Sunday, January 11, 2015

Breaking plates, lights, and my head, or: My first week

So, again - I apologize for the short break in writing. I am trying to keep up with this thing, but life has a tendency of getting in the way sometimes. I accept a job offer doing all of the baking and pastry at a new restaurant

From the first interview I knew that the place was going to be something special. Sometimes you meet people and their energy is so infectious - its hard not to get excited. At this interview - I met 4 of them. 

What I found so appealing about this kitchen is the fact that they are cooking the food that they want to eat. And they're doing it right. Making everything from scratch, no matter how labor intensive, no matter how much of a pain in the ass it is. Its not that there aren't easier routes to take, its just that they all result in a shittier product. Its not about just banging things out here - but rather making the absolute best thing you can. This is the sort of environment I have been craving, and need to be in. 

I had four days from accepting the job offer to the restaurants soft opening - and a monumental amount of work to do. My first order of business was putting together our bread program. We decided that in the beginning, we wanted to have a crusty, hearth baked/'artisan' style bread for our bread service. This is something that I have some experience with - but none in a restaurant setting. Everywhere I have worked has either ordered their bread - had its own bread baker - or used something other than bread for its 'bread' service (we'll talk pop-overs some day). My first hurtle: Our ovens. We have two, full size conventional ovens. Thats it. No convection. No hearths. Just regular old ovens. To achieve the type of bread that I want - using this type of oven is a big challenge. 

In the past, I have talked about Jim Lahey's technique of using a dutch oven to bake your bread in - and you can get some really incredible results doing this. The problem is that cast iron dutch ovens, or even deep skillets can run a pretty penny. Especially when you're talking about doing in excess of 20 loaves of bread a day. So that was out. My work around - preheat two sleeved sheet trays in the oven for at least an hour, and then drop the dough directly on them - as well as throwing some ice in a (also preheated) iron skillet for some steam. This is essentially what you would do with a stone in your oven...just without the need to buy anything. After trying two batches successfully - it was decided. 

Then it was a matter of timing. Most of the traditional ways of making bread didn't seem to line up with me having a 'normal' schedule - or if they did, they would result in flavorless bread because of such a short fermentation. What I decided on was making a dough utilizing several techniques to promote a more mature, deeper flavor - and doing a long fermentation (typically 18 hours) so when I walk in the door in the morning I can start portioning and shaping my dough immediately - and when the bread is in the oven I can start my dough for the following day. 

The end result is a loaf of bread with a moist, chewy crumb with very mild sour notes and pleasant russeted crust. When the first test batch came out of the oven, everyone in the kitchen (including myself) was stunned - none of us believing that it would be possible to produce this sort of result in these circumstances. 

The rest is kind of a blur. My creative process isn't exactly like most chefs who can just kind of wax on about doing this dish or that dish. I often find creativity in strange places - and it cannot be forced out of me. So - while I had two dishes decided more or less immediately, the third and final one took me a bit to land. I wound up just making one component - knowing that once I was forced into something - the rest would come with it. In the end, I didn't present my dessert menu to the front of the house until literally 10 minutes before the doors opened. 

All in all, its good to be back in it. And even better that I am somewhere that is pushing me to do good things, and not become complacent. I am proud to say that I am happy with everything I am putting out. I am doing everything to the best of my ability and not cutting corners. And I find myself inspired by the work that everyone else is doing.

Some funny (?) things that have happened this week;

I am - by quite a bit - the tallest person on the staff. Its clear that the kitchen was not designed for someone as tall as I am. The result is me constantly hitting my head on things. The worst offenders are the fry pans hanging above the line. Every time. 

My first day I walked into a light fixture, shattering it. I walked into the same light two more times. They have now moved the fixture. 

Our walk in does not have a release from the inside. My previous job had a warm walk in, so it is second nature for me to close the door behind me. The first time I locked myself in, I was in for 5 minutes. The second was 20 minutes (the Pastry Chef is often the first person in). We now keep a pair of chop sticks in there to push the release with. I am too embarrassed to admit how many times I have used them. 

My clog came lose while carrying a stack of pasta bowls up a flight of stairs. This resulted in me eating shit and shattering a bunch of bowls - just as the other chefs were finishing cleaning up the line. 

Dominic - Get the dog! Open the French Bistro! Take it easy this month, and have a speedy recovery. 

Up next: A response to Deanna via Daniel

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