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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)

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