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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Serious Cook

Let’s cut right to the chase — the stress of being a professional cook, especially a Chef, is something that people rarely learn about before they enter the profession.  Your face and name are associated with each and every dish that leaves that kitchen, whether you are there or not.  Every guest who eats your food these days is sure they know more about food, kitchens and cooking than you do thanks to their having watched “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Kitchen Nightmares”, or some other Food Network show (and please don’t take that as a criticism of Food Network – I believe it’s a wonderful network that’s done great good for the profession, too).  Horrendous hours working without breaks, working holidays, being hostage to your suppliers, clueless GMs, new trends surfacing and sinking every few months…  It really is the stuff of nightmares. It is the reason that in much of the Western world, professional Chefs have the highest suicide rate of any profession.

For those of us that love the job, though, we can’t turn away.  There’s an incredible high that comes along with finding *just* the right ingredients in a new recipe, or in watching a guest’s face when they taste something that transports them, or even just in that bone-deep exhaustion that sets in after a twelve-hour shift where you know you did it all perfectly.

The tricky part is balancing those two – the incredible downs, and the amazing highs.  These two sides to equation being always there, a chef who wants to last any length of time without burning out had better make sure they’ve got one hell of a good system in place for managing their stress.  Those that do, thrive.  Those that don’t end up burning out, addicted to one vice or another (I would NEVER want to see the percentages on how many Chefs are substance abusers — from what I’ve seen myself, the numbers are way too high), or becoming embittered towards what was once a great love.

Now everyone has different ways of dealing with these stresses.  Some Chefs are blessed with amazingly tolerant and patient spouses.  Some Chefs take every free moment and go into the wilderness to hunt, to hike, or even to fish in a secluded stream (bait/lure not always used).  I know Chefs who deal with the stress by cooking for themselves and family/friends to keep them remembering why they fell in Love with the food.

Me?  I use a combination of different things to help manage mine: I’ve been blessed with a wonderfully supportive spouse and friends, and I’m a pop culture junkie – I read, play video games, know far too much about too many movies, TV shows, comic books, cartoons (Pixar’s “Ratatouille” is still my favorite) and other games.  They keep me distracted and let me put the stress of a day behind me for a while.

The important thing to take away from all of this, though, isn’t that “Wow – this Chef is a geek” (which, if you ask my wife, *IS* completely true), but rather that if you are going to be a professional cook, you need to be ready for this.  You need to know you’ll have a way to deal with the stress.  You need to have a way to keep bending with each wave of pressure instead of just snapping.

If you work under a Chef?  Believe me when I say that you only see about one quarter of the horrible shite they deal with — cut them a little slack, and watch out for them, like they are hopefully looking out for you.

And if you’ve no intention of being a professional cook, but you know one?  Take them out once in a while, or bring something they like to *them*.  Ours can often be a harsh profession, and a consuming one…  Too many Chefs don’t take care of themselves properly between their stresses and their de-stressing routines, so help a Chef out from time to time.
Serious Gaming
Finally, if there’s no cooks or Chefs in your life at all, well — all of this advice still stands, and stands well.  Take care of yourself.  Take care of others.  Support the team you work with, as well as the one you de-stress with.

Remember: just because you chose a profession for the Love of it doesn’t mean that it won’t stress you out.  If anything, it means the stressers will hit you just that much harder.  So find healthy ways to deal with that stress, and never lose sight of what brought you to that profession in the first place!

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So some of you may have noticed by now that I don’t tend to list onions or garlic (or even much citrus) in my ingredients lists, and there’s a really good reason for that: my wife.

My wife has a severe allergy to the tulip family, so onions and garlics of all varieties are out of her diet, lest she want an exciting and adventurous trip to the ER (since she won’t let me perform one of those cool-looking emergency tracheotomies with a pocket knife and crazy curly straw).  There’s also mild-er allergies to: tomatoes, bell peppers, and (all) seafood that I need to keep in mind.

Then, to add a little fun to the mix, a little under a year ago I developed my own first food allergies: citrus!  No lemons or limes for me or I start coughing uncontrollably – even a little bit can set me off for over a half-hour of uncontrollable hacking.

Combine these two sets of differing allergies and then add in the fact that I’m a professional cook and enthusiastic foodie, and… well, you end up having a really hard time finding safe places to eat.  No restaurant is completely safe, as even higher-end establishments have missed the ALLERGY notes on the food slips printing in the kitchen.  Onions and garlic are pretty universally used, too.. off the top of my head, I can’t think of any culinary styles that don’t use one of those (or at least, not without being heavily focused on fish, which is also a no-go).   Heck – many restaurants I have to send my water back, as all too often I still forget to ask the servers to not put a lemon wedge in it.

Now, if you’ve read through all of this, you may get the sense that I’m complaining, but here’s the thing: this has forced me to really focus on becoming a better cook, and for that I will always be grateful.  I’ve learned ways to get around not being able to use two of the most popular seasonings world-wide in our home cooking, and since I’m not willing to compromise on variety or quality, well..

…our awesomely awefull allergies allow an aggressive approach to ameliorating acquired [culinary] assets!

The point of this, though, is simply to point out two things for those of you that follow my humble blog:

1)Good food is ALWAYS possible, no matter the allergies you have to work around.  Don’t avoid good food because of allergies – just find a way to *make* the food you want!
and
2)NEVER be afraid to play with a recipe and put your own spin on it.  As much as one of my training Chefs hated it ever time I said this, I still believe to this day that a true passion for food means you are going to “Play” with your food.  If you have a passion for finding the best foods you can, how will you know what’s best unless you are willing to adjust, change, touch-up or outright butcher an idea to maybe find something even better?

So yeah — adults everywhere, consider this your call to glory: for the culinary good of all, play with your food, and allergies be damned!

I made this dish the other night to mixed reviews.  My wife enjoyed the taste, but apparently felt like a dragon had just done mean, nasty, unforgivable things to her mouth (ie: she found it a tad bit too spicy).  Me, well, I loved the taste and the spice of it.  This dish was inspired by some of the things I learned while researching Peruvian cooking a few years back — namely, there is magic to be had when you mix Chinese and Spanish-style cooking.

This recipe is done in two parts.  If you do part one first, while it is cooking, you have a half-hour to do the second part — plenty of time!

Part 1

1 Batch of Asparagus Pilaf  *BUT* add the following before placing in oven:
1 Tbsp Curry Powder
1 Tbsp Tumeric
1 Tbsp Cocoa Powder
1 Dried Thai Bird Chilli (or other hot’n’spicy pepper)

Part 2

500g Ground Pork
1/4C Soy Sauce
1/4C BBQ Sauce
1 tsp Ground Black Pepper

In a wok (or deep frying pan) get the pork over high heat to start browning.  Once the pork is about half-way cooked, add the ground pepper and the soy sauce, and continue to cook until the pork is cooked through (Please, PLEASE make sure it is cooked fully).

Once the pork is fully cooked, add in the BBQ sauce — a basic BBQ sauce is fine for this – there are so many other bold flavours that a fancy BBQ sauce would just muddle things, or get lost itself.  Mix the sauce into the pork until the sauces are both well incorporated.

Once the Pilaf is ready, remove it from the oven and in a large dish combine the pilaf and the ground pork.  Mix thoroughly and serve!

Surprisingly easy to make – this is one of those recipes I firmly believe that anyone can make, and make easily, if they just follow the instructions.  If at all possible, make the sauce the day before as its flavours will only grow more enticing as the sauce has a chance to marry.

Almond Chicken (for 2)

1 Cup Almonds3 Chicken Breasts (thawed) cut into strips approximately .5 inches wide
3 Eggs
1 tsp Ground Cloves
1 Cup Corn (or Potato) Starch
1 Cup Flour
Salt & Pepper to taste

  • Using a coffee grinder, blender, or even just a mortar and pestle if needed, grind the almonds down to a powder.  Place the almond powder into a large bowl along with the salt and pepper, ground cloves, and 1/2 cup of starch, 1/2 cup of flour.  Mix these ingredients together well – this will be your breading.
  • In a separate bowl, lightly whip the 3 eggs.  Place this bowl next to the breading one.
  • In a third (and final) bowl, place the remaining 1/2 cups of starch and flour (again, mixed together well)
  • Simply take a strip of the thawed chicken, dip it on all sides in the flour/starch mix, then run in through the egg so it is completely covered, then roll it in the almond mixture.  Place the breaded strip onto an oven-sprayed sheet pan, and repeat until all your strips are breaded.
  • Place your sheet pan into an oven set to 400 degrees (on Bake), and let cook for ten minutes, then use a spatula to flip the strips over before baking an additional ten minutes.  Break one of the strips open to make sure the chicken is cooked through, and then serve!

My personal approach to the dipping sauce is something nice and spicy, to play off the sweetness of the almond chicken.  This is a recipe I’ve come up with to suit my own personal tastes.  (Ideally, I would use aji amarillo or aji panca (really really hard to get up here in Canada) instead of the jalapeno, but I have to make do with what I can get…)

3-B Dipping Sauce

1 C BBQ sauce (my wife buys Bulls-Eye, but any strong sauce would do)1/4 cup Blackberries, crushed
3 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tbsp aji panca paste, OR 2 roasted and pureed jalapenos, OR 3 Tbsp Louisiana Hot Sauce
1 Tbsp Lime Juice

Mix the ingredients together well, place in a sealed bag or jar, and let sit overnight for the flavours to ‘marry’.  Adjust the spice as needed by either adding or reducing the amount of peppers/hot sauce in the dip.

**Note: for those of you that know me, you’ll know that I can’t eat/drink lime juice, so I will use minced ginger instead of lime juice, just to give the dip a slightly different ‘kick’ beyond the pure spice.

 

Hey there – for the next recipe I will be posting you need roasted peppers, so I am going to explain how to make them in a way that is super-easy and can be done in nearly any kitchen.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, set on “Broil”.
Chop your pepper in half, from bottom to top.  Do not worry about taking out the seeds or ‘ribs’ of the pepper – those will come out easier a little later.
Place the pepper halves on a baking sheet so that the outside of the pepper is facing up, and then place the tray in the oven on the top rack.  Let cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the skin of the pepper is blackened.
Remove the tray from the oven, and place the peppers in a sturdy (preferably oven-safe) bowl, then cover tightly with plastic wrap.  The heat from the peppers should make the plastic wrap shrink a bit almost immediately, sealing the bowl nice and tight.
Leave the bowl for 30 minutes, then one at a time take the pepper halves and hold them under cold, running water while rubbing the blackened skin.  The crisped parts of the skin, as well as the ribs and seeds inside the pepper, should all come off easily, leaving nothing but a soft but firm pepper ready for cooking with!

 

These peppers are amazing on pizza once they’re chopped up a bit, and they also work beautifully as a crostini topping, either alone or with a bit of goat cheese.

A professional kitchen (heck, even a home kitchen, if more than one person is working in it at the same time) depends on teamwork.  Teamwork is key.  You need to work with each other as you figure out the ‘dance’ of moving around each other while carrying hot dishes, as you co-ordinate your work so all the food finishes preparation at the same time, as you make sure that your coworkers are set up for success in whatever comes next.

Teamwork is the only way this all works.

Unfortunately, in this current world, people are losing sight of how to actually accomplish this.  There is a culture of the Entitled Individual that is sweeping through the world, where ‘I’ is supplanting ‘team’ Simply put, unless you are the only one working in said kitchen, this doesn’t work.  A kitchen will always be a hierarchy – there needs to be someone in charge, who can coordinate what is going on.  That being said, once the cooking starts happening, the cooks have to come together for a common goal — a coming together of equals.

If one part of the team fails, the whole team can go down.  If everyone on the team splits their work according to ability, and each gives their all, the entirety will succeed.  If one person tries to be the ‘rock star’ and go it alone, treating everyone else as nothing other than backup performers… well, I’ve seen this in professional kitchens, and it rarely ends well.

This leads to something we all need to do while in the kitchen:  hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.  Hope that the people around you are going to contribute to the team as much as you are going to.  Be prepared in case they don’t.  You’ll never be able to control the actions of others… heck, even the greatest chefs in history couldn’t control their teams more than their teams allowed.  So again: you will never control the actions of others — so learn to be prepared, to try and foresee possible breakdowns in teamwork, to be ready to shift the steps of your kitchen dance so you can be where you’re needed to keep the team moving forward.

Most important is this, though: when someone on the team lets you down, when their steps falter, don’t take this as an excuse to do anything other than step up and help the kitchen team through.  If someone falters in the teamwork ‘dance’ and you take that as your own excuse to stop ‘dancing’ (“Well, night shift didn’t prep for us, why should we prep for them?!?”), then the dance is going to come to a full, hard, humiliating stop.

The music dies, and the dance is done.

Instead, again – Step Up!  Take the lead!  Show your moves, and contribute to the Kitchen’s team as best you can – guide them through the rest of the dance until the others get their footing underneath them, and then you can all dance to victory on the Hot Tamale Train.  And you know what – it may not always work.  No matter the intentions and skills, sometimes the team will just fall a little short, but if you worked as the team, supported each other, had each others’ backs, and refrain from all the finger-pointing and backstabbing, well… at the end of the day you’ll have your pride, you’ll know you were a part of a team that swung for the fence, and who put on their whites and cooked like well-oiled troupe that you are!!

Your guests (and your food) will thank you for it!

**Disclaimer: I am not an allergy specialist.  I do know that an allergy and an intolerance are different – please be aware of that, yourself, too, especially if you want to cook professionally.

 

One of the few things that I have found is a constant across all the kitchens I’ve worked in is this — when an order comes in with an ALLERGY ALERT!, the kitchen gripes.

“Probably not even allergic”
“You’re kidding, right?  Nobody’s allergic to that!””Probably just some picky #@$#@% on some fad diet..”
etc.

The reality is this, though — it doesn’t matter!  Whether your guest suffers from a ‘true’ allergy, “only” an intolerance, or just doesn’t like or want the food in question, the end result is the same:

If you serve it without taking that note into consideration, you’re going to make someone *VERY* unhappy with your food.

Now, in my experience, nobody gets into cooking for the money.  Very very few get into it for the glamor.  The ones that will rise (and frankly, the ones that will read cooking blogs 😉 ) are in this trade because they love food, and they love sharing it.  Here’s the thing for me, though — if I’m not willing to adapt my cooking to suit people’s special needs (allergies through to vegan-ism), that’s a lot of people I won’t get to share with.  For myself, at least, it’s more important to me that I share my food with people and see happy guests than it is that I make everyone eat the food one way, and one way only.

A perfect example is someone close to me that I met a few years before I started my culinary training.    We had some wonderful conversations about food (“I’m allergic to onions and garlic”  “What?  Seriously?!?”), and about her eating habits (“Yeah, they make my throat swell shut if I even smell them”  “Get outta here!  Seriously?!?!?”) and preferences (“Yes, I’m kinda dead serious about this…”  “Pffftt – I’ve never heard of that.  You can’t really be serious, can you?!?!?!?!?”).  She can never eat onions or garlic – they are a ticket to the emergency room at the local hospital.  (**Fun fact!:  Onions and garlic are closely related, and are both members of the tulip family!  Now you know!)  Additionally, her body reacts… poorly… to the following: seafood, bell peppers, tomatoes, celery, and more.  You would think that cooking for someone who has all these restrictions on what they can eat would be a pain in the patootie, and honestly at times you would be right.  On the other hand, however, I have never felt as proud as I do when I make her a meal that she loves.

I have become a better cook in many ways by learning to cook for this person.  I am more aware of what flavor each individual ingredient brings to a dish.  I have learned which flavours can mimic others.  I have learned how to balance the taste of a dish even when normally key ingredients are missing (like trying to make a stock from scratch when you can’t use two of the three ingredients to a mire poix!)

Cooking for this person, for the vegetarians I know, and even for the one vegan I know… all of these people have presented me with challenges that have made me understand my food better.  When you get right down to it, too, you have to remember that people don’t typically “choose” to be allergic or intolerant to food.

People want to eat good food.

If you can rise above the temporary challenge and difficulty of providing people with food they can safely eat, I promise you that they will be grateful.  They will appreciate and (in nearly every case) be fully aware of the difficulties that their health conditions pose — they have to live with it every day.  You, reading this blog right now, simply have to cook for it.  So take the opportunity and do a bit of studying, a bit of learning, and even just a bit of talking with the people who have these limitations, and seize this opportunity to improve your cooking, to improve your skills, and to reach even more people with your food!  Your guests will love you for it.