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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Getting out of the Kitchen

At Trident Tech's fundraiser
More volunteers

Trident Tech. students awaiting instruction

Hot boxes filled with bouillabaisse

The assembly line for the main course (lamb chops over farrow)

(Trident Tech fundraiser)
My externship has a myriad of requirements that need to be fulfilled and one of them is to volunteer within the community for at least 20 hours.  This is a great requirement as it gets the student out into an area to make contacts in his/her field.  I was able to take part in Trident Tech Community College’s annual fundraiser dinner on the 27th of this month.  I met the Program Chair Chef Michael Carmel through my own culinary institution’s instructors and this paved the way for my participation in their fantastic event. 

Each patron pays $250 per plate for dinner, dancing and an auction of the area’s best goods and services, in addition, items auctioned off include gourmet dinners prepared by Trident’s chef instructors.  Our group of students assembled in the catering kitchen as was responsible for the two courses of bouillabaisse and lamb chops over farrow topped with lamb Au jus.

These folks really know their stuff when it comes to assembly line plating.  We were able to get out 600 plates in about 15-20 minutes tops.  I was impressed with their organizational skills and managerial aptitude.  This place is a first rate culinary institution and was able to make some nice contacts and enjoy great conversation and camaraderie. 

(Folly and Isle of Palms Beaches)
There is a lot more to Charleston that meets the eye.  You have to inquire, research and want to learn and know more about what a city has to offer before you can discover the hidden jewels.  Well, Folly beach and Isle of Palms beach aren’t exactly hidden jewels but I, nonetheless, discovered them and was thrilled to have done so.  I can see myself becoming a fixture at Folly as it is closer and more to my style as it is more of a commoner’s beach.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Isle of Palms but it’s a longer drive and more upscale with yachts everywhere!

Isle of Palms Beach

The pier at Isle of Palms Beach

I like Folly for its kitschy beachcombers’ attitude.  Families come here for volleyball, swimming, shelling and a plain old-fashioned good time.  Access to the beach is also more appealing as the Isle of Palms has row after row of condos and townhouses lining the road parallel to the beach limiting pathways just a little bit.  Regardless both beaches are expansive (kind of reminds me of pictures I’ve seen showing California beaches) and wide.  They both have piers with shops and eateries that satisfy the hungriest of appetites and also the fair amount of souvenir stands to catch the eye of the tourists.  I guess it comes down to location because any beach is a welcome addition to the end of a stressful week.

Isle of Palms Beach

Folly Beach

Lifeguards at Folly

Great way to read a book
(Stingrays Hockey)
I had an inkling to get a read on the local flavor by attending a Charleston Stingrays game.  The Stingrays are the minor league affiliate of the Washington Capitals NHL team.  You can really understand an area by the way they embrace their sports franchises.  Unfortunately for Charleston, the size of this idyllic town is a wee bit too small for any major league teams to be playing here and their size is a bellwether for interest and support of their community.

Turns out that Charlestonians are nuts for hockey!  As of this writing they are 24-17-1-1- which is pretty good.  On the night that I was in attendance they were playing the Florida Everblades and they won by a score of 3 – 1.  The fans were pretty rabid and in fact I had screaming in stereo as there was a “gentleman” (and I use that term loosely) directly behind me that couldn’t let any hint of controversial officiating slide by.  He found it necessary to harass the referee’s at all costs even at the expense of his girlfriend’s embarrassment.  She couldn’t stand it any longer and ended their relationship in front of a packed crowd with extreme prejudice.  This guy is such a knucklehead that he didn’t follow her into the concourse until after he made his point to the indifferent officials.  Upon returning he lamented to his friend that “I guess it wasn’t meant to be” to which his friend replied “you’re a first rate idiot”.  Oh well, I guess this guy has his priorities a bit mixed up as I noticed that his newly ex-girlfriend was extremely attractive and seemingly graceful and articulate.  But you know, God loves an idiot!

(Watching Chef Deihl)
Anyone who wants to really learn will first watch and listen.  They say that being a good listener is the key to learning any subject matter in an effective way.  Watching Chef Deihl make sausage and fabricate meat is like seeing a man give birth to something astonishing.  Chef Deihl doesn’t just make food….he lovingly cares for it, he nurtures its beginnings and does everything he can to understand the effect it will have on his customers as well as how to be able to fabricate it in an efficient and respectful and presentable way.

Trussing steaks

Sharing a laugh

Painstakingly measuring each foot-long hot dog

For instance, when I first was given the opportunity to fabricate beef tenderloins with him in the upstairs kitchen (his culinary domicile), he explained to me the importance of the grain in which to run my knife when separating silver-skin from flesh.  Most folks think that grains in protein are the striations or fibers found in the muscle and you would be correct but Craig Deihl takes everything at least one step further.  He taught me that when you run your finger along the surface of the loin that it is smoother going in one direction and coarser/rougher going in the opposite.  He exclaimed that if you move your knife “with” the direction in which it is smoother, then you won’t have to struggle with your knife and the end result is much more presentable.  Whereas if you remove the silver-skin in the other/rough direction; it will look as if you “happy-whacked” the meat making it look like a badger got a hold of it first.  It’s no small wonder that Chef is getting such notoriety in Charleston and nationally as well.  Just the other day Chef came to me showing that Chef Marcus Samuelsson was endorsing Craig via twitter.  It’s the little things that make a difference like the grain of protein – the ones that most don’t know about.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

GoSparky!: Externship II

GoSparky!: Externship II: SPARKY’S BLOG 1-26-12 EXTERNSHIP II (Cadence of the Kitchen) – There is a certain rhythm to any kitchen whether it is a production kitch...

Externship II


(Cadence of the Kitchen) –
There is a certain rhythm to any kitchen whether it is a production kitchen, a church kitchen, a baking kitchen or a kitchen like the one I work in at Cypress restaurant in Charleston, SC.

The days I come in during the morning at 8:00am see a crescendo effect take place throughout the day.  It’s like a suspense novel with the eventual build to a climactic event except the climax in a kitchen is when everyone is present and working at full capacity.   My days usually begin with someone reminding me that I have to bring in the garbage cans for prepping scraps and I then start my tasks in earnest.  Speaking of earnest, I usually am always paired with John the second sous chef at Cypress.  John is built for speed and efficiency, his physique is sleek and extremely fit. He, seemingly, never tires and is always there to lend me a helping hand for instruction, he reminds me of a cheetah.

John appears hell-bent on performing all manners of work as quickly and thoroughly as possible.  This is a man that I will take my production cues from and I will endeavor to do my best to emulate his very particular style.  Yes, my mornings with John are turning out to be very fruitful ones immersed in the methodology of speed and precision….I have and will continue to learn a great deal from sous chef John Pabst.

I'm mincing beef for a nightly menu special of tartare

Upon my first task whether it be rolling salmon Wellington’s or layering potato gratins or butchering and fabricating beef  loins; I find myself listening to the ultimate white noise and that’s the buzz of nothing other than the pithy sounds of a knife on a cutting board.  One by one the staff rolls in at differing times…first the baking girls then Bob the evening sous chef then the upper hierarchy of the line chefs/cooks then the wait-staff and the rest of the cooks until the restaurant explodes with tingling glasses, pans caressing the stoves, wood being slid into an oven, the snap of towels being whipped prior to folding, tongs clanging like a crab snapping at its dinner and the most significant noise heard of all is the hectic and fierce foot traffic of all involved.

To a food service employee, these sounds are like a symphony ringing true in your ear.  The culmination is like music that should bring a smile to ones face as you are smack-dab in the middle of the cadence of the kitchen.

(Chef’s Creation) -
Craig Deihl is also a very particular man as I would hope all successful chefs to be.  One day he came in and was in a very fortuitous mood; he was upbeat but casual at the same time and I wouldn’t see him but sparingly for the next 2-3 hours.  The times I would see him would involve him walking by mumbling under his breath or whisking by shoving a piece of meat into my mouth resulting in a very favorable and tasty treat.  I don’t trust just anybody to shove any morsel of food into my mouth but Chef Deihl has earned my complete faith as I’m never disappointed when surprised by the opportunity to eat his food.

Chef Deihl sharpening one of his many knives

What was he up to?  What’s going on in his corner of the kitchen?  He’s not making much noise and I’m not sure what to make of this enigmatic occurrence.  I walked by out of curiosity and I needed to put something into the steamer and noticed small obelisk-like cuts of “mystery meat”.  This stuff looked like smooth meatloaf and I saw scraps surrounding the plate and snagged one for a taste and discovered a delightful pork product laced with flavor but what was this going to be?  

 I saw Chef dart to and fro over the next hour and observed him peripherally brood over what looked like dark and Cimmerian thoughts.  I eventually lost interest and turned back to my job of preparing kimchee when suddenly Chef appeared with a dish of a chicken thigh/leg Frenched tilted upon the obelisk of pork sitting atop what looked like a pilaf/potato mixture.  Whatever it was looked artfully constructed and extremely delicious and my mouth was beginning to water as I hadn’t eaten much that day.  Chef’s Bob and Craig scurried off talking and giggling like school kids doting over this newest creation and I pulled out a protein bar and had a late lunch.

Grilled Mountain Trout

Braised Short Ribs
(Working the Line) –
Upon this second week at Cypress, I was put on the schedule to work the cold line and was elated because it would be different in every regard.  First, I would be working nights and plating food for the customers working along-side other “like-minded” individuals; this is the next step of my training.  I would be told by Frank the shift leader that I need to master at least two dishes that night to get some confidence at that station.  Not knowing what to expect, I tried to learn as much as I could and just got confused and harkened back on what Frank said and kept to his teachings.

My second night was much of the same except that I had more confidence and expected to learn more than just two dishes.  I persevered through the “Starter” menu with the initial clumsy production and then overcame it all in a matter of minutes.  Nonetheless, this station is a very important one as this is the first impression of food that is thrust upon the customer.  We’re responsible for such items as: Sashimi Tuna and Oysters (yes, we open oysters manually on-the-spot), Tuna tartare, Charcuterie plates, Beef Spring rolls, flat-bread pizzas and more.  I’m really enjoying this new responsibility as I get to watch the patrons enjoy Chef Deihl’s creations. 

Cypress has two kitchens one in the back (preparation) and the other is the production line with garde manger (cold), grill, sauté, fry and pastry lines all adjacent to expo.  This front kitchen is in full view of the clientele and adds to the electricity of the evening as they can see us and we can see them.  I love the interaction between those being served and those of us doing the serving.  This is why I am involved in culinary as I can’t think of anything better than satisfying a patron with delicious food.

(My Young Cohorts) –
In addition to my learning a new station, I have the wonderful opportunity to learn new people as well.  Meet Christine and Ian my trainers for the garde manger (cold) area.  My first day was spent with Christine, she is a tiny little thing but beware of small things that come in small packages.  She ran circles around me like a water bug scooting across the water as though her life depended on reaching the other side at break-neck speed.  Her words of encouragement and training style were very comforting and helpful.  I truly enjoyed working with her and look forward to doing so again.


My next young cohort is Ian who’s about two or three years older than Christine and 180° her opposite.  He strikes me as a calm, cool and collected young man with confidence.  He went about his business with candor and focus.  He was stern in his teachings leaving no room for doubt regarding his subject matter…..I really like this as it makes me understand exactly where I stand and to what degree I’m progressing.  Ian is a bit of a go-getter as he’s a full time culinary student and holds down two jobs.  Crazy, crazy, crazy….but that’s youth for ya, he kinda reminds me of maybe how a young James Bond might have been.

(A New Mentor) -
This second week that I was enjoying is in the middle of what’s called “Restaurant Week” in Charleston.  This city is blanketed in the tourism industry and lives and breathes by sheer numbers of butts being in the seats.  However, when the weather turns a cold shoulder during the winter months is when those numbers begin to drop so Charleston developed a way to bridge the gap by drawing folks to area eatery’s with an all encompassing menu (prix fix) at reduced  rates ranging from $20-$40.  It’s a big hit but only for the 10 days of “Restaurant Week”.

Frank as I mentioned earlier is the shift leader on the night crew.  He is a graduate of the Art Institute’s culinary school nearby and fastly becoming my mentor.  He has taken me under his wing so-to-speak as his advice to me is very sound and given in a warm and welcoming way.  I think that we both being so close in age makes a big difference.  His first sage suggestion of learning two dishes was brilliant as he knew I wouldn’t be over-burdened on my first night and once mastered; I’d have some new-found confidence to carry me over into the next night.

Frank approaching the line

Every time we’re together on the same shift we find one another with a friendly greeting and thus the learning begins.  He always asks me; “want to learn something today?”  My response is an enthusiastic “Absolutely!”  Some folks just have “it” when it comes to interpersonal skills and interaction among our fellow colleagues.  Frank definitely has “it” when it comes to me and I look forward to his teachings any time and any way I can.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

GoSparky!: Externship

GoSparky!: Externship: SPARKY’S BLOG 1-19-12 EXTERNSHIP I’m pretty excited to be writing this blog as I’m barreling down the highway towards Louisville, KY. I...


I’m pretty excited to be writing this blog as I’m barreling down the highway towards Louisville, KY.  I used to live there and I hear they have since garnered enough importance to attract a Hard Rock Cafe®.  I collect their classic t-shirts from cities I’ve visited or have lived in around the world and within the United States.  After this brief sojourn, I will be heading to my final destination which is Charleston, SC for a culinary externship.

Now that I have my t-shirt in tow, I’m headed straight towards my destination and the excitement is palpable within the confines of my little Jeep.  I’m not one to engage in vocal congress as I’m not able to carry a tune in a bucket but I was singing my heart out to R.E.S.P.E.C.T. by Aretha Franklin on the radio with ardent fervor. 

I’m about to start my real education; I’m not suggesting that the time spent in Ivy Tech’s class rooms and kitchens in Indianapolis was a waste of my time but let’s face it….there’s a reason they call it the real world.  To veteran and skilled chefs, I’m a complete novice even though I’ll be a culinary school graduate soon.  The difference with me is that I have age and wisdom on my side and have a certain expectation of the trenches that I must endure before I even get a hint or smell of what I signed on for and that is to cook for people and relish in their enjoyment of a wonderfully cooked meal.

I have the fantastic privilege of externing under Chef Craig Deihl & Co. at Cypress restaurant in Charleston, SC.  In the culinary world an externship is actually an internship with a few letters rearranged, not sure why but that’s the way it is.  He’s an incredibly gifted chef with the persona of a loving husband and father.  Some of the first words that came out of his mouth were in regards to his wife and daughter.  This gave me keen insight to the type of man that I would be working for over the next 3 months.

My first day was almost exactly how I thought it would be with the obligatory paperwork that made me feel like I was buying a house all over again.  I was then swiftly scurried off to the kitchen where I delved into a task oriented atmosphere with one chore after another.  Somehow I really enjoyed peeling and chopping parsnips, onions and carrots.  Next up was portioning out bread dough for hamburger buns and then cryo-vacking (vacuum packaging) chef’s homemade mortadella.  

One of my many work stations

Meanwhile, my next task was still brewing in the corner of the kitchen and I would get my first insight as to why Craig Deihl is an extraordinary chef.  Demi-glace is a stock/broth/brown sauce mixture that has been carefully and patiently reduced down to concentrate the flavors.  This process must be a passion bordering on having a love affair with food due to its arduous process.  This concoction is rich and unctuous and can make cardboard taste good.  Chef Deihl has figured out how to make this process a bit less laborious and onerous as he cuts the time (saving money) of the reduction (saving product) by incorporating very cheap beef Achilles into the mixture.

There are two things that I can see Chef Deihl being very concerned with and that is the quality of his food (first and foremost) and the efficiency with which it is prepared.  Now I’m not talking about just doing things faster but rather doing them smarter and by using the Achilles of beef….the collagen in these tendons helps to thicken the demi-glace using less time and saving all that sauce that normally evaporates into the air during the reduction process and this all saves a lot of money.

Bob and John stuffing the casings for Bratwurst

Yes, the crew at Cypress restaurant here in Charleston, South Carolina are not only innovative but highly competent businessmen and women, a very savvy group indeed.  The techniques and level of cooking being performed in Chef Deihl’s kitchen is a cornucopia of “thinking outside of the box” and I’m the recipient of such wonderful and newfangled knowledge.

Chef Deihl being interviewed by one of many interested media organizations

Saving and using every bit of a product is essential to the everyday happenings at Cypress.  One example is the beef fat that is normally lost or thrown away by most establishments.  Here it is rendered and used as a 50/50 mixture with butter and finely chopped herbs and garlic.  This mixture is then whipped using a whisk fixture on a large mixer to incorporate air and impart a “lighter” texture that spreads very well and yields an airy texture in your mouth that better captures the flavor profile that is intended for a true fine dining experience.  This spread is used in a myriad of ways in the kitchen ensuring a short shelf-life.

Another passion of chef’s zeal for protein is that of the charcuterie arts - primarily that of sausages, cured meats and delicacies such as the most wonderful beef tartare I’ve ever eaten.  Cypress has a meat locker on the second floor that is a climate controlled (temp, humidity and circulation) wonderment of all things protein.  This is where items are kept for one week or one year or even more depending on the needs of what’s being cured at that time.  Yes, time is often spoken of in derogatory terms but to the skilled charcuterist, it is his friend and results in buttery, creamy flavors and textures that you would never think a slice of meat could ever realize.

Finished Bratwurst sausages ready for the smoker

There are many components to the kitchen and this kitchen is no exception.  You’ve heard the expression that “no man is an island” this holds true at Cypress as Chef Deihl has surrounded himself with accomplished chefs alike….meet Bob Cook or as he calls himself on his facebook page “Fermentologist at Cypress”.  This man can make a mean pickle!!  I’m not a fan of the sweet pickle but Chef Bob has an uncanny way to bring out every flavor that is put into his brine and some of these flavors explode in your mouth upon the very first bite and others slowly culminate on the back of the tongue providing you with an extremely satisfying and delicious experience that triggers the sweet, salty & sour palate of the taste buds.

He’s not limited to just the preservation of cucumbers either as he also makes sauerkraut, brined garnishes of all kinds and even has a batch of fish sauce fermenting on the roof of the restaurant.  I really like Chef Bob as he takes the time to patiently explain a new or faster way for me to do things….things that I’ve never seen in culinary school.  I’m learning from a very diverse group of highly proficient professional chefs who are consummate culinarians in international flavor profiles as well as styles, technique and methods.  I’m fortunate to be interning at such a place with great people.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)