Thursday, December 30, 2010

Torta de carnitas

French baguette à l'ancienne...

...meets Mexican carnitas. The world will never be the same.

Before I really get started, I'd like to say one thing. Carnitas has ONLY three ingredients. Pork, Salt, Water. The water doesn't really count since it evaporates during cooking, leaving really only two ingredients. Any more - even a little hint of pepper, citrus, garlic - is overkill. The other secret is to use very low heat to coax out all that porky goodness.

So, as everyone knows by now with torta madness sweeping the land, a torta is a Mexican sandwich. There are a lot of variations beyond the traditional bolillo bread.

This is my take on what is fast becoming as ubiquitous as tacos. Instead of a bolillo, I used a French baguette à l'ancienne. This is a complex, slow fermented wonder that transforms the lowly torta into something worthy of passing up a meal at the French Laundry. The meat: carnitas, slow braised then delicately fried in its own rendered fat. The salsa: cilantro, pineapple, serrano pepper, green onion. The pièce de resistance: fresh slices of avocado.

Just FYI, I've never seen a baguette à l'ancien outside of France - but they can indeed be made here with American flour, yeast and a good formula. And a fair amount of time.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


¡Que rico!

A trip to Los Angeles just wouldn't be the same without a cemita for lunch. Here in Sacramento, nobody seems to even know what a cemita is, let alone where to actually get one. Well, the answer to the second part of that question is simple: drive to L.A.

You can make your own cemitas, if you can find a source for papalo or Papaloquelite. Papalo is the herb that gives a cemita its unique taste, although the chipotle sauce has a bit to say about the flavor, too. It's like precolumbian cilantro, but from a totally different plant family.  I suppose you could substitute cilantro for papalo, but enough substitutions and you'll have a carnitas burger with chipotle sauce and not a real  cemita autentica.

Making a cemita should not be too difficult, if you already know how to make bread and chipotle salsa - just follow the sketch above. The buns are more of a French style lean dough than a fluffy, puffy bun style dough or or bolillo like they use for tortas. I would start by adding tomato paste to canned chipotle to reduce the burn factor, then experiment a bit by adding perhaps a bit of cumin, a bit of garlic, a bit of Mexican oregano. Quesillo is a type of string cheese. The meat is relatively simple, and all that's left is some hefty slices of avocado.

You can vary the meat, too. Although I like carnitas, you can also use milanesa (pounded, breaded chicken or veal). There are so many ingredients, you could probably even leave it out for an ovo-lacto version.

If you're not going to make your own, and you're in Los Angeles, my favorite place to get this things is at Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita, 3010 East First Street, across the street from the cemetery at Evergreen. You may not see the place at first; it's kind of nondescript. It's pretty Spartan inside, too. Some tables, a big menu on the wall, a counter, a cooler along the wall and someone to take your order, preferably in Spanish. You can get the chipotle sauce on the side to let people unaccustomed to this sauce ease in gradually. Better yet, if they don't like it that leaves more for you. Beware, though. Some people's intestines don't take kindly to this kind of shock. For seasoned chiliheads, it should not pose any problems. I like the carnitas because it's moist, but the chicken - breaded like milanesa - is a good choice, too.

Alas, there don't seem to be any cemitas served in Sacramento restaurants.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Cheese wars!

Humbolt Fog, from Northern California

Taleggio (left), Humboldt Fog (right), Marisa (background).
Fleur du Maquis not shown.

In a universe long, long ago, one country ruled the cheese of an entire planet: France. Their reign is secure - for a while, at least. With over 365 different kinds of cheese it will be a while before an usurper arrives to steal the fragrant crown.

You can buy raw milk cheeses in France in any place that sells decent cheese. The government won't get in your face and tell you, "no!", no matter how young the cheese is (you can buy raw milk cheese in the USA, but it must be aged a minimum of 60 days - so no Camembert). Many are wonderful, runny cheeses that transform themselves with time into things that are too potent for most American palates.

Alas, where we in America could put a man on the Moon, we are unable to find a way of producing pasteurized cheese with the same flavor and complexity to equal a Camembert, Brie, Pont l'Evêque... but we're getting closer.

Still, we've begun to edge closer to the throne, advancing sheep, goat and cow cheeses into the realm of world class. Nothing to beat a Roquefort, Stilton, AOC Camembert, Muenster, Parmesan or Langres. OK, that last one is a personal favorite, not necessarily a world class cheese. And it's French.

Yet, we've got some goat cheeses that can stand up and bleat with the best of them. Humboldt Fog (Cypress Grove Chevre, California) is a perennial favorite. We're advancing on the sheep front, too - cave aged Marisa (Carr Valley Cheese, Wisconsin) is smooth, complex, and very interesting indeed. We produce some nice blue cheeses, although so far nothing to equal Roquefort. So far, it seems that Europe is ahead of us in cow's milk cheese, but then I haven't tasted Carr Valley's hand made, well-aged cheddar yet either.

Better eating through chemistry? NOT!

doesn't that look tasty?

I had some "bake and eat" cinnamon buns today. Honor demanded it. I had no choice. Luckily, I was able to refuse the frosting. Unfortunately, I'd read the ingredients:

Enriched Flour - bleached: wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfur, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid. Water. Sugar. Dextrose (sugar, again). Palm Oil. Wheat Starch. High Fructose Corn Syrup (more sugar). Baking Powder (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate). Soybean Oil. Whey. Salt. Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil (Trans fat). Corn starch. Cinnamon. Vital Wheat Gluten. Corn Syrup Solids. Monoglycerides. DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric (Acid) Ester of Monoglyceride). Sodium Alginate. Xanthan Gum. Natural and Artificial Flavor. Preservatives: potassium sorbate, citric acid, TBHQ (Tertiary ButylHydroQuinone). Polysorbate 60. Yellow 5 (tartrazine). Red 40 - quite a mouthful (*(2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-, disodium salt, and disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate)*) Generally made from petroleum!. Artificial Color. There's a color more artificial than Red 40?


Whatever happened to unbleached flour, milk, butter, salt, cane sugar, cinnamon, baking powder (monocalcium phosphate, baking soda, vanilla, cornstarch - no aluminum)? Or the slower yet even more natural method: unbleached flour, yeast, milk, butter, salt, vanilla, cane sugar, cinnamon?

Interestingly, the Red 40 was supposedly a substitute for natural amaranth. It can also be made from coal tar instead of petroleum. Nice to have options, isn't it?

Stuff like this really makes me wonder what our species is doing to itself with all this stuff. Does anyone taste these chemicals in combination or just one by one? Does combining them change their physiological effect?

Oh, and the worst part. The biscuit was tough, and there was (surpise!) a chemical aftertaste. The cinnamon didn't rise from the bun to tickle your nose. You couldn't taste the butter, because there wasn't any (I think - it's a long list).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's official! I slice, I dice, I chop... julienne, bâtonnet, paysanne...

Many innocent potatoes, onions and carrots gave their all in a supreme effort to to aid me to master the art of putting blade to root. I now possess knife skills beyond the ordinary man's, able to transform ordinary vegetables with classic French knife cuts and whole chickens into expensive parts.

I never learned how to get a knife so sharp it will split a hair, like in the cartoons, but still they're a lot better than they were. I suppose getting them to that level involves a $200 whetstone and a lot of time on the fine stone.

Buying cut-up chicken is now a thing of the past. I buy whole chickens and cut them into all kinds of fascinating shapes. Lollipops, oysters, tenders, breasts, half breasts, galantines, ballotines, carcass for stock, drumsticks, thighs, boneless dark meat for all kinds of things (tacos, Asian, kebabs...).

Funny, but there are at least three ways to de-bone a chicken. Our instructor makes a lot of precise cuts. Jacques Pepin makes very few cuts, and basically rips the chicken apart with his bare hands while maintaining all the major pieces intact. Martin Yan is just a blur, but he seems to be making a lot of cuts in with some ripping of his own.

Watching TV chefs de-bone chickens is interesting. The fastest is supposedly Martin Yan, who can "de-bone" a chicken in under 20 seconds. His technique is blindingly fast, but he talks about for about two minutes before his attack, thereby negating whatever advantage he might have started with (kind of like the Tortoise and the Hare, I thought to myself). I put de-bone in quotes because the wings and thighs still have their bones intact. He does have boneless breasts - I'm not sure about the tenders. He also uses a Chinese cleaver to do the work - but he's still slicing, not chopping.

At another table, representing fine French tradition, is Jacques Pepin. The man is a real artist - he takes over a minute, but does it while he's talking and the chicken truly is boneless - legs, wings, everything.  Jacques then goes on to show how to stuff the boneless bird, truss it and prepare it for roasting.

 I tried two of the methods (I can't even see what Martin Yan does; it's all a blur). The school method runs 5-7 minutes using a boning knife. The Pepin method took about 9 minutes using a boning knife and a chef's knife. Eventually, the Pepin method looks like it might prove to be faster once I don't have to stop to watch the video - and with less chance of cutting myself, too. Although it's much more visceral with all the flesh ripping, joint popping and bone breaking action.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dim Sum!

Part of being a chef is eating (or at least trying) everything you can. Going to all kinds of restaurants, ordering things you can't pronounce. This broadens your food knowledge. It also broadens your waist, but that's just an occupational hazard. So, when a friend needed a ride to the airport in San Francisco, we knew exactly what to do. Go to Tai Wu in Daly City!

So, you thought you knew dim sum, did you? Well, not here. All the basics: siu mai, har gow, char siu bao, etc. were there. But they had friends. Lots of them. Zooming by on trays (they only use carts for the heavy stuff here) were noodles, plates, dumplings, baked things, steamed things... Carts went by with soups, custards...

We started with (I think) xiu long bao - they look like any other round dumpling, but they've got soup broth as well as meat inside. Excellent.

Food began piling up on the plate: siu mai, shrimp in rice noodle, shrimp dumpling with chives, one of those sticky balls of something where you don't know what's inside when you order (fish with black bean?), more dumplings, crispy shrimp things...

These guys were very friendly to the only white people in the whole restaurant. They asked what kind of tea we wanted (Chrysanthemum!). They gave us forks (eating dim sum with a fork is like eating steak with chopsticks as far as I'm concerned). They gave us extra napkins in case we slipped. A dim sum menu so we could order (since I learned the names of the plates in Chinese, I usually have no idea what the English names are so it wasn't much use since I can't read Chinese).

I think they were worried that we might have stumbled into something where we would stare in shock at the food and freeze, never ordering anything. Then another round of food came by, this time things we recognized or at least thought we did.  Seeing the dishes pile up, the head waiter looked relieved. The lost white people were doing ok after all. They wouldn't starve. They were smiling.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Last fuzzy, disgusting food photo post

Well, this is it. I've hounded that restaurant's lame attempts at marketing enough. So, after this - unless they post something really too heinously disgusting to pass up - I'll quit haranguing them. 

Even though they almost never label what the pictures are supposed to represent, no ingredient, no flowery text. Just the photo.  How do they expect anyone to order it by name? Ah, but there's no need! They can simply print the photo and bring it to the restaurant. That is something I'd love to see...

"Hello, I'd like to order this," the hungry man would say as the waitress arrived, brandishing the dark, blurry image printed on a sheet of paper. 
Taking the paper, she would hold it close to her eyes, squinting.
"No, it's not your eyes," the man would state, "that's as clear as it gets."
"Might I ask why, if you can't identify the food, you would want to order it," the waitress would timidly comment, a quizzical expression on her face. "But maybe someone in the kitchen will know... Someone here must have taken the photo and know what this is..."
"Actually," the man would admit, "I'm just curious as to what it is. If nobody can I.D. this delectable blur, I'll just have a hmmmbrrrrggggggrrrrh." 
"Excuse me, sir. I didn't understand your order"
"Ah. Well. Just making my order as fuzzy as your photo. Just do your best. I'm sure it will all work out fine."

In case you were wondering, the top sketch is of some kind of special featuring sausages cut in half and thrown on a funeral pyre of sauerkraut then interred under some kind of yellowish sauce thrown over the meat like a shroud. The lower one liberates the wurst from the sauce, letting it bask in the light and proclaim its identity for all to clearly appreciate. The beer also gets lit from behind and to the side so that it glows enticingly, saying, "come in and quaff a pint or two".

I worry that if they can't see the photos well enough to know they're totally out of focus, can they even see the food they're preparing? Did their eyeglass prescription expire decades ago? Does the guy still have all his fingers, or does he look like the worlds worst Asian gangster? Maybe it's a woman... shouldn't jump to conclusions. For all I know, it's a trained monkey. Not very well trained, however. Just enough to push the button and upload the image to their Facebook page. Nice monkey! Have a banana! Don't touch the knife! This is no place for myopic monkeys.

Sometimes I wonder about their family photo albums. I imagine them proudly pulling out an album after they've fired themselves for being over forty years old, fondly reminiscing. 

Imagine a graying ex-chef and his wife, sitting on a well worn couch, and ugly beige album shared on their laps...
"Ah, you were so handsome back then, not a wrinkle anywhere", sighs the bride.
"I think that's you, dear" says the groom, bending over the photo and squinting through his eight dollar supermarket reading glasses.
"Are you sure?" she asks.
"Yes, see that blob there in the background is my dog, and that shape is me in my chartreuse and maroon designer chef's jacket. It can't be anything else. If that's me, then this is you"
"Oh, so this is the reception, not the wedding?"
"Uh, yeah. Unless it's the party for our new wood burning pizza oven."
"You mean, the one that collapsed and got us in all that trouble with the fire department?"
"No, not that one. That was my brother's fault anyway. This was the one that never would actually get hot enough to bake anything, let alone pizza."
"Ah, yes. I remember now. But it made a great dog house once we installed the ramp so that Bojangles could get inside."
"Poor Bojangles. He was such a good dog."

Adrift in a sea of porcelain

This time their photo managed to combine strange composition, poor exposure and bad focus. For added effect, they added an Alfred Hitchcock style camera angle and wide angle lens, making the plate look large enough to land an A380.

They even left some things that could be crumbs, or are they just an artistic flourish gone wrong? I have no idea what the things are; presumably some kind of meat or fish or poultry. They didn't bother to say what they were feeding people - just snapped away and spit it right out onto the web for everyone to wonder (1) what is that, exactly and (2) why would anyone want to put it in their mouth.

But, look. They could have used a smaller plate, and fanned the stuff, stacked it, garnished it, taught it to speak French. Je ne sais pas.   But I'd rather get the plate in the lower illustration than whatever that is on top. And why wash all that dish surface for not even a fistful of Mystery Meat?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The mug shot sandwich

(click on the image to make it bigger)

This is just too much fun. Too bad I can't get extra credit in class for this, but then tweaking the nose of someone who is supposedly a professional chef yet can't plate food appealingly nor photograph it is just too much of a temptation to let pass.

As usual, the thing looks quite enticing here. Not so the original photo: a pile of fries thrown haphazardly onto a (certainly cold) plate, with their companion sandwich landing next to them. Frontal lighting, out of focus... don't these people look at their images before the post them? The result looks about as fresh and innovative as the high school cafeteria's plate of the day. Or maybe a bull near the end of a bullfight, since the poor sandwich looks like the picadors got to it long ago with those fuzzy toothpicks sticking out of it.

What if the sandwich were quartered and bright metal skewers used to hold it together instead of toothpicks? What if there were a bit of chiffonade of romaine on the plate to green it up? How about serving the fries in a paper cone, like the worlds fritemeisters the Belgians do? Would seeing this make you wild with sandwich desire? Would you rip it from the arms of your server and devour it without breathing?  I certainly hope so!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hmm. This illustration looks too good

(click on the image to make it bigger)

The top illustration actually looks much better than the muddy, unfocused, faded and above all sloppily presented photo at the Bad Photo Restaurant. It's the same people who inspired the last set of images - I'm finding them really useful for exploring the question of how should this have been done, so it would bring people to the restaurant, make everyone more money, and give us a neighborhood restaurant worth visiting.

In case you can't tell, they slopped a pile of spaghetti in a plate, glopped in an unknown amount of meatballs, then hosed it all down with a much less red and appealing sauce than this. Hint: blanch and shock the tomatoes, guys - and don't use that unripe crap that's not even a nice red color. If it was from a can, how come it was so pasty looking? Again, full frontal flash, worthy of a driver's license.

The lower plate liberates the meatballs from the sauce. The spaghetti is laid into the plate with a swirl, the sauce spooned down to leave some of the pasta exposed, and the meatballs carefully placed on top of the sauce. A garnish - basil or arugula makes the plate look fresh. Diffused light from anywhere but the front of the plate, preferably coming off a reflector to make the sauce shine, would create an image to make stomachs growl and the reservation phone ring.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Finals are almost here. One semester down.

In a week, I'll be turning a perfectly ordinary Idaho russet potato into julienne, bâtonnet, small dice, medium dice and large dice. Then I'll attack an onion, transforming it into perfect julienne arcs. I might even fine dice another onion.

In another class, I'll turn in the class cookbook and I'm done.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing in Professional Cooking. A final exam? Frying eggs? Making Hollandaise? I'll find out soon enough.

It's also time to register for the next semester. I supposedly had "priority" registration as a returning student, but my priority is two weeks after everyone else's. So, all the lab classes will already be full, and I'll be some number on a waiting list. The good side is, if I can't get into any classes, I'll have more money in my bank account and can take more and longer vacations right through June.

What is that, exactly?

Some people really can't take a hint. That "gourmet" restaurant's Facebook page really is a great learning experience for photos and plating, since it really shows what to avoid. The top photo looked so bad that people made comments like "not for me!" and "Me, neither!". The restaurant got all defensive and told them they couldn't have any since it was all gone - they could have said something nice, but I guess posting, "it's not as disgusting as it appears in the photo!" would have admitted their incompetence. Presumably the dish looked better in real life, although the plating in the photo seemed like three mollusks attacking a giant piece of slime mold.

The top sketch was their photo. Underexposed, with a big stain of a dark colored sauce that looked like someone microwaved a slug and strained the results. The sauce had no sheen, no glimmer, no highlight. It didn't even look especially wet. The other morsels were unidentifiable. Overall, the plating reminded me of something from microbiology: "This is a cell undergoing bacterial attack. Note the three vacuoles surrounding an extended endoplasmic reticulum..." No wonder people commented on the edibility of the plate!

The lower sketch is my plating/shooting diagram. Two diffused light sources illuminate the plate from above and to the side, and exposes correctly to compensate for a white plate. The sauce is drizzled over the plate before the food is put down, and accented with something fresh and green, like chives or strips of blanched green onions. The whole image gets more color by placing it on a place mat or even a nice piece of Canson paper.

Sorry to say, this sketch looks a lot better than their photo. If you ever run across their Facebook photos, you'll see why. A white plate is not an 18% gray plate!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

What the heck are those people thinking?

I noticed that one of the restaurants that featured prominently in my failed attempts to find work in a kitchen often publishes photos of their dishes on Facebook. Interesting, in that the images are often blurry, the plating tends to be haphazard more often than not, and the lighting is unflattering to the food. In short, their photography would be more likely to keep me out of their restaurant than entice me in.

If I plated food in that manner at school, I'd be subject to a barrage of criticism and accused of having never learned that our first perception of food in a restaurant is visual.

Those guys really need to get someone in there who knows what he's doing. Not that they're likely to, but their food really looks, as the French would say, beurk!. I think the word is self-translating. 

Flashback: November 2010, waiting for a call. Any call.

You can fool some of the people... not that I really considered myself one of these people, but still I thought at least someone would call, e-mail or maybe send a message to my chef/instructor to let him know why they ignored his recommendations and left me twisting in the wind. That someone would answer one of my messages even if it were just to tell me, "sorry".

At this point, my perception of the restaurant industry, and chefs in general is not exactly at a high point. Some of these guys made big-headed architects look positively humble, and with much less justification. Although some people I talked with were straightforward and correct, never promising to recontact me or otherwise stay in touch, others were poster boys for case studies in bad human resources management.

Before, I considered chefs in local non-chain restaurants to be artists exploring new culinary frontiers, delving into fascinating flavor combinations, and living for the joy of bringing great, unique food to hungry people. I thought they, like people in other industries at a management level, would act professionally, with courtesy and respect for others. Or at least go through the motions of doing so.

I naively thought that chefs would want to hire people passionate about food, regardless of their age. That in fact, someone who had traveled, sampled other cuisines and cooked in other parts of the world would be seen as a valuable addition to a team. That kitchens had at least some minimal degree of collaboration and exchange of ideas, like in that video about El Bulli (yes, comparing El Bulli to Sacramento's dining establishments is like comparing mud pies to beef Wellington, but still...)

Now, my opinion of the norm has shifted. I see many of them as poor managers imbued with a large dash of arrogance. People who don't look for broader skill sets than someone able to stand upright, brunoise a potato or julienne a carrot as fast as possible for the least possible amount of pay.

Worse yet, I'm beginning to think that I'll never even be given a chance. That this whole culinary arts thing is a waste of time, at least as far as actually working in this industry goes.

People tell me not to give up, that I just haven't met the right people yet. That a place exists where I could contribute something and be accepted as a comrade instead of a nuisance.

Food photography

Food photography is kind of fun, and rather challenging. The food has to be well prepared, nicely plated and camera ready. Then, it has to be correctly lit, shot from the right angle with the right lens. Poorly shot food might be good for inducing people to diet, but it's certainly not something you would want to use to promote a restaurant.

Top photo: chile en nogada. Lit with a strobe on an overhead reflector/diffuser.
Middle photo: pumpkin ravioli. A shot of the food on the fork turned out to be a lot more effective than showing the food in the plate - it's more dynamic, shows scale, and highlights the three main ingredients (sauce, pasta, stuffing). Lighting: diffused speedlites.

The bottom is a dessert combining quince, vanilla ice cream and fresh guava. This was lit with an overhead sheet to enhance the dessert's glistening sheen.

The job situation: December 2010

To date, not one of the people I contacted for a kitchen job has called me back. Not all that surprising for those who just said to drop off a job application. A bit more surprising in the case of Matt Woolston of The Supper Club and David Feldman at Matteo's Pizza and Bistro, since they had been communicating up until I met the enigmatic Mr. Feldman.

Granted, I was asking them for something, not the other way around. If they'd never said to keep in touch, or that they would contact me, I'd have no issue. But they did. Shouldn't this mean that they should at least follow up with an e-mail?  

I would have understood if he'd said, "We only hire people with previous restaurant experience, and being in a culinary arts program does not count." Even, "Call us when you complete the program." Even "Go away and never come back." That would have been direct and straightforward. But "I'll contact you when I'm not busy" leaves an expectation that my qualifications were acceptable and that hiring at some future date could be a possibility - and that further communication would actually happen.

I continued for a while to send updates to Matt Woolston, who had previously replied almost immediately. Now, the rule had become absolute silence on his part. Ditto for Mr. Feldman, as the messages were cc'ed to him.

I find it very strange that prior to actually meeting them, these people replied quickly to my e-mails, and were more than willing to communicate. Yet, strangely after meeting with Dave Feldman, neither he nor Matt Woolston would even acknowledge my existence. My past experience hadn't changed - in fact, I'm more qualified now than I was then due to having completed more lessons and prepared more dishes in class. Yet, absolute silence.

I started to ponder what factor could have caused such a drastic change of attitude. I had gone to the interview well dressed, with short, clean hair. I spoke clear English, and did not ask for an advanced position nor too much money (unless "anything minimum wage or above" classifies as "exorbitant").

Could it be that I was not the typical nineteen year old student looking for his first job? Could it be that actual experiences and a life were a liability? Could these people actually be practicing age discrimination? If David Feldman was not practicing age discrimination, wouldn't he have asked me to fill out a job application as proof? He could always trash the application when I left, but at least I'd have felt that he was at least somewhat sincere.

I talked to some friends about looking for work when you're no longer under 25. One said to die my hair, the darker the better. Another said to eliminate all college degrees from my resume. "Lie about your restaurant experience" added another. One wise person said, "Do all three. It can't hurt, and since they're not hiring you when you're honest, what have you got to lose?". Another said, "Too bad they only want people with no experience or other skills that could really be useful - like photography and sketching. Not to mention having eaten food in a lot of restaurants in a lot of different places so they know what it should taste like. Guess they just want young and cheap." As opposed to older and cheap, I suppose.

Perhaps saying "I'll get in touch when I'm not busy" is equivalent  to the "emergency powers" clause of a banana republic's constitution, where all kinds of rights are granted to the people, but can be suspended under certain conditions. All the dictator need do is declare the conditions present and suspend all constitutional rights indefinitely. So, presumably he knew he would always be busy, thereby negating his need to ever recontact me. This still doesn't explain Matt Woolston's silence, but at least it's an explanation that any Vulcan would accept.

Flashback: October 2010, La Petite France

Maybe I would have better luck with a bona fide French chef? Maybe someone coming from a different background would see things differently...

Besides, for once speaking French might actually be useful for something besides talking to francophones.

We had a nice talk about the restaurant industry, how difficult and uncomfortable the work is, ingredients, Mother Sauces and what it's like to work for a chef. None of it was encouraging, but I'd heard it before - except the part about the mother sauces. I filled out an application form, and at least felt that for once I'd had a decent conversation instead of a brush-off.

Also a nice change, there was no promise to call me back. He just took my job app and said if something developed he'd be in touch. Assuming I still wanted the job, and had not come to my senses.

Flashback: October 2010, Latitudes Restaurant

Acting on a tip from a classmate, I went to Latitudes Restaurant in Auburn and talked to Pete, one of the owners. They had been looking for help in the kitchen for several weeks. Unfortunately, they decided to hire their dish washer or someone for the position four days before I arrived.

Nonetheless, I filled out a job application, had a brief talk with the owner, and left.
"We'll give the new guy a month - if things don't work out, we'll give you a call."

Flashback: September-October 2010, Matteo's

Should have interviewed the kraken instead...


UPDATE: It seems that the person named in this article is no longer with the restaurant. There's a new person in charge. Still, it's not a place I'd like to return without a few months of experience in a restaurant kitchen and some solid recommendations from chefs they respect.


Flashback to my totally unsuccessful attempts at landing even a temporary, part-time, poorly paid job in a restaurant in the autumn of 2010:

This time, things were less encouraging. Worst. Interview. Ever. "Most hypnagogic interview", "Interview from the Twilight Zone" and my perennial favorite, "WTF?!" are equally appropriate. I suppose "Gone in sixty seconds" works too. "Volver" doesn't.

My chef instructor had also contacted Matt Woolston, owner of The Supper Club and Matteo's.

Upon contacting him, I received a reply: "Shoot me a weekly reminder and I will forward this email to Chef David Feldman who takes over the realm at Matteo’s on 10/1."

I had fond memories some nice meals long ago at Savoy 614 in Folsom, where Mr. Feldman was involved in the back of the house.

After sending an update, I received a more encouraging message from Matt Woolston:

"Thanks for checking in!

I will cc Chef Charlie at Supper Club and Chef Dave at Matteo’s and let them know you are looking for some hours.

Feel free to email them directly with your availability.


Finally, things were moving forward! A message from David Feldman was encouraging:

"I would like to schedule a time to speak with you in person. I am at matteo's all week, minus wednesday and am available to talk any time. Please let me know."

So, I went in the next Thursday. I entered through the back service door, walked through the kitchen and found Mr. Feldman up to his elbows in fish. Apparently "any time" has different meanings to different people. Since he did not respond to my e-mail asking for best hours, I went in the morning well before service. Bad time, apparently.

Upon meeting David Feldman, I felt about as welcome as a hissing cockroach at a food hygiene convention. He fixed me with an uncomprehending yet hostile stare, and asked what I was doing there. I mentioned our communications via e-mail and a bit of my background.

"Any restaurant experience?" he asked. "No", I replied, "That's what I'm here for."

"We don't currently have any open positions."
"Well, you said to come in to talk, so here I am. Maybe something will open up in the future?"

"And you want to work on the line?"
"Yes, but I'll take any position."

"Well, I can't talk now. I'm busy. I'll call you when I'm not busy."
"Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon."

The whole thing was over in three minutes or less. It seemed that all he wanted to do was get me out of his kitchen, and the sooner the better. I couldn't tell if his fixed gaze was the result of shock, surprise or some other reason.

He uttered something like, "Uh, well, I just got started here, and I'm not sure where things are going... "

The guy has at least fifteen years of experience as a chef, as far as I know. What the heck was that comment about "just started" and indecision? He'd been in this position for supposedly two weeks, and logically one might think he would have had an idea where he was going before he even started. You would also think that with that much experience he would not need two weeks to figure out what to do in his kitchen.

Maybe I really don't "get" this profession. Aren't chefs supposed to be perfect masters of the culinary arts, able to create a gourmet meal from the most meager ingredients on a moment's notice? Turn a sow's ear into... well, feijoada. But that's another story.

Another bottled message cast, this one floating low in the water, its glass cracked, water seeping in, the kraken's tentacle reaching...

Needless to say, this meeting did not involve filling out a job application. If I'd been asked to submit a job application, I would at least have some feeling that my application, however unsuitable it might be, could somehow end up in the hands of someone who might actually give me a call.  I would not feel as though I'd been summarily judged and dismissed without any chance of a most beneficial outcome.

Flashback: September 2010, Crush 29

grape No. 29.

On the recommendations of one of my chef instructors at school, I wrote out a resume and ventured forth to meet some chefs and test the employment waters. Little did I know that none of the people I talked to would ask for a resume. They go by looking at you and by what you put down on your employment application, apparently.

My instructor went beyond my initial question - which restaurants are good to work for - and actually contacted some chefs he knew (and he knows a lot).

The first contact was Darryl Madeira, at Crush 29 in Roseville, with a message: "have him stop by the restaurant and i can talk to him"

So, off I went, arriving at 3:00 pm when things in the kitchen were slow. We talked for about ten minutes. Or rather, he did. I managed to get a few questions and comments in, but the main conversation focused on how he did a favor for someone who couldn't take the heat and got out of the kitchen by leaving a note on Darryl's windshield and disappearing. Somehow it seems that I was put into the same boat as this person, who as far as I could tell did not even attend culinary arts classes before getting the job.

At the time, there were two prep positions currently open and I should talk to the sous chef when I brought back my employment application. He also stressed, as I recall in a life and death manner, that I would need to write my availability on the application and that, once written, it could never be changed for any reason. No. I must have heard wrong, although the application did have spaces for available hours. Restaurants really must do things differently, since I thought schedules were made and updated at regular intervals to adapt to conditions - not fixed in stone on an employment application.

I returned two days later at the same time. "Darryl is our running errands. Nobody knows when he'll be back." Huh? This was my first hint that restaurant management is different that what I'd imagined. I would have thought that since this guy runs the kitchen, he'd give a return time.

Employment app in hand, I returned several days later. This time, I arrived around the beginning of service time, figuring that he would be there. He was. He was too busy to talk so I gave him the application, thanked him, and left scratching my head. If he was so busy, what was he doing at the front of the house talking to the hostess?

I returned yet again, only to find that he was again out of the restaurant. I left a note with my name and phone number on it with the hostess and departed without ever even meeting the sous chef.

I chalked it up to this being a new industry for me, and that things must just work differently. The restaurant is obviously successful, so this must all be business as usual.

I tend to look at employment apps like messages stuffed into bottles and cast into the river. Some may wash ashore where they'll be read and acted upon; others sink into the mud (the bottom of a drawer somewhere) and disappear forever. Check off one message cast into the eddying water, spinning slowly away in the current as it passed out of visibility in the murky, silt laden water.

By the way, the song on their web site is "Une Belle Histoire" originally by Michel Fugain. Their version is obviously not M. Fugain, and I have no idea who sings it except that she has an accent.

Looking for a job - a bit of history

Despite years of cooking experience, and classes at the Culinary Arts Program, I realized that having actual experience in a restaurant kitchen would be very useful. Especially to find out if I even like this kind of thing before opening a restaurant. So, my next few posts will be flashbacks...