The Answer is Always Yes

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The pen and knife

Begrudgingly, yes.

About a year and a half ago I was frustrated beyond my normal state of mild aggravation. The object of my frustration was a slew of obnoxious guests, who riddled me with a slew of obnoxious requests. And my answer, which has been a source of both more frustration and a dangerous responsibility, was yes. One simple, single answer, in no small way, changed my entire approach to the career I’ve been excelling at for 17 years.

Before I tell you how, allow me to convey my prior frustration.

There are guests who need more than others. They normally have a server running around from the get go. They need a new table, they want the lights turned up, or the music down, or the water to have more ice, and a lime wheel (not wedge). Then they get a turn with the cook, in my case I was running several banquets from the back of the house, understaffed and overtired.

Forget the menu. They use the menus for props in their conversation, nothing more. They already decided what they wanted before they even decided where to go. Don’t worry, though, they will completely change their mind once they’ve received what they ordered. Yeah, those kinda customers and that kinda day.

What people don’t understand is that when they ask for something that isn’t on the menu, it leads to frustration and aggravation for two reasons:

  1. The first, we cooks are creatures of habit. Most restaurant cooks don’t deviate too far from what they were taught in the first few weeks of their jobs. Many might not know how to make whatever it is those persnickety people want. Of course, my employers have invested heavily in cross-training our cooks, which certainly relieves the burden from everyone else when something out of the ordinary ticks down the kitchen printer.
  2. The second reason we have difficulty with some of the more zany requests is because we are expected to serve people quickly. Even the difficult people. And we have a clock in our head that says, no, you can’t have that because it will take a half an hour to prepare, and there is no way that is acceptable under any circumstances! And another clock in our head that says it’s about to get really busy and we have one hundred other things to do in order to please all of our normal, happy and easy guests.

So, there is somewhat of a paradox. A line that has to be walked. A philosophical question that begs asking. Is it acceptable to say no to one guest for the benefit of the others? Or, phrased another way, is it acceptable to jeopardize the dining “experience” of some dozens of guests in order to please one picky, rude and unappreciative guest? (By the way, every time I’ve seen a customer walkout on a check in my career, the first thing the robbed and perplexed waitress always says is, “But they were so nice.”)

On that day, when that monumental answer was given, I made a decision that no matter what ridiculous question or request came next, I would proceed, with a creepy forced smile on my face, in the affirmative. And then came the sign.

As official as a new policy in a restaurant can get, a piece of 8 1/2 by 11 computer-printer paper with a rule scribbled on it, taped to a wall or oven or common area becomes governing law. I hung a sign on my hot-box, which I typed and printed in black ink. It read, “The answer is YES. What is the Question?”

That sign became my mantra. It became my best friend and my worst enemy. It stared at my back all day long and every day I worked for months until it had had enough food splattered on it that it had to come down. But it stayed with me.

The front of the house used it against me, which was the primary reason I posted it. It answered for me, before my temper and impatience could take over my ability to make a good decision. It has tested me. It has brought me to the brink of madness at points. I mean, people are allergic to colors now. Sometimes they want things that they simply can’t have. But I have to try. Because of that little answer, that word, I have to try to make every last stinkin’ guest happy.

But if it wasn’t for the relationship I have with the front of the house it wouldn’t work. That is, if the front of the house allowed me to call all of the shots, unquestioning of my reasoning or motives, the answer might have been “no,” the first time. If the front of the house didn’t get a little kick out of seeing me squirm, it might have been a “hell no.”

Once you’ve said no, it gets a lot easier to say it again. But, having said it so seldom, someone has noticed my efforts.

I’ve been nominated and selected as a finalist for a very competitive local award for “Hospitality Excellence.” I owe my gratitude and my new found philosophy that “the answer is always yes (with a smile)” to my hot-box sign and the front of the house for making me stick to it.

If you follow this blog and enjoy my writing, I ask that you take a moment to visit The Howdy Awards page and vote for me. You will note that I’m on the second page as the only finalist wearing a chef coat. My colleague, Dan Brown, a front of the house member who understands this philosophy and delivers on it every time he meets a guest, could also use a few votes. He is pictured with the goofy hair on the first page.

You may only vote once, and it will ask you to verify that you have a facebook friend because someone tried to cheat the contest in previous years by using bots. It won’t post to your wall.

Thank you for reading, and for your continued support of The Sober Sous Chef!

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Working Holidays and Cinnamon Bun Bread Pudding Pie

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Mix up your Easter Sunday dessert offering with this recipe.

If you give a cook a cinnamon bun, he’s going to want to turn it into Cinnamon Bun Bread Pudding Pie… and ask for a cup of coffee… and probably a Red Bull… and likely ask you to cover him for a minute so he can step outside… and then just need to make a quick phone call… and then use the bathroom, but be right back, he promises…

When you prepare this recipe on Easter, just make sure you save some for your restaurant industry spouse, son, friend or mother. Dessert is often the only thing left for us when we come home from feeding hundreds or thousands of people on one of the busiest days of the year in professional cooking.

Most of us are accustomed to working while the rest of the world plays and celebrates. In fact, it seldom even bothers us. However, it is our families who suffer. They have to celebrate without us, to cook, set the table, eat, drink, laugh without us. They make plans without us, and there is nothing we can do about it. Not when we love it. Not when we enjoy what we do, or we have bills to pay.

Just remember, though, if you are one of those who goes out to eat on Easter, or any other fun day when you simply can’t imagine how horrible it would be to work on such a day, leave a tip. Leave a big, fat, grateful tip.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large cinnamon buns
  • 1 graham cracker pie crust
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  •  vanilla ice cream
  • whipped cream
  • Maraschino cherries or Strawberries for garnish

Preparation:

  1. Dice up the cinnamon buns and place into the graham cracker crust.
  2. In a small sauce pan, heat the cream and sugar to a simmer. Be careful—as soon as you take your eye off of it, the cream will boil over.
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the eggs, vanilla and cinnamon.
  4. Steep the eggs. Do so by slowly pouring the hot cream into the mixing bowl, while whisking vigorously.
  5. Pour the egg and cream mixture over the cut cinnamon buns in the pie crust, taking care that all pieces have soaked up some of the liquid.
  6. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until egg has set.
  7. To determine if the egg has set, perform the “bounce test” or a toothpick test.

Tip of the Trade:

Cutting pie—the struggle is real. To prevent major and catastrophic crust damage, try this impossibly simple method. Place a small and light cutting board on top of the pie. Yes, you read that right—on top of the pie. Lift the pie and cutting board together, holding your dominant hand beneath the pie. In one smooth and swift motion, flip them over so that the cutting board is now beneath the upside-down pie. Cut the pie with a sharp knife dipped in hot water. Once finished, place the serving plate on top of the cut upside-down pie, and again, lift both the pie and cutting board together. Repeat the flip and remove the cutting board. Practice the swift flip a few times without any pie involved—we won’t be there to clean up the floor if you make a mistake!

5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned by Cooking

originalMy youngest son(4) is hard headed, stubborn and defies parental law. This may transfer to a prosperous career cooking—behind bars. He gets up first thing in the morning and slices his own apples. The first time was frightening for two reasons; he could hurt himself; and the second, terrifying fact that he might love food and cooking enough to become, someday, a professional chef.

Not to say my career cooking hasn’t provided the very apples he cuts, in ample supply no less. Contrary to my harsh, jaded and often disgruntled writings about life in an apron, I have been fortunate to realize financial comfort, a stable family life and a position in a restaurant that allows me to exercise the nagging creative half of my otherwise logical and realist brain. Still, cooking in a commercial kitchen is a job reserved for people with a high threshold for pain, stress and self-sacrifice. I would consider myself a failure as a father if I don’t pass down that wisdom to my sweet children.

If they’re anything like me, they won’t hear a word of it until it’s too late. My father bestowed plenty of wisdom on me, most of which I ignored. When my adult life started I was so entrenched in the restaurant business that it became like a father to me. It’s teaching me, often the hard way, the following life lessons that I’d be lost without.

1. You get more bees with honey, and that goes great in tea when you’re not feeling well. But you work through it, you suck it up and give it all you’ve got.

There’s a machismo exchange every time someone calls out of work. When the phone rings and the manager is called to answer it, and he comes back with a look of frustrated disappointment, and the early shift cooks are re-stocking for the night rush, they all know. Inevitably one of them is asked to stay, and the rest of them compare how many times they’ve called out in however many years they’ve been working. The fact is, everyone does get sick. Everyone has to call out at some point or another. Not everyone remembers; I’ve only called out 4 times in my life. For professional cooks, the reason is never the common cold, rather, DUIs, fights, child birth, court custody battle, etc.

I learned that you get more bees with honey, and bee stings are not a valid excuse to call out of work. I learned to be tough—to be stupidly tough.

2. If you want something, ask for it. Ask nicely, please.

“I haven’t had a raise in three years,” a cook once told me. He went on to say that when he started working he wasn’t getting paid the agreed sum from his hire. “You asked for a raise?” I questioned. “I’m going to now, this is getting ridiculous.”

He allowed himself to fall through the crack of a small restaurant. In larger restaurants, and institutional settings, there are few owners and managers who just offer raises unsolicited. If you want a raise, a day off for your pal’s wedding or if your paycheck bounces, ask.

If you need a bag of spinach, say, “Will you please get me a bag of spinach from the walk-in?” Don’t say, “Get me spinach, you imbecile!” You’ll get spinach either way, but the former will probably mean the cook will still be there in three years getting you spinach. Of course, there are times when it is better to drop the pleasantries. For instance, “Will you please get me a fire extinguisher from the wall behind the reach-in, kind sir?” would be better said, “Fire extinguisher! Hurry!”

I learned to ask nicely. Will you please sign up for my email newsletter? Thank you!

3. Speaking of fire extinguishers, I can control fire. It’s pretty neat.

My name, Damkoehler, means Charcoal Burner by the Damn. If my ancestors knew how much I love cooking with gas they’d disown me.

Whether it comes from charcoal or propane, I’ve learned that fire burns. I’ve also learned burns only hurt when I’m thinking about them. That is, when I’m forced to focus on service, on the business at hand, I don’t feel the burns. The same goes with other pain, even emotional.

The lesson is if something bothers me, whether it’s a burn, an unpaid bill or an argument with my wife about the bill, come service time, nothing hurts. If I can force those pains out of my mind during service, I can do so at other times, too.

When the burn blisters, though, it must be dealt with. By that point the pain is dull, and with a level head a bandage can be applied. Same goes with the bill, and the argument. Deal with it, but don’t let it stop you from doing what needs to be done—the people must eat.

4. I’ve learned why old chefs know so many tricks. I’ve also come up with a few of my own. And I’m not even that old.

Mistakes happen. In the kitchen, probably more than at a construction site, but they happen there, too. When I worked part time as a contractor’s apprentice I was uneasy about cutting a certain piece of expensive wood. It occurred to me that if I cut a little too small, I would be wasting a $60 section of plywood. I thought, if I screw up in the kitchen I know so many tricks to fix it, but if I screw up on that plywood, I’m through.

Nearly every trick I’ve ever learned was the result of a mistake. A server forgot to ring in stuffed scrod, and they need it right away. Nuke the scrod for a minute to get it started, throw it in a steamer, then finish it in the broiler, all the while browning the stuffing in a pan. This trick will save 12 minutes of cooking time. Or the mistake may have been time management, and suddenly you are getting slips and not set up; out come the prep tricks. The delivery guy didn’t bring the right food; out come the substitution tricks. Or the mistake might have been trusting someone to properly season a soup; out come the seasoning tricks.

If you’re the new cook who made a mistake, watching in awe of the chef’s miracle fix, know it’s because he made the same mistake himself, and I’ve learned it made him a better cook.

5. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

Cooks who survive do so because they learn these lessons, most of all this. There’s too much hands on, physical labor to be done to snub other people, because you think you’re better than them, or because you’re going places and they aren’t. When the pot is turned on, and the oil’s in, the onions don’t care if you graduated at the top of culinary class, or if you worked in a three star Michelin restaurant—they need to be added before the oil burns. So get to it.

You’ll enjoy the process a lot more if you have pals by your side to kid around with. The moment you start to take yourself too seriously, those pals will get their laughs at your expense.

I learned to have pride in hard work; be proud of a job well done. But I mustn’t have so much pride that cutting an onion is beneath me, or I won’t jump in the middle of the buried dish pit.

There’s a popular saying among veteran cooks, “This place was here before you, and it’ll be here when you’re gone.” No single person is greater than the restaurant. Or, are they talking about life?
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But I won’t do laundry. Seriously, I’m way too important for that.

I am gluten-intolerant tolerant.

20160209_211845An abridged version of this article was published in The Montague Reporter.

To My Fellow Cooks,

Every professional cook has his own brand of catch phrases. Some get world wide fame—“Bam!” (queue applause) or “Shut it down!” and some hack goes crying out of Hell’s Kitchen. “Take a picture!” or “They’re gonna love it!” and one of my personal favorites, only for its obnoxious repetitiveness and way of sticking in your head like Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, “Beautious, baby!”

I’ve adopted several such phrases over the course of my career; “I’m a cook, not a magician,” or “I invented it.” In the latter, I’m not referring to the steak, rather, the ground upon which the cattle graze. I coined the phrase, “Same old (stuff), different pile.” It caught on about six months after I first uttered it to a delivery driver, who, like the other 14 million American restaurant industry workers, trudged through another morning of monotony for no other gain than a paycheck just large enough to keep him coming back for more the next week.

The catch phrases are as predictable as the job itself. They are the same, day in and day out. That is, until some gluten-freak* walks in the front doors and ruins the day—the boring, frustrating, tiresome, monotonous and predictable day—of any dozen restaurant workers. The gluten-freak has forced me to coin yet another catch phrase, “I’m a cook, not a doctor.” I don’t need to see his medical records or hear a list of his physical symptoms if he happens to eat something that bothers him. I don’t care if he ate something at another restaurant with another cook who thought he was a faker. Just tell me what the hell he wants to eat. I will cook it for him, that’s what I do.

Here we go, right? Another attempt to pick on people who are not actual Celiacs. Another attempt to curtail the worlds most popular diet since man discovered fire. Absolutely not. There are plenty of those sorts of articles out there. Many are pretty darn funny. They all went viral, received the praise of the internet. And the scorn, no doubt, from the subjects of their frustration.

So what do I mean when I say, “I’m a cook, not a doctor?” I mean I’m not qualified to prescribe medication or diagnose your allergies. I mean I don’t know, for that matter, need to know how the human body metabolizes your food. I mean that I don’t know, or wouldn’t have known, how New Variant CJD affects prions in the brain leading to signs of dementia and that, if I hadn’t been paid by a fellow culinary student to write a term paper about Mad Cow Disease, I wouldn’t even have known that there were actual cannibals in New Guinea. I only learned about it so I could buy grass while I was in culinary school. That’s right—culinary school. College for cooks. Not med school. I dropped out.

One year of college, learning to cook, is hardly enough education to even have a conversation about an allergy with someone who has even just once clicked on WebMD.

Perhaps there’s more to that, though. Have you ever heard someone yell, “Is there a cook in the house?” when someone is choking? Or, have you ever been in such unbearable pain that you shamefully admit, “I need a cook?” I can comfortably say you have not. There is my role, once again, defined. A cook cooks, a doctor treats. Knowing your role is important. I know my role when I buy my wife jewelry. I buy jewelry afforded by a cook’s salary. I know my role when my kids are sick. I make soup, but they need medication. So why is it, then, with my industry booming, with fame and notoriety seemingly at my fingertips, from high up on the pedestal and looking down on all of the other blue collar workers making ends meet just the same as I, when the gluten-freak walks through the front door I suddenly forget my role?

The hospitality business has lost its way.

There are the two operative words, and it seems that we are fighting both. First, we must remember it is a business. We must remember that the customer is always right, no matter how wrong we think they are. We must make money. We can’t go around pissing people off and expect to continue to do so. We have thousands of customers who are dining out after previously being forced to stay home due to their allergies and “sensitivities.” They are coming in droves, and we have catered to them! We have changed menus and recipes to accommodate them. They spend 23 billion dollars a year on gluten-free products. There hasn’t been as much money in a fad since the invention of the kid’s menu. And yet, we fight. We don’t really want to serve them. We would rather they take their money elsewhere.

The operative word, “hospitality,” is what we do. It’s the reason we have business, the very root of our livelihood. To loosely define it, hospitality means giving people what they want. Would you like a drink? Can I offer you dessert? Let me get your chair for you. You are special, and my guest, and I will do anything in my power to please you. The only difference between going to your gramdma’s house and coming to my restaurant is you will pay me, and I won’t send you a card with a five dollar check on your birthday. (Although, I recently had several emails from chain restaurants wishing me a happy birthday!) Somehow we have forgotten this.

Somehow the gluten-freak has managed to drive a dry, flavorless gluten-free cracker between the two most important things in our lives—hospitality and business.

I understand they are frustrating. Frustrating to us like tackling Larry Fitzgerald in the open field is to the Packers. Frustrating to us like education reform is to the President. Frustrating to us like everyday in the life of Tom Brady’s saintly chef. Someone please give that man an award. Frustrating to us like defending an allergy to a snotty waitress is to them. But I say, for the sake of the 23 billion dollars they have to spend, stop. Stop posting the articles, stop making jokes in the back, stop teasing the waitress about her idiotic questions about the difference between wheat and whey.

Get back in your place. Know your role. Feed them, or starve yourself. I, for one, would like a cut of that 23 billion dollars. I, for one, don’t care if they are allergic, faking an allergy, or simply looking for attention. I will serve them, and I will smile. I will smile when I cash my paycheck and when I get a pat on the back for accommodating whatever bizarre request comes next. Just get over it. Or they will get rid of you.

You may be still trying to teach your waitress about gluten. You’d think that would be easy, right? Well, have you ever heard of FODMAPs? Try teaching a waitress about Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. I’ll take gluten any day. Give me dairy allergies. Just imagine how much worse your life would be if all of the gluten-freaks became soy-free. When diet fads run their course they’re replaced with something else. Brace for the next one—it will happen.

In the meantime, cook whatever it is they want. Make them feel special. Make them happy, and they will come back for more. And when you cash your paycheck, and spend what little you have left after rent, utilities and slip-resistant shoes, remember that you’re doing so because of them. Because they are entitled, and because they are obnoxious enough to make themselves known, here they sit, waiting for a good meal and wanting to give you their money. Take it.

Treat the gluten-freaks like everyone else, that is, treat them like people who pay you to feed them. The sooner you get that, and stop complaining, the sooner you will be content. If you truly can’t get over it, like this Reddit author, go work for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, where they not only encourage rude and condescending customer service, they require it. It says so right here.

*The term “gluten-freak” is derived from the restaurant vernacular, “Glutard,” which may offend some readers.—ED
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Locavore—or Local-Chore?

The Challenges of Sourcing Local Food

Local tomatoes and romanesco broccoli arrives at the back door of Great Falls Harvest

Local tomatoes and romanesco broccoli arrives at the back door of Great Falls Harvest

First Published in The Montague Reporter

By Eric Damkoehler

Athol and Turners Falls—Ed Maltby, the soft spoken British accented Business Manager for Adams Farm, a family owned and operated slaughterhouse with a retail store, knows local meat.

“There is no legal definition of ‘local.’ Even in Vermont, you could be 15 or 30 miles from the border to be called ‘Vermont,’ and only need to be in the state for 6 months or a year or something like that,” said Maltby, who was kind enough to sit down for an interview, despite his prejudice towards the likes of me, a Sous Chef: “I don’t know if you’re really going to like this, but dealing with chefs is a nightmare.”

Certainly, he wasn’t talking about Chef Chris Menegoni of Great Falls Harvest, the quintessential establishment to be in a story in a Turners Falls based newspaper, featuring local food in restaurants, and the surprising disconnect between the two.

In a side room adjacent to his small restaurant, the future site of a local-food market, which now holds bits of furniture and kitchen equipment, Menegoni attempted to define local-food. “Local is a state-of-mind, it’s not just something that came right from your back door. It’s something that could be made somewhere else like Europe. Cheese is a wonderful example, let’s say it’s made with a very small flock of animals, maybe it’s a highland cheese or something like that, and there’s certain things that are just unique to that spot and when it’s done with the same concept—mindset—to me that is local. It’s not from here, it’s local—it’s a process.”

Menegoni has made the process of getting local food his living for the past several years, and he makes it seem easy; rather, for him, “It’s sometimes a phone call here or there,” but, largely, the food he serves just appears at his back door. And he’s glad to serve whatever he can use creatively.

“Dancing Bear Farm, that just came in today, he actually gave me fig leaves before. He wanted me to try them, it was like a test, because I hadn’t worked with them and he had heard that you could use them. He was pruning, so he thought, ‘somebody’s got to use these,’ and it was a lot of fun. It was an experiment. I never would have said, ‘Hey, I wanna use fig leaves,’ but now that I have, I’m saying when they’re around, I’ll use them.”

The tomatoes Menegoni was preparing for a salsa dish were from the same farm, and they were delivered because of a casual conversation which occurred the last time the owners of the farm were in for dinner. Menegoni mentioned he needed tomatoes, and that his own supply wasn’t enough, so there the tomatoes appear, a week later. “You put those vibes and information out there,” he said, and the food comes to him.

I was formerly the food purchaser in a restaurant with similar relationships, where three-dozen eggs would be traded for a coffee and a pastry, though the supply of these local sources could never have sustained even that small operation.

For the vast majority of area restaurants, though, it isn’t quite as simple. In fact, for high volume restaurants—those which serve more than 150 guests each day—the prospect of going local can be a daunting challenge, and one which can prove to be impossible in many regards.

“If we were twice as busy it would change things. A certain farm might not be able to keep up with that kind of volume. Maybe that means you go to two,” said Menegoni.

As the individual responsible for planning menus for The Delaney House’s “Learn to Drink Like a Pro” events, I know all too well how difficult it can be to create a menu and purchase ingredients for a local-only event, which The Delaney House hosted this past August.

About a month before the event, I started searching for the beef I needed. I was looking for 150 small steaks, or several larger cuts that I could portion myself. I went to Sutter Meats in Northampton, a specialty butcher that deals only with local meat, and left empty handed. I could have bought every piece of raw beef Sutter Meats had and still would have been short.

At this point, not knowing where to turn, I contacted the nice folks at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA, a non-profit headquartered in South Deerfield, dedicated to making connections between farms and consumers. They did some leg work, and emailed a list of about a half-dozen farms that may be able to provide some of the cuts I needed.

My colleague, Kammy Nghiem, spent several hours over the following weeks getting the meat we needed, which was nothing close to steak-quality beef—but equally expensive. Instead, after some careful trimming and preparation, I served roast beef.

Local Slaughterhouse

Local Slaughterhouse

Why was this such a difficult product to get? I asked Ed Maltby, the Adams Farm business manager. “We sell to a few [restaurants], not very many,” he said. “Most of the meat we buy locally, and there isn’t the supply to do it. Most chefs don’t want carcass, they want this number of cuts. We also don’t want to compete with our farmer customers, because some of those have good relationships with restaurants. We don’t want to interfere with that.”

The local fish I served for this event was Australis Barramundi, raised just a few miles from my home in the Airport Industrial Park in Turners Falls. Known also as “Australian Seabass,” a chef can’t just walk into the office at the fish farm and leave with forty pounds of fresh, local fish.

Due to similar non-compete relationships with their distributors, Australis recommends one of two buying options—Performance Foodservice of Springfield, MA, or Black River Produce of North Springfield, VT.

But, before the fresh, local fish can arrive at the back door of the restaurant, it must be shipped to Boston, where it’s processed, shipped back to Springfield where it will be loaded on a truck and shipped to Holyoke, along with all of the other stops that particular truck makes on any given day. When it finally did arrive, the box was marked “Product of Vietnam.”

While still a wonderfully tasty, completely sustainable and relatively inexpensive food source, it hardly seems local. As far as local meat is concerned, according to Maltby, “We deal with quite a few farmers—especially those that sell into the Boston market—that sell theirs as local meat, but they buy them from Pennsylvania and bring them up here.”

As one of just two USDA inspected slaughterhouses in Massachusetts, Adams Farm takes claims made by labels very seriously, “Here, if someone labels their meat on the package then they have to prove to us that it is that meat, it meets that definition,” said Maltby. “Most production definitions like ‘grass-based’ or ‘minimally processed’…they can only use certain language in certain ways.

So, again, we get some that come in and want the most ridiculous claims on their package, and we have to say, ‘No, you can only do this, this or this.'”

Further, he said, “Where there’s money to be made people will cut corners.”

Workers pack local meat at the local slaughterhouse

Workers pack local meat at the local slaughterhouse

But, is there money to be made with local food, in the farm-to-table movement? For The Delaney House event, the answer was, frankly, no. It was not busy enough to justify the cost and time that it required.

I asked Menegoni of Great Falls Harvest if being twice as busy was his goal, and he said, “Not twice as busy. A little busier would be good. But I don’t want to—you get too busy, and you lose focus on what you’re doing. You need to dedicate yourself to every dish.”

Then the question becomes, for the high-volume, bottom-line driven restaurants out there: is all of the extra work, from planning to purchasing to modifying preparation methods and substituting ingredients worth it? Do people really care?

Menegoni said, “I think a lot of people do. Unfortunately what happens is, people look at bottom line dollars, what you get for what you get, and unfortunately, it’s marketed really well that the food that is not produced in the best way is still okay, because it’s sold in the big stores.”

Also sold in the big stores is Blue Seal Brand kielbasa, a refreshingly simple-to-procure addition to my local menu from Chicopee Provisions. This Polish food made a great surf-and-turf appetizer, with Pacific Northwest smoked salmon mousse.

Finally, the produce for the “local salad” came from Joe Czajkowski Farm, of Hadley. Czajkowski delivers to restaurants and some large-scale operations such as UMASS Amherst and Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and has a large selection of produce, which is bolstered by other local farms.

The ultimate reason a restaurant would dedicate itself to the local food movement, all other headaches aside, is for the relationships fostered through a reciprocal revenue stream. As Menegoni said, without any pretentiousness whatsoever, “We’ve built good relationships with the farmers that come here and bring us vegetables and other things. They also come here to eat, which makes us feel good.”

And, I must say, it makes the rest of us look bad.

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The Sober Sous Chef’s Live Television Debut

June 9th, 2015—From ABC40 Western Mass News, The Sober Sous Chef demonstrates how to make a unique dessert, which first appeared on this site in a slightly different form.

The process of cooking on live-television was a great experience. It was also nerve-wracking. There were several points which I rehearsed, and never had a chance to say. There were also some funny things which I could never have expected! Have a look for yourself:

The Link below is the property of its owners.

http://www.westernmassnews.com/Clip/11581107/making-sweet-sundaes-with-the-delaney-house

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If you’ve scrolled down here, you missed the link. It’s above.

Catchy Headlines That Get You Everytime!

How to Abandon Your Blog

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Tips for leaving your loyal readers in the dark.

And a comeback?

From my poor perspective, as someone who has no clinical or psychological training whatsoever, I always imagine that a person with Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, is someone who gets up to go to the bathroom, gets distracted, winds up with a snack, sits back down and remembers the bathroom.

I don’t have ADD, but there must be a clinical term for my condition. I have a condition many wives loathe, which is a combination of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, mixed with ADD, but on a much less noticeable, though very time consuming and drawn out scale. I will call it Obsessive Compulsive Attention Deficit Disorder, or OCADD for short.

You see, I have many interests, and I am very ambitious. I find things that interest me, and I pursue them with all of my energy, both mentally and physically. That would, in itself, seem like a noble characteristic to be saddled with. And it is, in itself. However, there is more to it. The nature of that characteristic leaves one unsatisfied with whatever the most recent pursuit was, in favor of the next one. It has left several DIY household renovations at a point just shy of completion, two Frankenstein-like motorcycles waiting for life, an internet search of permits for housing chickens, a potential job in Sint Maarten, and so on.

In a nutshell, I once decided that I liked kayaks. So I put all of my meager and over-spent money together and started looking around for one. I couldn’t, at the time, find any that were in my price range, used or otherwise. Eventually, after conversation after conversation about my new obsession, I found a guy who wanted to get rid of an old fiberglass white-water kayak with several target-practice bullet holes in it. A little duct tape, and I was floating around in my very own kayak. Then I noticed a giant spider floating right along with me, and paddled to shore as fast as I could. And that was the end of that obsession. For nearly two months I dedicated every spare minute I had to getting a kayak and taking it out on a nice peaceful lake, and just like that, I don’t care if I ever do it again.

My OCADD has led me to some fun and exciting things, though, and I quite enjoy the thrill of achieving my goals. It is a motivational force, with a strong good side to it. I would prefer OCADD to other similar ailments, like Unable to Project Smile Disorder, and Gluten-Free People Intolerant Disorder.

It seemed to me, for a time, that my blog would endure all of my insanity. But, as the weather turned nice, I found a cheap 1970’s dual-sport bike that needed some love. That obsession was funded by the previous summer’s go-kart build. The point is, that unlike many of my hobbies (that’s right—I still write for free) this blog was an obsession of mine that has fallen by the wayside.

So here are my tips for blog abandonment:

  • Don’t call, don’t show, don’t offer an explanation.
  • You are easily replaced, so don’t lose sleep over it.
  • Don’t check your stats. This was frustrating considering how much time and effort I put in to pump up my stats while blogging, and that while I was abandoning my blog, it had a couple of surprisingly decent weeks.
  • Keep writing. Even if you don’t intend to publish anything, the hard part of writing is getting in the habit of writing. Once you lose the habit, and find a TV show in its place, it’s hard to get back to it.

There will be a comeback, and it will come soon. I just need to finish a couple of projects, and I’ll be back. Thank you for reading!

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Socrates takes on The Cook as told by Plato

Socrates seeks universal definition of “homemade.”

A work of fiction by Eric Damkoehler

I found this letter in my attic, with no date on it, written in an ancient handwriting, in an ancient language.

I spent the better half of a year obsessed with it’s contents. I studied it, and made several attempts at translating it on my own, though I could never quite satisfy my curiosity. At one point, I was certain I had broken the code into an alphabet, and re-wrote the entire letter into jumbled words, and searched dozens of dictionaries to find a possible match. To no avail, until finally I had several historians research the letter, of which here is the best, and the least expensive account:

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How to Avoid Rookie Cooking Mistakes

Five suggestions to improve your kitchen skills.

5. Learn how to hold a knife.

The very first thing every aspiring cook should learn, be it a food enthusiast, a culinary student or an inexperienced person cooking for a paycheck, is to hold a knife properly.

Knife skills are important for several reasons. It should be understood without mention that improper knife handling can lead to many painful and embarrassing trips to the medicine cabinet, or hospital. Beyond the obvious, though, there can be sometimes permanent, irreversible damage to ones joints, in the form of carpel tunnel syndrome, if someone is using the knife in a strenuous way.

The “pointed finger” manner of holding a knife is the most common mistake made by amateurs, and it involves the index finger pointed straight down the top of the knife. This way of holding a knife inhibits the ability to maneuver the knife, and will become quite painful if the handler makes more than 30 or 40 cuts, much like a poor throwing motion will cause a baseball player to get frequent dead-arm.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a young cook (working for a paycheck) was to hold my knife where the handle meets the blade, with my thumb and index finger on the steel. Several years later I learned how to safely use my left hand as a stopper, and I haven’t cut myself in the traditional way since (I’ve cut myself because of other reasons—like flipping knives, or simply not looking at the food I was cutting).

Hold a chef knife like this:

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4. If you aren’t cooking, or helping, get out of the way.

Most modern-home kitchens are planned and constructed in a way which promotes efficiency. If you were to draw a straight line from the sink to the stove, from the stove to the refrigerator, and from the refrigerator back to the sink, you would have a triangle. This triangle layout was designed so the cook can easily get back and forth from the most important places in the most efficient way.

What is the best way to stop this efficiency? Put someone drinking wine and marveling over the wonders of food directly in the middle of the triangle.

When my sister, the artist, makes Christmas dinner, she has every right (a right she is not shy to exercise) to tell my brother and I to get lost. As though it isn’t difficult enough feeding a family of chefs, my sister has to listen to us correct her every mistake. On this occasion, we are invading her space, and not only are we not helping, but we are actually hindering the process.

If you’re the home cook, protect your space. Put some stools or seating out of the way of the triangle and have your guests do their socializing there.

If you are the culinary student, or inexperienced cook in a professional kitchen, make yourself small.

The inexperienced cooks probably don’t have as much to do as the ones who have worked in a place for a long time. At crunch time, when the busiest cooking is going down, that’s the worst time to stand idly in a travel path, yet it is the most common time for rookies to get run over.

Don’t get run over; shrink yourself.

A unique quality of kitchen people, even the large ones, is the ability to shrink. They can do this even while carrying heavy sheet pans above their heads, and pass another large person doing the same, in a space not large enough for one of them to comfortably fit.

3. Don’t cry over sliced onions.

A great indicator of a person’s cooking experience is how they react to sliced, diced, chopped, minced or peeled onions. Do they bring tears to your eyes? Is it because you’re just so happy to be cooking? Great, because if you do it long enough, those onions will have no power over you.

In the meantime, refrigerate them. According to my experience, a couple of days in the refrigerator will have very little noticeable affect on the texture of the onion, and absolutely no impact on the flavor. If you won’t compromise on the temperature, try running the room temperature onions under cold water before cutting. Refrigerating or cooling the onions will reduce the amount of tears you shed.

If they still make you cry, maybe it’s because you need a new knife, or need to sharpen your old one. A sharper knife will slice through the onion with less resistance and splatter less, releasing less Propanethiol S-oxide, which is the gas that causes the irritation in your eyes. Though I have no understanding of the chemistry involved here, I also suggest that you clean the tomato juice off of your cutting board before cutting the onions. I have found through my own experience that failure to do so will increase your tears.

Finally, when those tears boil over, and you have very little choice but to close your eyes, stop cutting and go to a freezer. The walk-in freezers in restaurants are a great place to find a crying rookie cook, not because he or she was yelled at, but because their sympathetic boss told them that was the best thing to do for onion eyes. The cold air blowing in your face will immediately relieve your pain.

2. Taste everything, everywhere, every chance you get.

The only way to apply your new cooking skills is to get in the kitchen and cook. However, you won’t be doing it all the time, and when your not cooking, make sure you’re tasting. I don’t mean eating, I mean tasting.

Eating and tasting are two different things. You may eat in a lot of restaurants, but you may not be tasting the food. If you add hot sauce to everything, it will all taste like hot sauce. If you add a lot of salt to everything, after a certain point your taste buds will dull. If you’re like me, and you add ranch to everything, anything served without ranch seems to be missing something.

When you eat, slow down and try to identify the tastes of the foods. Don’t bother the waiter or chef for an ingredient list or recipe every time you enjoy something, just savor it and try to repeat it yourself. When you taste the version of your own creation, play with the seasoning until your taste buds agree it’s the same.

Taste everything you serve, but not to excess. One of the worst feelings a cook gets is after he has taken a break to wolf down some dinner or lunch. You will notice a sharp decline in his enthusiasm after he returns to work.

Eating too much before cooking, or during, causes you to resent your job, whether you are the host of a dinner party or the culinary student on internship. Once you have a full stomach, and your body starts to digest the meal, your ability to quickly perform your duties will deteriorate.

The trouble is, of course, that working with food makes you really hungry, and cooks will often load up their own plates, without thinking about cleanup, or dessert. Just save some energy for that last push, and don’t eat to the point of a food-coma.

1. Do not stand idle.

There is nothing more aggravating to a professional chef than seeing a subordinate cook doing nothing. Often, the culinary student or rookie cook doesn’t mean to anger the temperamental boss, and this idle time is not always an indicator of a poor work ethic. It’s an indicator of inexperience, and perhaps, a poor training regiment.

The reason is usually simple—the cook doesn’t know what to do next. He has finished the prep he’s been assigned, and maybe the chef is too busy to give him further instructions. At this point, the rookie cook should clean, ask somebody else if they need a hand, wash dishes, scrub pots—anything.

One of the best things a rookie cook can do is put away dishes. This job usually brings the cook to every area of the kitchen, and often the dining room. Wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where that funny looking pot goes will open his eyes to many other things. One day of putting away dishes and the cook will know where everything in the kitchen is, and maybe even learn where things belong.

The same concept can be applied to the dinner host, whether you’re serving your direct family or several business clients. Idle time shouldn’t be spent leaning against the counter, rather, get a jump on the dishes. Idle time should be spent setting the table, unless you’re the eat-first-ask-for-a-fork-later type, in which case you should fold some napkins.

Remember, a watched pot doesn’t boil, so go ahead and let the science take over for the heating time, and use some spare minutes to clean the refrigerator or the cabinet under the sink. Anything you do while the pot is heating will be time gained at the end of the meal, when you’ve probably eaten yourself into a stupor, and the last thing you want to do is clean. 

Photos Courtesy David Damkoehler

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Stretch it!

Bacon-Stretcher Operating Tips

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Every professional cook knows a thing or two about “stretching it,” the mathematical-art of making enough be just enough.

Chefs take pride in their 86’d boards being white, green, black or whatever the wipe-able surface color may be. They pride themselves in a lack of 86’d (out of stock) items.

Customers don’t really appreciate this unique ability possessed by the best of the professionals, but they can certainly be bothered by its absence. Have you ever been to a restaurant where half of the specials on the list are crossed out? Or, worse yet, you have probably exhausted precious time thumbing through pages of a menu until finally deciding on what to eat, only to be told upon ordering, “We’re all out of bacon.”

All professional cooks have 86’d something. There are certain products which can’t be found, or purchased, and some trips to the grocery store in a pinch could result in an accounting and financial disaster. Chefs are occasionally forced to admit that they are not, after all, God (but still God of their domain!). The phrase, “I’m a cook, not a magician,” has been useful for this problem.

Chefs in charge of purchasing are often the last to admit when something is 86’d. They are defensive when confronted with the possibility of a missing ingredient, and almost always insist the cook or server just can’t find it. They always know of secret stashes of things, and always seem to find the item that no one else can.

Imagine a storeroom or walk-in refrigerator, and picture several people in that room, pulling their hair out, trying to find the same thing. Now picture the purchaser, who walks right past them all, with no effort or hesitation whatsoever, and picture him grabbing the 86’d item and tossing it to a dumbfounded cook. This is a learned trait.

You see, every cook, chef, purchaser or restaurant owner has worked at least one “first day.” On that first day, they didn’t know anything about food, labels, storage—you name it. They have all told their boss, “We’re all out of such and such.” And they’ve all been proven, many times, that they’re wrong. Frequent suffering of the humiliation of being wrong will cause even the strongest willed cooks to amend the statement to, “I can’t find it.”

When something is truly 86’d from the stock room or walk-in, the purchaser will undoubtedly become more defensive, and insist one of the following things happened:

  1. You are over-portioning.
  2. The supplier screwed up the order (which is most likely the actual reason).
  3. It wasn’t on the “needs list” (a fail-safe mechanism which all restaurant employees should contribute too).
  4. It was there yesterday.
  5. Someone stole it.
  6. You’ve been selling it like crazy?
  7. (Finally, the closest thing to an admittance of guilt) Huh. You’ll have it tomorrow.

Before the ingredient, and all of the menu items which require it, are written in dry-erase marker on the 86’d board, a good chef and proud purchaser will “stretch” it. He might tell a cook to get the bacon stretcher. The cook might go look, and come back with the same problem, “We don’t have a bacon stretcher.”

Again, many cooks have fallen for some prank of that nature. Bacon-stretchers only work with thick-sliced, uncured bacon, and each town only has one, which is shared between restaurants. It works best at setting number three.

Suppose the missing, or about-to-be-86’d item is bacon. Suppose there are thirty slices left, or enough for ten turkey club sandwiches. A clever chef or purchaser will chop half of the bacon into bits, and mix it into the sandwiches’ heavy-duty mayonnaise. He’ll call it, “Bacon Aoli,” and charge an extra dollar for the up-sell.

That leaves fifteen slices of bacon. He’ll cut them all in half (across) and carefully slice the thirty half strips into thirds (lengthwise). Now ninety small slices of bacon, he will instruct the cook to put three slices directly in the middle of each sandwich, visible to the guest, where the first bite will take place. He will use twenty more slices to create eye-appealing mini BLT skewers.

He will spread a teaspoon of his Bacon Aoli onto a quarter section of a grape tomato, which he will wrap with a large baby spinach leaf, which he will wrap with the model railroad sized bacon strip, held together by a six-inch skewer. He will instruct the cook to impale the turkey clubs with the mini BLT skewers, which will be a big hit with the customers and cause them to completely ignore the fact that they are getting half the amount of bacon they normally do, and being charged an extra dollar for it.

Bacon stretching at its finest! The clever chef has managed to double the amount of turkey clubs he can sell without 86’ing bacon, and in doing, has made an extra twenty dollars. And there’s still ten one-sixth slices of bacon leftover.

It’s not magic, it’s wicked cool magic. So is this event being held at a wonderful banquet facility in Massachusetts: BACONFEST!!!

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