Friday, January 4, 2013
Bit of a tough week in the culinary world. Head Chef's been a mite scratchy and I copped a mid-service bollocking.
It was a 6 cover entrée order. The restaurant was heaving and the ticket rail looked like a string of Tibetan prayer flags on Buddha's birthday.
I plated the oysters and paté, put them on the pass and started building a 10-ingredient salad. The fish chef was firing squid for one of the other dishes so I knew I had under a minute to get the salad done or my arse would be in a sling.
Head Chef comes to the pass, eyes bulging, head veins throbbing, finger-stabbing:
Head Chef: "HAVE THESE OYSTERS BEEN BRINED!!!!"
Me (bewildered, preparing to take cover): "N-n-n-o-o-o Chef"
Head Chef: I'VE TOLD YOU BEFORE, OLD OYSTERS NEED TO BE BRINED!! FOR FUCK'S SAKE DO IT NOW!!!!
And he slams the plate of oysters down on my station.
A particularly bad piece of swearage springs to mind. The one I haven’t uttered since circling the Arc de Triomphe roundabout for the fifth time in a clapped out Combi looking for an exit, circa 1986.
So now I have to make a brine that “tastes like sea water” (what, like the Dead Sea? The Amazon Basin? Parnell Baths after a bus-load of pre-school pool-pissers?), dunk, drain and re-plate the oysters, finish the salad and get it all on the pass in 30 seconds. I probably did it in 45. Adrenalin Assistant, every chef's superhero.
The thing is, only ONCE previously he poked my oysters and said "These look a bit sad, dip them in brine, it helps plump them up and look fresher". Apparently that was an ongoing instruction to brine oysters if they're more than a day old. I didn't think my oysters looked sad. Well, not nearly as sad as me.
Not long before service, I discovered there was a new dish on the menu that I knew nothing about.
Head Chef: "Rog, your part of it is Sauce Vierge"
Sauce Vierge? Vierge? French? Green? No, that’s Verde, and Italian. Vierge. Verge? On the edge? No, wait, it’s French and means virgin. That's a huge help, given it's been an eon since I was (x)teen years old.
Me (plainly a culinary imbecile): "I'm sorry Chef, I don't know what that is".
Head Chef (through clenched teeth): "Tomatoes, ground coriander, lemon juice, EVO, chives, parsley, basil, seasoning. What the fuck do they teach you at chef school?”
And that's it. If I ask for more information I'll undoubtedly get sarcasm and eye rolling. I have no idea what it's supposed to look or taste like.
I scurry off to the walk-in to get the ingredients, and while I'm there have a sneaky Google (that's why chef trousers have pockets, to house internet devices) for Sauce Vierge. Heaps of basil. It should have a tang. Obviously coriander seeds need to be toasted before being ground. Tomatoes? Concasse I presume, but what size dice?
I throw something together and get the other chefs (not the Head Chef because he's doing the crossword) to taste it as well. I don't think they know how it should be either, but they're a year ahead of me and way more confident. More salt (as always). More lemon. Three times I ask them to taste it. They lose patience and finally say “whatever you think”.
I really don't understand, if it was MY restaurant, there’s no way I’d trust the palate of a rookie straight out of chef school. I'd give them a recipe and/or taste it myself, until I knew they’d nailed it. A commis, my senior, once told me not to put salt in the mayo. I was mortified to serve it. Later, when the Head Chef tried it, I benefited from a fiercely delivered lesson in seasoning.
These are examples of mid-service "training", conducted after you’ve cocked up, served in a patronising tone and drizzled with sarcasm, at best. Add a side of enraged bollocking and finish with a rubbish-binning or plate-smashing, at worst. But as chefs say (when re-attaching a fingertip/comparing burn blisters/midway through a 16 hour hungover shift), "take a tough pill". One thing's for sure, when you're taught something during service in a restaurant kitchen, you don't forget it.
A couple of hours later while I'm still battling a mountain of dessert orders and the other chefs are having a smoke/stock-taking/cleaning down:
Head Chef: "How many oysters have you got left?"
None. Ran out hours ago. Been serving bison snot and guinea pig placentas instead. Can’t you see how busy I am?
Me (clueless, somewhere between 4 and 6 dozen, should I hazard a guess?): "I don't know Chef".
Head Chef (spit forming): "DON'T YOU KNOW HOW MANY YOU STARTED WITH?"
No Chef. I generally just wing it with quantities and hope for the best, because I know you won't have an apoplectic conniption if I run out of anything mid service.
Me: "Yes Chef, 11 dozen".
Head Chef (sucking in air and addressing a 5 year old): "Well, Rog, how many did you USE then?"
The caramel sauce is boiling over. It’s so hot the ice cream balls are melting before I can get them to the pass. FOH has nicked my sorbet bowls for butter dishes. The freezer door is sticking and requires two arms and a leg to prise it open. And some moron (me) over-whipped the cream.
Me: "Sorry Chef, I didn't keep count".
See, normally I do a stocktake after service. You know, when the desserts are all away, the other chefs have gone home and I’m cleaning down, filling out the order sheet and writing a prep list for the next day. However, judging by the pursed lips and Homer Simpson eyeballs, plus the fact that I’m clearly an idiot for not memorising every order that came through my section, I figure I’d better halt dessert production and count the bloody oysters.
(Yes, if I'd been down to my last couple of dozen during service I'd have informed FOH so they'd ease up on trying to flog them off, but I know I've got plenty).
Three days later when the Head Chef is in a better frame of mind, I ask him to taste the Sauce Vierge I've made for that night's service. An extremely scary initiative, but I actually care about the restaurant’s reputation and what I’m sending out.
Head Chef: "More salt".
Other than that, it must be OK.
That's how to learn, right?
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
As I break the 30th egg into a pastry lined roasting dish, the boat starts lurching. I look up for the first time in hours and see we’re in a notoriously nasty stretch of open water. I smile sarcastically, yeah, looks like I missed the crew briefing on where we’re going today.
The boat is rolling violently from side to side. Three eggs escape from the pie, slide along the bench and plop to the floor. I brace against the stove, lift the dish off the bench and keep control of the contents by acting as a human gimbal. There’s nothing else I can do. Can’t put the dish down. Can’t get the pastry lid on.
The galley is open to the saloon and it’s highly likely I’m now filling the role of Entertainment Officer as well as Cook. I turn to see Barry, aged 77, grinning from ear to ear. It’s not intimidating in the slightest to cook for a former chef in the British Army. Likewise, no pressure baking scones and muffins for 10 farmers’ wives who’ve undoubtedly had a batch in the oven by 9:00am every day of their married lives, plus a china cabinet brimming with A & P Show gold medals. Thankfully, my first boat-scone disaster was causing seagull indigestion well before Mary (a sprightly 93 and making scones for over 80 years) had a chance to wet her pants laughing.
Some of the passengers are looking a bit green around the gills, but fortunately, and despite several horrendous (i.e. normal) ocean sailing trips, I’ve never been seasick. I can even clean up after others less fortunate and carry on eating my dinner. Cast iron stomach. Two months eating street food in India and my only belly problem was its increasing size.
The sea state hasn’t improved, but I can’t stand there all day trying to save a lidless bacon and egg pie. I open the oven door with my foot and shove the pie in to fend for itself. With every wave the dish hits the side of the oven and egg splatters up the walls. Hopefully, at maximum temperature, at least some eggs will set while they’re still in the dish. It’s pointless attempting anything else until we’re in more sheltered water. This is going to put me seriously behind schedule.
As soon as we get vaguely horizontal I carry on with lunch prep. Bread, ham, corned beef (cooked last night), green salad, coleslaw, beetroot, asparagus, boiled eggs, chopped red onion, pickles, chutneys, mustard, dressings. The bacon and egg pie turns out surprisingly well, if a little wedge shaped and minus a few eggs. I don’t know how the passengers can fit lunch in to be honest, it seems like only an hour or so ago since morning tea (home baking, blueberry muffins). Well, actually it was only an hour or so ago. Then there’s dishes, for 20 people. Always dishes. And peeling egg off oven walls.
The passengers go ashore for a couple of hours and it’s easier to work without an audience. Afternoon tea is 3:00 pm, nibbles 5:00 pm, dinner 7:00 pm. Tonight we’re having a 5kg roast pork that will probably take 6 hours in this oven. I roasted the potatoes, kumara and pumpkin this morning because there’s not enough room in the oven for both meat and vegetables. Later, while the pork is resting, I’ll blast the veges at warp factor 10 and make the gravy. I’m working as fast as I did in the restaurant and won’t get a break today. I do have a better view, but scarcely time to admire it.
Pudding dillema. Due to this morning’s sea conditions, there’s not enough time to cook the planned apricot shortcake before the roast goes in. Can’t cook it after either, because pudding must be served directly after dinner. It’ll have to be something cold.
There’s a lot of “instant” rubbish in the pantry from the previous cooks (there’s been a lot of them) that I’m loathe to use, but I have little choice today. What can I do with instant strawberry mousse to make it less heinous? There’s no ramekins or single-serve dishes of any description. I find some silicon muffin moulds, red ones. I make the mousse according to packet directions and try to achieve a taste less like wallpaper paste by adding lemon juice and a few tinned berries. Unsurprisingly, instant pink mousse looks extraordinarily hideous in red moulds. I have no idea if it will set in time. I concoct a sauce from tinned berries, cut up 4 heads of brocolli, a dozen carrots, make apple sauce and whip cream.
The passengers are back and ravenous. I give them leftover home baking: Ginger Crunch and Louise Cake, tea and coffee. They give me dishes. More sodding dishes.
It’s time to prep for nibbles. I scrub and steam open 6 dozen mussels, keep them in the half shell, slather chilli sauce and cheese on top ready for grilling, make two dips, guacamole, lay out chips, corn chips, salami, nuts, prunes, figs, apricots, grapes, crackers and 5 types of cheese.
I grill the mussels and stand back while the passengers get into the gin and sherry. I take a 15 minute break and interrupt a couple of over 70's snogging on the back deck. Cute, but OAP Tonsil Hockey is not an agreeable spectator sport. She asks him if he’d like to go to the cabin for some TLC. I’m hoping that’s a medication. Or, preferably, code for some much overdue nose-hair clipping.
Barry and Jack (partners for 35 years) head below to their quarters and ask me if they can borrow a funnel. I cock an incredulous eyebrow at Barry and he laughs. Apparently there’s some decanting to be done from their bulk under-the-bed-Gin-store. Barry has a saucy sense of humour, for which Jack frequently apologises, in a British accent you’d swear was the voice-over for those wartime propaganda newsreels . . . “It was 1943 and our lads were doing us proud on the battlefield” . . . that kind of thing. Jack is forever chiding Barry: “I do rather think that joke was a tad beyond the pale”. Jack is quite a bit older than Barry and gets a little disorientated at times, particularly as to the location of their cabin. Together they’re priceless, full of life and willing to try anything. At one bay they attempted a walk that would challenge men half their age, particularly on a muddy track after heavy rain. Predictably they turned back, but had the common-sense and spirit of adventure to commandeer a couple of kayakers to ferry them back to the boat. A few days later after a successful scramble up a densely bush-clad mountain, I heard Jack proudly say (Hilary-style) “I knocked the bastard off!”
Karen and Darren (early 60’s) came on board with the largest suitcase you’ve ever seen. They’ve packed every piece of walking gear ever invented. Gaiters, boots, poles, overtrousers, folding combination camp chairs/backpacks, gloves, hats, raincoats, windbreakers and a couple of flagons of sherry. They’re from smalltown NZ, with classic Kiwi accents to match. I don’t think the other passengers had seen half gallon jars of Cream Sherry this side of the 70’s.
Karen defended their choice of tipple thus: “It’s better to buy cheap plonk because it’s not as old as the expensive stuff and hasn’t had time to go off”. No, really, she’d read that somewhere. Salt of the earth types who’d give you the shirts off their backs. They made me promise to visit them, which I most certainly will do.
Allen, over 70 and technically blind, is on respite leave from caring for his wife who has Alzheimers. He’s clearly relishing the break, especially from cooking. I’m looking after him the best I can, telling him what the nibbles are and where they are. He’s highly intelligent, has a million stories and a fantastic sense of humour.
It’s all very humbling.
I clear away nibbles and do the dishes. The pork has a good crackle, thank God. Put a big pot of water on to boil for the brocolli. Carrots in another pot with orange juice, garlic, a knob of butter. I’ve been told not to use garlic, pasta, rice, chocolate, apricots, spices, herbs and Christ know what else because the captain doesn’t like them, but I’m trying to sneak a few things in just to give the passengers some kind of variety. I’ve also been told what I must cook . . . corned beef, roast pork, chicken quarters, cabbage, cauliflower, brocolli, trifle and mustard sauce. Plain food, because the captain does like those things. I know I’m catering for an older crowd, but hell, age doesn’t preclude having tastebuds does it? It certainly doesn’t preclude having an appetite, I’m staggered at how much they can pack away. Plus they’re paying a lot for this trip. I feel I should give them value for money, but of course that’s not my call. It’s not my business.
I take the pork out, wrap it in an acre of foil, crank the oven up to kiln heat and return two trays of spuds, kumara and pumpkin to reheat, and start the gravy. There’s instant gravy in the pantry but I’m damned if I’ll use it. I know I’m making my life difficult, but “instant” tastes like shit. There’s hardly room on the stove for the brocolli pot, carrots and meat tray. I get the plates out and set the tables. There’s nowhere to warm the plates. The brocolli is barely boiling, the burners just aren’t strong enough.
Plating up for 20. The galley is so small I can do it all without moving, I just need to swivel. I have to be fast and highly organised to get meat, potatoes, kumara, pumpkin, brocolli, carrots and gravy out while they’re hot. It’s a severe challenge, especially when some passengers are asking for “no pumpkin”, “a small helping”, “extra gravy”. And yes, I have the same murderous “awkward customer” thoughts as restaurant chefs do. I can eat my own dinner now, but it has to be shovelled down so I can clear the galley ready for pudding.
Kiwi passengers are pretty good, they usually bring their dirty plates to the galley, and often help with dishes too. Overseas passengers don’t tend to do that, but they tip (unlike Kiwis). Both styles are OK with me, although I’d probably prefer the help. But why should they? I rinse the dishes and set the pudding plates out, looking nervously at the pink-mousse-in-red-silicon-muffin-moulds-abomination. They plop out just fine, and drizzled with berry sauce and topped with a cream quenelle, don’t look too bad at all. I could’ve made the mousse in a big bowl and just dolloped it out, but I reckon an individual serve goes a long way to smartening up a dessert I’d normally be mortified to produce.
Dishes. A frigging mountain of them. Stove cleaning. Tea and coffee. More dishes. I reorganise the fridge, which is difficult as my ribs are still painful. I hurt them getting into the main fridge, a top-loading chest-type. It’s over 3 feet deep and to get to food in the bottom I have to pivot on the edge with my legs in the air at about 45 degrees. Once I couldn’t get out and had to have assistance. The passengers think it’s a scream, little legs flapping in the breeze and the rest of me buried in the fridge.
I should go to bed but the passengers are still up and keen to socialise. I don’t mind at all, most of them are inspirational, entertaining, interesting, and definitely the highlight of the job. The deckhand and captain have gone to bed. Possibly together.
I have a dribbly lukewarm shower and fetch my smalls from the engine room where they’ve been festooned over various mechanical parts to dry since handwashing them a couple of days ago.
I’m sitting up in bed with my recipe books out, searching for inspiration. What to do with limited ingredients, equipment, time, and fairly strict instructions as to what to cook? We’re 8 days into a 12 day trip and there’s no chance of re-stocking. The day I walked onto the boat, and before I’d even seen the galley, I was told to do a menu plan for 20 people for a 12 day cruise, starting in two days’ time. I have to use what we’ve got, what’s nearing it’s use-by date and what the captain likes. I’m pretty sure we’re going to run out of bread so I’ll have to make some. Fortunately I’ve been making bread for years, so that doesn’t faze me. Well, apart from the time factor.
Tomorrow is chicken-quarter day. I’ve done it before on board and it’s a logistical nightmare. 20 chicken quarters in a smaller than average domestic oven? Two trays, cover tightly with foil. Swap tray positions halfway through. Allow two hours. That may seem a long time, but not in a low-powered boat oven. Take foil off 30 minutes prior to brown. Swap tray positions again. Line a large Tupperware container with reams of foil, add the cooked chicken, put the lid on and hope it stays hot while re-heating the roast vegetables. Cook green vegetables, make gravy. Piece of cake.
My cabin is in the bow of the boat. There’s no portholes so it’s dark. I sleep on the top bunk and keep my clothes on the bottom bunk. There’s no drawers or wardrobe. I did put my toiletries and personal effects in an empty basket I found but was told to move them because that’s where the tea towels are kept. More than half my cabin is used as a storeroom, accessed by anyone at any time, without asking. The upside is there’s a lot of snackfood for midnight munchies.
I’m woken by the anchor graunching and waves slapping against the hull. The wind has changed direction, putting us in an uncomfortable and probably unsafe position on a lee shore, which means we’ll undoubtedly have to move.
I hear the engine start so I get out of bed to go on deck and help move the boat. I don’t think it’s part of my job, but having huge respect for the sea, and being a sailor before I was a cook, I choose to. I’m still only paid for 12 hours a day, regardless of what hours I work.
As I’m getting dressed to go on deck, my cabin door opens. It’s the captain coming to tell me to get on deck. No knock or anything. It’s embarrassing, and quite frankly outrageous.
A few days ago it was very rough. We were unprepared, and the kettle, coffee perk, toaster, oven trays and other sundry items flew around the cabin. I jammed tea-towels into every orifice to stop the banging and crashing. A couple of gas bottles came loose on the top deck and were smashing against each other. The captain sent me and the deckhand up there to secure them. No life jacket, no safety harness. I’ve done a lot of offshore sailing and I know how dodgy that situation was. Madness. I shouldn’t have done it without the proper safety gear. What was I thinking? I'm having doubts about this.
We’ve re-anchored and I go back to bed for a couple of hours. I’m still thinking about how I can improve on tomorrow’s menu plan, or in fact whether I can even pull off the bare essentials. I love the challenge of making something out of nothing, and this is a great place to practice MacGuyver skills. Four small burners, a 3/4 sized domestic oven, a freezer that doesn’t, last-minute menu changes due to weather conditions, cooking by torchlight when steaming after dark.
I fall asleep thinking what to do with leftovers. Maybe potato salad, corned beef hash, pizza . . . . . .
Knackered, but it’s time to get up. I have a quick wash and put the kettle on, quietly. If I play my cards right I’ll have half an hour to myself.
Bugger. Bob, aged 72 and not in the best of health, is up and gagging for a cup of tea and a chat. I’ve been told not to make pre-breakfast cups of tea (also to only make “real” coffee once a day, otherwise it’s “instant”. FFS.) but he’s such a sweety, and in so much pain from a back complaint, that of course I oblige. And quite frankly, I think a cup of tea first thing in the morning is probably included in the Geneva Convention. I set the breakfast tables.
Breakfast is easy. Orange juice, cereals, tinned fruit, yoghurt, toast, spreads, tea, coffee. Naturally I have to make it difficult for myself and mix the tinned fruit salad with an array of chopped fresh fruit – apples, oranges, Kiwifruit, grapes, banana, a squeeze of lemon.
I crank up the generator and put the coffee on. The coffee perk and toaster can’t be on at the same time as they draw too much power. I cook toast to order, and by now I know how everyone likes it. The guests love the fruit salad. I suspect they’ve never actually had fresh fruit salad before. I scoff a couple of bits of toast and make Afghans for morning tea.
3 days later
We pull into port and see the passengers off. There’s another trip tomorrow so the deckhand and I strip and re-make 20 beds. I’ve spent a lot of time on boats, and trust me, making beds is the worst job you can imagine. Confined spaces, awkward angles, it’s a hot, sweaty wrestling match. I’d rather clean the oven or unblock the toilet. I do a stocktake, menu plan and ordering list for the next trip. Those tasks are gratis, as I’m only paid when passengers are on board, but I don’t have time for book work when they are. I wonder about my future as a boat cook.
A few weeks later
I’m finished. Too many unpaid hours. I probably tried too hard and cared too much.
The passengers were incredible and I made some lifelong friends. I learned a lot, and cooking for 20 people in a similar situation wouldn’t faze me. I can make pretty good scones now. Well, not seagull fodder anyway.
Saturday, December 31, 2011
My year as a chef, being handed incredible opportunities, setting a new world record for distance-outside-comfort-zone, having some of the toughest days of my life, is largely unrecorded.
Trying to be a chef and trying to write about it were mutually exclusive. Hats off to any full time chef who finds the time or energy to do much else. In fact, hats off to any full time chef, period. I scarcely even kept a diary, something I've done reasonably well for nearly 40 years.
Maybe one day I'll find time to tell the stories. Like having a salad (and slug) returned on my first ever service. Or literally crawling from bed to bathroom after several 16 hour shifts. Or trying to make bacon and egg pie for 20 tourists on a boat in a wildly rolling sea. Or just how much you can achieve in 15 seconds with abject fear as motivation. But for now it's just too overwhelming. Where would I start?
A line in the sand must be drawn or I'll never write again. It doesn't sit comfortably to skip such a significant chapter, but I can at least manage the last page of that chapter . . .
. . . So I guess I'm not going to be a chef. I can handle the hours, pace, pay, heat, burns and bruises. I worked hard, always longer than I had to. I turned up every single day. I truly cared about the quality of food going out and, having been self employed for the last 10 years, worked with the thought "what if this was my business?".
But I don't have the personality to be a chef. You have to be extremely confident. I'm not, and can't pretend otherwise.
Some people thrive on jumping in the deep end, but I guess I'm more the paddling pool type. Eventually, by working hard and doing my best, I get to play with the big kids, and sometimes even become a better swimmer than them. But the kitchen is an Olympic pool and no place for a lack of confidence. Apart from being personally demoralising, it affects everyone else. Maybe if I'd been shoved in a corner prepping vegetables and slowly worked my way up it would have been different, but that wasn't what happened. I saw other people make the leap from novice to confident chef, so it is achievable. Just not by me.
I gave it my best shot. Given the time, effort and expense, the realisation that I lack the chef gene has been a bitter pill to swallow, and I'm still in recovery. Massive disappointment, but of course not the end of the world. I have other talents.
I loved wearing the uniform and how it felt sitting in the alleyway having a beer with the other chefs after service. I loved the political incorrectness, merciless piss-taking and practical jokes. I loved how it felt when the Head Chef said "good service", or when a customer sent an appreciative comment to the kitchen.
No regrets. At least I won't die wondering. And one of the many good things to come out of my cheffing attempt is that everything else, past and future, seems easy by comparison.
Happy New Year!
Sunday, January 9, 2011
The "too old to be a chef" discussion was prompted by Anthony Bourdain's comment in his book Medium Raw, namely that 32 was too old to start a career in a professional kitchen.
I'll be 50 in a few days' time. Last year I went to Chef School. It wasn't something I've dreamed of doing forever, but I've always loved cooking and had a fascination with what it would be like to be a chef. And I suppose there's vague undeveloped thoughts in the back of my head about one day having my own restaurant, for which I'll grow all my own fruit and veges and animals and catch my own fish. (God loves a dreamer). I didn't have to do the course, but knew I'd need all the ammunition I could muster to get a break in the industry at my age.
Midway through the course I read a review in Cuisine magazine about a new restaurant in Wellington. I loved the sound of it, primarily seafood, not stiff and starchy, a bit of a sense of humour, food not "overworked". It was owned by a big name chef who, together with the Head Chef, had operated award winning restaurants previously, in fact Best New Zealand restaurant in 2005. I ripped the article out, pinned it to my wall and thought "yeah, one day I'd like to work in a joint like that".
I got brave wrote to ask if they'd consider allowing me to do my 3 weeks' work experience (part of the chef course) there. I laboured for hours over the letter, I desperately wanted them to say yes. Mind you, I hadn't thought through the consequences if they did, namely time off work, and 700km away from home! I told them how old I was. Well, not exactly. I said I was twice as old as some of my classmates. The truth is I was more than double the age of most of them. Unbelievably, they said "yes". My eyes fair bulged and heart thumped when I read that email.
The restaurant was everything I'd hoped for. Great food, friendly staff, customers having fun! I did OK, I tried my hardest. I got "the talk" from both the Head Chef and the owner about how they'd trialled older people before and they hadn't cut it, "but you might be different". Music to my ears. Maybe I did stand a chance of getting a cooking job somewhere, even at my age? Mind you, the Sous Chef told me everyone knows the unwritten industry rule: if you're 35 get out of the kitchen. The other two chefs (bless them) told him to shut up, that if I really wanted it I'd get there.
On my second to last day they they offered me a job. I said yes without hesitation, didn't ask what the job was, or what I'd be paid, and (as usual) didn't think through the consequences, namely moving to a new city, renting my house out, leaving friends and family, being poor. I just knew categorically that I had to do it, and what finer place to learn? I seriously couldn't believe my luck and struggled to focus during service. Thankfully they gave me 6 weeks to sort my life out and get back down there to start work.
While I was away they came runner-up in NZ's Best Restaurant (Specialist Category) Awards. By now reality had struck and I was scared. Spelled T-E-R-R-I-F-I-E-D. Not of the move, but of the work. I mean for Christ's sake, this is a top restaurant, very busy, only 4 chefs, no kitchen hands, 60 - 130 covers a night, and I'm as green as hell. What on earth was I thinking?
When I walked in on my first day they said "right, you're our Cold Larder Chef". Panic. I'm thinking hang on, aren't I just a trainee who'll be following chefs around and saying "ooh, is that how you do it?" Nup, I'm it. My job is to make all the desserts, cold entrees, bread, sauces, salads and dressings. I decide how much to make and when we need to order stuff.
I've been there 2 months now and it's the toughest thing I've ever done in my life, by a very long shot. Tougher than a marathon, tougher than sailing across an ocean two-handed 3 hours on watch, 3 hours off for 10 days, tougher than the toughest day in Toughsville! It's hot, hard, heavy, painful, stressful, exhausting. But I still want to do it. And I've survived the two busiest months of the year. Hell, a couple of weeks before Christmas we were voted Wellington's Best New Restaurant. It got busier! But it will get easier and I'll get faster. I can now make 50 chocolate mousse in half the time it took me initially. I can make crepes using 3 pans at once. I don't need the recipe book for some things.
But is it so tough because of my age? Is 50 too old to be a chef? No, of course it's not, but I hear what Mr Bourdain is saying. Instead of claiming 32 is too old, what he could say is you need strength, stamina, courage. You need to show blind obedience, take the rap even if you didn't do it, never answer back, and don't expect justice. You need to be able to live on chef's wages, not have a normal social life, not be a prude, have a thick skin, turn up for work every day, put mistakes behind you, get used to feeling useless and having your confidence knocked.
The age thing isn't about a number, but more that people in their 30's and 40's may be unwilling to exercise some of the qualities required. Not unable, but unwilling. They're probably accustomed to being confident, in charge, well paid, respected, and have a strongly developed sense of justice. It's not enough to be an amazing cook who throws brilliant dinner parties that took a week to prepare. In a restaurant you won't be cooking your food at your pace. Anyone can learn to be a great cook at home, you don't need to do it for a job. But you can't learn at home what you can in a restaurant: things like wastage, ordering, suppliers, stock control, speed, consistency, pricing, marketing . . . God, there's a mountain of stuff to learn.
Everyone's got their own challenges, but mine aren't about being 50. For many weeks I was so sore I could hardly get out of bed, seriously considering rolling along the floor to the bathroom and hauling myself up the toilet when I got there. But that's because I was used to sitting on my fat arse (I've lost 10kg so far) in an office all day, not because of my age. Being on your feet at a frantic pace for 10 - 14 hours with a 10 minute break is tough for anyone coming from a sedentary job.
The self doubt - am I really useless, I can't go any faster, it's impossible - is that any harder for me than it was for the 19 and 20 year old chefs in my kitchen when they started? I doubt it, more likely a character flaw than to do with my age.
Being short (5'2") is challenging. I'm at full stretch with a bit of a jump just to get a bowl. I stand on a pot for some jobs because the benches aren't built for Hobbits. In fact I have to stand on a pot to reach most equipment. If the microwave stops and my item is at the back I give it another 2 seconds to get it to the front where I can reach it.
I wouldn't dare pull the "it's tougher being a woman" card, but some aspects of it are difficult. I won't be so vulgar as to specify, but hey, at my age I won't have to worry about that much longer, and what better place to be menopausal than a busy pro kitchen where there's no chance you'll ever notice a hot flush in the existing inferno? And huge pots are heavy. I thought I was strong before, but I'm positively muscle-bound now. There are still some things I can't lift. I find a work-around.
I could have taken an easier route, in a less busy cafe or similar. But this is the restaurant I most wanted to work at in NZ, and I can't believe my good luck to be there. The owner, chefs, front of house, sommelier, barman, are seriously good, they know their stuff inside-out and they're nice people. In fact they're excellent people for giving me a chance!
The only time age has been or will be relevant to me is 15 (drivers license), 18 (pub) and 65 (pension). Oh, and maybe 100 (telegram). I shall probably be a great chef by then. If not, it won't be for lack of trying :-)
Sunday, July 25, 2010
I went grocery shopping in February and have no intention of going again until September. Except for milk and eggs. I suppose I could manage with powdered milk, but unless I clear a sizeable portion of the OK Bay bush for a chook run, eggs are a problem.
Actually I tell a lie. I admit to a mid siege toilet paper re-stock. It is after all rather difficult to store 7 months’ worth of the essential tissue. (Mind you, I did vacuum seal 6 dozen rolls for the Tonga sailing trip. They reduce to about 1/8th volume, a fact of which you may have previously been unaware. You pay for an awful lot of air in a dunny roll.)
So now in month six of my shopping embargo, I’m at the “interesting” stage of the weekly freezer forage to see what’s on offer for the coming culinary week. Bags labelled “prawn shells”, “leftover Christmas ham”, or worse, “liver” seem all too prevalent. I decide it’s time to liberate the duck from its icy grave. He is christened Donald and placed in the fridge for two days to thaw. I ignore the fact that Donald might be a Daffy and doubt that he/she will be offended if I got it wrong.
Saturday. Duck Day. Being a duck-cooking virgin, dealing with Donald requires research. I plough through a score of cookbooks and 35 years accumulated recipe cuttings. My, how one’s tastes have changed since the 70’s! I get side-tracked wondering how the hell I ever thought Boston Sausage (a bright orange casserole of boiled sausages, carrots and curry powder, cooked in a tin of Watties condensed tomato soup) was a dish worthy of repetition.
As it would be glutinous (I’m thinking that should be gluttinous?) to roast a whole duck just for one, and being unwilling to let friends witness what could be Duck Disaster, I conclude that Donald’s breasts (that just sounds all wrong doesn’t it?) are best suited to pan frying, and the legs to a slower method of cooking. I’ll make duck soup from the leftover bits, not to mention all the fabulous duck fat I’ll have for roasting potatoes at a later date.
It seems that confit legs are the way to go, but as this apparently involves simmering them in an obscene amount (like half a kilo) of fat for 3 hours, I decide that Braised Duck Legs with Pears and Spinach will be a little less scary. I also like the sound of Pan-Fried Duck Breasts with a Berry Sauce, “the sharpness of the berries offsetting the richness of the duck”. I choose Mat Follas’ berry sauce recipe, which involves only blackberries, redcurrants, rowanberries and a wee bit of sugar (noting that one should “err on the side of tartness”). I also note that I haven’t got any redcurrants and doubt that we even grow rowanberries in NZ, but plenty of frozen blackberries (foraged by my boss and swapped for a jar of my tamarillo chutney), strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.
I wonder if a strawberry and blackberry sauce would be just too weird? The strawberries would sweeten up the blackberries which, being wild, are bound to be on the sharpish side, but would the strawberry perfume overpower? I Google “duck + strawberry” and get 177,000 hits, so decide to run with it, disappointed that I haven’t invented a new culinary sensation.
Donald is lying on his back on the chopping board, legs vulgarly splayed, looking a lot less like a chicken than I would prefer. I reckon I could joint a chicken with my eyes closed, and even bone one out completely with just the odd peek, but the duck breast/leg demarcation doesn’t seem very pronounced as I nervously raise the knife. The end result looks a bit butchered, and I don’t mean in a skilled craftsman kind of way. There’s a hell of a lot of Donald left over, an inordinate quantity of frame, fat and skin.
I decide to roast off the large leftover bits/bones ready for making soup. I don’t know why I decided to do that instead of just boiling them up. Maybe I saw it on TV? The smaller bits I throw in a hot frying pan with a view to rendering the precious fat.
The oven is now spitting in a 2-cans-of-Mr-Muscles-will-be-required-to-clean-it kind of way, bits of Donald are leaping out of an exploding frying pan and the smoke alarm has gone off twice before I decide I should Google “how to render duck fat”. It seems the best way is to boil it up and scrape the fat off when it’s set the next day. Ooops. However you can do it in a frypan if you cut the duck into very little pieces (ooops) and continually drain the fat off (ooops) as it forms, leaving you with very tasty duck “scratchings” which of course I most certainly will not eat. Numm, numm, numm.
The cooking process is interrupted when I realise it’s getting cold and dark and I’d better bring the washing in. I put a pair of wool trousers in to soak, hoping that Napisan will remove duck fat.
The blackberries, strawberries and raspberries (what the hell, at least I drew the line at blueberries) go into a frying pan that I really should have cleaned more thoroughly after last night’s Po Kor Curry. The smell and look of the berries is heavenly (despite a faint curry overtone) and I somehow refrain from adding anything else, following Mat Follas’ recipe religiously (well, apart from omitting two-thirds of the ingredients). I push the berries through a strainer and think the pulp will go nicely in next week’s banana smoothies. The sauce I could bury my face in, it’s so utterly divine.
A phone call from Mother, a visit from Betty, and I’m starting to get mighty hungry. What would go well with Donald Breast and Berry Sauce? I think a potato or parsnip mash, or maybe cauliflower puree? The problem is they’re all so white and look rather sad on a white plate, which is all I’ve got. But maybe some green beans with butter, lemon juice and zest will save the day?
By now the best part of a bottle of wine has been used in the cooking process (and I don’t mean as an ingredient), a sauvalanche warning is imminent and things are slightly losing shape. I put the potatoes on to boil, noting that there are only 2 left, none growing and no prospect of producing any until Christmas, which is a shame now that I’ve got all that lovely duck fat and nothing to roast in it. I could buy some spuds I suppose . . . .
Donald’s breasts are seasoned and scored, fried skin side down for 5 minutes, finished in the oven for a few minutes and left to rest. Unlike chicken, the flesh should be pink. I put the potatoes through a ricer (it really does make good mash), mix with hot (yes, it matters!) milk and butter, overcook the beans dreadfully and serve up something that doesn’t look very attractive at all.
It was delicious though. A lot better than prawn shells or liver. And despite setting a new World and Olympic record for Most Number Of Dirty Dishes Produced By One Person, I’m officially a duck convert.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The last of the rat poison has just been distributed into the ceiling and “call exterminators” noted on Monday’s To Do list. I can hear Elvis, Janis, Michael (and friends I think) cavorting around up there and I’m throwing the towel in. Time to get a man in.
So, a couple of hours to spare before the next scheduled task. What to write about? Nothing springs to mind. But they say when you’ve got writers’ block you just need to start.
Waiting . . . .
Hmmm . . . .
Ummm . . . .
Have a coffee . . . .
OK, OK, I’m doing it . . . .
Betty from 3 doors down called in yesterday. She often stops by on her daily walk and being a keen gardener herself we swap drought/flood/snail stories. More often than not she catches me engaged in some ridiculous activity (this time threading toilet roll inners over the leeks, it’s supposed to help produce nice white stems), which I suspect is the real reason she interrupts her constitutional.
Betty: “I got rid of him last week, you know”
(Worried. After the unfortunate experience of finding my other neighbour dead in his garden last year, I’m alert to anything suspicious.)
Betty: “My partner. “We’ve been together 11 years but he’s impossible so I kicked him out”.
Me: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that”.
Betty: “He’s probably not going to change is he?”
Me: “Well . . .
Betty: “He’s 81”
Me: “Possibly not”.
I showed Betty “Trouser Carrot”, my mutant vegetable of the week.
I know she knows about the snail hotel because she caught me feeding lettuce leaves and spring onions to a large plastic bin tastefully decorated with rotting wood, dirt, a lid punched with airholes and occupied by a dozen of the largest late night harvested snails.
Betty: “What are you doing now, um . . . ?“
(she’s forgotten my name but too many years chatting have elapsed to enlighten her without causing embarrassment. I once cleared the letterbox while we were talking and held a letter with my name on it as strategically as possible, to no avail).
Me: “We’re having a snail race at work on Melbourne Cup Day”.
Betty: “I see”.
I don’t think she did though. I should have invited her down a week later when I was attaching race numbers to the shells, then she might have got it.
Then of course there was the Mrs McKee (a scarecrow I made for the vege garden 2 houses ago) incident.
Betty: “What are you doing now, um . . .?“
Me: “Trying to fix Mrs McKee’s broken neck”
Betty: “I see”
Which of course she didn’t, the whole scene not improved by Fluffy playing toss-and-chase with the double-F.
I know Betty’s also seen me washing my car in the dark, working on the roof in a sunfrock, gumboots and a builders apron, constructing a coconut bra, blow drying a stuffed buffalo, disguising a cow as a reindeer, not to mention walking past her house every Boxing Day with my extended family variously attired as (for example) Tarzan, Speedy Gonzales, Caesar, Athena the Greek Goddess, Heidi, Pania of the South Seas, and a Geisha Girl, on our way to the beach for the OK Bay Olympics.
However I sincerely hope she didn’t witness the Undy ‘n Apples 500 trial-on-the-deck run. A new event for the OK Bay Olympics must of course be tested for suitability before being unleashed. Especially one that involves sprinting in a pair of men’s white waist-high 4XL Jockey Y-fronts with two large apples shoved down the front. Objective: cover the course as fast as possible whilst retaining the apples in the gusset region.
So there you have it. It’s true, you just have to make a start and before you know it you’ve achieved the written equivalent of verbal diarrhoea . . .
Saturday, July 3, 2010
When I first heard him a couple of months ago he sounded like a mouse, but he’s put on a awful lot of weight. Next he’ll be starring in crap Hollywood movies and performing in Vegas.
I could live with Elvis when he was younger, but the late night partying and anti-social behaviour has become intolerable. And now he’s got a girlfriend. Janis.
Why didn’t I deal with him when he was a mouse? Too busy. Getting the death-trap-ladder out of the garage and into the house, sticking my head up the manhole and lobbing poison around never made it to the top of the infinite Weekend List. Plus I have a problem with animals suffering. I don’t mind eating them, but they must have led a reasonably happy life and be dispatched quickly and humanely. One of the worst things about owning a cat (Fluffy, RIP) was having to rescue the birds, skinks and mice she tormented, assess their likelihood of survival if liberated, and finish them off if necessary. A truly hideous task.
I can live with killing slugs, snails, white cabbage butterflies and a gazillion other bugs if we’re competing for my vege crop, although finding a suitable murder method has been problematic. I’ve tried the bucket of salt water, but watching snails attempting dog-paddle is way too upsetting. Likewise throwing them on the road. Ditto over the neighbours fence, their shells shattering on impact. The only acceptable solution is to squash them dead instantly, which turns my stomach but at least it’s quick. Of course since starting Chef School I don’t have a whole lot of energy for midnight snail-raids, so I’ve taken to planting way more than I need. The gastropods and I share the spoils.
So although poisoning is not really an acceptable solution, discharging my air rifle in the ceiling would undoubtedly put my life at risk. Apparently the “drugs” I’ve solicited for Elvis and Janis will make them rather thirsty and they’ll leave the building in search of water. What happens after that I do not want to know. This is assuming they “come to the party” which so far they haven’t. Obviously the random toss of a handful of large blue pills in the general direction isn’t sufficient. This weekend I’ll have to actually crawl over to their hideout and somehow make the deal look more attractive. Maybe a credit card, a $100 bill and a glass coffee table will do the trick?
Elvis’ favourite playground is directly above my bed, in the most inaccessible part of the ceiling. Until last week he stayed outside until about 2:00 a.m. when he’d scuttle along the corrugated iron roof, find an ingress (which I’m loathe to block up, even if I could find it, until he’s definitely left the building), party up large for an hour or so, no doubt snacking on ceiling insulation and electrical cables, before leaving via the same route, possibly back to his wife.
Banging on the wall with my fist and the ceiling with a broomstick used to shut him up until I got back to sleep, but now I think he takes it as encouragement, kind of like the band warming up, or a sound test. Twice last night I rolled out of bed in a Bruce Willis style dodge-the-bullets manoeuvre, certain that Elvis was coming through the flimsy ¼” ceiling tiles. I do NOT want to be showered in rat shit, nor have a furry creature spread-eagled on my face in the style of Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap worn back to front.
Speaking of rat shit, and still clutching onto the hope that it was a mouse, a possum, or the neighbours’ cat, I consulted a male friend after I’d been up the manhole and surveyed the debris:
Me: “What does ratshit look like?”
Friend: “You on a Saturday morning”
Me: “Thanks. I mean rat shit”
Friend: “Like mouse shit, but bigger”
Even I know that possum shit looks more like sheep shit, and we all know what cat shit looks like. And it sure as hell was bigger than any mouse shit I’ve ever seen, bugger it.
No offence intended to the real Elvis by naming my rat after him. Nor Janis for that matter. I’m a huge Elvis fan, and remember exactly the day he died. I was emptying the rubbish after school, into a paper Kleensak, and the rubbish was wrapped in newspaper. (Stop! I feel myself getting started on another topic i.e. do we really think plastics are progress?) when the news came over the radio. I was wearing powder blue hipster bell bottoms with a desert scene painted on the legs, a yellow/orange tie-dyed grandpa shirt (no doubt purchased from Cook St Market and not made in China. Oops, there I go again!), topped off with a very trendy “shaggy” haircut, achieved through the liberal use of the Comet 4-in-1 razor comb.
Anyway, I was devastated. Only a couple of weeks prior I’d won an Elvis book via a competition on the radio. Can’t remember what the question was, but it’s the only thing I’ve ever won other than the odd chook raffle and meat tray at the pub.
But undying love notwithstanding, I really want Elvis to leave the building, and ultimately my “visitors” will meet the same fate as their namesakes, given their outrageous lifestyles.
To Elvis’ (the rat’s) credit, he’s highlighted the need to remove an old unproductive plum tree scraping against the roof, get rid of piles of rotting vegetation lying around the place, install ceiling insulation (having finally stuck my head up the manhole and discovered there is none), and he actually woke me up in time for the NZ v Italy FIFA football match when I forgot to set my alarm.
During a girlie weekend at Orua Bay a couple of years ago we spotted a sign at one of the classic Kiwi baches: “This parking space is reserved for Elvis”. Priceless. Unfortunately this parking space is not.
Long live Elvis. Just somewhere else please?
Monday, June 28, 2010
In fact I’m a consumer nightmare. Most of what I own is home-made, pre-loved or scrounged. The more they jack up GST and lower income tax the happier I am. I just hardly ever buy stuff. The “operators waiting now” will be on a pension by the time they get my call, even if I only have to make 43 easy payments of $29.95 and they throw in set of free steak knives that can rip through a ripe tomato after cutting a shoe in half.
I just seem to be able to somehow manage without the Amazing Fly Gun, Handy She-Wee Portable Urinal, Realistic Microphone Shower Radio and Hilarious Farting Keyring. Hell, I don’t even have a dishwasher, or a toaster that pops up. My washing machine has knobs not buttons and the drier belonged to Great Aunty Alice.
Which is why when I do make a new purchase, it’s so life-changingly spectacular and evokes such wonderment and joy, that I can scarcely take my eyes off it.
Yes, it’s the new 8.5 litre stainless steel glass-lidded no-plastic-components calibrated stock pot, including air bags, ABS braking, turbo charged fuel efficiency and TomTom GPS. Na, I just made those last bits up. Although after a thorough road test this weekend I can report that fuel efficiency is remarkable – I’d swear the element was closer to “off” than a poorly wrapped piece of blue cheese in the back of the fridge, yet the stock was still bubbling away merrily. This could be attributed to a very thick bottom with a near perfect match to the stove element. Size does matter. In fact as far as bottoms go, this pot rivals Jennifer Lopez. It's also very, very good looking. I reckon you could get away with plonking it straight on the table to serve from, maybe brimming with cheerios for your next cocktail party, with a side of home made sauce in a tomato shaped squeeze bottle and paper napkins folded into swans. Rather styly.
Side Comment: The Stove. Damn, if this isn’t the best stove/oven I’ve ever owned I’ll eat a half cooked sunk-in-the-middle fruit cake in one sitting. I’ve owned state-of-the-art wall ovens, fan assisted, self cleaning, rotisserie enabled, thermo nuclear convection/conduction, multi faceted cooking appliances both gas and electric, but this baby takes (bakes?) the cake. It’s at least as old as I am. The oven is BIG - with a bit of strategic manoeuvring you can easily do a roast (including all the veg) for 10, facilitated by 9 (yes nine) different shelf positions. It’s got a warming drawer the size of a small Japanese apartment and lift up/push down elements for easy cleaning. Of course there’s no fan-bake, and only 3 coil type elements, the supports of which are so rusted I have to choose their position wisely after cleaning (it doesn’t do to have your element collapse under the strain of a bechamel whilst entertaining). Presumably I’m the only person left in the first and second world who still uses this type of cooking appliance, because those pie-dish style aluminium foil drip catchers that go under the elements have disappeared from the supermarket shelves.
Back to the Pot.
My uncharacteristic display of extravagant consumerism is the result of a 4 day, 2 Goldilocks and half kilo of baking soda attempt to shift burnt tamarillo chutney from The Old Pot. Honestly it’s arse is so thin it could be a Super Model, or at least moulded into a pie dish. Why, given the amount of preserving that goes on at OK Bay, have I persevered? Is there a relationship between preserving and perservering other than the obvious? As chance would have it, Farmers had a half price sale. There were cheaper (mine was $70 half price) stock pots and bigger ones, but my pot was aesthetically pleasing, and it called to me. Hell, I might even have to give it a name. It even came with instructions. WTF?
Of course when you've got a new toy it can't just be left in the box:
Road Test #1: Tomato Sauce: Boil up 3kgs of tomatoes (homegrown, frozen), 2 onions (homegrown) and 5 apples. Push though a sieve when soft. Add vinegar, salt, sugar, pepper, cayenne, lemon juice, cloves, allspice and ginger. Cook for 1¼ hours. Pour into (scrounged) sterilised bottles. Smells divine, and no matter how many times I checked (and despite 750g sugar) it never stuck to the bottom. Miraculous. I can now no longer stomach the bought stuff, it tastes like thickening agents, emulsifiers and numbers, which of course is what it’s made of.
Road Test #2: Blanching broccoli and cauliflower for freezing: Find gumboots and sharpest knife. Harvest heads when firm. Cut into florets and plunge into boiling water in a large stock pot (ooh, lucky there!) for 2 minutes max. Slugs and snails will float to the top, skim them off. Freeze free-flow on trays and bag up for later use.
Road Test #3: Place towels on spare bed. Empty entire contents of 3 freezers onto same. Identify frost-bitten items, have those for dinner. Resolve to cook that duck. Find several packages labelled “chicken frames/bones – for making stock”. Do so, in your large new beautiful stock pot (hey, lucky again). Jam everything back into 1½ freezers and switch one fridge/freezer off, thus saving on power bills.
On a cold winter's day bubbling stock fills the house with divine comfort smells (and fogs the windows). No wonder books have been written about chicken soup for the soul. It's now settling in the fridge, waiting to coagulate so the fat can be skimmed off and made into soup. (The stock I mean, not the fat).
Hmmm. Am I getting old when "Great Pot" means exactly that?
Sunday, June 6, 2010
After 3 hours at the office I did a Clark Kent in the Orewa public dunnies. Enter Poncy Corporate, exit Trainee Chef. A bit like Stars in Their Eyes: “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be . . . . “ a complete failure no doubt. Incidentally, does anyone actually use baby changing tables in public toilets? They’re jolly useful for keeping an assortment of costume changes off worryingly wet floors. Likewise disability handrails – very handy for getting-legs-into-trousers balancing manoeuvres. I then drove 30 kms to Riverhead to begin Day 1 of Chef School Restaurant Work Experience, feeling refreshed, calm and confident. Ho, ho.
The Head Chef was very kind and immediately impressed me by roasting off chicken frames to make his own stock. Doubly impressed that he also had a batch of ciabatta underway, using the brewers yeast from their beer production (it’s a boutique brewery/fruit wine outfit as well as a restaurant). And trebly (is that a word?) impressed that he’d installed chickens (live) for egg production, albeit yet to lay, and had plans for a vege garden. All rather right up my culinary alley. (Oooh, that sounds gross, like alimentary canal or something equally intestinal). I thought to myself “I’ve nailed it. I’ll love it here and they’ll love me”. I made a mental note to check Riverhead property prices so I’d be able to nip home between shifts at the restaurant after they’d begged me to work there permanently.
Reality. Head Chef set me to work shaping, flouring, egging, breadcrumbing fishcakes, prepping Kiddie Burgers, slicing spiced beef, peeling/slicing roasted beetroot (very serious death-trap slicing machine), chopping garlic and parsley, butterflying prawns. I tried to work as fast as I could, eager to impress, but ultimately you just feel like an utter muppet, where’s this, where’s that, how does this work, is this the right size? Plus, unless you’re into limbo, being of hobbit height is of no advantage whatsoever, particularly in a commercial kitchen - benches at chest level (yes I know, that used to be higher), having to lasso overhead power leads to plug in machinery, and not being able to reach high (OK, medium) shelves.
My last job took the cake:
Sous Chef: “I’d like you to clean the octopus”
Me: “No problem”
I was thinking about those cute little ones you get in Asian restaurants, I mean they probably just need a quick rinse, right? The sous chef came out of the cold room with a 30 litre bucket full of octopus. Turns out there’s only two octopi to a bucket. When he emptied them into the REALLY deep sink they almost filled it. I mean seriously, they should have been in the Smithsonian. Minimum four feet long each. I’m sorry to be vulgar, but they looked the collective afterbirths of a herd of recent cow mothers.
Sous Chef: “First you turn the head inside out”
Me: “uh huh”. Watching intently, not sure if I should take notes. This could be one of those apprentice piss-takes.
Sous Chef: “Then you pull the brains out like this”.
Octopus: “brlooomghaphooomph” That was the sound of brains the size of footballs slurping into a bucket.
Me: “uh huh”.
Sous Chef: “Now cut this bit here, remove the beak and skin the whole thing. OK?”
Me: “Sure” Trying not to smile.
When you’re a virgin octopus cleaner, it takes roughly an hour to de-brain and skin two four foot octopi. It’s very laborious in the tentacle region. (Oooh, that sounded rude again). I couldn’t help chuckling to myself - a few hours earlier I was wearing high-heeled boots, my arse planted on a swivel chair in an air-conditioned office, glued to a computer screen and shuffling paper. Now I was elbow deep in pink/purple gelatinous gunk, my chef’s “whites” adorned with fish, beetroot, prawns, mince, and brains.
I trimmed the side off my finger 10 minutes before knock-off time (3:00 p.m.) but managed to conceal it in a paper towel and not drip blood anywhere. Except on my jacket, but that would have gone un-noticed, all things considered. At this stage pride did not permit requesting a plaster.
I drove back to Orewa and did another Clark Kent dunnie change. Unfortunately it’s a good few metres walk from the carpark to the public toilets, past the library, where I’m personally known due to constantly having a dozen food/gardening books out on loan. Or at least I used to, in the days when I had time to cook and read books about cooking. God only knows what the mild-mannered librarians made of me legging it from car to dunnies, a flash of white, purple, pink, red, brains, checks, clogs. Back to the office for another couple of hours paper shuffling, absolutely honking of seafod, garlic and sweat. Nice.
The octopus wasn’t a piss-take. Just before I left, the head chef gave me a sample of the de-brained, skinned, boiled and marinated end product and it was utterly delicious.
Squid Pro Quo?
Monday, May 31, 2010
Today the Use-By-Date Soup went down the drain. It was simply beyond redemption. I struggled to eat/drink it last week, to no avail. On the weekend I defrosted the remaining 2 litres and bought a bottle of cream with a view to rescuing it in some way, but today off to sea it went. Moral of that story: start with good ingredients, and it's not always possible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Fortunately yesterday I picked 3 beautiful heads of cauliflower and 2 of brocolli (with loads more still on the way) so here's hoping for better things to come in the soup department.
It's a very rare day when I can't find something to laugh my socks off about, but today was one - I must have been a total joy to work with (sorry team). Even though the most childish and absurd things usually bring tears to my eyes (which I hope is a fine quality to possess, albeit probably a pain in the butt for everyone else), today absolutely nothing was even remotely funny.
Another (dubious?) quality is that I always think the impossible is possible. "Why not?" is generally the first thing that springs to mind when I concoct yet another mad scheme, and I'm prone to attempt things way beyond my skill level, thinking if I really really want something badly enough it will just happen. Which is all well and good if you can pull it off because the rewards are incredible, but this kind of attitude also leads to a great deal of disappointment when reality checks in, and the laws of the universe prevail. I mean some things are about as likely to happen as asking Johnny Depp which side of the bed he'd prefer. Doesn't seem to stop me dreaming though . . .
I had a mad scheme brewing on the weekend and I didn't pull it off. Worse still, I probably made a complete arse of myself in the attempt. Occupational hazard I suppose if you dream big? Hence today's depression, but I've learned tactics over the years to get my sense of humour/perspective back (which I must employ before tomorrow's chef school work experience - I have a feeling I'm going to need it):
1. Set a time limit. Maybe it's 6:45 p.m. and you're as miserable as shit. Allow yourself say 15 mintues of self-pitying-wallowing and go for it. Na, I mean REALLY go for it. Let all life's disappointments come crashing down, have a good bawl, feel totally sorry for yourself, be noisy, sob, the whole nine yards, use a whole roll of dunny paper to mop up the tears . Then, when time's up at 7:00 p.m.. . .
2. Stand in front of a mirror and smile. Force yourself. Stretch those facials. If necessary use your hands to manipulate your face. Honestly, it looks so ridiculous with your puffy eyes and lips stretched back in a false kind of grimace that you can't help but laugh. Somehow, a bit of perspective seems to be regained. Then . . .
3. Get on with it. Concoct another totally impossible mad scheme and try again . . .
Generally I ignore most joke/chain letter/touchy-feely emails and never pass them on. But this is one I printed out some time ago as a "keeper" which strangely had relevance to the weekend's activities:
A professor stood in front of his class and filled a large jar with golf balls:
Professor: "Is the jar full?"
He then poured some pebbles into the jar, shook it, and of course there was room for lots of pebbles in between the golf balls.
Professor: "Is the jar full?"
Then the professor tipped sand into the jar and of course there was room for sand between the golf balls and pebbles.
Professor: "Is the jar full?"
Then he tipped two cups of coffee into the jar and of course there was room.
The moral of the story (in a nutshell) was that the golf balls are the most important things in life, like friends, family, loved ones, doing what you're passionate about, and that if you fill your jar with sand/pebbles first (things like housework, fixing dripping taps, mowing lawns etc) you'll never find room for the "golf balls". Whereas if you fill your life with the important things first, you'll always manage to squeeze in the trivial. Not to mention having a coffee with friends. I'm totally guilty of the pebbles/sand thing, and often let the golf balls (and coffee) get lost in the bunker.
This weekend I was invited to a friend's 50th (I used to walk to school with her when we were 5!) and I actually considered not going because I had to study. Thank God I found some (golf) balls and went, it was the best thing I've done in ages. And totally coincedentally, she read out the the above "golf ball" thing while we were sitting in the glorious sun at Takapuna beach. It was a priceless day.
Right, enough is enough. It's 7:45 p.m. and I have an appointment with a mirror at 8:00 p.m . . .
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Empty everything from the chest freezer onto the spare bed (yes, the freezer's in a bedroom). Identify the worst case of freezer burn. Luckily it happens to be a ham bone salvaged from the last family Christmas dinner, Lamb's Fry soup may not have been so appetising. Also grab a bag of frozen 1" diced red and green capsicums that are now mainly ice.
In a large buckled pot with a too-thin base, cover the ham bone with water, ideally collected via a rusty roof, filtered through decomposing vegetation and stored in a tank uncleaned for 3 years and containing (known items only) sunglasses, tape measure and four lead-topped roofing nails.
From the garden pick some forked hairy carrots, a few sticks of slug-chewed celery, parsley (going to seed) and thyme (looking good apart from cobwebs/spiders).
Fight your way through 30 years' accumulated garage junk to the root crop store and select onions (sprouting) and garlic (ditto).
Back to the bedroom and the bulk dry goods store (wardrobe). This is an excellent opportunity to use surplus galley items from a 2005 sailing trip. Assess the damage (sea air + tropical temperatures = rusty tins) and choose accordingly, namely chick peas and Italian tomatoes.
Finally to the kitchen for bay leaves (do they go off?), chillies (hanging beside the stove in possibly too humid conditions - is that mould?), peppercorns, salt, oil.
Bring the ham bone, water, roughly chopped hairy carrots, holey celery, sprouting onion, bay leaves, seedy parsley, peppercorns and cobwebby thyme to the boil. Suddenly realise you'll need to cook it for a least 2 hours to get a decent stock, so go and clean out the garage, wash the car and drain the flooded letterbox. Come back inside and clean the stove top, using baking soda and water to remove boiled-over baked-on ham stock.
After 2 hours strain into a too small bowl. Get a bigger bowl and repeat. Try to jam bowl #1 into the "dish drawer". Use newspaper to wrap broken wine glass and a screwdriver to re-attach sagging drawer slider.
From the sieve, pick out and reserve anything that looks remotely like it once had a curly tail and wallowed in mud. Hand feed gristle and fat to the neighbours' cat. Wash the floor with hot soapy water (messy pussy!). Realise you'll have to let the liquid settle overnight so the fat can rise to the surface, so abandon cooking for the evening and have a bottle of wine. When the stock is cool enough, transfer to the spare fridge (guess where?).
The next day, skim off the fat and have it on a sandwich. (Na, just kidding, I made that bit up.) Heat olive oil in the buckled thin-based pot. Remove from the heat when a blue haze develops and use a broomstick to de-activate the smoke alarm. Open all the windows. Gently fry hairy carrots, holey celery, sprouted onion/garlic and mouldy chilli, all chopped brunoise. (Sorry, but you'll have to pay $5500 and go to Chef School to find out what that means).
Spend 30 minutes reducing slushy pre-frozen capsicums from a 1" dice to brunoise size (ha! there's a clue) and add to the pot. The water content will help loosen the burnt onion/garlic. Add the ham stock which should come out of the bowl like a large jellyfish. Wear an apron. Have a big enough pot. Put the dirty jellyfish bowl on the bench with the growing mound that won't fit in the dish drawer.
Open the chick peas and rinse in a sieve (the same one you used yesterday that's still in the dish drawer, unwashed) then add to the pot. If the tinned tomatoes are whole, push them through the sieve for 15 minutes then give up and tip them in whole. Put the reserved pig back in. Bring back to the boil. Realise it will take a good hour for everything to cook, so get on the roof and clean out the guttering (again), mow the lawns (i.e. pull out the worst of the longest weeds) and fill the Commodore with oil and water. Think ahead and seach the garage for ice-cream containers (for soup storage). Empty bolts out of one and snap hardened glue off the lid of another. Sterilise.
Come inside and repeat baking soda stove cleaning exercise. Taste. If it tastes like vegetables boiled in water you're on the right track, so did mine. Add salt. Add more salt. If it now tastes like salty boiled vegetable water, head to the small freezer (guess where? WRONG, it's in the kitchen) and add a couple of frozen tomato paste cubes. (Admittedly home-made and a bit experimental). Still lacking? Give it a whizz with a stick blender. Thick salty vegetable water is somehow far more palatable than thin salty vegetable water.
Still tastes like s*it? OK, hit the main fridge (surprisingly also in the kitchen). Add a generous scoop of basil pesto. Don't worry if the pesto looks like a science experiment, underneath that furry stuff it's all good. Also drag out the parmesan which should be rock hard, cracked and almost incapable of being grated. Re-blend. Taste. Too salty? Add sugar. Shrug and realise there's nothing else that can be done.
When cool, fill ice-cream containers, one for work lunches (soup-of-the-week) and one to freeze.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Our regular Chef School tutor, who is surely one of God's Chosen sent from heaven, is away sick for 3 days, so we had a locum tonight. It really threw us. The change in procedure wasn't helped by the locum having a rather strong accent, from Cuba or thereabouts, and a few instructions/ingredients got lost in translation. Like cumin, which turned out to be Chef's favourite spice, and unfortunately sounds a lot like "coming" in a Cuban accent: "I lufff coming, always lots of coming", which of course got no reaction whatsoever from a class already misbehaving like school kids with a relief teacher.
We were gathered around Chef's stove watching a demonstration and I must have looked a little confused or quizzical, because the following conversation was directed at me:
Chef: "Soooo hugh hargue weeth meee?" (That was supposed to be a Cuban accent)
Me (red-faced): "No Chef, certainly not"
Chef: "Whhhy not?"
Me (stuttering now): "Well, I jjjust never would Chef"
Silence. Mexican (or should I say Cuban) standoff.
Classmate: "I think she's asking if you agree with her, not if you argue with her"
Oops. God bless the English language for making two virtually opposite words sound quite similar.
NEW BOTTLE SHOP
Mondays - Wednesdays are normally AAFD's (Attempted Alcohol Free Days), however due to a very busy work day and a more than usually stressful Chef class (quite apart from my Cuban accent faux pas, it's my turn to be Head Chef this week i.e. you have to fetch all the tutor's ingredients, wash their dishes, assign cleaning tasks and mop the floor, in addition to your normal personal cooking/cleaning tasks) I felt the need for a bit of "attitude adjustment" on the OK Bay Bach deck before tackling any of the usual night time household tasks.
It was getting late and I knew my local bottle shop would be closed so I just pulled into anything that was still open (no desperation there eh?).
Bottle Shop Attendant: "Hello love, you look knackered"
Me: "Yes, hard day"
Bottle Shop Attendant: "What do you do for a job then?"
I might point out here that I was still dressed in full chef's uniform: checked trousers, double breasted white jacket, hat, neckerchief, and an apron with curry stains down the front.
Me: "I'm a jockey" (I thought she'd think that was funny, me being rather short)
Bottle Shop Attendant: "Oooh, that must be exciting dear"
You know what I really hate? One of the worst things about living by yourself (or possibly the only worst thing) is stepping out of the shower and realising that your towel is still outside, draped over the deck furniture to dry in the sun, and that it's a good 5 metres to the linen cupboard, past windows with curtains yet to be been drawn, to get a replacement.
I tell you, for a 49 year old I can still move pretty damn quick when I have to.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Naturally this only applies if you're in a Monday - Friday job, and for that matter one that doesn't particularly make you fizz at the bung. I'm sure chefs for example have their own "Sunday's", but then they probably love what they're doing, or why the hell else would they do it?
Because at least half my "rest day" is spent preparing for the coming work/study week, here's some handy time-saving hints, which are particularly useful if, like me, you spent your most recent Sunday driving 400km to say "Happy Mother's Day" in person.
Don't Have A Sauvalanche (too much Sauvignon Blanc) Just Because It's Friday Night
Not only does the resulting lethargy cause under-achievement of Saturday's jobs, but you'll still be looking a tad rough when the 7:00 a.m. Sunday alarm signals it's time to set off for The Mother Visit.
If You're On Tank Water And Haven't Got A Dishwasher, Install A Dish Drawer
This is actually just a pot drawer, but it's used to stash a week's worth of dirty dishes until you get around to washing them.
Don't Take Dishes Out Of The Dish Drawer Late On A Saturday Night With A View To Washing Them
You know it won't happen, and Sunday morning will find the bench heaving with ants. Should this happen, douse the lot with flyspray and forget about it until you get home late Sunday afternoon.
Yes, it may save you 10 minutes on the overall journey, but it takes an officer longer than that to issue a ticket. Guilty as hell of course, but I do think it's a bit mean to lurk at the bottom of Waiwera hill mid way between a temporary 80km and 100km zone just to clock someone doing 101kmh. I wonder if he noticed I was wearing the same sweatshirt as in my licence photo taken 6 years ago? Maybe that's what the ticket was for, crimes against fashion? In fact he could have nailed me for traffic and fashion offences for wearing jandals, but maybe he couldn't see them under the baggy track pants. Styling it, I was not.
Prepare A Week's Worth of Breakfasts and Lunches on Sunday Afternoon
Yes, colleagues will think you're a pig when you load 5 boiled eggs, 10 slices of toast and 2 litres of soup into the fridge at work on Monday, but just smile knowingly and pat your tummy.
Try To Have Average-Tall Parents
This will avoid those midnight on Thursday new jeans-taking-up sessions just so you've got something to wear on Casual Friday. (Don't they make jeans for Hobbits?). I swore last Friday I would never again wear those old ones that make me look like Granny Clampett meets Farmer Brown.
Get An Old Fashioned Carpet Sweeper - It's Quicker Than The Vacuum
They work just fine on large-ish debris such as dead (and live) moths, wetas and corn chips. Not so successful with pins, big pieces of denim and inground dirt, but hey, I'm not expecting the Governor General.
Don't Spend Too Long Writing a Blog
Say no more. Done.