and he asked if it really mattered where the food was going.  He indicated that the point of being in business is to sell product.  That’s true, selling your product is the way to stay in business.

One must consider not only the monetary value of selling product but must also contemplate the satisfaction of crafting one’s product and the pleasure a chef or other creative person gets from making something well and having it bring equal pleasure to the person enjoying it. Simply adding heat to a protein to make it safe to eat is not pleasure, it’s a mundane task, and the recipient would not get any more pleasure out of it because I cooked it.

Also, to be considered is whether a chef should make that call.   It’s necessary to consider what the chef is being compensated for.  Is it to simply cook the orders that come through the printer without regard for any culinary integrity?  Or is it in part to exercise discretion in deciding what is acceptable product leaving the kitchen according to the restaurant’s standards?

As a chef with a strong track record of quality, creativity and some innovation I would think and hope it’s the later.  There are a lot of cooks that can get food out of the kitchen.  While there are plenty of others that are good at running a kitchen and writing and executing creative menus, there are far fewer that can do it as well as a handful of area chefs including me.

That ability earns a level of autonomy that should be exercised and understood.  I certainly have no desire to be a prima donna.  Seeing me shoulder deep into the pot sink or hauling out the trash at the end of service will tell you that.  I also don’t think an employed chef should be some kind of loose cannon.  What an experienced chef needs to be is that person who brings a level of integrity and quality to the kitchen, sometimes deciding how his or her time is spent, and how the food is prepared and why it’s prepared as it is.

Yes, I’m going to make mistakes on occasion, but we all are no matter how much we know and no matter our experience level.  The trick here is to make the right call often, and to learn from those occasions when the wrong call is made.

The truth is in this case, I expressed to the customer via the service staff that all my available chicken was already marinated and the Moroccan seasoning would not be a good match for the dog.  The server accepted the answer, the customer was satisfied, and I kept my sanity intact,  The dog didn’t know and I suspect couldn’t care less if he did.  See, I can learn.


Let it Grow

My friend and longtime colleague opened a Deli last week and from what I can tell it’s been quite busy from the get go.  He’s a very good cook and has a keen eye for quality products.  I’m sure he’ll be successful.

Against my better judgement I got involved in is a discussion about the authenticity of this business as a Jewish deli.  The venue was a Table Hopping post announcing the opening and the bulk of the commenters, who had never been to the business, discounted it as not worth the trip, or not a real Jewish deli because they didn’t have every food item that they felt should be available at a Jewish deli.  One commenter asserted that the owner should do an internship at the famous Katz’s Deli in New York to learn the trade.  So, since the deli that had been open for a few days was not up to the standards of a place that has been open since 1888, it was unworthy?  And yes, Katz’s does sell a Reuben. And yes, many Jews eat bacon.

When someone opens a business, either support them of shut your trap.  Let it grow, let it develop over time to cultivate into its full potential.  Pay a visit, see what they’re doing and offer some thoughts constructively on what your experience is, unless you want to pony up the money so you can show us exactly what a craft beer bar, a pasta shop, or a deli should be.

Time and time again I see people knocking a place because they have a concept in mind of what a place ought to be or what they would like it to be to suit their own desires.  I know damn well that they never had any intention of checking the place out when they declare it unsuitable for their tastes.  Not every sports bar, not every Italian joint, and not every tapas spot is going to live up to your selfish standards from day one.  They may be worth the trip however and you may discover they may be worth some praise.

Opening Weekend Snippets

Why do so many out-of-towners have dietary restrictions and food allergies?

Why do out-of-towners love balsamic vinegar?

Why do they drive like assholes?

My feet are throbbing.

It was a good weekend.

I see tremendous promise in my kitchen.

I really like Sam, he’s a good guy with tons of potential.

I’ve had several beagles named Sam.

Despite a few correctable glitches, dinner service was smooth both Friday and Saturday.

I started at The Wine Bar seven years ago today.  I’m glad to be there at this point in my career and regret those days that I wasn’t there. It really is my spot.

As I was leaving Saratoga after work last night some asshole stopped in the middle of Broadway to let passengers out.  As I went around one of the other assholes opened the back door of the Escalade with NJ plates and hit my side view mirror.  He was holding a cocktail as he exited.  I stopped to make sure there was no damage and to remind these overgrown children that they’re assholes.  The mirror was fine.

If you’re from elsewhere, I’ll remind you.  Do not piss off a tired and over-worked chef in Saratoga during racing season.

Someone commented recently that we in the restaurant business should be thankful for the summer business, it makes our year.  Bullshit.  If you run a restaurant that needs that six weeks to survive then you do not have a very good restaurant.

The Wine Bar has been there for 19 years, six weeks of heavy business is a nice boost, but it won’t make or break the place.  Why?  It’s a good restaurant and the owners work hard all year.

Not drinking Bourbon is probably best, I’m glad (sort of) that I don’t.

I am not unwell, thank you.

Brindisi’s was a bad restaurant.  Grey Gelding was bad too.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the baseball season.

The three best teams are in the American league, so a National league team will undeservedly play in the World Series.

My dear friends Tom and Anne were in on Friday.  It is a real pleasure to cook for them.

It is a real pleasure to cook for many people.

I find friendship in many and varied places.

Sister Mary Elephant.


Provencal blue

I see a lot, and I certainly don’t let things slide.  I’ll catch up to everyone at some point.

I really could use a Bourbon.

Please and thank you are necessary words.

When you come into my kitchen use your words with specificity, tell me what you need exactly and briefly, then wait quietly while
we deliver it.

I’m not mean, I’m focused.

I eat not much more than a sandwich each day.

Theresa moved back home today.

A new server called me calm.  A server who worked with me during my last stint at The Wine Bar called me a work in progress.  She remembers the pre-Lexapro chef.

Tonight, I made pizza and wings for my family.  Tate said they were the best wings ever, so good in fact that he forgot to eat pizza.  That’s a far more satisfying comment than the customer who said the scallops are outrageous.

The table who said the lamb was not medium rare.  My sous vide unit begs to differ.  You cannot argue with precision.

Sometimes you’ve got to slow down to go faster.

Some people are just plain weird.

Fifteen minutes before closing, when the kitchen is cleaned, you want me to cook a chicken entrée with no seasoning to take home to your dog?  Like Jerry Seinfeld said to George Costanza lying on his floor with his pants at his ankles wanting to be his latex salesman, “I don’t think so.”  That’s a tremendous insult.

I really love dogs, but I’d never ask a chef to cook for the Chocolate Lab that lives at our house.

A New String of Pearls

Two nights ago, I was in involved one of those instances in which I couldn’t sleep, and my mind started wandering to a familiar topic. Yup, food and the restaurant life.  As a result, I came up with three blog topics that I thought would keep me busy for a while and I entered my thoughts into my phone’s notepad.

I awoke thinking I had conceived several pearls of wisdom during the night then I looked at my phone to view what I was sure was an ample supply of fodder for some topics, I quickly realized these thoughts were not enough for full posts.

I have concocted an additional format for chefsday called pearls.  They’re like snippets only longer.  The idea is still the same.  When I really don’t have much to say I can still post under the premise that I think about things that produce well thought out and developed topics.


Fools Gold

I’ve been thinking about what draws people to certain restaurants in Saratoga.  The standard answers are good food, prices, service, portion size, great patio, and proximity to home.  One thing I have observed over the years is that the people of Saratoga (in general) love the new and popular spot.  The ability to add to any conversation “I’ve been three times already” is of real value in boosting one’s social standing, at least for a few moments.

For many, the popularity wears off quickly.  Salt and Char comes to mind.  It was all the rage as people couldn’t talk about it enough.  Big majestic building, millions spent, celebrity chef, shiny new kitchen, and all the buzz of an over-grow bee hive on a summer day.  Turn a few calendar pages, replace celebrity chef with another celebrity chef, replace actual working chef several times and……… Haven’t heard much lately.

Once the new restaurant shine wears off it’s fun to see what’s left.  While it may be a Saratoga thing to do, I typically avoid the new kid on the block and seek out those that have remained open and steady year after year.  The Old Bryan Inn does what it does well.  Chianti is as busy as always.  The Wine Bar has been open for almost 19 years.  These places are not hot and new, but there’s a reason they’ve been open so long.  I’ll also include the no longer new 15 Church, continuing to thrive despite being past the excitement of the just opened status.  After examination one can tell what the real gem is, and what’s fool’s gold.  If course, there are always exceptions, no names mentioned.


Confinement Shop

As the heart of the summer settles in, and the six weeks of mayhem about to start I’m pleased that the fall menu is well underway.  I’ve been increasingly diligent about getting the next season’s menu done well ahead of time to ensure that I have time to prepare.  I need to be sure the products I want to use can be sourced easily, that we have whatever equipment we need to prepare everything properly, that the menu design can go through the proper process, and that both the service staff and kitchen are up to speed on everything they need to know for a successful menu launch.  While there are always flaws and snags, the early preparation can minimize any problems.

The problem I’ve been having is that I’ve started to feel a bit confined by both our current menu format and by my commitment to Mediterranean influence.  There’s nothing wrong with either scenario, but as a chef with the desire to exercise creativity it is within my nature to want to try new things.  Falling into the trap of keeping the status quo because it works can cause one to become stale and unmotivated.  A stale and unmotivated kitchen can often become evident to the clientele and sharply affect business.

The need to branch out from my Mediterranean influence is a bit irrational since my mastery of other cuisines is limited.  I can produce other flavor profiles well enough, but not with the confidence of staying within my wheelhouse.  I also know that the flavors of the Mediterranean are numerous and my playground within the vast area is open to both many flavors and interpretations.  I’ll stick to what I know.  Besides, I don’t see anyone else capturing that flavor spectrum in Saratoga.

As far as the format goes, I do believe that one should stick to what works as best they can.  I also believe that change can be good, even refreshing and enlightening.  So how to capture both philosophies is the task here.  The general idea of food at the Wine Bar has always been a small, well crafted menu offering small plates and two portion sizes on entrees.  There’s no reason the stray from that, but within that framework I think we can offer something new with a few refreshing ideas that will keep the Wine Bar doing what it does best, and at the same time creating a new experience.


Culinary Pro-Am

“How are the gnocchi?”  “Very good, but my wife’s are better.”  “You’re a very lucky man, but can your wife make these gnocchi while she’s making all the food for everyone else in this dining room are the same time?’

“you’re such a good cook, you should open a restaurant or catering business.”

“I know what I’m talking about, I didn’t go to culinary school (she took some classes as a hobby) for nothing.”

Civilians too often know the difference between a seasoned professional and a hobbyist, a foodie, a restaurant groupie, or whatever you’d like to call those folks who like to hang out on the fringes of the restaurant and good food world.  There’s nothing wrong with these people, but they should not be confused with those of us that have dedicated their careers to learning and doing day after day.

Food blogs are fine, some are excellent, but most are written as a hobby and are often not backed up by years of experience behind a hot stove in a busy kitchen.

The Food Network generation has been cursed with a little bit of knowledge, and a little bit of knowledge can be very annoying when one brings it to a restaurant with them.  The desire to design your own menu means either you should have one of your wonderful dinner parties or better, yet you should put up the cash to open your own place.

Yes, I understand the hospitality business, but let the professionals do what they do best.

The next time the electrician comes to your house ask him if you can plan out his work routine for him or her.

Dave’s Weekend Snippets

There’s one thing about Dave Mathews that I dislike more than his overrated music.  Dave Mathews fans.  Not people who like Dave Matthews’ music, but those that refer to him simply as Dave.

The other thing that has annoyed me about the weekend that he’s in town is that every young person that works in the restaurant industry seems like they’re entitled to have Dave weekend off, like it’s a constitutional right.

My sous chef had last night off, but he earned it.  While I was prepping the kitchen yesterday I was suddenly among three young ladies I had never seen.  They were working diligently at their hosting positions preparing to open for the day.  I had to walk outside and look at the sign on the building to make sure I was in the right restaurant.

These ladies must have been there Friday night since they had the appearance of knowing what to do.  I was certainly scheduled to work but was called away with a family crisis before service started and therefore missed the fact that there were new people there covering for those who were not missing Dave.

Apparently, Mr. Matthews had coffee in Saratoga which was big news.  To some.  The local news covered it.  I’d bet Dave has coffee in every town he visits.

Celebrities really do enrich your life. Human or otherwise.

There was a rally to lure Justify to Saratoga to run The Travers.  Here’s my question.  It’s rumored that the horse has some sort of ankle ailment.  So, do you not know, or do you not care?  If you don’t know then why is it so important that this horse come?  If you don’t care, then shame on you.

People really are interested in another person’s business.  Is my business more interesting than yours?

If you let political affiliation or one news network form your opinions, then they’re not truly opinions, are they?

Our calamari dish is inspired by a Spanish pork and sausage dish called caldo Gallego.  It has calamari, gigante beans, Swiss chard, tomato-coriander broth, and chorizo.  The menu says as much.  I’m wondering if the guy who ordered it then refused it because it had chorizo would be upset if it showed up on his bill.  I told you what it was, delivered exactly what I said it was, and certainly feel you should pay for it.  Of course, we’re in the hospitality business so we just eat the cost of it.  It is a common enough occurrence that people don’t read the menu then are surprised by what comes to their table.  I cannot imagine any of them expect to pay for the item.

Most people have good days and bad days.  Chefs seem to cycle more frequently.  We have good hours and bad hours.

This weekend my friend opened Saratoga’s Broadway Deli.  A Jewish style deli downtown has been missing.  A reasonably priced sandwich has also been hard to come by.  No more.

Piper the chocolate lab that lives at our house does not leave my side when I’m home.

The streets and sidewalks of Saratoga are crowded.  People don’t seem to understand that there are other people trying to move about the town.  When there are four of you who run into four others that you know, please move of to the side to reminisce rather than blocking the walkway.

Yes, I know I’m preaching to the choir.

Sunday is pizza night at our house.  Tate asks for sausage every week then systematically picks it off.

I’m putting the over/under for horse deaths during this year’s meet at 14.

People are always surprised and appalled when horse meat is found in fast food burgers.  What do people think are in hamburgers that cost 99 cents?

It was a real pleasure to see some long-time customers last night.

I noticed yesterday that there don’t seem to be many people eating at Burger-Fi on Broadway.

No, celebrities rarely enrich your life.

The Red Sox won again today.

The Yankees lost.

I mentioned that Friday I was called away to deal with a family crisis.  Nothing to worry about, all is well.  I did learn that my kitchen team of Xavier, Sam, and Ryan were solid that night and performed at a professional level.  They’re all very to learning and doing things the right way.  This is much better than the crew I inherited when I returned to WB.  I’m guessing this is common.  Trying to get an existing crew to see things from your perspective is difficult, especially when the existing sous chefs feel they should have been promoted.  Gino was off that night, but also fits into our team well and is a pleasure to have in my kitchen for the summer.

The track opens next Friday.  The reservations are heavy.  We’re ready.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back. Two Steps Forward…………….

I’ve become addicted to this blog and I find that writing down my thoughts therapeutic, a therapy I need.  I still need this time to clear some things up in my feeble mind.

Too often my inner thoughts find their way to the outside world.

Regular readers of this goofy blog know that I’m emotionally unstable and that I spend too much effort fighting personal demons.  I’m most likely not much different than an awful lot of other people.  So, what’s so special about my issues?  Well, they’re mine, and this is my blog.  They’re also a large part of my everyday experience as a chef.  Especially right now.

With the horse track about to open, the reservations pouring in, my scheduled biopsy (August 15th), Theresa’s move, and my inability to curb my nightly alcohol intake (which diminishes the effects of Lexapro), I’m overloaded with anxiety, melancholy, and a feeling at times that I’ve made almost no progress.

I know that’s not true, but I’m crazy so It doesn’t always matter what I know.

Low level socialites.

I don’t like waiting

Although not nearly as much, I sometimes let my frustration with people and/or situations get the best of me.  I’m aware, and I’m working on it.

Why is it so essential that people smile when having their picture taken?

I’m starting something new.  Unavailable Monday.  It’s my day off and I will leave my phone off, and inaccessible during the day when I plan on doing fun things with my kids.  I owe them.  Last summer I spent a lot of time wallowing on the couch.  Yesterday I took the kids to Great Escape/Splash Water Kingdom for the day and left the phone in the trunk.  I worried but felt a sense of freedom. It was nice.  Everyone will just have to get along without me.

If you don’t do the work you won’t get the necessary results.

I’ve already started working on a fall menu.  It’s always nice when your sous chef has constructive input.  It’s not always the case.  My current sous chef, Xavier is possibly the most talented I’ve had.  One difference is that he chose the profession, it didn’t choose him.

A lot of us cooks are in the business because it’s all we know, so we get to the point in our lives when we couldn’t make a comparable salary starting something new.  Xav went to college for something else but decided on the kitchen life anyway.

I went to college for cross country and track.

Have I mentioned that Adventure in Food has the best customer service of all my vendors?  Earth and Sea is also excellent.

The harder you work the luckier you become.

Y’ever notice at the grocery store that the person in line behind you at the checkout cannot wait to get their stuff up on the conveyer belt.

Not everything can be a top priority.

While my anxiety level has been through the roof lately I feel good about where I am.  I have a full day of sobriety under my belt am confident I can stretch that out.  If I can’t I take the necessary steps to do so.

Last summer was horrible, and I don’t want to go back there.  I’m going to enjoy my wife and children, I’m going to applaud Theresa’s new freedom and happiness, and I’m going to put my heart into the kitchen and make every dining experience at The Wine Bar as good as I can make it.  I can tough it out, and then we’ll move forward.

My life is a common chef’s life.  My goal is to make it better for me, my family, and for other chefs and cooks.


The Victory Is Mine

I decided that I wasn’t going to write anymore posts this summer, so I could focus some time on Chefs 4 Chefs.  The truth is that I need to write about my life as a chef as a part of my therapy.  I need to express my feelings, I need to vent, and I need to share my experiences especially since I’ve stopped seeing my therapist.  It’s not that I don’t think I don’t need to continue seeing a shrink, I do.  I know full well I do.  I just never developed a connection with the person I was seeing and am in search for a new crazy doctor.  I think a connection is important, I need someone I can get into the deep feelings with, so I can flush out some stuff that really has me in an emotional rut.

Anyway, that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about a victory.  A victory I’ve wanted to experience too many times and never had the extreme satisfaction until now.

Saturday was supposed to be a special night, and it was.  A very sweet couple returned to The Wine Bar after a long absence because of serious illness.  One of the couple has spent over a year fighting cancer and is now healthy.  The significance for me is that I have seen the losing side of cancer too many times in my life having lost people very close to me more than I’d like to count.   Let’s just say I know the pallbearer business as well as anyone.

I had been excited the previous week because I knew they were coming in.  I made sure the staff was aware of the significance, I lined up a server that I thought would be right for the occasion, and I made sure they did not get a check.  They came early as usual, sat at the bar for a Manhattan, then had a long leisurely meal like I remember them doing when was chef at The Wine Bar previously.  It was an intense pleasure to cook for them.  They have no allergies, they have no desire to write their own menu, they are not products of the food network crowd that thinks they’re educated chefs and are going to tell me how to prepare a dish.  They appreciate good food prepared as the chef sees fit, and they appreciate the effort that goes into a well-crafted meal.  They are a joy and I would cook for them and people of similar attitude every day for the rest of my life and be happy about it.  The fact that they made a reservation for next week and requested the same server tells me we did something right on Saturday.

On the same night there was someone who had already decided either consciously or unconsciously that no matter what happened they were going to be unhappy.  She ordered a dish and was deeply distressed that what we gave her was not authentic because it was not made how she (wrongly) claimed it should be made.  She also added that she had been to culinary school and she knew what she was talking about.  She riled up another table near here that also ordered the same thing and had them convinced that they too had been duped by the kitchen.  They were duped alright.  Well, I made an unprofessional mistake and tried to both convince them that they were in fact eating was authentic and that I would be happy to prepare something else.  Unfortunately, due to some missteps and lack of due process, and my unprofessional approach, the situation became a bad customer service experience that could have been avoided had I not decided to speak to the table myself.  It was hot, I was tired, and my feet were killing me.  I should have been basking in the pleasure of our special table that night, but instead allowed myself to be egged on and had a less-than-pleasant conversation with a table about the authenticity of Margherita pizza.  With 20 years in this business I should have known better.

I went home on Saturday feeling poorly for what I had allowed myself to get sucked into and how I handled a customer concern, and it spoiled things for me.  I wrote this post that night but made the right decision not to post it right away.  Since then I’ve considered my actions and have edited this post to better reflect my true feelings rather than my immediate emotions.

Yes, I’m passionate about my work, and the people I serve.  I love almost all the people I cook for.  I cannot be everyone’s friend, and I’m not going to please everyone.  I’ve always known that, but sometimes a stupid act on my part is needed to remind me.

Saturday was a special night and I won’t let those who feel entitled, superior, or better suited to do my job to ruin my night and the significance of it.  The night was a victory for me, and an even bigger victory for one person who won the battle against cancer.