Saturday, January 5, 2008

New year, no pasta

I woke up this morning feeling pretty bummed and discouraged about the day ahead. The looming fear I had was that I would continue my downward spiral from the last disastrous week, and be booted out of RestoX for good. What if this was the revealing moment when I would have to face the facts that I was not cut out for this industry?

I force-fed myself some scrambled eggs (2 whole eggs + 2 whites), some oatmeal, and an apple. I drank 3 cups of green tea, and downed a multivitamin. I find this is the perfect formula for not going hungry during my voluntary enslavement, but I always feel like a fat duck, ready to be turned into fois gras.

My favorite part of every Saturday is the walk to RestoX. With my knife, water bottle, camera and some snacks in bag, I step out into a quiet Saturday morning street in Brooklyn Heights. I always feel like a little kid let out of school, running to her special extracurricular activity, or like a kid approaching Disney World - a fantastical world of visions and dreams. Sometimes I even skip a little, unabashedly. Today's walk was a bit more solemn. I reviewed my kitchen mantras, repeated some Bible verses, and gave myself a big pep talk. 15 minutes later, I found myself in RestoX with a much more positive attitude.

I first ran into Mrs. ChefX who seemed surprised to see me. Then I saw Adam, who seemed surprised to see me too, and even ChefX seemed a bit off. Either they forgot about me, or they didn't expect I would come back after last week's fiasco. In any case, they didn't tell me they no longer needed me there so that was good enough for me.

I don't know if ChefX thinks I'm no longer qualified for the job or if he was just showing me mercy today, but I didn't touch an inch of pasta dough or even go near the pasta station all day. I was so relieved. Instead, I got to cook a little, season a little, and learned a whole lot. I noticed that asking a lot of questions is usually appreciated, and I should never be afraid to do so. I have many good teachers around me, and they all seem eager to share their knowledge. What a blessing.

Lessons
TASK: Mince a quart of shallots.
NOTES: I love mincing shallots. It's very satisfying, especially if you can cut them somewhat uniform. But my right hand becomes numb every time I chop anything, and I'm having some trouble typing. ChefX is over 6ft tall and he built the work stations to his height. It only makes sense for my hands to become numb when chopping 40 shallots at the height of my shoulders. I think I need some platforms.

TASK: Make salmon rillettes. Mince about 10 shallots, melt about 1/2lb of butter in pan, add shallots and let shallots sweat. Add white wine and allow it to reduce. Meanwhile, cut fresh salmon into 1-inch cubes. Add cubes to shallot/butter/wine mixture and poach on low heat till just cooked through. Once cooked, strain through a chinoise. Reserve liquid. Mash up salmon and shallot mixture until it becomes the texture of cat food. Separately cut up some smoked salmon into a tiny dice. Pick leaves off lemon thyme and combine with smoked salmon. Toss smoked salmon and fresh salmon mixture together. Season with salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper and curry powder. Add strained liquid little by little to taste. Quart it, label it, and save it in the walk-in.
NOTES: I couldn't believe ChefX gave me this task. What a treat - all of it! My favorite part was dicing the smoked salmon. It was a greasy and messy job, but once diced they looked like glistening coral-colored jewels. And when you add the bright green lemon thyme leaves... oy, how breathtakingly beautiful! Cooking the shallots over the stove was a treat, too. I looked around and saw about 5 other pots going - a potpourri of scents, colors, and flavors. Wow.

TASK: Thin slice 3 large onions and add to pan with about 1/4 lb of melted butter. Cook over very low heat for a very very long time until caramelized to death.
NOTES: I've caramelized onions before, but not like this. These onions must have been cooking for about 3 hours. In fact, that seems to be the secret to the potent flavors in all things at RestoX. Everything cooks forever. Once it's done, you only need a small amount for big flavor impact. Incredible. With the onions, ChefX will put into cute little potato cups (made with fingerling potatoes cut into 1-inch pieces and scooped out to form cups) and sprinkle with cheese.

TASK: Puree winter fruit soup mixture (quince, whole vanilla beans, apricots, and something else) in VitaMix blender, being careful not to let it explode. Pass through chinoise with ladle. Repeat.
NOTES: As mentioned in my first day post, the main thing here is to be sure the lid is on tight and to pulse the blender switch super-fast before letting it rip. ChefX says he's seen plenty of experienced chefs not do this right and be faced with a steaming VitaMix explosion in their kitchen. When passing the puree through the chinoise, be judicious with the ladle-pumping to prevent facial splashes.

TASK: Go next door and ask for 1/2 lb of gruyere (yummy), half loaf of bread, and some ketchup.
NOTES: I love going next door. It's surreal. I love walking into another kitchen, saying "hola" to their staff, navigating my bad Spanish to ask for the right things, and walking out into the street with an armful of random foods.

TASK: Grate gruyere and quart it.
NOTES: "Quart it" is ChefX's lingo for saving whatever in those plastic take-out quart containers.

TASK: Slice bread into 1/4" thickness, de-crust, and cut into quarters to create little white squares. Lay out flat onto baking sheet, dab tops with olive oil and pop into 300-325 degree oven until golden and crisp.
NOTES: Segundo helped me keep an eye on these. He's quite a teacher, and supercool. He really knows what he's doing at all times. Usually by the time 2:00 rolls around the entire staff is there and it's Segundo who hands out the tasks. As for the bread toasts, I guess this is where the salmon rillettes will sit.

TASK: Pick watercress leaves.
NOTES: Segundo showed me a really clever way to pick through the leaves of watercress. You start at the stem end and cut off about an inch of it. Holding the bunch in hand, remove the rubber band and pull out whatever leaves are loose from between the stems. Cut into the stems another inch. Pull loose leaves. Cut into stems one more time, and you're left with only the leafiest parts. This was a nice, clean, efficient way to work with watercress. It's good logic.

TASK: Thin slice shallots on mandoline. Add about 1/4 cup of flour and toss. Strain extra flour out through sieve. Warm mixed oil (canola & olive) over heat till hot. Add shallots and fry till golden. Strain, then season with salt.
NOTES: It's funny how even seasoning something with salt in a professional kitchen seems like a huge responsibility. ChefX says to "season from above," meaning sprinkle your salt from up high (my guess is for better distribution). He let me taste and decide for myself if it was good. How bad could deep fried and salted shallots be, really?

TASK: Cut off tops of roasted peppers and de-seed. With cut side down, drizzle with olive oil. Pop in oven till roasted and softened. Remove peel.
NOTES: Peppers are probably one of my least favorite vegetables, if not the least. And I don't understand roasted peppers - what's the big deal? Wouldn't life be just fine without them? The sentiment becomes even stronger when I have to peel the darn things. If you're lucky, the peel comes off in one fell swoop, but most likely you'll have to pick at the tiny bits that cling to the meat as if for dear life.

End notes
I'm pooped, but happy and relieved. The physical exhaustion is pretty intense and I don't understand how chefs survive this lifestyle. But I do understand the desire to go back day after day despite all this. The food is always calling.

3 comments:

mimala aka M said...

yeah a!! can i not use your name??
this is truly undercover.

carmen said...

I've been reading this blog for a few weeks now and I'm learning so much. I love the details and your candor. I grew up with homemade pasta and I'm still very intimidated to try doing it myself! I think one day your tortellini's will be beautiful rose buds just like ChefX's and I can only hope you'll invite me over to try some :))

Undercover Cook said...

Wow, thanks for the props and encouragement, Carmen! If my tortellini ever look like beautiful rose buds, I will not be ashamed to invite a true Italian lady over for dinner. Thanks for keeping up.