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Okay – it’s time we had a talk, Restaurant Industry. I’ve noticed a few things about our relationship since I started working closely with you, and I don’t feel comfortable staying silent any more.

I know that our relationship takes work, and compromise, from both of us to work – all good relationships do, and let’s face it: all industries are relationships of a sort. What I’ve started to become aware of, however, is just how far our relationship is from healthy. Let me address something…

Respect. This is (in my own admittedly limited experience) at the root of the problem. I have witnessed first-hand as cooks and chefs are told to not expect raises because “the company can’t afford it”, while G.M.s (General Managers) talk over coffee about the new soundproofed TV rooms they’re having installed in their homes with their bonuses. I have seen cooks and chefs being told to be “grateful” that they are being told to stay late and miss plans made with friends and family, because it means they are getting a few more hours. [Never mind that most Chefs (and many cooks) are overworked already, but to expect them to be grateful for it because it is the only way that (typically) under-paid professionals can make their ends meet is beyond disrespectful.] I have watched as a crew of cooks soaked in sweat worked in unventilated kitchens mid-summer because corporate would prefer to not pay extra to get speedy repairs to ventilation systems. And I have seen management tell cooks to lie and deceive authorities to ensure that failures to meet health and safety codes don’t come to light. None of these things are acceptable.

Then there is scheduling. Attitudes about scheduling can be one of the industry’s biggest indicators of respect (or the lack thereof.) Yes, I understand that sometimes “sh!t happens”, and someone will have to put in a bit of extra time to make sure things get done. Yes, I understand that the kitchen is the Heart of the Restaurant, and we need to look out for each other in the kitchen to make sure we have the support needed for the team to function. Here’s the thing, though – far too many restauranteurs and general managers are far too happy setting a double standard where scheduling is concerned: we, the employees, must be prompt, punctual and respectful of the schedules. Until it’s the scheduled time for our own lives to take over again, at which point posted schedules become merely “suggested” times, at the discretion of management. For people who have family commitments, have plans for their lives outside of work, who have multiple jobs to make ends meet, or simply are trying to plan their days ahead, this is a pretty unworkable approach. Again – I understand that sometimes circumstances require flexibility, but telling people they cannot go home at the scheduled end of the shift should not happen – it should be a request, and it should be the exception, not the norm. Purposefully under-scheduling to save money (“we can always tell people to stay later when we have to, but this way we don’t have to pay for a shift if that extra work isn’t needed”) is again showing a lack of respect for the private lives of employees. [Note: i have worked in management before, and I know that creating working and respectful schedules is doable, and not just a worker’s pipe dream…]

These are just a few points, but I have recently found they have been weighing heavily on me. I got into cooking professionally because I love it. I love producing good food for people. I love knowing that something I prepared made someone’s day just a little bit better. What I’ve seen happening to the people in my profession, though, and the excuses for it, are starting to tarnish that love.

“This is the way it’s always been” doesn’t cut it. “It’s called putting in your time – suck it up” doesn’t cut it. “That’s how this industry works” doesn’t cut it. There is room for improvement, there is room for respect, and perhaps it is time that the industry learned to work in a different way.

I have had the great fortune to work with a lot of really dedicated cooks and chefs – people who went to school to further their professional skills, who are constantly striving to learn more, to expand, and to grow. People who work a trade through long days, then when the day is over often spend much of their ‘time off’ reading new cookbooks, talking with other cooks, looking for new inspirations and ideas, and just generally increasing “the scope of their practice” (as my wife would term it). And all this from people who are often still line-cooks, working towards someday perhaps being chefs in an industry that pushes more people towards suicide or substance abuse than almost any other profession in the western world.

I think they’ve earned the right to more than a little respect by now.

Oh cookbooks – even after my praising words last post, you had to go and do this, didn’t you?  You had to show me that blind obedience to what I saw written, ignoring my instincts, was a Bad Idea.

So yesterday my wife decided to take care of dinner, asking me only to make a side dish to go with.  Lately I have been finding myself coming across recipes for Cornbread a lot, and thusly craving said sweet, gritty bread.  I grabbed a few of my cookbooks, and upon coming across the first recipe for cornbread, decided to go with it.  (Mistake #1: Never assume the first recipe found will be the best)

I checked that I had all the ingredients, noting with a bit of surprise the 10 teaspoons of baking soda being called for in a dish that only used a total of four cups of flour and cornmeal — a very unusually high ratio, but I figured it must be right and went, without comparing against any other recipes.  (Mistake #2: If your instincts scream something is wrong with a recipe, listen to them.  Double-check it somehow)

Everything went together well, and the batter went into a pan to cook quickly before I had to run a quick errand.  Upon taking it out of the oven, the edges and top a beautiful golden brown, I sliced off a quarter-inch off an edge to taste — Holy baking soda blast, Batman!  We are talking the wonderful taste of baking soda with just a hint of cornmeal in the background – not exactly what I was going for.  As I’ve got a bit of a cold, I was hoping it was my own taste buds which were out of whack, so I made my final (and least forgivable) mistake of the evening — after I failed to get my wife to taste a piece, I went ahead and served it with her dinner anyhow.  (Mistake #3:  If you won’t eat it happily, don’t assume others will!  Never serve something you’re not happy with!!!)

There are all sorts of ways I could have looked at the events up until this point:
* The recipe was published – that assumes a certain standard of quality, doesn’t it?
* Publishers have proof-readers and editors to make sure typos don’t happen, so the recipe has to be correct, doesn’t it?
* I tried to get her to taste it before serving it, and my wife was too busy at the time, so it’s not my fault the final product wasn’t something she liked, was it?

Well, sadly, all three of those things are wrong, and my failure to catch the three of them, let alone just a single one(!) puts the final result squarely on my shoulders – a large pieces of cornbread sitting on her plate at the end of the meal, one small bite all that was taken of it.

I’m happy to say that it is relatively rare that I make those kinds of errors, especially all together like that, but let the Cornbread Catastrophe serve as an example to all of you — no matter how good you think you are, no matter your training, and no matter the sources you are drawing upon, if you don’t exercise critical thinking skills, failure is *always* an option.

So it has been a week.  After some amazing guests at ‘my’ B&B last week, I was able to purchase a few new cookbooks for myself — one of them with the assistance of my wife.  The local ‘Chapters’ had a copy of “1080 Recipes” (a text on Spanish cooking from Phaidon publishing) – 1000 pages of Spanish goodness, for all of $10.   Then, looking at their online store, I was able to find a treasure — “Modernist Cuisine at Home” – a $150 book, for 1/3 off.  So, in the space of a couple of days, I was able to add approximately 1600 new recipes to my repertoire.

Now, I’m not going to be vain or foolish enough to claim that all of those recipes will automatically be in the list of things I can and will cook, but I *am* spending a lot of time this week reading through them – recreational recipe reading — who would’ve guessed?  And for every recipe or technique that I read but never use, well, who knows when it will inspire something in me down the road.  One can never be sure what bits of knowledge in your field will be of use, so drink them all down!

I get teasingly laughed at for calling my reading of cookbooks and cooking manuals ‘studying’, but I can not think of a better term for it that the average non-cook would understand.  “Seeking Inspiration”, “Browsing the Possibilities”, “Scouring Global Knowledge”…  all good terms for what I do as well, but they do tend to make me sound a little (more) pompous, so I’ll stick with Studying for the time being.

After all, it fits – my father always used to call me a “gentleman and a scholar”.  At least he got the latter half right. 😉

 

So here is something that has been bothering me for a while now: how and why have we allowed our culture’s food production values to get so badly out of sync with what we need?

I can honestly say I was lucky in how I was raised – my family never wanted for food, and I grew up during an era before corporate interests turned the food industry into the horror show it is today.  I remember regularly eating home-cooked meals, or eating at restaurants where the cooks (before this was even as trendy as it is nowadays) would base their daily menu off what they could purchase fresh and at an acceptable quality.

Nowadays, in an era where corporate interests have pushed their way into controlling too much of our governments, the idea of ‘average’ restaurants cooking their own food is becoming more and more rare – now you *pay* for the privilege of having real food cooked for you by a restaurant’s COOKS, because it’s just easier and cheaper to buy it all from corporate suppliers.  Never mind that all of a sudden you don’t really know the quality of the ingredients, what additives, preservatives, chemicals whatever – are in the food, neither does the cook!  Neither do the people who buy those convenience meals for at home!  All you can do is trust that the companies involved are being 100% honest in their labeling, and really — when has a big company not been honest with us, the consumers?  (Please, please don’t answer that…)

I hate it.  I hate that I cannot walk into a store and look at something labelled “Vitamin Water” and take it at it’s face value.  I hate that I cannot look at any list of ingredients and be entirely sure that everything is listed.  Apparently, the FDA in the U.S. of A. apparently has fun rules on not having to list ingredients if they are in small enough quantities per portion – part of why portion sizes rarely match up with even single-serving items.  The Canadian government is no better, allowing these food-ish items into our nation, and into our stores, no longer looking out for its citizens so much as trying to maintain good relations with the multinational corporations.  Jamie Oliver, and other celebrity chefs, are doing what they can to try and draw attention to the problems inherent in our current system, but far too many people put blind faith that what you see is what you get, so that’s good enough, right?  And I hate, hate, HATE that we live in a society that makes the nutritionally questionable corporate food-like substances more affordable than real food, thereby forcing too large a percentage of the population to eat what they’re given and not question it!

I am blessed with a job right now where I get to write my own menu, and choose my own ingredients — wherever possible, I make sure I’m getting food direct from the orchards, butchers, cheese-makers, etc., and as little as possible from the supermarket pre-packaged aisles.  I am blessed with a wife who understands my feelings on this, and does her best to make sure our fridge now gets stocked with fresh vegetables, fruits, local meats, etc., so that we can cook our own quality foods.  And, I am blessed to live in an area where the climate supports all the local growers, farmers, etc., so that I can have access to those foods without having to trust in corporate interests providing me with what they feel I need.

I suppose to me, it comes down to this — it is no secret that the corporate food industry has worked out the formulas to add the right amounts of sugar, fat and salt to make all their foods crave-able, no matter how little real quality ingredients are present.  Myself, well… I have no magic formulas — I use as little processed sugar as possible, rarely use any fat except for butter or what I’ve rendered, and try to minimize the salt present as much as possible.  Instead of those three things, I add fresh ingredients, spices, herbs, techniques and attention to detail, and do my best to craft something tasty where I, and my consumers, truly know what’s in the food.

Tasty, informed and transparent?  Sign me up — that’s modern food I can love!

I am a big believer in ‘tradition’.  The traditional way that we do things, particularly in cooking, is usually for a very good reason — bread rises better under certain circumstances, meats become less tough when cooked with the proper method, etc.

That being said, as we learn more about our art, we need to open ourselves up to the idea of challenging traditional values.  At a recent job, I had the opportunity to learn a traditional recipe and method for making Italian pizza crusts.  I made many many of them.  And then I got to try one, and compare it to the tradition-inspired-but-now-MY crusts that I make for my wife and I, and there was no difference.  The actual handling of the dough traditionally is where I learned the most useful info to integrate into my own skillset, but the actual dough itself was, well, it was what a traditional pizza crust is supposed to be: nothing more than a delivery vector for the toppings on it.

My crusts, by contrast, tend to be packed with flavour – whatever flavour I think is going to compliment the toppings planned for the pizza, I will work into the crust.  I want my guests to enjoy their last bite of the crust at the end of the pizza pie as they do their first bite of the all-topped tip of the slice.

Tradition says “keep your crust light, but bland, while I look at my pizza and say “crust, time for tradition to go OUT the window – do you want to be curry infused, or Italian herb infused, or even filled with diced-up oven-roasted bell peppers and a bit of balsamic before I roll you out and top you up?”

Tradition is good.  Without it, I wouldn’t have that solid base on which to develop my own take on pizza crusts, but at the same time you need to know when you’re ready, and willing, to step away from tradition and start making your own way, your own art.

And now if you wonderfully fine readers will excuse me, I need to go figure out how I’m going to infuse this morning’s crust for a fine fine breakfast pizza, the recipe to which will follow this afternoon!  ‘Cause after all: nothing says ‘tradition’ like pizza topped with hollandaise, scrambled eggs, bacon, and other breakfast-y goodness. 😉

Ciao!

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!

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!