Thursday, December 20, 2007

What a beautiful mess: Part I

Shall I be so bold as to call it a blessing? I got let out of the office at 4:30 today after a presentation. It was quite the mercy after a bad yesterday.

I've been itching to try out some new cookie recipes for weeks now, so what better way to spend the rest of the evening than with a holiday bake-off? I went ingredient shopping, poured myself a glass of wine, gnawed on some cheese, and got to work. I felt like the king of the world having the kitchen all to myself for so many hours.

For the ingredients, I used as many organic as possible (and when available, local) with the main exception being the butter. I spent a precious hour or so rummaging through the butter section of 4 different stores looking for my favorite butter, Plugra, with no luck. I ended up buying an (expensivo) Italian brand. Why so picky about butter? Whether you want to believe it or not, it's the main ingredient in cookies. If you need to see it to believe it, just look at this picture. Woa Nelly, that's a lot of butter. [And hey, that's the beautiful Le Crueset dutch oven from M. Thanks, M. It was the best present ever. No exaggeration.]

The cookie I'm most excited about is one that requires brown butter (sorry, names of actual cookies may not be revealed till x-mas time). I've made a little brown butter for pasta dishes (with sage!), but never in such large quantities. It's quite a satisfying process to brown up a big pot of butter: As soon as it melts, it starts to bubble. The bubbles are quite cute. Then in about 11 minutes, it forms a thick foam right before it starts to caramelize, turn a beautiful golden brown, and give off a nutty aroma. It takes on such a personality of its own you almost want to yell out, "It's alive!"

The one mistake I made was when I doubled the recipe, I miscalculated the flour and had to add in more last-minute. I hope they still turn out o.k. My kitchen math could definitely use some improvement. I could also really use a KitchenAid mixer. I can't decide what's harder - hand-kneading pasta dough or hand-creaming butter and sugar.

The final product of the day was a pile of dirtied-up bowls, a table and floor covered in white flour, and and 4 nice batches of dough wrapped in plastic. Pure satisfaction. They will rest peacefully overnight in my mini-fridge and be thrown (gently placed) in the oven tomorrow night. Till then, good night my little babies.

An addendum: "Liquid gold,"
a great article on browned butter "

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The office

O.K. I'm reaching a breaking point. Sometimes I think I will walk out of the office never to return. Just like that. To be perfectly honest, there's no good reason why I hate it so much (and yes it's hate, not dislike). By most people's standards, I have a pretty good job. They pay a decent salary, provide good health benefits, and I even have pretty good hours now. I work with great people, for great clients, in a great company that's part of a great corporation. I've spent the past 10 years trying to get comfortable in this environment, to come to terms with it, and it never happened. I can't help but ask myself, what's wrong with me? I don't know, but it's time I stop rationalizing, and move on and away.

These days, while part of my right brain is being used to analyze concepts, spacial relations, colors, and fonts, most of my brain capacity is used daydreaming about cookie recipes, making a salad with fennels with oranges - the feeling of grating parmesan cheese into the salad, visiting local farmers, and getting myself to the west coast to work with the Chez Panisse foundation (yeah right). I feel like singer who can't open her mouth, a bird with its wings tied down. Yes, it's melodramatic, but this is how I feel today. I'm totally out of my element in the office - by the time 4 o'clock hits, I have trouble thinking straight, remembering who I am, or feeling remotely alive. It's no way to live this short life.

There's no real good conclusion to this post except to comfort myself in knowing that I took a step forward. All I can do for now is be patient, be involved, and implement some creative solutions for a transition phase. To be continued...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Amsterdam Public

Today was by far the crappiest day of the year. Is it rain? Is it snow? I don't know, but it's COLD AND WET. By unfortunate circumstance it was also the trial run of Wintermarket, an event organized by Jill Slater and Robert La Valva of New Amsterdam Public, a non-profit organization aiming to convert the now-abandoned Fulton Fish Market into a year-round eventually- indoor market featuring only local purveyors. They're currently in the midst of talks with the city. The other option under consideration is a "luxury" condo building. What a novel idea.

I was so excited with the prospect of this development that I immediately signed up to be a volunteer. I was hoping they'd allow me to assist with the Market Meal, but they assigned me to greet guests at the entrance instead. I guess beggars (volunteers/non-cooks) can't be choosers. When I woke up this morning, the gray outside my window and the sound of howling wind and pattering rain (snow?) didn't dampen my excitement. It's a small part, but part of a bigger whole, to be involved and serve this vision in some way. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." It's a lofty thing to aspire to, but I it's possible when you live your truth passionately.

The market was not at as grand a scale as I had imagined, and set up outdoors for the time being. But there were more than enough purveyors to talk to and learn from and, of course, more than enough yummy food to taste and contemplate. We didn't know what kind of crowd to expect due to the inclement weather, but by noon it was completely packed, toe-stepping included.

The vendors

The foragers from Vermont were by far one of the most interesting. They offered wild ginger, Jerusalem artichokes, daylily tubers, and truffles. The daylily tubers tasted a bit like ginseng and the wild ginger was potent! There was a chef from the New England Culinary School, Tom Bivins, who created a completely unique and flavorful salad with these ingredients. And he was a really nice guy to boot.

My most enjoyable conversation took place with a lovely man named Jerry Henkin, who had a table full of unusual nuts on display. He's part of the Northern Nut Growers Association, an organization devoted entirely to cultivating nut trees. Some nuts I've seen for the first time were black walnut, turky nut, shellbark and shagbark hickory nut (my favorite) and butternut. He also had some interesting nut-shelling instruments on hand. You can see one (and Jerry) in action in the picture. Since I don't have one of these nifty gadgets, he suggested smashing two big rocks together to open the the sample shagbark hickory nuts he gave me. He also suggested I share them with the squirrels.

Most vendors happily dished out good portions of samples including the foraged salad, seasonal cookies made from wild ginger, fresh ricotta ice cream from NJ, a sauerkraut & pork stew with homemade sauerkraut and pork from Flying Pigs Farm in upstate NY, raw honey tastings, seaweed stew, and scrumptious slow roasted lamb sandwiches with local cress & cranberry honey compote. There was also a day-fresh egg vendor from NJ, Wild Edibles selling $5 fried oysters that I got suckered into, and stone ground organic flours.

The grand finale for me was a sighting of Mario Batali in wellies and shorts, and THE BEST SANDWICH I'VE EVER HAD IN MY LIFE - a simple pork sandwich with salsa verde on a moist ciabatta-like roll. My apologies to M and D for the picture of the pig, but that's where my food came from and I must own it.

At the end of the day it felt like I shared something with a community with common goal - to get back to the basics, to connect to the earth somehow while in this urban environment, to learn from the people that produce the food we put into our bodies, to eliminate the fat middle man. The next step is to figure out how to move forward so that everyone can reap the benefits, not just the well-to-do. Education is the word.

A. Tortellini

Yup. I'm now the official pasta girl of RestoX. My name is A. Tortellini. Today, ChefX gave me a gift certificate (of appreciation - so nice!) to the restaurant with the name under "A**** Tortellini."

Same pasta story: 14 egg yolks + 2 whole, 1 qt + small mound flour, pump out dough ASAP about 20x, sweat, admire satin-smoothness of dough, roll out tagliatelli, cut circles, form tortellini, self-critique.

On pasta and vanity: I often think about the big, hefty "mammas" of Italy and wonder if I'll look like that 6 months from now. And in my vainest moments I worry about the lopsidedness of my shoulder - one buff, one not. I also can feel my face contort slightly as I roll out the dough. I will never know if it's pretty. Most likely not.

On pasta and cursing: The tortellini dough was too moist and sticky today, and the filling seemed unusually large for the circles. The tortellini were not behaving, so I kept doling out "sh**! f***! cr**! what the h***!?" I see now why chefs have a reputation for cursing - if you mess something up, you see all the hours of sweat and toil that went into creating what you just dumped into the garbage. There is no ctrl Z in cooking. I started to wonder if maybe the cursing made the tortellini unhappy, and in turn made them rebel against me (if you believe in that kind of thing - water structure being affected by words, etc). I also worried that they would taste horrible if made with anger vs love. So I started to talk to the tortellini, trying to make nice. Down to my last one, ChefX informed me I used a cutter 1/8" too small - miles of a difference in the tortellini world. Live and learn.

On tortellini butts: The flatter they are, the better. The ideal one should should sit like a sumo wrestler - plump, squat and flat. They should also recline back a bit, like a La-Z-Boy, so they can accommodate the sitting peas.

On tortellini and evolution: They do.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Kitchen Mantras

• I will not be defeated by [insert food i.e. the pasta dough, a million peas].
I can do this I can do this I can do this (be a 32-year-old changing careers, trying to live out a dream).
Humility in all things, with confidence in the greatest thing.
Taste, taste, taste.
Look around, stay alert, and be curious about everything.
Focus and attend to every task as if my life depends on it.
It's all a means to an end - remember the final goal.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

ChefX is da bomb


Always keeps his cool: On the morning of Day 2, he was informed that a private party he was catering for was on that night, not the following as he had planned. He took the news as if you told him "have a nice day," shuffled some staff around, did a little nervous dance, and moved on. Later in the afternoon his wife dropped by. When she heard the news she was stressing something major, but not disproportionately to the situation at hand. ChefX asked her to stop freaking out and to go home if she was to continue stressing.
When I told him I thought her response was normal and his not, he said this was the reality at hand, and what could be done but to get things done? (Um... panic, yell, curse, take stress out on others, perhaps?) My level of respect for Chef X quadrupled that day.

Has a massive cookbook collection: There's an entire wall downstairs that's dedicated entirely to cookbooks. This was his education along with years of hard work in real kitchens
, not culinary school.

Likes kitchen musicals: He sings bad 80's songs, but he mostly makes up songs from the kitchen. My personal favorite: "Pasta Ladaaay! She be makin' the pasta..."

Shows R-E-S-P-E-C-T:
For the food: By not messing with
the ingredients too much. He likes to let the ingredients shine with their pure essence of flavor.
For the staff:
ChefX respects everyone, even a silly girl like me who just walked in off the street. He respects their individual strength and craft, even if it's just peeling a thousand pea pods. He's also smart and humble enough to try his best at speaking Spanish - clearly the first language of professional kitchens in NYC.
For himself: By not acting like a ganache (French word for "fool," as I learned today). The cowboy chef - the cursing, yelling, punishing macho man portrayed in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, and countless other real-life kitchen accounts, has no place in the kitchen of RestoX.

Is a subtle but effective teacher: He doesn't use many words, just targeted and timely ones.He's taught me the to do everything with a sense of urgency at all times, no matter what the job. He watches everything you do, but from afar. At first I thought he didn't care much about me and the little tasks I was working on, but I was completely wrong. He cares about every aspect of the kitchen. He goes way, silently observes like an eagle from afar, and allows you to make a just a few mistakes so you can learn from yourself what happens when you make those mistakes. This is by far the best teaching philosophy. All he then needs to do is come over and say just a few words - barely a sentence - to drive home the lesson. He lets the experience inform you - you already know you've made some kind of mistake and you can see for yourself the (horrific) result.
It doesn't require much explanation, just why it was a horrific mistake, and then he shows you how to correct it. It's quite effective.

Demonstrates humility: Period.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

V180 Pasta Machine Motorizer

I may recommend one of these to ChefX.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pasta dough primer

On the Day 2, before I knew what was coming to me (peas), I cranked out some mean pasta dough. ChefX had me create the dough from scratch and run it through the hand-cranked machine to create tortellini and tagliatelle. He did most of the kneading for me last week, so this time I learned very quickly how strenuous a job it is. Not only does it require the strength of a giant (ChefX), but super speed to keep the dough from drying out. At the end of the day, I thanked my dad for making me work on my iron grip from when I was little.

The basic formula for pasta dough is 14 egg yolks + 2 whole eggs, roughly mixed with 1 quart + a little mound at the top of flour. This is a little different than most recipes that require equal mounts of egg whites to yolk. According to Jamie Oliver, some people prefer using mostly egg yolks for a richer, more satiny pasta.

For the tagliatelle dough, you have to pass it through about 20 times (quickly) to get a beautifully smooth finish. Sheesh. But there's something ridiculously satisfying about feeling the satin-smooth surface of a 20x-kneaded dough, not unlike carpentry.

For tortellini, you pass the dough through the machine only a few times to prevent a too-elastic-y dough that will dry out too quickly. I was overenthusiastic and passed it through too many times, ending up with a sea of pasta circles on a deadline. I sweat a little.

All-in-all, pasta-making's a rough and tough job, but very rewarding. I'm just itching to make some homemade pasta now, just for the satisfaction of achieving that satin-smooth dough.

Umami nation

Just a follow-up post to the umami development. The good: chefs are experimenting with new ways to stimulate and satisfy our umami receptors with naturally umami-heavy ingredients such as parmesan, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, calling them "umami bombs." The bad: the packaged food industry is catching onto this, and of course the FDA allows them to get away with conveniently tucking artificial umami under the general category of "artificial flavors."

"So far, Senomyx has identified four new umami ingredients that can often be used in small enough amounts to be listed on a food label simply as "artificial flavors." This is a boon to food companies because it eliminates the need to add an unfamiliar, chemical-sounding word to an ingredient list."

Evil. It's frightening to think what will happen to the American waistline once artificial umami joins forces with corn byproducts in a bag of "natural" potato chips.

Celery roots make good music

An orchestra made up of vegetable instruments - fantastic! I love how serious they all look as they play. They clearly take their art very seriously. Yet another example of how you can turn anything into a living if you have the passion for it. If we tried to do this as kids, we probably would have gotten into a whole lot of trouble with our parents. Isn't it wonderful to be a kid, as an adult?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dough bonding, dates, and salsify

In my notes from "Becoming a Chef," one advice was to ask a lot of good questions. My question to that is, how many is too many questions? And what constitutes a good question to a Chef?

Some good and some not so good questions answered on Day 2:
Q: What's the apple-rosemary puree ultimately for?

Q: Why do we have to let the pasta dough sit?
A: To give the eggs and flour time to bond. They tend to like each other, so the two elements get pretty cozy over time and thus shrink in size. You don't want to interrupt the dough-bonding experience if you don't want any surprises.
Not exactly how ChefX worded it, but my that's my layman interpretation.

Q: What is that?
A: Salsify (pronounced "salsifee")
Adam was peeling these long, skinny, branch-like things that looked like they would taste like tree. BBC Food describes it as, "Another member of the daisy family, salsify is one of the lesser known root vegetables. It's also known as the oyster plant as its root tastes slightly of oysters. The root of salsify is used in a similar way to any other root vegetable, in soups, stews or mashed. Try using boiled salsify in a salad to add a crisp delicate flavour."

Q: What is that?
A: Lamb.
ChefX has a lamb supplier from upstate NY. According to ChefX, she's "some lady" - a very cool, tough woman who's personality speaks to the fact that she squeezed out 3 (probably large) children. She drives the lamb down herself to RestoX in the wee hours of the morning and always waits in the car with a big cup of coffee. She also makes lamb yogurt (never had it, sounds interesting if not gamey), lamb cheese, and lamb milk.

The lamb lady led to a great discussion with ChefX about the deliciousness of yogurt in Germany and France and how it compares to...Dannon. We touched upon the over-produced, over-packaging of American food, and the loss of community and values that come with fresh cooking and knowing where your food comes from, etc, etc. All this from asking about the lamb. I think it was a good question.

Questions left unanswered on Day 2 (ChefX gave me a delicious date to snack on while I was rolling out the pasta dough):

Q: What's a date called when it's not in its dry state? Can you eat it when its fresh and if so, what does it taste like?
A: You're asking too many questions.
I had to google this one: There is no "fresh" form a of a date. The dry date as we know it is the fresh fruit in its fully ripened state. "The date fruit grows in heavy clusters suspended under the [date palm] leaves, and they are yellow in the early ripening stage, or kimri, the Arabic word for unripe. Some consumers enjoy date fruit in the next stage, khalal, meaning full sized but crunchy, while others wait for dates to reach rutab, ripe and soft. When the date fruit is allowed to sun dry on the tree, it is considered to be in the final tamr stage of ripening."

Saturday, December 8, 2007

When peas get under your skin

Oh man, it feels good to sit down. Today's big endeavor was to de-pea sugar snap peas from their pods. A lot of them. Like a mountain of them. I still feel a bit woozy from seeing so many peas. Actually, it was just a box of them, about 2.5 ft x 1 ft. But those pods were tiny, and the peas inside them even tinier. I must've been de-pea-ing for about 3 hours straight. After the first ten minutes, the peas started getting under my skin. Literally. To the left is a very fuzzy picture of my thumb. See the disgusting-looking green darkness under my nails? That's pea pod that's embedded so deep under the skin I can't even scrub it off. When pea pod gets under your skin it hurts like hell. After the first hour or so of suffering, I discovered the "stab and rip" method, where you stab the tip of a paring knife at a 90 degree angle into the pea and conduct micro-surgery on each and every one of those little bastards. Oops, I mean sweet peas. This was not the kitchen-approved method because you could probably hurt yourself pretty badly with the knife, but I would've preferred cutting myself and bleeding over the pain of pea pods under my skin.

The result of all the labor was a mere 1.5 quarts of puny peas to be used for a rabbit dish. It really didn't look like much of an accomplishment, but according to ChefX, I "made an Olympian effort" Yes, that's me patting myself on the back. Pat pat pat.

A nagging question: Hey, why do we have so many sugar snap peas in December? The box said they were from Peru. I guess RestoX has its occasional indulgences too.

On the positive side, the those peas certainly were tasty, and you come to appreciate the beauty of each and every one. No two peas are alike, and they're a bit like babies in that every single one of them needs individual care and attention. The next time I see a dish with fresh peas, I will first appreciate why it's so expensive, then take a moment to consider what poor fella had to peel all those hard-earned peas.

There were some observations I made, some questions answered, and a few other tasks completed, but those will have to come in a later post. Yay for peas! Not.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Notes: Becoming a Chef

This book has been an indispensable source of advice. It's a hodgepodge of interviews, tips, culinary history, anecdotes, and inside information from leading chefs in America. Many of the chefs we admire today had humble beginnings (dish washing, like cook), and paid their dues for a few years. Almost all of them recommend working in a real kitchen prior to committing to culinary school. They say to shoot for the stars, so this is what gave me the courage to walk into Masa and Per Se in my initial effort to find kitchen work. I'll look back on that and have a good laugh about it one day.

Here, some valuable advice from the chapter on apprenticing:

Passion and humility play integral roles in staring a kitchen as an apprentice. You must have the passion to convince a chef to take you on, and that you—as an untrained cook (he-hem, that would be me)—will be worth the chef's and staff's time and effort to teach you.

You can demonstrate humility by showing respect for the food (especially the poor pig in the walk-in) and the entire staff.

According to Mario Batali (love him! gush gush...), "I dropped out of culinary school, and I don't believe that it's a prerequisite for a cooking career...If two people came to me and one had worked for a great restaurant in Europe for two years (o.k., if I absolutely must, I'll do it, Mario) and the other had gone to cooking school, I would rather hire the person with real experience because I know that they really learned how to cook."

While chefs certainly like the idea of free labor, recognize that it represents a significant commitment of time and energy to teach you.

Do your best to demonstrate that you learn quickly, handle criticism constructively (will this industry finally help me develop a thick skin???), and know enough to ask good questions (yes, but how much is too many questions?).

Working your way up means you also must be much more aggressive and structured about your education outside the kitchen. You must seek out on your own the hows and whys of what you're doing. According to the author, "I learned the techniques, but I didn't learn the theory behind them until I went home and did some reading on my own." (Aw shucks, I guess that means I have to read more books on food!)

Leading chefs see these developmental experiences as central to the process of learning to cook (great advice to keep in mind - to get the most of my time at RestoX, I need to understand every task in the context of the bigger picture).

Develop in depth and breadth, seeking out opportunities to work with the unfamiliar i.e. baking, pastry, and, for me, working closely with meats (oh yes, the pig).

"Becoming a chef is a very, very long process. There's not a day that passes, even today, that I don't learn something." A humble quote from Madeleine Kamman.

And so much more, but for now I will meditate on these as prep for tomorrow, the Big Day in the Kitchen part deux.
Becoming a Chef, by Andrew Dornenburg & Karen Page

Ode to mise en place

Could there be anything more satisfying than contemplating a table of mise en place? Probably. But I can't think of many right now. Once at this stage, I feel a strong sense of accomplishment, excitement, anticipation, and relief knowing that all the hard work is behind me. It brings me back to childhood, if only briefly, with the pure feeling of a kid who's given a bucket of art materials in various colors and shapes. When it all comes together it's like a fireworks show, you see chemistry in action, the transformation of form and colors right before your very eyes. It's a cornucopia of sensation - heat, smell, vision, and of course, taste (hopefully umami included). And those prep bowls…oh what good friends.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


This development could serve as the symbol of my current state of flux- a perfect meld of graphic design and food: chocolate movable type. Ahhh... I feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about all the chocolate font possibilities. Goudy, Frutiger, Bembo...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Umami receptors

Today I came across a great NPR story on the science of taste buds and the discovery of "umami," Japanese for "tasty" or "delicious." I particularly enjoyed the illustration of our taste buds, borrowed from Gray's Anatomy. We have little key-hole-like receptors to house what's been historically considered the only 4 flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. And now, the 5th flavor discovered in this century, umami a.k.a. MSG.

I also enjoyed the last segment of the story, "The moral," which speaks to the artist's intuition, his or her instinctive feeling about the truth of things. It goes to show once again that something can't be deemed untrue just because scientists have yet to discover it.

" artist is busy about his/her work and happens to observe something or sense something about the real world that scientists have not yet noticed, or that scientists say is not true. But because artists are so good at describing what it's like to experience the world, so intent on delivering the truth of what it feels like to be alive, so intuitive, in each of these eight cases, the artists learn something that the scientists don't discover until years later."

Monday, December 3, 2007

3 days later...

My hands still smell like a giant head of garlic. If you were to go up to any random chef and sniff their hands, they'd probably smell like garlic too. Since I'm not a chef, people probably think I just ate a lot of kimchee. I will now go and rub my hands on some stainless steel.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Day 1: Fette sau

I made it. I made it through the first day. When I walked into RestoX at 10:30 a.m. ChefX the owner, welcomed me in t-shirt and jeans. He introduced me to Adam and Lupe, both immediately seeming humble and kind. Throughout the rest of the day I would meet Segundo along with 3 other guys whose names escape me. All sweethearts - hard-working, decent, lovely. Clearly, ChefX makes it a point to hire nice people. No cursing, no yelling, no harassment. A big sigh of relief on my part. I was truly prepared for the worst.

Later in the day, in the walk-in freezer, I was given another warm welcome by an enormous hanging pig. We became close friends when I was asked to fetch some veggies from behind his massive body. I had no choice but to use the "hug" technique where I put both my arms around the pig to get at the spinach. Sadly, by the end of the day I spotted him in the kitchen incognito. Goodbye my porky friend.

TASK: Separate 14 eggs. Give egg whites to Lupe (for merengue). Add 2 whole eggs to the yolks.
NOTES: The tricky thing about this was to remember how many eggs I actually cracked. I was so nervous, excited and overenthusiastic that forgot to count as I went. Luckily, I realized this only after the 5th egg. Mis en place!

TASK: Fill container with flour, enough to create a little mound. End product when mixed with 14 yolks + 2 whole eggs in Kitchen Aid: pasta dough.
NOTES: Mix till dough forms dry-ish, chunky pieces, a bit like a crumble dough.

TASK: Mince shallots.
NOTES: These were HUGE shallots, some as big as an onion. ChefX suggests cutting all of them the long way first, putting them aside, and then finishing the mince portion all at once. He doesn't bother to slice them horizontally the way cookbooks teach. They come out just fine. When we had a mound of beautiful (maybe not so uniform) shallots, he took the knife with both hands and chopped them more, "mezzaluna" style. Apparently a no-no at a place like Jean-George.

TASK: De-needle rosemary sprigs. Peel granny smith apples. Cut them into quarters, then core them by slicing the core off on the diagonal. Then thin-slice them across the narrow side. Toss these into a large skillet with white wine and boil till they're somewhat soft and the wine has mostly evaporated. Put this into a mixer with melted, browned butter and rosemary. End result: apple puree.
NOTES: YUM! Apples, butter and rosemary?! When in the blender, I noticed the color of the puree was grayish, not apple sauce golden. When I asked why, ChefX said, "emulsion." Aha! The acid in the apple emulsifies with the fat in the butter. VERY cool. At that point I looked over to Lupe who was making a pine nut dessert with rosemary. Why rosemary? It's in the same family as a pine tree. It's the pine nut, pine tree, rosemary connection. Why didn't I think of that?

TASK: Puree steamed butternut squash, other unknown veggies and bacon in blender. Once pureed, pass through chinoise with ladle. Taste, salt, repeat.
NOTES: When veggies are in blender, the key step is to pulse a few times before letting it rip for the very important purpose of preventing an explosion. Once we were down to mostly liquid-y veggies, ChefX suggested stirring and tasting the puree before adding the liquid-y remains. Why? It's always easier to add more liquid than to steam more veggies. It's these simple, common-sense things that are the most valuable lessons. ChefX had me taste the puree and feedback on salt. I thought it was o.k., but when he added some salt - wow. It really brought out the flavors even more. He suggested it enhanced the bacon, too. A very satisfying lesson, indeed.

TASK: Wash dishes
NOTES: They have this super-spray nozzle and an industrial dishwasher. Rinse, stack, close, et voila! Clean dishes in seconds.

TASK: Wash Manilla clams (tiny!). Drop in pot with white wine, cover and cook until cover gets really hot, or when you see them open up. When done, spread out on square pan (so they can cool). Fill container with broth, pick out clam meat and preserve in broth.
NOTES: No need to wash sand out completely from clams. The sand will come out in multi-prep process. Putting the clam meat into the broth was something ChefX learned from Le Bernardin to prevent the clams from drying out. The clams will ultimately be part of the staple clam chowder dish at RestoX. I learned this is a "composed" clam chowder as opposed to one where everything is cooked together. The shrimp, the clams, the potatoes, etc are all cooked separately in separate stations, with distinct flavors, then brought together right before serving.

TASK: Pass past dough through pasta maker. Cut into circles. Fill with rabbit filling concoction. Shape into tortellini.
NOTES: I can't believe I learned to make these today. The key is to work quickly so the pasta doesn't dry out. When cutting the circles, add pressure, then give a nice twist. Press and seal in the filling and create a nice "lip." Fold over the corners to make a little "chair" with a nice "butt." These were some cute tortellini.

TASK: Pass pasta dough through pasta maker about 20 times until beautifully smooth. Pass through cutter to make tagliatelle. Create small handful mounds of tagliatelle. Sprinkle liberally with semolina flour to prevent them from sticking to each other.
NOTES: Whoo-wee. I gotta say kneading dough with a hand-cranked pasta maker ain't easy. ChefX explained that if you want to get really fancy with pasta, you can layer herbs, like basil, between two sheets of pasta and pass them through the machine. The end result is like wallpaper. Lovely.

TASK: Roll balls of fatty, pasty pork confit the size of a shallot. Go next door to RestoX2 and ask for 3 heads of romaine lettuce. Cut off crispy bottom portion of the head. Carefully slice off top half of the rib of each lettuce leaf. Blanch, then shock in ice water. Roll fat, pasty balls of pork into lettuce leaves. Take fat, pasty balls of pork and seal them tight with plastic wrap. Twist and knot the wrap securely so no water can get in.
NOTES: The balls were very fatty and pasty. I had to wear rubber gloves. The trip next door was an adventure. It was quite surreal to walk out into the street, into a packed restaurant, and into another kitchen all in a chef's jacket. Everyone in that kitchen was nice and friendly, too. Ah, Brooklyn. Then it was even more surreal to walk out of that kitchen and into the street in a chef's jacket, carrying 3 bare heads of romaine. These fatty, pasty pork balls wrapped in romaine were really something. Once wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, they looked like little green aliens. I wish I got to see the end result. ChefX said you could do the ball/plastic wrap trick with almost anything. Even avocado. Smash down an avocado half into a circle, fill with something inside, roll into ball, and wrap in plastic to serve with gazpacho. He makes everything sound so easy.

TASK: Chop 2 huge carrots, 3 onions, 1 bunch celery. Thin slice 1/2 quart of garlic.
NOTES: Those carrots were the biggest I've ever seen - they reminded me of Wallace and the ware-rabbit. Thin-slicing garlic was my least favorite task. It was boring and left my hand numb and permanently smelling of garlic for the rest of the evening.

End notes
Their main kitchen tool is those 1qt plastic containers you get from Chinese take-out. They use it for everything. As ChefX said, "They're our friends." They drink their water out of them, they even make herbal tea in them. It almost looks like a fetish.

Even in a fancy restaurant like RestoX, they don't wash their veggies as thoroughly as you would at home. This was one of the most surprising things I observed today.

Overall, I'm really impressed with RestoX, and ChefX. He's so laid-back and humble for a guy with so much experience. He treated me like I was part of the family from the very first moment I walked in. I'm amazed that he let me do so much on the first day. And he shared so much information with me. It seems he really gets a kick out of teaching someone. I learned more than if I ever would have if I paid for a cooking class. I'm impressed with the civilized kitchen environment he's managed to create. I love his staff. And I like the music they play.

I'm pretty proud of myself for holding it together today. If I can hug a dead pig in the walk-in, I think I can handle pretty much anything. By 5:00, my right hand went numb from chopping, and it's still a bit numb. But at the end of the day, it felt good to put in a day's worth of hard labor despite my physical exhaustion. Honestly, I can't say I would want the restaurant life, but to be surrounded by food all day was heaven.

ChefX asked if I'll come back next week. I asked if he wants me back. He said, "Of course. You did great today, you know that." Wow. What an honor. Thank God.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A small window of hope

My good friends and family would attest to the fact (probably with an exasperated roll of the eyes) that I've been pining to get out of advertising for almost a decade. Over those years, I've developed an insatiable appetite for all things food - a sick obsession, some might say. My usual state of analysis paralysis has kept me from taking a leap thus far, but lately I've become hyper-aware of the passing of time and I realize if I don't do something about this now, I'll find myself on my deathbed with this unrealized passion still running through my veins.

Recently I shuffled my feet slightly in the right direction by finding an internship at "RestoX", a small, intimate family-owned restaurant in a quaint brownstone-lined neighborhood in Brooklyn, owned by "ChefX," just a really cool guy. Period.

With the suggestion of a few friends, I started this blog to document my experience and extensive notes. If you're reading this, be prepared to run into a whole lot of culinary minutiae - maybe you'll find them just as fascinating as they are to me, but if you find you'd rather skim, I promise not to be insulted. My hope is to look back on this post 6 months from now and be amazed at how far I've progressed. Here's to a new beginning...