Saturday, February 16, 2013

Week 2. Italian menu done!

Well, that was intense.

I probably filleted an entire case of branzino (European sea bass) by myself. In total our class processed about five or six cases.

To cleanly fillet a round fish takes practice, or you end up with tattered rags of fish instead of beautiful little fillets. Angle your knife down, just behind the pectoral fin, cutting down to the bone. Turn your blade to face the tail, then cut along the spine, one hand over the fish to secure it in place. When you pass the rib section, slide the knife through until the tip comes out just above the ventral fin. Slice back toward the tail along the vertebral column to free the tail. Return to your cuts along the head and slice the fillet from the rib section, keeping the blade against bone at all times. Separate the fillet. Turn the piece over, and make a cut at the tail end, turning the blade horizontal when you hit the skin. Grab the skin and work the blade horizontally up toward the head end, removing the skin in one thin, intact piece. Done!

Aside from that, everything was pretty much routine. Gallons of peperonata, trying to slice topologically twisted peppers into more or less uniform squares. Making bean and farro soup, heating carefully to avoid scorching it and ruining that day's soup. Sautéing all kinds of fancy mushrooms then reducing everything down for a ragù that went over some pasta kerchiefs made in house.

The kitchen really is constant, mostly controlled chaos. Everyone runs around trying to complete their task, sometimes getting pulled off to complete something else, fetch an ingredient, find a piece of equipment, ask for a clarification on a recipe.

At this point, we've only cooked together during the practice day (yeah, that's not a good reference). The difference is that there is a room full of paying customers outside the swinging door waiting to be thrilled by our culinary artistry. Yes, we've taken two cooking classes and two baking classes. Some of us have taken more cooking classes as electives, like Mediterranean cooking, garde-manger, American regional, catering... We supposedly know sanitation - at least, we're certified by ServSafe. There's still quite a distance between preparing something for a class where deadlines are (somewhat) flexible and jamming it out at restaurant speed with a team of fifteen people instead of six.

All in all, the lunch went well. The food went out, pretty much on time. We heard great things about the fish and the mushrooms.

Next week, Cuban food.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Staff Meal Recipes

One thing we do in the Oak Cafe kitchen is prepare staff meals. I suppose this could be compared to cleaning out the refrigerator on a larger scale. The best situation is where we can find something left over from production - trimmings, a few peppers, an onion, some garlic, fish bones, whatever - and turn it into a meal worthy of a chef.

There are a lot of benefits to this. We reduce food waste, since all those limited quantities of food are eaten instead of thrown out. We learn to think on our feet, because the ingredients choose us instead of the other way around. We're thrifty, since expensive ingredients are generally taboo - although occasionally obligatory.

There's nothing wrong with any of this food. It's just that it's funny sizes or shapes, not enough to serve, or extra from a cooking class that didn't need that much halibut after all.

So, here's what I've done so far.

Quick French Fish Soup
We filleted several cases of branzino, leaving lots of bones. There was only one logical thing to do: make fish stock. Since we were already at it, why not whip up a batch of soupe de poissons?

- branzino bones and meat scraps from fish stock (fumet).
- leftover tomato juice
- garlic
- tarragon, fresh, chopped
- potatoes, fine dice
- fish stock (fish bones, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley stems, bay leaves - we were out of thyme)

  1. Bring the tomato, stock, garlic and potatoes to a simmer in a stock pot or rondeau.
  2. Take out the fish bones and run them through a food mill to squeeze out whatever meat you can. Don't go too strong, since you're doing this bones and all. Add the fish paste to the soup.
  3. Use an immersion blender to purée everything in the soup pot.
  4. Add a bit of brandy that you found in a bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet.
  5. Add the tarragon.
  6. Just before serving, add some pastis (or anisette, but be careful since this stuff is not as dry as real pastis).
  7. This should be served with roux and croutons, but that's another thing with staff meals - they have to be done quickly without fooling around.

Cuban Poutine
We were doing a Cuban menu. We had bits of steak, trimmings left over from prep. There were a few jalapeños, and there are always onions and garlic. We had some badly cut julienned yuca fries, too. So, what if we sautéd the meat, jalapeños, onion and garlic, then added a bit of flour and oil to make a roux, then added some leftover papaya-mango-citrus juice to create a tangy gravy? Something we could then pour over the yuca for a kind of poutine, less the cheese curds (we didn't have any).

- scraps of beef
- garlic
- jalapeño
- cilantro
- onion
- flour (AP)
- mango/papaya/citrus juice
- oil


  1. Fry the yuca - like French fries with an initial oil blanch, then a second frying to crisp them up.
  2. Sauté the meat in some oil. When the meat is showing some color, remove it and set aside.
  3. Sauté the onion, jalapeño. Add the garlic toward the end, give it a few tosses and set it aside with the meat.
  4. Add some oil to the pan, then add some flour, stirring constantly. When the roux takes on some color, temper with the juice, stirring constantly. Heat until the gravy thickens and the flour cooks.
  5. Put the meat and other ingredients back in the gravy, give it all a stir.
  6. Plate some yuca, then pour the gravy over it. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Sautéed Halibut
There were two beautiful fillets of halibut left over from another class. This is one of those times where staff meal could use a premium ingredient. Since staff meal must be done quickly, the fish was left skin on, thrown into a pan where the skin would stick, then taken out with a spatula, leaving the skin in the pan. After you've made your quick pan sauce, some skin might still be sticking. No problem since a bit of water added to the pan softened it up enough for an easy cleanup. Skinning the fillets in advance would have wasted a lot of time, but cooking this way sidesteps the issue. If the fillets were patted dry, and the fish were scaled, the skin could have been fried crisp during the sauté process. But that would have taken more time!

- halibut fillet, skin on, rinsed.
- garlic
- dry white wine
- oil for frying
- salt, pepper
- freshly squeezed lemon juice
- cilantro, chopped
- parsley, chopped
- butter, melted


  1. Roughly chop some cilantro and parsley, squeeze with lemon juice and salt lightly. Set aside.
  2. Trim out the fish into about 4 ounce portions, leaving the skin on. 
  3. Heat a sauté pan, and when the oil is hot add the fish off the flame (in the interest of fast prep, the fish was not patted dry - if you add it over a high flame, the oil will spatter and catch fire)
  4. The skin will stick to the pan. This was the idea, no worry.
  5. When the fish is cooked from the bottom up, but not all the way, sprinkle some maldon flake salt on the fish and place the sauté pan under the salamander to broil.
  6. Watch the fish - you just want a slight broil, not charred embers.
  7. When the fish is ready, take a spatula and run it between the skin and the flesh leaving the skin in the pan. Set the fish aside.
  8. Place the pan on the flame and add the herbs and white wine. Scrape a bit if you like. Add the melted butter, stir and strain the sauce.
  9. Plate the fish either on the sauce or plate and pour the sauce over. Garnish with the cilantro/parsley/lemon and serve.

Friday, February 1, 2013

First day in the cafe kitchen. What can possibly go wrong? Everything!

Today, I was Mr. Optimistic. I even sort of volunteered for one of the chef positions. Sort of, because I happened to be sitting at the front and was directly in front of James, full eye contact, no way to refuse. Not that I wanted to, since if you're going to be chef and things go south, you want this to happen on practice day.

The menu, simple enough. A fresh green salad tossed with citronette. Baked chicken breasts with a salsa verde/chimichurri drizzle, served over cannelloni beans. Foccacia bread on the side. Apple crostada for dessert. Direct, straightforward, no sauces to mess up, no emulsions to break.

Everything seemed fine, yet catastrophe was lurking in the reeds like a 30 foot python. The ovens were on, the citronette ready, the salad greens washed, prepped and set aside, the chimichurri seasoned perfectly, the chicken cooking...

Maybe that problem where the hot water tap would not shut off should have been a clue that all was not destined to flow smoothly.

The kitchen was humming along, ready for an on-time 11:30 service. Ingredients were prepped, mise en place set, all the elements ready for our first performance. Right?

The first hint came as a calm remark from James, "Guys, this oven is set to zero degrees...". The oven with the chicken that's been "cooking" for fifteen minutes?

Yep. That's the one. See this knob? It needs to be turned...


Quick! Transfer the chicken to the convection oven!

Uh, how much chicken is that?

16 half breasts. We'll cut them just the way Teresa did.

So, I have this image of Teresa cutting the chicken on a 45° slant in Pro Cooking, fanning it over the beans and drizzling the slices with the chimichurri. Two portions per half breast, so 16 half breasts should yield 32 servings, right?

Wrong image.

The correct image was one half breast, cut in two, stood up on top of the beans. The chimichurri drizzle part was right, thankfully.

So, we're 15 minutes in the weeds and only have half the portions prepped and in the oven. Luckily, we had the missing chicken prepped and on hand.

A quick toss in a mix of parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper and into the oven they went.
Another half hour to cook.

Almost service time.

Where is the salad? It's not in the walk-in.


Hey, I'm telling you it's not here. Go check.

Nope, not there.

Please tell me it's not in the freezer.

Urrr... Yep, it's in the freezer.

Please tell me it went in a minute ago.

No... it's completely frozen solid. Crispy, brittle, icy.


Didn't whoever put it there see the word, "FREEZER" written on the machine?


Let's try soaking the lettuce in some cold water.

No good. The ice crystals destroyed the leaves' cell structure, it's limper than a viagraless codger.


Grab the mixed spring greens from the walk-in, prep them and let's move!

Put in some arugula to make up the difference. Damn this arugula looks like shit. Diseased or something, old, yellow, mucky. Quick! Pick out the good stuff and shitcan the rest.

Toss the green stuff, get the dressing on, plate, garnish, get it out. We're only half an hour late... but the chicken hasn't all cooked.

Finally the chicken was at temperature - 160°F, ready to pull out of the oven and hold for service.

The beans - the only dish that went down without a problem - were ladled onto plates and passed down, the chicken breasts cut and carefully placed, the chimichurri ladled on, the plates whisked out by the front of the house students.

The crostadas and bread, miraculously came off without a hitch.

Finally, the empty dessert plates began to stream back into the kitchen. We'd survived, bruised, late, in the weeds, but uninjured. There were no explosions, shattered plates, blackened dishes, burnt out equipment.

Except for routine clean-up, we survived our first day in the Oak Cafe kitchen.

Uh, what was that about someone spilling all the salad dressing?

Things for next time
  • Read the name on the equipment. If it says, FREEZER, make sure whatever you place inside is meant to be frozen. The salad should have gone in the lowboy, the thing next to the freezer.
  • The top red knob on the still (non-convection) oven under the range turns it on. The knob with all the numbers sets the thermostat. Screw either one up and you've got raw chicken! Although it's invisible, the top of the thermostat knob is the temperature setting.
  • Draw a plating diagram before service, in part to keep plating consistent, but also to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
  • If you don't want to get yelled at, don't trash $17 worth of fancy greens!