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Thursday, June 12, 2014


SPARKY’S BLOG
11-20-2012

Albi, France


4 castles of the Cathar Chateaux of Lastours
Shortly thereafter our thoughts turn to food and we’re off to lunch at the restaurant Puits du tresor at the foot of the 4 castles of the Cathar Chateaux of Lastours.  The Cathar are a very, very religious sect of folks that went to extremes to protect their way of living and thinking which is somewhat akin to the Amish of the United States but not quite.

The back-side of the 4 castles
The Cathar built fortresses to keep the govt. forces out and had philosophies rooted in harsh ideals resembling that of upstart militia groups dotted around America but not quite.  The Cathar felt that they were the purists of the time and they probably were.  Unspoiled, pure and of sound mind, body and spirit the Cathar people were slowly persecuted and eventually cornered into these 4 castles where they eventually died from starvation and in some cases murdered by their own to keep from being taken by govt. forces which would, of course, taint their legacy.  Just a crazy-cool story.

The front-side of the 4 castles

Much of the castles infrastructure has deteriorated over centuries



We were once again spoiled by France as she gave us more culinary delights starting off with lobster bisque that walked a tightrope of salty, fishy balance and danced on your tongue instead of assaulting your taste buds.  The bread that always shows up magically unannounced is hearty and robust without need for butter to disguise its flavor giving credence to France’s skill as master Boulanger’s (bread makers). 

I was quite content with just the early courses but was very satisfied with the resulting fodder and cuisine that ensued.  Having mashed potatoes and steak covered with mushroom gravy is about as American as one can get but here in Lastours, France the flavor profile smacked of deep burgundy wine, pepper, thyme and buttery excellence.  I’ve never had meat and potatoes like this and will try to duplicate this when I get back home….yummy!

A special dinner
On to Albi, France and dinner at the L’Epicurean restaurant run by Swedish chef Rikard.  The reason why this is a special dinner is because we are to meet chef Mark Buhlman who was on a similar trip last year and was so enamored with France and Albi as well as this particular restaurant that he solicited chef Rikard to come back for an entire year as an apprentice.  Mark was a student just like us and he hailed from the Ft. Wayne campus so he was no stranger to half of our group.  It was a thrill to hear him speak to the group about his transformation from young American kid to a French savvy man who has become a full-fledged chef in the land that invented the profession. 

I was quite taken with his story and the vacant slot that he was about to create that I quickly jumped at the opportunity to fill his shoes and my enthusiasm was met with acceptance from all involved.  I’m extremely excited to be coming back to Albi, France for a year to be tutored in the fine art of French culinary techniques and methods from a man who is as accomplished as chef Rikard.  These types of opportunities are very, very few and far in between.  I’m very lucky to have a situation where I’m unencumbered by the traditional strings and attachments normally associated with a man of my age.  Now, on the other hand – I do wish to have a wife and family someday as well as the American dream of having that white-picket fenced in yard and home but due to the economic downturn of the last few years…..all that has been taken away from me granting me this wonderful and fortuitous endeavor.  You gotta look on the bright side right?

Okay, now onto the dinner.  After we heard how Mark’s experience has transformed him we sat down to an elegant and “other-worldly” meal!  Our first course was a white truffle (yes, truffles!) salad with a base of baby greens (tasted so fresh!) then gruyere cheese and finally topped with the white delicacies themselves - Truly an inspired dish that made my mouth water for more.

Next we would be introduced to sliced scallops on top of fresh pea’s sautéed in a cream/garlic sauce that was foamed just before serving.  This stuff was STUPID good!!  It’s stupid how good this course was.  It was without a doubt my favorite offering thus far.  I’m good, I’m done I don’t need anything else as I’m fully sated.  But of course there would be more and I’m not going to keep ranting on and on about the food much more as I’m starting to salivate and yearn for more of it….suffice it to say that we finished off with a type of cheesy/sugary torte with pineapple ravioli.  I don’t know how he came up with pineapple ravioli but it was a stroke of genius and something that I will never forget.  The torte was light, airy and esthetically beautiful all the while being absolutely delicious!

The incident
After the dinner, we all had a bit of time on our hands as we started our evening early so most of the group decided to have a couple of cocktails and beers at a pub a couple of doors down.  This is where the initial, serious bonding between all three schools took place.  This may have been my favorite moment of the trip where we became more of familial group instead of separate factions like before.  Yes it helped that the booze was flowing a bit but I noticed that most students were being serious about practicing proper decorum as we were ambassadors of our country and also school.  Besides, we all signed a contract outlining the behavior expected of us and overdoing the alcohol intake was firmly stated among the rhetoric as an activity NOT TO DO!

The time came to think about heading back to our hotel rooms for a good night’s sleep as we have a full schedule of activities ahead of us the next day.  Just as we passed by L’Epicurean Restaurant; we noticed that chef Rikard and Mark Buhlman were entertaining some of the other students having sort of an after-party if you will.  We were summoned inside for additional drinks and charcuterie enticements.  Chef Rikard was slicing off Iberico Ham (Spanish ham that costs $900 a pound) and feeding it to us as if there was no consequence.  Talk about hospitality!  I’ve never been treated like a king like this. On this night we were all treated like royalty and in this moment, I almost cried.  I’m not used to such generosity and may never receive such treatment again so I savored it and relished in this flash of giving for it will all be over before we know it and soon will be a cherished memory.

Unfortunately, while we were bonding and engaging in light-hearted frivolity one of us was walking down a path of darkness and ugliness.  Aaron my roommate is a very serious diabetic and isn’t used to nights of liquor and heightened partying.  He more or less drank so much that he became embalmed and his thoughts turned to that of a mischievous child with the emphasis on “child”.  The majority of the group took the high road and sauntered off to sleep but Aaron took part in a repulsive and sickening act.  Turns out that he was goaded into taking off his clothes (yes, completely naked) and jumping into a nearby fountain forsaking all rational thought and disrespecting himself, the group, Ivy Tech and stomping all over his role in representing good upstanding Americans traveling abroad in a foreign land.

Just because you are dared or double-dared into doing a sordid and nauseating act of stupidity doesn’t mean you actually do it!  I was horrified and sickened by the news and even more so by the photographic evidence supplied by one of the students unlucky enough to witness such disgusting behavior.  There are laws against this in the United States and there are laws against this in France.  This begs the question: “Why did he do this?”  After all, Aaron is a professor of law back home in Indiana.  He should have known better!

I saw the look on the faces of Chef Bricker and Michel Bouit as they gazed unapprovingly at the pictures proving his guilt - very sad and completely inexcusable.  Aaron was so trashed that he was physically unable to accompany the group the next day on our outing of the market exploration, cathedral touring and boating the Tarn River supplying us with visual grandeur that we will never forget. 
One of the students asked Michel Bouit if a person ever missed an activity until this day and Michel sadly replied “no, never” in a very dejected tone of voice.  I became instantly sad for him and Aaron was immediately given the mantel of pariah.  Later in the trip he would cement this designation even further but that’s later.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Opposite of Ominous –

SPARKY’S BLOG
6-8-14

The Opposite of Ominous –

I have been on a journey for a good 6 or 7 years now beginning with some dissatisfaction in my previous engineering gig leading to my new life as a sous chef here in Yellowstone National Park.  Little did I know that this trek would lead to auspicious surroundings led by two great bosses (Thanks Kat and Chef Tony!) that I adore and a job that can only be summed up as “perfect” for me at this time.  Besides, I’m doing it among some of our country’s most diverse wildlife.

Yellowstone Moose
The ominous feelings of dark unfamiliarity that shrouds one’s thoughts and lead to fear is a gripping roadblock to a lot of folk’s dreams and can hold them down.  If, however, you feel you have no choice but to make a change then this fear becomes strength and I have found that strength for my life-change transitioning into the world of culinary.

Blue Heron 
My strength has been bolstered by the nurturing environment in which Xanterra (my new company) fosters their employees.  I’m living a dream wrapped in a blanket of wraith for clarity and charm for beauty.  I’ve been searching for an organization that prepares their people for what lies ahead in their everyday jobs and I’ve found it with Xanterra.  The training that we go through before we even hit the floor running is quite remarkable.  We learn stuff like: operational standards, food costs/costing, respect in the work place, management expectations, ecological impacts, professional conduct and food safety just to name a few.

A grizzly protective of a carcass sitting on it in a river (I shot this with Chef Tony)
I’m smitten with the professionalism with which they conduct their business.  Of course there are problems we managers incur through everyday business like tardiness, call-in’s, employee squabbles and also inexperience just to name a few.  Xanterra’s policies and training help greatly in this regard and for that I’m profoundly grateful to them for taking the time and exerting the energy that is required for their extensive training program.

The "Ominous" look of fear - MINE!
I now know the frustration I’ve seen on my chefs faces when I interned a few years ago.  Every time I stepped up to ask a question or observed other cooks doing likewise; they projected exasperation before the question was even asked.  My employees, seemingly, are always asking questions left and right.  I have cooks coming up to me while I’m cooking on the line running around furiously to get food out on time as well as hot and fresh asking me where the mayonnaise is.

MY FIRST HARD LESSON – EMPLOYEE RELATIONS

I love helping folks and training and mentoring/coaching the new cooks; it gives me great pleasure!  The cooks see my delight in helping them and this lends itself to a tsunami of questions. I do, however, wonder if they understand what a busy chef looks like and that, perhaps, they may wait to ask their question or even figure it out on their own?

New antlers are a fresh beginning like my time here in YNP!
Alas, this is the next chapter in training myself to cope with these frequent interruptions and also to empower my cook’s to think for themselves.  We covered stuff like this in our manager’s training and I’m progressing at a pace that I’m satisfied with in motivating and entrusting/delegating our employees.  I relish this job!

This osprey looks over it's realm like we do in the kitchen
I’m a high-energy guy with a positive and professional attitude.  I’ve learned that some can misinterpret this “brand” of management style to be that of a friend; I squash those notions straight-away.  I’m friendly but by no means am I a friend first and supervisor second during working hours.  A boundary that should never be crossed in the kitchen is that of the line of demarcation between employee and chef.  Perhaps the more difficult task a chef has is teaching this to her or his cooks.

"Old Faithful" showing consistency as our food should be to the guest
These are the little things aside from cooking that chefs go through in managing a kitchen.  We must never lose control of the flow and organizational flux while equally making sure the food is safe, appealing and delicious.  I couldn't be happier learning the ins and outs of the life as a sous chef and will savor the empiricism of honing my skills with this wonderful company.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

SPARKY’S BLOG
4-23-14

If I told you that you were going to make a trip that took 3 days in a car lasting an average of 9 hours per day; would you rejoice?  Would you be happy?  Would you relish in the fact that you’d be cramped in a small area with your butt aching/cramping and your back stiffening up?  Most folks would pass on a trip like that except if you were embarking on a potentially life altering sojourn understanding this trip would change you forever.  You may alter your thinking if you were heading to a legendary national park with a new job in hand.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse


I’m not even 3 weeks into my new adventure and I have changed.  I’ve always been a “stop and smell the roses” kinda guy.  I’m a slow walker, slow eater and fast appreciator of nature’s bounty because I like to savor the splendid experience called “life”.  My ex brother-in-law would scarf down his food reducing the experience of eating as just a necessary thing to live.  My view-point is that "Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul." Dorothy Day said this as she worked to eradicate hunger for the poor in the 1930’s and 1040’s.

Mt. Rushmore (Keystone, SD)

Mt. Rushmore (Keystone, SD)
My point is that I would climb over jagged glass to experience the epiphany that awaits visitors to a place like Yellowstone National Park.  My trip did involve 3 days of driving across our great nation but I didn’t suffer as I saw the trek as a mere jaunt that exposed me to the tremendous wind turbines in Indiana, vast corn fields in Illinois, seeing bald eagles soar over the Mississippi River, enjoying the skyline of Peoria, IL, amazed at the sheer numbers of cattle in South Dakota, gazing on the antelope in Wyoming and, unfortunately, killing a kestrel (small falcon) as it slammed into my windshield while I was going 70 mph.  My jeep is now sporting a nice-sized crack for me to view through as a reminder of the drive.

Devil's Tower - Wyoming
In my case, the journey IS the experience but so is the destination.  I’m in my 50’s and recognize my mortality more than most folks my age.  I fully intend to take full advantage of what was given to me with this new experience as a sous chef within the confines of Yellowstone National Park’s boundaries. 

Yellowstone fox
I have a chance to make the second chapter of my life something spectacular; something to cheer about and I’m not going to screw that up.  I know I’m on the right course because since I’ve arrived in the park; I’ve met like-minded people that share my views on nature, cooking, music, art and more – much, much more!  Sometimes it takes 52 years for you to find your place in life or your “aha moment”.  I was meant to take this trip – a trip that has no definitive outcome as I’m rolling the dice on a seasonal gig that will end in just a few short months.  But this gig is my window of opportunity and sometimes you just have to grab that brass ring of possibilities and know deep down that you’re making the right decision. 

YNP Bison
I’ve changed …. the flowers smell sweeter, the food tastes better and the music is altogether intoxicating.  Whatever fear resides within me is fastly melting away being replaced with hope.

I’m making the right decision –

Paradise Valley, Montana
Have a great day and never give up!


Mark (Sparky)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Judging Culinary Skills (ProStart)

SPARKY’S BLOG
3-12-14

Judging Culinary Skills

I have been fortunate, thus far, switching my life around from being an engineer to transitioning into being a chef.  One of those good fortunes has been that I was given an opportunity to judge a very particular culinary competition.  The cooks in this scenario will be the future leaders of kitchens throughout America and the world.

Judges getting ready for the competition
I’m talking about the culinary competition branch of the ProStart organization which is an off-shoot of the National Restaurant Association (NRA).  ProStart is a nationwide, two-year high school program that unites the classroom and industry to develop the best and brightest talent into tomorrow’s restaurant and foodservice leaders “NRA”.

Planning strategy
ProStart really is an unparalleled program that is industry driven which elevates some of the brightest talent within the foodservice business.  Through the combination of class room and “real-life” experience; the curriculum is designed for success from the beginning.

Time to cook!

His hat may be too big?
Part of that “real-world” experience is the competition format previously mentioned which is where I come in.  I spent a wonderful day observing, tasting and judging these high school culinarians and their talents cook everything from ceviche to rabbit and they all had a blast doing it not to mention I had blast just being there!

The kids had a lot of support from family and friends
First on the agenda, students had to prove they were proficient in menu writing and food costing then on to knife skills and lastly before cooking; they had to break down a chicken showing the least amount of waste possible.  The cooking portion is broken down into categories as well including: waste, speed, sanitation etc.  ProStart is rooted in the fundamentals found in any reputable culinary college that is accredited.  For high-schoolers to start out in this very structured atmosphere bodes well for their future success as well as for the industry itself.

Breaking down a chicken

A proud student!
Finally the tasting portion of the event takes place where I had a ton of fun experiencing Indiana’s talent-laden pool of young and future chefs.  I will admit there were some cold dishes and also some under-seasoned/over-seasoned offerings but all-in-all the bulk of the food was pretty fantastic stuff.  I’m proud to have had a part in shaping a young mind if only by imparting a few words judging their food.  Hopefully, the advice will hit home and be helpful down the road.

Listening to the judges grade their dish
In the end, Area 30 Career Center from Greencastle won the event and will be representing the great state of Indiana at the national ProStart Invitational in Minneapolis, MN May 3-5 2014.  I wish them well and will be looking for them on the line in the kitchens of America.

All the food on display (Great job to all!)
Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Departing with Strong Lessons in Hand!

SPARKY’S BLOG
2-20-14

Learning to be a professional cook (7th and last in a series)

My conversational misstep has cooled a bit and I’m now focusing on learning the menu for my new job.  Alan is on site every day helping me to get my mind wrapped around the kitchen’s flow.  I have immediately spotted a few things that I should work on and that is a step-by-step process for learning each dish as well as general organization to better manage day-to-day activities.

For instance, the “to go” bowls are stored at one end of the kitchen and the lids at the other end.  Not rocket science but general things that will help immensely.  I also notice that the ordering process in cumbersome having to dart around the kitchen like a mouse being chased by a cat.  I have all these things I want to do running through my head all-the-while trying to learn the menu.

First-things-first; understanding the food and its place on the plate - I’m a bit perplexed why I’m training at my own facility as I’m so very green and not setting a great example in front of my crew fumbling with efficiency, substitutions, remembering items for each omelet, salad, sandwich, etc.

My plan was to train in another store so I could then step in at my place ready and able to set a good example for my team – this, of course, didn't happen.

I’m also a bit stupefied as to why I’m suddenly working expo (after only a week on the job) making mistake after mistake.  This is a busy restaurant (very, very busy 600 to 700 covers per day) and my BOH director has decided to baptize me by fire.  I was told to “just work through it” – really, just work through it?

A loaded ticket bar at Patachou in downtown Indianapolis
At the end of one particular shift we were alone and I told him that I felt it was “criminal” the way I was being taught.  His voice immediately raised a few octaves shouting that there was no formal program in place to train me; he exclaimed “do you see any pictures on the walls?  Were you given a handbook? No, because they don’t exist” and my heart sunk to the pit of my stomach.

The next day Alan came in and apologized for exposing a fundamental lack of organizational support and committed to help me learn my craft because at this point I’m so confused and upset that I feel like I’m running a marathon backwards while working out algorithms in my head.  I’m physically and mentally drained at the end of each shift and felt I haven’t learned a thing and sense as though I’m “un-learning” or learning in reverse.  Alan fell far short of his goal and actually set me up for failure, very puzzling.

Being of strong mind and will; I persevere on my own taking the reins into my hands and reflect on all the training I had done as a process engineer back up in Detroit as well as in prior jobs.  Some of the best culinary training I’ve ever had was at Cypress restaurant in Charleston, SC.  They were patient and pragmatic teaching me something new as I grasped the old.  I remember one of my chefs saying to learn 3 or 4 items one night and we’ll see how things go tomorrow.  I learned at my own pace and was comfortable doing it this way.

My work station at Cypress Restaurant in Charleston, SC
So I will do this on my own and set forth to train myself just like I did in Charleston.  Slowly but surely I became proficient with the menu and also running the window expediting dishes for the customer.  The mistakes began to disappear and words of “thanks” and “improvement” and, more importantly, “good job” began to fall out of my co-workers mouths.  I had clearly turned the page and I now realize that getting over perceptions are almost always impossible but fixing a problem on your own is a bit priceless.

My take-away’s from my time at Café Patachou are that you need to tread lightly when you arrive but understand a sense of urgency and attack with inner strength.  In time ….. I learned to re-design a kitchen for better flow and efficiency, discipline is never easy and always necessary, sometimes you ARE an island, organize-organize-organize and mistakes can be capitalized into strengths.  Oh yeah, I also learned what NOT to do.

The tickets are evaporating as the end of shift nears at Patachou
Although I was absolutely miserable at this job; it has taught me more valuable lessons than any other and they will all come in very handy when I begin my new position as Sous Chef at Yellowstone National Park in a few weeks.  I’m very lucky to be doing something I love and even luckier to now be doing it in the landscape of one of Mother Nature’s greatest creations.  See you soon.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Learning to be a professional cook (6th in a series)

SPARKY’S BLOG
2-15-14

Learning to be a professional cook (6th in a series)

Conversations -
Watch what you say because no matter how well-intentioned you are or trying to impress in an interview; the words that fall out of your mouth can and will come back to haunt you.

My first foray into culinary management came at a time in my life when I was flush with all types of experience managing folks in groups or singularly.  I was in my last interview to be a Kitchen Manager/Sous Chef for Cafe Patachou here in Indy and I never felt comfortable during the whole process. 

Fresh, healthy and delicious!
There were two directors present that represented both the front and back of the house operations.  I was having trouble with the director of Front of House (FOH) operations; let’s call her Tina.  Tina would ask me a question and then, seemingly, stare at me with steely blue eyes that created a most unpleasant feeling.  Upon asking the question she then would, invariably, interrupt to make a point about something in her past managing career that didn't make a lot of sense to me.  After a while Tina began repeating her points and I took this to mean they were important.  In reality, after some points were repeated 3 and 4 times, I understood that she might be the one who was nervous or maybe she just liked the sound of her voice?

There came a point in the interview where I hearkened back to my experiences in the automotive field and how I felt this background would help me immensely for this new position.  This is when the conversation kind of fell off the table.  I noticed the tone in Tina’s voice turning a bit adversarial and somewhat curt.  Now I’m really uncomfortable and feeling I screwed up including information about engineering analogies and will not get the job.  I was, however, asked how my past can help me in-the-now and I felt compelled to include this knowledge as it best describes my abilities to manage folks in an industrial atmosphere such as a kitchen.

Regardless of my fears Tina hired me and welcomed me to the Patachou family and I was thrilled for my first management position in a kitchen.  My knees felt a bit wobbly as I walk out to my vehicle to drive home and wondered “what just happened?”  I had that voice inside my head saying to me “beware, this interview was strange and befuddling; somewhere down the line a bump in the road may be waiting for you”.

My first day on the job was the usual getting to know the guys working for me and I was telling them a story about a guy in culinary school who in his words exclaimed “I don’t clean!” – Just then, I saw Tina walk by out of the corner of my eye.  I thought nothing of it and continued on with the story letting my crew know that I’m not like that and fully intend to scrub floors on my hands and knees if necessary and would fully expect them to do so if needed – just then, I snatched a mop and started cleaning the floors to set an example.

My Back of the House (BOH) director; let’s call him Alan came in a few days later and pulled me aside lamenting that he heard from Tina that I was yelling to my crew that “I don’t clean!” and he was disappointed in me. I told him what really happened and it was swept under the rug for the time being.

It's always busy at Cafe Patachou!
Another few days went by and my first real bad day reared its head as my bread order did not come in and one of my crew didn't show up and I was shaking my head as Tina decided to drop by at that very moment and notice my discontent.  I was asked by the restaurant manager to meet Tina out on the patio for a discussion and complied after things settled down a bit.

She began by telling me that these things happen and it doesn't get her down because she’s more of a people person and she sees mostly gray areas rather than black and white.  She concentrates on happy thoughts and not the negative aspects of the job.  In other words, I need to do what she does and just be positive when things go poorly. 

When she mentioned “Black and White” is when a shiver ran down my back because I had used that exact same analogy when describing how things are in the engineering world during my interview.  If something is wrong then it needs to be fixed – there’s no gray area, it’s either right or wrong. 

Tina was telling me that she and I were exact opposites (in her own way) and that her way was the right way.  Something that I said in an interview had rubbed her wrong and my “cleaning” story had only exacerbated it.  I had become “persona non grata” in her eyes and it all came down to a few wrong turns in a conversation.  I gotta figure out a way to fix this and choose my words more carefully next time.  I hope there will be a next time?

Have a great day and never give up!


Mark (Sparky)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Learning to be a professional cook (5th in a series)

SPARKY’S BLOG
1-28-14

Learning to be a professional cook (5th in a series)

Aside from cooking; a kitchen has to move properly in that it basically comes down to a sum of moving parts.  The people move, the food moves, the methodology of cooking moves and when not managed properly; well, you get the idea.

Another end to a great night of learning my craft
I’m fortunate to have been able to work in facilities that move well and learn from instances when they don’t.  I liken my past history as a paint engineer to that of being a chef.  In the engineering world I was tasked with saving money, improving quality, making processes more efficient and expediting everything so the result is produced nimbly and attractively.  This is pretty much the same thing a kitchen tries to assimilate to by keeping an eye on food/labor costs, cooking to specified recipes or temperatures, compartmentalizing dish assembly for speed and producing art on a plate to induce a salivatory response by the customer.

One of the first things I learned in both occupations is that you must, first, set up your infrastructure for proper flow.  If you have an impedance or obstruction in your process then you won’t have a symbiotic progression to finality of a dish.  I’m basically talking about time management because like they say “time is money” and money rules all decisions for the most part.

Preparing an appetizer 
You have to understand need in order to understand design.  A restaurant’s needs might see a long cooking line divided up into sections like cold foods, fried foods, sautéed foods and/or entrée foods.  This system is what the French call the “brigade system” and it is infrastructure is how you decide flow and ease of movement.  Something as simple as forgetting to set up a cooking line with the right amount of plates, condiments, ramekins, gloves can set a line back during service a great deal. 

It won’t happen all at once but a little at a time and if it isn't corrected straight away then the term “in the weeds” becomes very prevalent as the kitchen will fall behind and before you know it; bedlam is unleashed and a constant game of catching up is introduced into the fray and this is completely unacceptable. 

Deep-frying shrimp!
While working at the Marriott we had check sheets and even more lists for set-up prior to service.  This pre-shift preparation is paramount to success but even the most thought-out process can be improved to include the nuts and bolts of an operation.  We also needed to understand that plates need to be put back in the same place each and every time.  I’ll give you an example: when reaching for something that is always in the same place; your brain and muscles will develop memory so it becomes second nature and is introduced into your lexicon of movement when cooking on the line speeding up efficiency.

So it makes perfect sense to involve this “muscle memory” concept at every possible turn in the process and that’s why restaurants and hotels have meetings before every shift to discuss continuous improvement issues that arise during work shifts.  A process without communication for a proper path forward is a process doomed to failure.  At the Marriott we had daily shift meetings and we were encouraged to participate as we would have a feeling of owning a piece of the process.  Any time you’re engaged and fully ensconced in the decision-making process is when a team becomes free of alloidial feeling and produces amazing results.

Great food from a great hotel!
Always remember: put things back where they belong, always clean up your mess straight away, set up your station the proper way with food AND dish wares, promptly return/replace anything you borrow and communicate, communicate, communicate.  My ongoing education in becoming a professional cook has turned a crucial and fundamental page during my time at the Marriott.  I’m starting to wrap my arms around processes combined with food preparation and cooking that will enable me to trudge further down the culinary path to a dream of having my own place some day.  I say “trudge” because it’s a long road without shortcuts and this will be my biggest lesson to learn thus far.

Have a great day and never give up!


Mark (Sparky)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Learning to be a professional cook (4th in a series)

SPARKY’S BLOG
1-21-14

Learning to be a professional cook (4th in a series)

In my transition from the Omni Severin Hotel to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Indianapolis; I will experience stark contrasts immediately.  The two hotels couldn't be any more different in the fact that the Omni drips elegance and opulence at every turn whereas the Marriott is built for speed and volume as it is located across the street from the convention center.

Just finished the first shift being on my own (approx. 1:00 am).
Large conventions create a ton of revenue for the Marriott and a ton of stress for the hotels kitchens within the immediate vicinity (ours included).  This stress doesn't have to be a bad thing so much as opportunities; an opportunity to learn new things like speed and efficiency or managed chaos (yes, this really exists).  What I mean by “managed chaos” is that a plan or approach is always in place when a group checks into a hotel. 

We must initially realize that each plan will change and change often.  The staff must be flexible enough to go with the flow and manage these changes on the fly (look at change as chaos).  The best teams manage these events with ease, skill and grace.  The staff at the Marriott did so in earnest and with the appearance of a skillful regiment of culinary champions.  First and foremost, what kind of group is it – firefighters? A Church group?  Medical convention?

"Buck-snort"  Kevin
I’ve learned that firefighters will consume a lot of beer and eat a lot of meat like steaks and chicken wings.  In addition, church groups seem to navigate toward after dinner desserts (especially ice cream) and medical folks will seek out very fine dining albeit outside of the hotel.  At first I felt a bit out of sorts with the medical folks as I felt our fine dining offerings were quite nice but I later learned that it’s all about perception. 

Hotel restaurants billed as fine dining options are often ignored for an opportunity to get out and explore the city in which people are visiting.  I get that and often did the same thing when I was traveling for my past career.  Learning the psychology of travelers fascinated me and I, seemingly, learned nuggets of wisdom every day.

The “stress” I speak of mostly relates to kicking our performance into a higher gear speed-wise.  I’ve heard cooks and chefs relish in the “pump” of adrenaline they get when the orders start swarming in with no end in sight.  I enjoy this feeling as well but, inevitably, the flow of the kitchen doesn't always accommodate this rush and that’s when stress replaces adrenaline.  Every kitchen in America can learn something from each and every service session whether it’s lining up plates in a certain area for better flow or setting up a receptacle for stewards (dish washers) to retrieve pots and pans.

"Superfly" Ed
My first experiences at the Marriott weren't very stressful because I was in training and I wouldn't be on my own for a number of weeks.  I had a whole menu to learn and this stressed me out more than being a fast cook.  I made cheat sheets compartmentalizing all the offerings from the menu and which plates they went on to facilitate a faster learning curve.  I would sit in my room after waking up studying this and again in the locker room 30 minutes prior to service.  My personal system worked for me fairly well but I still made a ton of mistakes when it came time to produce food.

My mind just wouldn't grasp all the plates that went with certain types of food and this was my most egregious and regular error.  The last stumbling block I had to overcome was the different garnishes accompanying each dish.  In retrospect, they were all pretty simple; somehow my brain needed more time to absorb all this and eventually it did.  The cooking part came very easy for me as I had been cooking since I was about 12 years old and was very familiar with all the various techniques.

Breaded chops
As a matter of fact, I loved our menu because it encompassed a large part of all the techniques we learned in culinary school.   We had burgers and steaks (grilling); fries and chicken wings (deep frying), vegetable sides (sauté); turkey medallions, vegetables, pork loin (roasting);  sauces (simmering/boiling) and short ribs (searing/braising).  Yeah, I cherished learning to work the line on my second stop in learning to be a professional cook.  When I started to pick up speed and more importantly, consistency is when I started to realize that I’d made the right decision to reinvent my career.

Once the familiarity started to sink in and my comfort level rose is when my engineering background began to engage.  I started assimilating to the way of the kitchen like never before.  Working in banquets as opposed to working the line in a fast paced restaurant are two entirely different animals.  My past experience at one moment caused my Sous Chef Dominique to squeal “I love that an engineer is working in my kitchen!”  We had looked at some egress problems that slowed our flow and re-designed the floor space a little bit.

This collaboration with management towards a common goal is when I started to realize I may be more than just a cook someday.

Have a great day and never give up!


Mark (Sparky)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Learning to be a professional cook (3rd in a series)

SPARKY’S BLOG
1-12-14

Learning to be a professional cook (3rd in a series)

The takeaways from this job are priceless in the way that repetitious exercise and tasks make an indelible imprint in one’s mind.  I’ve always known that enduring and lasting knowledge comes from “doing” and doing it often whatever the case may be.  I once read somewhere that after you've performed a task 10,000 times (or was that a 1,000 times?) is when you become truly proficient and possibly an expert on whatever subject matter is at hand.

My internship at "Cypress Restaurant" in Charleston, SC
I am now an expert in peeling potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, myself (yeah, I’ve actually peeled my finger a few times).  I don’t know how many chickens, turkeys, tuna, salmon that I’ve broken down as well as pork and beef bone in, loins I’ve butchered.  Am I a “real” expert?  Nope.  Not by a long shot but I now know my way around a knife and the carcass of most animals we consume here in America.

I know most folks would consider this work to be icky or dirty or gross but I regard these tasks as noble as they are the bedrock that lay the groundwork for fabulous meals.  Meals that supply the family that eats them with delight and nutrition and also money to the cooks and chefs that prepare them.  One of my sous chefs told me that cooks were the dregs of society, the deadbeats of the world; folks that will steal from you one moment and pat you on the back exclaiming friendship and devotion in the next.

Teaching kids about nutrition at the "Children's Museum" in Indianapolis, IN
I do not subscribe to this hyperbolic view of the culinary world as there needs to be talent, knowledge and a steadfast and staunch work ethic just to break even.  If you want to actually make money then you need to ascend to a whole other level beyond that of us mere peasants!


Executive Chefs need to have an eye on safety, quality, team-building, creativity, money (making it and loss prevention), sanitation, organizing and training.  I haven’t even mentioned cooking, continuous improvement, menu planning, recipe writing and development of flavor profiles.  There is so much on an Executive Chef’s plate that it’s no wonder they work the crazy hours we hear of so often.

Volunteering at "Second Helpings" a charity that re-purposes food into the Indianapolis community
My friends and family, understandably, chastise me for wanting this life and I can’t blame them.  Who in their right frame of mind would beat their bodies to a pulp at 51 years of age trying to get IN to this profession?  Someone who loves food and the preparation, cooking and presenting it to guests – that’s who.   You know, they say love is an emotionally unnatural construct.  I agree to a point as the only way you can survive in this business is if you love it, unnaturally, to the core.  At the end of the day you can’t be fearful of the unknown because this is an unproductive filter in which to view the world. 

Winning my first cooking competition
I DO aspire to have my own place someday and I’m not afraid to fail; as a matter of fact I learn the most when I fail and do not eschew the negative reflex associated with the occasional missteps in a burgeoning career.  I guess I’m crazy but that food-love thing grips people like me and I truly believe that some of the most spectacular folks in the world are cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, servers and the like.  I don’t conclude that the business is wrought with men that wear comb-over’s from an ear hair or talentless hacks just existing to manufacture carbon dioxide.

Easter at the Omni Severin Hotel in Downtown Indianapolis
Yes, my first job at the Omni Severin Hotel has not jaded me in the least bit nor has it dimmed my desire or passion to succeed.  Instead, it has aroused curiosity, joy, eagerness and a culinary paroxysm that has awakened a fury of exploration in me that hasn't existed in years.  I think I’m on the right path.  Next up ….. My time at the Marriott.

Behind the scenes with Carla!

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)