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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

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


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)


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)


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)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Learning to be a professional cook (2nd in a series)


Learning to be a professional cook (2nd in a series)

One of the very cool things that are offered to the employees at the Omni here in Indy is a full-fledged cafeteria that is completely free.  Offerings included 2 hot proteins, 1 hot vegetable and 1 hot starch in addition to a salad bar and fresh daily soup.

When you first come into the Omni kitchen you are first-and-foremost going to prep, prep and more prep.  As you grow into yourself as a cook and management gets a sense of comfort regarding your skills is when you start getting a stab at making items for the Café.   Even though the entrées are free; they can’t be too high in fat and one must be cognizant of food allergies and gluten restrictions not to mention the taste must be delicious.

Experimenting at the Omni ..... 

..... with plate presentations
Once you get an assignment to cook for the employees is when you understand that you’re in favor with the Executive Chef and you’d better not screw it up.

My first attempt was to utilize some leftover beef round that had been roasted the prior day.  The quandary in my mind was to make it kind of special without going overboard and remembered my grandpa always saying how delicious stroganoff is while being stupidly simple to make.  I was shooting from the hip as access to the internet (computers) for a good recipe was locked up in the offices (we get in very early – 6am) so I really just closed my eyes and imagined biting into a mouthful of stroganoff and suddenly the flavors started coming forward.

Two of my favorite guys at the Omni - Jason and Joe
Sour cream, mushrooms and grainy mustard are the 3 main flavors in my mind so I set out to find “said” ingredients and realized we didn't have any mushrooms at all!  We had sour cream and grainy mustard in spades but no mushrooms.  What we DID have was an enormous amount of cream of mushroom soup and I was set.  I added some onions, garlic and a splash of white wine and the dish came out pretty good.  I only got one compliment but that was from the General Manager of the hotel so I was satisfied (somewhat).  I immediately began figuring out how to make it better and with lesser ingredients as well as how to do it faster.  I guess I’m in the right profession if I’m obsessed with making it better eh?

My next foray was to make a soup that wasn't on the menu because our purchasing manager was ill the day before and the ingredients weren't ordered.  Okay, now I’m being tested (I think?).  I once again hearkened back to my roots and remembered my grandmother who would, seemingly, pull deliciousness out of thin air by roasting vegetables for more flavor and puree them in a beef or chicken stock (I added demi-glace and a little Sriracha).  Half the folks loved it the other half said it was too hot.  I loved the feedback and immediately understood the varying tastes of the folks you cook for aren't always the same.  This lesson would serve me well in my next job.

My work area .... Amy was awesome help!
One morning I read a note that gave me a huge amount of pride as I was to prepare the entire buffet that day.  I was happy because you usually aren't asked to do that if you make food that is unfit and pallid.  The menu was set and the ingredients were all there so all I had to do was cook and assemble which came together nicely because I was in a great mood the entire time.  It’s pretty cool when you love what you do.  I made sure not to get too carried away and make the food my own by getting too spicy or introduce my “style” so-to-speak.

I received no feedback that day and felt a bit despondent as my sous chef said “hey, dude – no news is good news”…..’Nuff said.

From that point on I cooked the employee meals as well as ordered the food and participated in banquets.  I really racked up the hours but more importantly, I racked up some serious experience and priceless confidence. 

Sometimes you gotta laugh in the kitchen!
My executive chef exclaimed that the reasoning behind my success was that I didn't over-think the job and admired that I followed orders.  Fact is, I wanted badly to veer away from the standard recipes and create sensational dishes but that’s not what was necessary for that role in the kitchen.  We often times are our own worst enemy when we get too smug with our own boastful swagger.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)