Does Age Matter?

I stumbled into a conversation at work recently between my chef and the pastry chef. They were speculating on how old Leon, one of our dishwashers is. The other dishwashers are basically kids – around 20 and 22 years old. But Leon’s clearly got some mileage on him and the years have not been kind. He looks tired from the moment he arrives to work and the younger guys run circles around him. Chef and pastry chef both turned to me and asked, “How old do you think he is?” “Oh, he’s got to be older,” I said. “What would you say, like 45?” asked Chef. “Yeah, mid forties,” I answered. Well, we got the scoop from our butcher, who told us he was 38. Both chefs and I were shocked. “He’s our age?” said our pastry chef. “He’s got to be lying,” said Chef. Still our butcher assured us it was true.

So all of this got me wondering, how much does age actually matter in a restaurant kitchen?

Both the pastry chef and I are in our thirties, but routinely get mistaken for women who are, if I had to guess, 7 or 8 years younger. She started as a line cook twelve years ago, and in her case, found that especially early in her career, it was difficult to get people to take her seriously because they all thought she was a kid. In my previous career, letters of reference often included descriptions like, “Always a professional, she responds to the challenges of each project with a maturity beyond her years.” I had to wonder, did they actually know how old I was? However, as a career changer, I believe that looking younger than my age has actually worked to my advantage, at least to get a foot in the door. My pastry chef agreed, saying, “Yes, in this industry, it’s true especially for a man. No one is going to hire a 45 year old line cook.”

When I considered becoming a cook, I certainly felt an urgency about it because of my age. If I was going to do it, it had to be before I turned 35. I wanted at least 10 years of solid restaurant experience before I could even call myself a chef. (see pastry chef’s previous quote). Yet when I was in culinary school, there were a surprising number of students who were in their forties and fifties. One such student was in great shape and could keep up with the younger students, but many simply had trouble keeping pace. And cooking in school was like taking a nap compared to cooking in a real restaurant. So I had to wonder what these older cooks planned to do after culinary school. Most of them had dreams of opening their own restaurants. Restaurant owner? Sure, I could see that, but I doubt any of them would become chefs. From what I’ve seen, line cooks respect a chef who may have retired from the line but can still jump in and cook alongside them in a crunch. These are chefs who have already earned their salt by working many years on the line. They know how each station works, how to direct a line of cooks, and how to get the best out of each and every one of them. I doubt these autumn career changers were going to get that kind of experience. It’s true, line cooking is a lot like being an athlete, a soldier, or even a ballerina. It requires many abilities way beyond and unrelated to cooking itself, and the cold hard truth is that many of these abilities simply weaken with age:

Sharpness and alertness of all Five Senses.

Line cooking is the only job I can think of in which all five senses must be fully engaged at all times. The first and most important one is obvious: Taste. You must taste your food before you serve it. You need to know what it’s supposed to taste like (um, delicious) and how to fix it on the fly. Does it need more seasoning? Or is it too salty? Is the sauce if flavorful enough, or it it over-reduced? Can I salvage a mistake or have to start over?

Hearing. It is loud in a restaurant kitchen during service. There is the constant rumbling of the commercial exhaust hood right over you, the clanging of pots and pans, the rush of water every time the dishwasher opens and closes. And in this small enclosed space, over all the noise, you must be able to hear the chef or expediter call out orders and fire tables. At one point this past summer, the garde manger station was running a mixed, a beet, and a fig salad. Say the words mixed, beet, and fig. Add to them a Spanish accent, mix them in with other orders and the kitchen din, and to the English speaking ear, they were nearly indecipherable.

Sight. If you are lucky enough to be working a station that actually gets a dupe, or ticket, you have to be able to read the orders and pick out the ones that come from your station. Oh, and all those modifiers, such as “SOS” (sauce on the side), “light on dressing,” or “gluten allergy,” are in really fine print. There’s simply no time to be taking off and putting back on the reading glasses during service.

Smell. Sometimes you’ll get a bad scallop, or open a bad oyster. If you can’t smell it and it gets served, that’s going to be one unhappy, or even worse, one sick customer.

Touch. Essential, especially if you are the meat slinger. The fact of the matter in every restaurant is that the grill guy is not standing there with a meat thermometer checking the temp on each filet mignon and hanger steak. Some use cake testers to probe the meat and can tell by the heat of the probe how done the meat is. But the real pros can tell by gently pressing the meat with their fingers. (Yes, our hands are on your food, if this skeeves you out, you probably shouldn’t go out to eat at any restaurant).

A combination of senses can save a line cook from the irretrievable disaster of burned food. When it’s busy, you can’t always have an eye on the pans that you have working on the stove. Ideally, while you have your back turned, reaching around the low boys for your next order, your food should be quietly sizzling away. However, if one of your pans has gotten too hot, and something is at risk of burning, the first thing you’ll notice is the sound. A loud hissing noise should signal you to quickly lift the pan and turn down the flame. If this first signal is missed, the second signal will the be the smell, which is often followed by the internal musing, “Hmm, is something burning? Oh shit!” At this point, the item may still be salvaged if you react quickly enough. However, if you don’t hear it, and you don’t smell it, by the time you see smoke, it’s probably too late. This brings me to the next requirement of line cooking.

Quick reflexes, agilty, and a steady hand

In a restaurant kitchen, it’s called line cooking because you are literally standing in a line of cooks flanked on one side by counters and refrigerators and on the other side by ovens and burners. The aisle in which you stand is narrow so that you can reach items on the stove and the counter at the same time, but it also means that whenever the oven or refrigerator doors open, you’d better be out of the way. In an ideal world, each cook on the line would have his/ her own oven. Well, this week, one of our two working ovens finally died, leaving all four cooks on the line working out of the hot appetizer oven. It happened that was the station I was working last night. “Open oven!” yelled the saute cook next to me as she opened the door and threw a pan of monkfish inside. I quickly stepped back, still stirring my pan of ragout so the cheese I just tossed in wouldn’t clump up. Just as she was about to close the door and I was about to resume my position in front of the burner, the garde manger cook to the other side of me said, “Wait” and held the door open so she could pull the tart she had been warming. I could easily have stepped forward and had a face full of hot veal ragout and second degree burns on my knees. As I’m plating my dishes, cursing some oversized floppy pasta for splashing all over the rim of the bowl, or trying to stack saucy sticky barbeque ribs into a structually sound tower without making a mess, it is not uncommon for a dishwasher (usually our friend Leon) to insist on squeezing by behind me to restock the shelf over the stove with clean saute pans.

When it works, line cooking is actually a beautiful thing to watch. When my station is quiet, I take particular joy in watching our resident meat slinger at work. Manos de hombre, as he has been dubbed for his unusually large and meaty hands, works the grill, and only the grill. Yes, it’s strangely fitting, and he’s a real pro. Watching him is like watching a prima ballerina dancing a part she has done a thousand times before. Always calm and even smiling, he makes what I know to be a difficult job look practically effortless. Every one of his movements is clean, precise, and steady – whether slicing a perfectly cooked duck breast, arranging it on the plate, drizzling the sauce over it, or even wiping down his station after each plating. Utter perfection, especially when compared to the night that our former sous chef, who eventually got fired for cooking under the influence, crashed and burned covering the station on Manos de hombre’s night off. But that’s a story for another post…

Stamina, Resilience, and Mental Focus
Hungover after going out after last night’s service? Coming down with a cold? Grab a hot pan without a towel? Or simply exhausted from working a double shift? Well, suck it up, because a line cook’s shift is anywhere from 8-12 hours, and if your name is on the schedule you had better be there and pull your weight. The work is physically demanding. You are on your feet for every single one of those long hours, running up and down the stairs from the prep kitchen to the service kitchen, lifting 5-gallon containers of stock or heavy equipment, standing in front of a hot stove, or endlessly squatting down to get stuff out of low-boys and ovens. If you are tall like I am, it certainly takes a toll on your back and your knees. What about burns and cuts you ask? Well, while I was an intern, I saw a young fish cook at another restaurant grab hold of a hot pan-handle, burning himself very badly across the palm. He couldn’t let go or the fish would have dropped on the floor. He managed to plate the fish, left the line just long enough to wrap his wound in masking tape then return to the line to finish his shift without once losing his focus. This is the reality of what is expected of a line cook. Leave early, or pull a no-show, and your fellow cooks are going to have something to say about it – probably using phrases such as pinche pendejo, burro, or hijo de la verga. And yes, even English speaking cooks have come to use the more colorful Spanish phrases.

So how much does age matter in the kitchen? How old is too old? Well, if working the line requires you to have your five senses intact, quick reflexes, precision of movement, and the physical and mental stamina to stay focused for 12 hours (or more if its a double shift), then yes, age matters in that these are typically abilities that become compromised with age. Still, everyone ages differently so I’d say that it’s physical and mental age, not numerical age that matters. Regardless of how old you are, or how old you look, it all comes down to not letting your fellow line cooks down.

Comfort Food Pt. 2 : Christmas in New England

It’s been said that when you live somewhere long enough, it becomes a part of you. Sure, maybe it’s been four years since I returned to New York. Sure, maybe I live only five minutes from the suburb where I grew up. But after leaving New York at eighteen, I spent the better part of my adult life living in the little New England city of Providence, Rhode Island. After more than ten years there, it became a part of me, and it became more my home than New York was. So I was really excited to get some time off from work to spend Christmas there and have some real Rhode Island comfort food. Here are three of my favorites.

Tourtiere de Reveillon, or French Canadian Meat Pie

click on image for recipe

My boyfriend is a native of Rhode Island, and while we lived there, I spent many holidays with his family. This year, I received an email from his sister in Atlanta, requesting my recipe for Reveillon Tourtiere. It was going to be her first Christmas away from home, and Christmas Eve just wasn’t going to be the same without it. The traditional meat pie originated with 17th century French Acadian settlers of eastern Canada, some of whom migrated to various parts of New England, including Rhode Island. On Christmas eve, or Reveillon, the family would attend midnight mass together, then return home to open their presents and feast on the fragrant and savory meat pie. When the neighborhood market that sold the family’s favorite tourtiere closed a few years ago, my boyfriend and I embarked on a quest to re-create the pie of his childhood. There are a lot of recipes on the internet, and surely every French Canadian family has a meme with a closely guarded recipe of her own. Using the internet recipes as a starting point, we made variation after variation until we finally got the flavor and texture just right. We ate a lot of meat pie that winter.

Hot Weiners

A Rhode Island obsession. Unlike hot dogs, these are natural casing sausages that come in a continuous link that have to be cut, resulting in the signature stubby ends. A true connoisseur orders them “all the way,” or fully topped with greek-style meat chili, mustard, onions, and celery salt. I usually have two. My boyfriend usually downs four. Add a glass of coffee milk and a plate of french fries with salt and white vinegar for the complete Little Rhody experience. When we lived in Providence, my boyfriend and I were late night regulars at the original New York System on Smith Street, and when we visit Rhode Island we usually stop there before we leave. Still he would rave about the weiners he grew up with at Rod’s Grille in Warren. Finally this trip, we happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped into Rod’s Grille. Truth be told, though the New York System is more famous (thanks in part to “Providence” the T.V. show), the weiners at Rod’s Grille tasted fresher and were really delicious.

Littlenecks and other fresh New England seafood

Much of the seafood we consume here in New York, particularly the shellfish, comes from New England waters. If you’ve ever had fresh off the dock seafood straight from it’s source, it’s difficult to stomach anything less. It’s probably the seafood I miss most, and every time we visit Rhode Island, I take the opportunity to have some. In the summer it’s beer and littlenecks on the halfshell at Topside’s outdoor deck facing the bay, or chowder and clamcakes at Quitos. But in the winter, we go indoors to Jack’s Family Restaurant. We usually start with littlenecks on the halfshell then share the seafood pasta with Jack’s “special” sauce. Although the littleneck clam is named after Little Neck, NY where these clams were once abundant, the majority of these clams now come from Rhode Island shores. They don’t get any fresher than this – pink, plump, and sweet, and never rubbery.

Recipe Link:  Tourtiere de Reveillon

Comfort Food Pt. 1: Mom’s Mohingha

It’s no secret that keeping restaurant hours makes it difficult to spend time with friends and family. When most people are relaxing with their families after a day at work, or sharing a drink or a meal with friends, I am the most busy at work. When my fellow cooks and I are finally leaving the restaurant and looking for a place to unwind with a burger and a beer, my friends and family are all in their pajamas brushing their teeth. This week, my parents are leaving for a 10-day vacation to Italy and they have been hounding me to have lunch with them before they leave, so I decided to spend my day off cooking with my Mom.

Neither of my parents are ethnically Burmese, but they were both born and raised in the capital city of Rangoon, Burma (now renamed by the current governing power as Yangon, Myanmar). They immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s and sponsored the arrival of my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My earliest childhood memories are of a house full of extended family. The women of the house would sit around the dining room table all morning, gossiping and prepping ingredients for the family’s meals. Later the kitchen would be bubbling and sizzling with home cooked Burmese cuisine, and the pungent aromas of ginger, garlic and chiles permeated every room. My aunts would argue over each other’s recipes for mohingha, a fish and rice noodle stew, unofficially recognized as the national dish of Burma, let thouk, a salad of fermented tea leaves, shredded vegetables and wheat noodles, eaten by hand, or ohn noh kauk swe, a dish of curried chicken and wheat noodles similar to the Malaysian dish, laksa.

Growing up, I was usually more excited about lasagne night or Chinese take-out than the weird stinky food of my parents’ homeland.  Only after I moved out of state did I suddenly long for a pungent bowl of mohingha or the chewy noodles and creamy turmeric scented broth of ohn noh kauk swe. Problem was, I had no idea how to make these recipes. Cookbooks on Italian, French, Chinese, Mexican, Thai and Indian cuisine could be found in any bookstore, but there were no books on Burmese cuisine, and there was little on the internet either. So today I asked my mother to show me how to make mohingha. She was only too thrilled that I was finally taking an interest in the food of her homeland.

I arrived at my parents’ house with a bag of onions, four heads of garlic, a bunch of scallions, and a bunch of cilantro. My mother had already cooked the rice vermicelli, and poached the fish. She removed the fish from the pot and pulled the fish from the bones, explaining that typically catfish is used, but that any firm fleshed white fish is suitable. I watched as she retrieved the pieces of ginger she had used to infuse the cooking liquid, saving both to use in the final stew.  In a separate pot, she began to saute diced onions with minced garlic and ginger.  To this, she added the fish and seasoned the mixture with fish sauce, a little chili powder, and some paprika. After a few minutes of cooking, she checked the flavor – salty, sweet, and briny – and added the mixture to the fish broth. Next she added freshly cut onion wedges to the pot. “The diced onions disappear,” she explained, lifting a spoonful of the stew to show me. She also had a bowl of cornmeal mixed with water to form a loose paste.  She added the paste by spoonfuls until the stew began to thicken, explaining that traditionally roasted rice powder was used to thicken the stew, but that she found corn meal added the same texture and was more widely available.

We left the mohingha to simmer as my mother pulled out her blender and pureed more fresh ginger and garlic.   She would add this just as the stew finished cooking. “You don’t want to cook it too long after adding the puree,” she said, explaining that the aroma would be lost. Meanwhile we prepared the remaining garnishes. I washed and chopped scallions, picked cilantro, and squeezed lemon juice while Mom prepared hard boiled eggs and thinly sliced another raw onion. “Some people like to add the raw onion, some people don’t,” she said. “But I like it.”

When the stew was just about ready, Mom added the ginger and garlic paste, and slices of cooked fish cake. Tasting the stew again, Mom scrunched up her nose, saying “Not enough garlic. Your Dad always likes more garlic.”  After about minute she announced,  “Now it’s ready.  Let’s eat.” My Dad may be hard of hearing, but appeared immediately from the next room, bowl already in hand. I barely had a chance to take a photo of the table before he started piling garnishes onto his bowl of mohingha and devouring it.  He was already nearing the bottom of his bowl when Mom exclaimed “Oh, I almost forgot!” and pulled out a jar of fried, minced garlic in oil. “Hmm, I didn’t even miss it,” Dad said, helping himself to seconds, with the fried garlic.

I helped myself to a bundle of noodles and ladled the mohingha over it so that puddled around them. I added a couple spoonfuls of lemon juice, raw onions, chopped scallions, cilantro leaves and a hard boiled egg. With each familiar bite I could taste how each step was essential to building the flavors of the mohingha. Diced onions caramelized in the first step added sweetness and body.  The wedges of onion added to the boiling liquid had separated into soft mild petals and absorbed all the flavor of the broth.  Raw thinly sliced onions were fresh, crunchy and acrid. The cold fresh garnishes added contrast to the hot steaming fish flavor, and the ginger-garlic paste and lemon juice not only brightened up the flavors, but gave the dish it’s signature pungent aroma. This tasted exactly like I remembered, like home.

Mom’s Mohingha

Here is a version of my Mom’s recipe for mohingha, with a few modifications:

INGREDIENTS about 6-8 servings:

3 large catfish fillets, approx. 1-1/2 lbs.
1 6″ piece of ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
4 heads of garlic, peeled
2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
1 medium onion cut into wedges
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
thai fish sauce
chili powder
paprika
corn meal mixed with water
1 bunch scallions, washed and sliced
1 bunch cilantro, picked and roughly chopped
4 hard boiled eggs
1/2 c. fresh lemon juice
rice vermicelli

PROCEDURE:

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, add salt and cook rice vermicelli as directed on the package. Drain, and toss with some vegetable oil to keep from sticking. Set aside.

Bring 4 quarts of water and half of the ginger to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add the catfish fillets. Lightly poach the fillets until they are just cooked. Remove the fish and the ginger from the poaching liquid. Reserve all three separately.

Using a fork, break up the cooked fillets. Mince 6 cloves of garlic. Combine the remaining garlic, the poached ginger, and the remaining raw ginger in a blender. Blend into a paste, adding water as needed to loosen the mixture.

In a large dutch oven, saute the diced onions and minced garlic until the onions are transparent. Add the fish meat and season the mixture with fish sauce, chili powder, and paprika. Cook for another 5 minutes until all the flavors have blended. Add the poaching liquid, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the onion wedges. Lower to a simmer, and stir in the corn meal paste. Season with finely ground black pepper and salt. Simmer gently until the corn meal has thickened and the fish fillets have broken up. Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook for one minute.

Serve over rice noodles, garnished with scallions, cilantro, onions, hard boiled eggs, and lemon juice.

More on Burmese cuisine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Myanmar

Bye Bye B.B.

Well, playtime is over and I am starting my first job as a line cook tomorrow. After my recent graduation from French Culinary Institute, I was offered garde manger positions at both Restaurant B.B.* where I did my stage, or externship, and at a smaller, lesser known restaurant. After struggling with the dilemma for a good week, I decided to take the job at the smaller restaurant. So this evening, I had to undertake the difficult task of saying goodbye to the chef, and everyone I had gotten to know at Restaurant B.B.

Overall, I my experience at Restaurant B.B. was a positive one, and even though it was not required for school, I am glad to have done an externship there. You see, in our last three months at the FCI, students begin to apply the techniques we have learned by working in the on-campus restaurant, first in the prep and family kitchen, then on the line. Since I had almost no kitchen experience, I wanted to do a voluntary externship as well. So I talked to the career services staff about my specific culinary interests and they helped me refine my resume, and forwarded it to Restaurant B.B. Shortly thereafter I received a call and arranged a trail.

I arrived for the trail with my knife kit and FCI uniform. It was around noon and the restaurant was in the middle of lunch service. I was greeted by one of the sous chefs, who showed me to the women’s locker room (which I realize now is a somewhat uncommon luxury). After I had changed, I was given my first task. One of the line cooks set a few cases of broccoli rabe in front of me and demonstrated how to separate the leaves from, and trim the florets of each stalk. The executive chef arrived shortly thereafter and greeted me with a smile and a handshake. Among my other tasks that day were peeling and trimming a case or two of asparagus, and cleaning and trimming baby turnips. From the prep kitchen I had a good view of the line and was able to observe the dinner service. On the line was a sous chef, accompanied by a saucier, a saute cook, an entremetier, and hot appetizer cook. There were also two cooks on the garde manger (cold app) station and a pastry cook plating desserts. During service, Chef sent me a couple dishes from the menu to try, and later called me into his office to chat. We agreed that I would come in two weekday evenings after school, and a full day on the weekend for the next three months or so. I know some students in my culinary program who only do one or two days a week, and others who actually worked up to 5 shifts a week. For me going to school full time and externing 28 hours a week was often really taxing, but was just enough to be really involved in the restaurant without sacrificing my school work.

During my externship, I prepped a LOT of vegetables. The dining room had over a hundred seats, which on a busy night could turn over up to 4 times. Every week, there were many cases of broccoli rabe, asparagus, baby turnips, radishes, carrots and more to be cleaned shaped. Both the executive chef and sous chefs there were really supportive and patiently corrected me if they saw what I was doing wasn’t exactly correct. Well, I guess practice makes perfect, and gradually I was allowed to take on new tasks – rolling dauphines, prepping ratatouille, picking literally kilos of parsley for herb butter, blanching vegetables, poaching eggs, prepping ingredients for gazpacho, and making flavored oils. Occasionally Chef would just give me a recipe and instructions for special items, like pissalidiere dough, or squid ink pasta, and rely on me to prep it on my own.

I also spent a lot of time helping out the garde manger station during service, but there seemed to be a lot of new people working there too and sometimes it got so crowded it was better for me just to hang back and do prep. All the cooks were really warm though, and made me feel welcome whenever I was there. After about a month, I became pretty familiar with the plates that were coming out of the garde manger, and was allowed to be more involved during service. By my last few weeks there, the garde manger cooks training me were hanging back to allow me to learn the station. After a while I started to get the hang of producing consistent plates every time, shucking oysters under pressure, and listening for the expediter and sous chef to call fired dishes. Toward the end of service I would find myself working the station alone as the others made prep lists. I knew from this that it was likely there would be a job for me there after graduation.

Admittedly, the kitchen at Restaurant B.B. isn’t for everyone. During my externship there, I did see a handful of cooks leave for other restaurants, and have overheard complaints that the amount of prep is just unreal. However, as an extern, it was the perfect place to reinforce basic skills like knife work, speed, and consistency. It was also a good place to get exposure to working service at a restaurant that does a considerable amount of volume while making an effort to maintain a high level.

I probably would have transitioned happily from my externship to a job at Restaurant B.B, but one of the chefs at school happened to be recruiting for a small alumnus-run restaurant in Brooklyn and recommended me. It was such a tough decision, I trailed there on three separate occasions to be sure I was making the right choice before choosing the smaller restaurant. It seemed that cooks there are encouraged to rotate stations as soon as they are able. As a recent graduate, the advantage of this is obvious. So this evening I went by Restaurant B.B. to deliver my news. After they took the time to train me for the garde manger, I was nervous about having to turn down the position. So I was relieved when Chef seemed genuinely understanding, wished me the best, and asked me to keep in touch. It was the middle of dinner service, so I didn’t want to linger too long. I briefly said goodbye to the garde manger and pastry cooks, but I hope it’s not goodbye for good. Sure, I’d only known them a few months, but I truly hope we’ll keep in touch.

*Name of the restaurant is not published. Contact me for additional info.

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