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Sunday, December 29, 2013

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)

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