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Sunday, December 29, 2013

GoSparky!: Learning to be a professional cook (1st in a serie...

GoSparky!: Learning to be a professional cook (1st in a serie...: SPARKY’S BLOG 1-30-11 Learning to be a professional cook (1 st in a series) Banquet Food! When I ...

Learning to be a professional cook (1st in a series)


Learning to be a professional cook (1st in a series)

Banquet Food!

When I first made the decision of switching from being an engineer to becoming a cook or even a chef; my breath became short and my palms grew sweaty.  I don’t know why but this decision immediately haunted me as I sat on the couch in what was to be the last few months in my home.  It was 2009 and I had lost my job with no hope in sight and needed a rope or sturdy branch to pull myself from a quagmire of self-doubt regarding my current employment situation.

Teaching painting techniques in China
I asked myself, why all the fuss?  Why do I have my britches in a bunch?  I’m nervous that’s why!  I’m embarking on a very different path that I’ve never traveled before.  Sure I’ve cooked for folks before, hell I’ve been cooking since I was 12 years old.  This HAS to be the right decision.  I hope so, I really do…

There comes a point in everyone’s life when they need to kick-start their lives and fight to make a difference for a passion or desire that lies within their psyche or sub-conscious.  For me it was three things that I love doing which are writing, cooking and taking pictures (not in that order).  I began a process in my head of prioritization and found that cooking gave me the most satisfaction and thus began my culinary career.

I found a government program that would assist me with my studies (I graduated with honors) and embarked on my new profession.  My first job out of college was at the Omni Hotel in downtown Indianapolis as a lowly banquet cook and I loved it!

"Meat Fabrication" class at Ivy Tech.
The Omni Severin Hotel in Indianapolis is resplendent with ornate crown moldings on the walls and ceiling as well as marble flooring in the lobby and a heaping pile of elegance throughout the entire building.  What do you think the first lesson I learned as a cook at the Omni?  I’ll give you a hint ….. it wasn't about cooking.  The word hospitality gets thrown around a lot at the Omni because it’s the business they are in.  If an inn-keeper doesn't treat his or her guests in a hospitable manner then they aren't going to have any return business.

I was extremely impressed with the professionalism of the staff and the “polished” mannerisms, approach and communication that each employee seemingly possesses with ease.  This same theme spilled over into the kitchen albeit more chaotic.  I learned that the kitchen in any hotel is the source of immense pride or great shame.  A kitchen is a pinch point for an operation that sees more moving parts and processes that can run afoul….sanitation, management, organization, recipes, team-building, safety, cooking, taste, etc……etc.

My new "Professional" friends at the Omni - Amy and Janice (pregnant)
The second thing I learned is to be humble and keep your mouth shut and do whatever the chef tells you period!  They don’t want a better idea or for you to extol them with stories of how your grandmother did the dish differently no they just want you to do it and do it fast.  Luckily, I was much further along in my behavioral development and watched with amazement as younger cooks exasperated chefs on an almost regular basis.

Next up, I needed to understand the fine art of having a banquet come together at just the precise time.  Cooking, among other things, is all about timing and prepping. Plating a banquet is a daunting task for even the most skilled chefs.  I remember prepping and counting seven pieces of asparagus per person a couple of days prior for a wedding of 250 with about 2% extra.  When the plating began nearing the end; it was clear that I wasn't going to have enough pieces for the event (I had made a monumental mistake and miscounted).  Luckily, we had more and steaming them is very fast.

What went wrong?  I didn't handle all the distractions properly as they came at me while I was counting. I was always losing my place in the count when someone talked to me or asked me a question and I was starting to “eye-ball” the process thinking I would have enough for the wedding and of course I did not. 

Joe (Purchasing Mgr.) and Vinny (Executive Chef) part of the distractions!
One of the things you have to overcome or learn first in the kitchen is how to deal with distractions and do it with aplomb, grace and skill.  I mention skill because you need to be engaged in everything as a chef/manager and effectively understand everyone’s needs because it’s probably important.  Doing this skillfully requires a ton of experience and patience.  Pulling it off so that feathers aren’t ruffled and an event goes off without a hitch is masterful.

As time passed, I gradually learned how to get the infrastructure together the day of a banquet before I did any cooking.  It was explained to me that “If you cook your food perfectly and it tastes great but there’s no place to put it; then you've failed”.  Many hours before an event we are scrambling to get hot boxes, event sheets, serving pans or dishes and anything else the “food” needs before we start cooking.

Equipment ....

.... Equipment ....

.... and more Equipment.

Once everything is in place then the ovens and stoves start seeing a flurry of activity with cooks and chefs buzzing around like water bugs twitching atop a puddle. It almost resembles an
un-choreographed ballet as the pieces of the dance deftly avoid one another spinning and side-stepping one another as if each foot placement was thought out days or even weeks before.

I enjoy the cacophony of a kitchen as the noisy melodiousness strikes a chord with each member learning their place on the line.  Hearing screams of “BEHIND” or “CORNER” or “HOT” and “COMING THROUGH” is essential to any safe kitchen and more importantly one that successfully communicates a process to a fruitful end.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Seattle, WA

This blog is the fourth and long overdue final entry of my trip to the Pacific Northwest this past summer.  Anyone who follows me knows of my fascination with this far flung corner of our United States and all it has to offer (I was lucky to do extensive research during one of my culinary classes). 

Mt. Rainier
I’m not a sidelines kind of guy but one who embraces change through activity.  In Michigan (where I grew up) and Indiana (where I now reside); it is difficult to go rock climbing or scale a mountain without driving for hours.  It is also very difficult to kite-board the Puget Sound or Columbia River Gorge.  Equally difficult it is to find world class skiing or surfing in the Pacific Ocean abundantly available in Portland or Seattle.

You see, when I have a day off I’m going to immerse myself in vigorous activities that are associated with the outdoors (my favorite landscape to living life).  I want to photograph orcas in the San Juan Islands or sea otter’s in the Columbia River.  Maybe I’ll even find Sasquatch in a nearby forest?  Regardless of what adventure I choose to soothe my lust for adventure; the possibilities are wide and varied in the Emerald City and surrounding areas.
Seattle, WA

Space Needle view
Driving past Mt. St. Helen's and Mt. Rainier are fantastic reminders of how small we are in this gigantic world of ours.  They are also reminders of how fragile that world is and how we need to enjoy it while it lasts not-to-mention ensuring the longevity of our outdoor playgrounds by being guardians of nature.

The first time I saw Puget Sound for the first time; I got a little dizzy because I had no idea it was so immense.  You see maps in books and encyclopedias but they don’t make you understand the enormity or sheer size of this macro-system of life.  I can only imagine kayaking this expanse for a few days with only a backpack and a camera and no real agenda but loving nature and really appreciating what we have. 

Because what we have is really kind of special since living in and around Puget Sound is like living in a National Geographic documentary.  I’ve decided I want to live in a National Geographic documentary because I never tire of wildlife or exploration.  I never tire of training my body to do new things whether its improved knife skills or wind-surfing in the ocean.  I never tire of learning about how we can improve our surroundings so that we may become more sustainable with our food chain and that is what Seattle is all about. 

Pike Place market

Pike Place Market

The sustainable movement here in this city is very exciting and somewhat young (we've only been talking about it main-stream about 10-15 years now).  The chefs in this town are downright giddy over the agricultural offerings this region offers.  There’s not much in this town that isn't offered by Mother Nature and area stewards understand the symbiotic needs of co-existence when it comes to feeding our families and friends.

Home of the Mariner's and Seahawk's
We must absolutely replace what we take from the land and I believe the indigenous peoples of this area made a very strong case to the settlers that traveled here because it resonated in their culture and belief system; a belief system that was rooted in a mutually beneficial cooperative that benefited both nature and man.  This cooperative was basically survival through sustainability and I’m fascinated by it.

Space Needle

The Sailor Sisters Trio!

If you ever get to this area eat the food and savor nature like never before.  Drink the beer and taste the wheat and barley fields.  By all means sample the wine and smell the aromas of soil, grapes, citrus and spice.  The melting pot population gives way to a fusion of culinary traditions that are sure to intoxicate your taste buds.

Puget Sound
Make sure you get on the water and into the woods to truly understand this area.  When you've finished go to the space needle and ascend with an open mind to the top and look out onto Seattle and consider yourself lucky to have been there.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

GoSparky!: A chef's photo collage of Portland, OR

GoSparky!: A chef's photo collage of Portland, OR: Portland, Oregon (A photo collage) The world famous International Rose Gardens A testament to the love and care taken The ga...

A chef's photo collage of Portland, OR

Portland, Oregon (A photo collage)

The world famous International Rose Gardens

A testament to the love and care taken

The garden is an artist colony

An irresistible subject

A contemplative moment at the garden

A view of Portland from the Rose Gardens

Columbia River Gorge

Lookout point on the Gorge

A wall of water (rain) is headed our way

Fun in the Gorge

Wahkeena Falls

An eerie look at the Gorge

Multnomah Falls

The famous bridge at Multnomah Falls

A look below Multnomah Falls

High above the bluffs of the Columbia River Gorge

Horse Tail Falls

St. Honore' Bakery

Bustling activity at St. Honore' Bakery

Breakfast at St. Honore' Bakery

A city of bridges indeed!

Most streets lined with greenery!

The famous Portland Theater

A duck in a tree?

A perfectly framed portrait

An unbelievably beautiful city park


An idyllic picnic overlooking the city of Portland ..... 

....... complete with salad ni├žoise

Gabriel Rucker's place

New friends!

This is what I came for!

Ever see a hamburger like this?

Sublime pork shoulder slowly braised to perfection

"light as clouds" ravioli


Just enough economic development

Bridges everywhere!

The Portland tram emerging from the city below

A gateway to the Pacific Ocean

Portland sunset

Which movie is this from?

An icon of the city

Huge river-side (Willamette) parks make this city VERY livable

Having a boat in Portland is almost essential
Have a great day and never give up!

Mark D. Claussen