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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)

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