Crowd-Pleasing: How to Make Every Stinkin’ Guest Happy

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Above: Chef Toddler gives his opinion of a meal, high in fruit.

Apply restaurant business principles to your home cooking and watch your guests marvel in delight.

Taste is unique, subjective and different. When something tastes too salty, or too spicy, it’s a matter of contention between two separate tasters. When something tastes good, though, everyone seems to agree.

When dining out, you’re going to decide what to eat based on your opinion of what tastes good. But, when preparing a meal for your family, much like a professional chef, you must decide on their behalf what tastes good. Is it possible to please everyone?

The short answer is no, it isn’t. However, many cooks have pleased everyone at one time or another, and considering all of today’s diets and allergies, you wonder how that’s possible? When serving a large group, the amount of options you include in the single meal, or variations of the same things, will earn you the crowd-pleasing award, with only a grain of extra work. With Easter Sunday on the menu this weekend, heed these tips:

  1. Know your patrons, or guests. Understanding the needs and tendencies of your guests will make the art of pleasing them much simpler. For example, if your brother is allergic to nuts, remove them from the menu, and replace them with sunflower seeds, which are now specially produced in separate facilities to avoid the awful lawyer written package disclaimer, “May contain traces of nuts.”
    • Knowing your patrons eating habits is critical in the restaurant industry, where a puny $70 lamb chop with truffle-fed-pig bacon and caviar might go over brilliantly in one market and have the creator of it run out of town on a pitchfork in another. Use the insight of the professionals, do market research, ask your guests if they have any allergies before you begin cooking, and do your best not to give them the, “are you really allergic or is this just a new fad” look.
  2. Do more with less. Cross utilization of ingredients is a good way to offer more options, and please a large amount of people. If you plan to serve mashed potatoes to twelve people, you will need about six pounds of potatoes. If you serve them mashed potatoes and roasted potatoes, you will need about a few more pounds of potatoes, and with a simple three-step cooking process, there will be another choice of sides.
    • Restaurants seldom incorporate menu items which only have a single use. Principally for cost effectiveness, cross utilization of products is critical when figuring preparation, spoilage, waste, storage and purchasing.
  3. Give them wine, and more wine. As mentioned here before, the quality of conversation is directly equivalent to the timeliness of the meal being served. Guests engaged in engrossing, entertaining conversations always feel as though they received speedy service, whether it was from the host at a dinner party or at a popular and busy restaurant. Conversely, the guests who have nothing to say to one another will undoubtedly require some diligent attention from the host, or the opinion of the meal will suffer. Use wine to get the people talking, to get the mood entertaining, and let the guests forget that you said dinner would be ready in fifteen minutes—about forty-five minutes ago. Also, some popcorn and snacks go a long way in buying time. Here is Chef Toddler making popcorn:20150330_162844
    • As one might expect, The Sober Sous Chef doesn’t drink, but that should not be an excuse, nor is it a good reason, to neglect one of the most traditional, time-honored focal points of a gathering. If you don’t drink, or are inexperienced with purchasing wine, ask your guests to bring a bottle. For a large holiday, they assume you put a lot of work into preparing their meal and are more than happy to bring something. They will feel like they contributed to the overall meal, which in turn pleases them.
  4. Play some music. Mood, ambiance, call it what you will, play an important role in the final opinion of the meal. Remember one of the nicest meals you ever had, and try to visualize the surroundings. Was it in a nice restaurant, elegantly appointed and with pleasant—but not overwhelming—music playing? Chances are, if you think real hard, you will remember some sort of pleasing ambiance when you remember your favorite meals.
    • In two studies, published in 2000 in the National Library of Medicine, an identical meal was served to guests in a restaurant, laboratory and cafeteria. It should come as little surprise that the restaurant meal received better reviews, however, the laboratory came in second over the cafeteria. The studies go to show that the perception of food and the manner and environment in which it is served has a decisive correlation on the taste of the dish, or at least the perceived taste. The studies fail to mention that this is common knowledge among restauranteurs, and that they wasted some grad student’s time and money in conducting them.
  5. Show the love! Best served as a side dish in itself, love is the most essential ingredient to show the guests. If they see you putting heart and sole into the dish, they may be disgusted. So, talk it up, remind them how much you enjoy their enjoyment, and they will walk away pleased, as ever they can possibly be.
    • People have a reverence for a person wearing a crisp, clean, pressed and embroidered chef coat. The best thing a chef can do to ensure that everyone is pleased is to talk to his guests. The difficult thing, though, is the chef is supposed to be cooking for the other guests, and if they see him at the wrong time, say, when their meal has been taking too long, they may become irritated, which defeats the purpose of pleasing everyone. It is best to avoid asking to “speak to the chef” for this reason, and others, in general.

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Cook V. Waitress

Who has it worse?

The rivalry between cooks and waitresses started the first time a caveman cook asked a caveman server to bring food to someone. If cooks and servers could agree that both have difficult jobs, both are underpaid and overworked, both work long hours and both of their feet hurt equally, the debate would have never been started.

Alas, they can’t agree, nor will they. Nor will The Sober Sous Chef. There are equal points to be made for both. The cook will always say he is the superior restaurant worker, and the lesser appreciated, and the server will echo, ten-fold, the same about herself.

Here’s why no one will ever take the cook’s side:

  • He’s a jerk. Generally speaking, of course, he failed to learn that you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. He lashes out over seemingly simple things. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to re-plate, or re-fire a steak that was rung in wrong, or that the guest doesn’t understand how to order. It is a big deal, especially in the middle of a busy period, and he makes sure everyone knows what a big deal it is.
  • He keeps a running tally of the server’s errors in his mind, of which he is the absolute authority, and automatically multiplies each by three. If the server makes two mistakes, he will claim she made six. It’s how his mind works. He isn’t good at math, hence his constant complaining about not making enough money. He knew what he signed up for, and if he had any other skills he would likely be doing something else. Those skipped math classes come back to haunt the cook, in more ways than one.
  • The best argument to be made for the cook is the disproportionate pay between him and the server. Customers generally pay better than employers. Servers only make about $3 per hour in Massachusetts, but the customer usually tips about twenty percent. A good server will leave a busy shift with about one-hundred dollars more than a good cook. On a slow day, however, the server may get sent home penniless.
  • Often times the cook controls the server’s tips. A poorly run kitchen will have long ticket times and the server suffers. What if the shoe were on the other foot? What if the speed of the server getting drinks for her customers was directly related to the cook’s pay? How would that go over in the kitchen?
  • Ultimately, though, the cook will lose the debate for this most simple of reasons: There are ten good, well spoken servers for every one qualified cook. That cook is stuck with a bunch of bozos trying to fix every mistake, from the front and back of house, and doesn’t have time to get caught up in the fray. The other, lousy cooks, will argue the point till they’re blue in the face, in an effort to hide the fact that they aren’t cut out for cooking.

Here’s why no one will ever take the server’s side:

  • Servers don’t have each others side. They are constantly bickering with each other. They can’t stand in unison against the angry cook because they snicker when he lashes out at a server whom they are trying to get to quit. They will all but purposely sabotage her.
  • This could easily turn into a man vs. woman debate, so The Sober Sous Chef will leave to the reader’s imagination all of the nasty, conniving things women do to each other, in all settings in life. The restaurant is no exception.
  • And in no way does this imply that all servers are women, but the majority are—the floor (dining room) is dominated by women. That being said, the server complains too much. She complains about not making enough money one day, and then complains about being too busy to keep up the next. She complains that the food is taking too long at one point, and complains that the food came out too fast at another.
  • Her feet hurt at the end of a long shift. Considering six hours to be a long shift really bites at the ankles of the cook. Her “double-shift” is the cook’s normal shift. She doesn’t have the luxury of rubber mats to stand on, as does the cook, but she only has to endure it for about half the time of the cook. Remember, she will make almost twice as much money as the cook.
  • When the shift ends, the server’s clean up, or side-work, is a joke to the cook. The cook has to get on his hands and knees and scrub. He has a twenty-yard round-trip walk to turn off the equipment, which he does a half-dozen times—obsessively—before he can leave knowing the building could burn down if he doesn’t. If the server skips a job on her list, for a week or two consecutively, the consequence might be a fruit fly or two—and a lot of bickering over who’s turn it is to do it.

Finally, the argument usually comes down to this:

The Server says, “But I have to deal with customers and cooks.”

“I have to deal with waitresses,” replies The Cook.

“But I have to deal with you,” says The Server.

And The Cook, “I’d rather deal with customers than you.”

Unfortunately, most cooks don’t ever get the chance to “deal with customers.” They ought to, just as servers ought to cook for a shift or two, and learn a little about each trade’s difficulties—and rewards.

Most restaurants are like families, and there will be fights among siblings, and even mom and dad. At the end of the day, though, they all love each other. They can be bitter rivals throughout the shift and then close down the after party together. Whether it’s just a job, or a career, all would be advised to remember the other job is just as hard. Restaurant work is not for the faint of heart.

So, who’s got it worse? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Ask a dishwasher what he thinks!

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Asian Bratwurst Reubens

The Sober Sous Chef’s first demonstration video!  Continue reading to learn more.

Asian Bratwurst Rueben

What to eat?  You may think the family of a chef has a five star meal every night, but the chef is working five, six or seven days a week, and when he’s home, the last thing on his to-do list is cooking.20150325_174852

Above is Chef Toddler, looking for something to cook for his family’s dinner.

You may find yourself in the same predicament, far too often.  You go to the fridge, open it and look inside, just as you’ve done a dozen times in the last hour, as though you’ll actually find something this time.  The longer you stare at it, the less motivation you’ll have to cook, and the hungrier you’ll get.  So, start grabbing.  Grab six or seven leftovers, sauces, veggies—whatever.

They don’t all have to get into the meal, but taking them out of the fridge is the hardest part.  Once they’re on the counter, the combinations will appear to you, and you should be able to come up with something.

This dish did require a trip to the store, but the “use it up” mentality was applied here.  Get rid of the old, and make room for more.  The store lacked kim chee, a spicy Korean pickled condiment, however, as mentioned in previous articles on this site, limitations are the launching points for discovery and creativity.

For this dinner, Chef Toddler and his brothers chose broccoli as their side.  Here is how to cut broccoli, please excuse the whining toddler:

For the Asian Bratwurst Reubens you should have:

  • buttered rye bread
  • swiss cheese
  • 1,000 Island or Russian dressing
  • A POSITIVE ATTITUDE!
  • bratwurst
  • spicy brown mustard
  • The Sober Sous Chef email subscription

Make this Asian Kraut Slaw:

Use a griddle to make the sandwiches, because it is less to clean up afterwards.  If you use the last of the butter on the bread, use this trick to get the rest of it—that stuff is expensive!

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Try to save time, by cooking the brats and browning the bread at the same time, like so:

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Add the Asian Kraut Slaw as soon as you add the cheese.

Some soy sauce added to the cooking bratwurst once they have a golden-brown color and slightly crispy texture goes a long way.  Before assembling the sandwich, add some more 1,000 Island dressing and some spicy brown mustard.

Cook it ’till it’s done.

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Video courtesy David Damkoehler

 

Mincemeat is Fruit, Sweetbread is Meat and Sweetmeat is Candy

sources: https://arecipeforgluttony.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/homemade-mincemeat/  http://www.blogher.com/crispy-sweetbread-tacos  http://www.innovateus.net/food/what-are-different-types-sweetmeats

Confused? Read this:

Olive oil comes from olives, soybean oil comes from soybeans, but what does canola oil come from? Canolas? There are no such things. Canola oil comes from the rapeseed, of the rape plant. Certainly, you don’t expect it to be marketed as rape oil, do you? Now, what about baby oil?

Soy beans have a bad rap, because they’re in everything, and some people are allergic to them, so the soy industry calls them edamame. Now they are the most popular “new” product around. Earthy type people love them! but if you dare tell them that the salad dressing is made from soy oil, they will shoot you with their low emissions guns, made from recycled material, of course.

The food industry is well aware of the way you perceive food. The big companies spend fortunes on marketing, and study people’s buying habits. Likewise, the restaurant industry knows that the way something is worded will affect your pockets. For example, a really tasty soup called “Yellow Broth” was renamed to “Pot o’ Gold Soup,” and sales increased.

Certain types of food lend themselves to specifics, such as beef. The customer wants to know what cut he is getting, so the menu will mention tenderloin, or rib. Other foods, though, because of those pesky words, prefer to be eaten as general things. For instance, the typically consumed edible part of the scallop that we all know and love is called the adductor muscle. How do you want your scallops? Fried? What if the menu says, “Adductor in rape oil.” Doesn’t sound so pleasant.

A good menu tells the guests what they need to know. They need to know what the heck they’re ordering. If you order something at a restaurant because it’s the only thing you can pronounce on the menu, you should suspect the chef is maneuvering around some lousy ingredients with some artsy language.

Speaking of menus, the next time you go out to eat, with your kids or spouse, try to rename some of the entrees. Come up with the goofiest name, and the simplest name, and see which you would prefer. Sprinkle in some French words, and overlap it with some Italian. You are most likely to eat the thing you recognize and know how to pronounce.

It may sound something like this, “The chicken that didn’t make it across the road, on bread that didn’t rise, with one-year old solidified cow’s milk,” or Chicken Quesadilla.

If someone offers you Rocky Mountain Oysters, politely decline these bovine reproductive organs. Offer them instead some Humble Pie. That’s deer intestine pie, with apples, currants and spices, which used to feed servants in 17th Century England. The name comes from “numble,” meaning deer innards, and eventually became a slang term for someone who has been put into their proper place.

The slang has regressed further. On such an occasion, someone “just got served.” The new slang actually indicates the opposite of the original meaning, whereas the person being put in their place is the one receiving the meal from the servant.

When being served, most people know that Escargot is snail, but what if you’re offered Escamole—not Escarole (endive)—in your omelet while vacationing in Mexico? Before you refuse, Ant Eggs actually look pretty darn good.

Source: The Taste of Mexico, by Patricia Quintana, photography by Ignacio Urquiza

Source: The Taste of Mexico, by Patricia Quintana, photography by Ignacio Urquiza

The New Food Lover’s Companion, Third Edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst was used as a reference for this article—and just about everything I do.

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Recipe Writer’s Block

Secret Recipe

Secret Recipe

Hand an experienced chef a recipe and he or she will quickly glance at the ingredient list and the name and return it to you. Generally, it’s not out of arrogance or stubbornness that the chef won’t read the cooking instructions, but the chef already knows how to make most dishes. Once you have learned the professional basics, there isn’t much else to say about it.

Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, I don’t have enough baking experience to wing a loaf of bread, but hand me a chicken and I’ll hand you the wings—no recipe needed.

When I sit down to type the articles you have come to enjoy, I always reach a certain point where it gets boring. The process, that is. I thoroughly enjoy writing about food, but I lose interest when I get to the inevitable recipe portion. I do my best to disguise that from the reader, and often try to insert a joke or a trade secret directly into the middle of the mandatory ingredient list.  A list should be funny, right David Letterman?

Being a food writer and, in contrast, someone who doesn’t care for recipes is like being a mechanic who doesn’t care for fixing Fords. That’s the market. The Ford is always broken, and the reader wants to know how to cook the food which the writer is so passionately describing. There is a definite obsession with recipes these days; the other Quintilian food writers and I exasperate the problem.

Not to say that there isn’t a good use for recipes, but the reader should first make an attempt to learn the cooking process before bothering to learn the ingredient list. If packaged dinners didn’t have instructions for how long to microwave or sensationally simmer in a skillet, would families starve? They would just put it in the oven or skillet and check on it more frequently, until eventually they learn how to tell when it’s done. Perhaps some black pizza crust is a better teacher than I can ever be.

There’s an old joke, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll call out of work once a week.”

I’m not a teacher, I’m a writer. Heck, I’m not even a writer. I’m a chef. Really, honestly, I’m a cook. The word “chef” doesn’t always sit well with me. It indicates a Gordon Ramsey like, cocky, unapproachable attitude. There is a pea sized difference between the arrogant chef and the confident cook. You can learn to cook, or you can learn to be a cook.

If you want to learn how to be a cook, the first and probably hardest piece of advice to swallow is lose the recipe. If it feels like you’re driving with your eyes closed, that’s all right. Think of it this way: If your car’s digital navigation system directs you to a boat ramp, you should shut it off. If you must use the recipe, use it as a guide, just don’t drive into the river.

Consider the source of the recipe. In order to decide if it is a good one, you must first decide if it was written by a recipe writer or a cook. Chances are, if it was a really good cook, the measurements won’t be perfect.

By the way, that’s a disclaimer.

That’s not done by design. No one is holding back here, but cooks, or chefs if you must, often don’t measure anything. I use “glug” as a measurement when instructing young, inexperienced cooks. They always start out by adding a “drizzle” to whatever they’re making.

I correct them, “That’s not a glug.”

I grab the ingredient and pour, until I have satisfyingly heard, seen, felt—call it measured—the requisite amount of “glugs.” It’s similar to a bartender’s “four-second pour,” which can vary greatly depending on whether the bartender counts seconds with “Mississippi” or “one-thousand.”

If the recipe was written by a recipe writer, than you can probably trust that it is going to come out just like it looks on the internet, it will taste pretty good and you can snap some pictures of it for your social media friends. They will like it. But if you follow it precisely, never deviating, you will not learn anything. You will be trapped forever in the trend—remember kale chips? that was a thing—and may never make something that your kids remember you for. If you follow my advice, when they ask you for that family secret, hand them a list of ingredients with a name on top, and let them figure out the rest. It will be the secret which will feed them for generations.

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Maple Sugar Farming in Western Massachusetts

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Courtesy Chuck Andrews

The Sugaring season is in full swing in Western Massachusetts. Local sugar farmers are practically working around the clock, producing one of the best local commodities. Chuck Andrews, owner of Cobble Mountain Sugar House, runs about 700 taps in Blandford, MA, on four sugar bushes. Each tree takes a couple of taps, the largest tree taking four taps.

Cobble Mountain Sugar House sells syrup for $50 a gallon, which is about $10 less than the average price of locally produced syrup. Unlike some agricultural industries, the government doesn’t set or regulate pricing of maple syrup, allowing farmers to set their own prices. Though, “we’re definitely not getting rich off of it,” Andrews says. His immediate family consumes a couple of gallons a year, and his friends and extended family enjoy receiving maple syrup gifts around the holidays.

Maple syrup competition is abundant in Western Massachusetts, however, Andrews knows nothing of it. A true labor of love, all of the Blandford area sugar farmers are friendly, often hanging out in each other’s sugar houses. They farm their neighbors land, and sell locally. The Bread Basket, in Russell, MA, sells Cobble Mountain Sugar House products.

“People like the local, people just like the small operations and the fact that the way we make it is pretty much old school.”

“Old-school” maple syrup was controlled by dipping pork-fat into the sap, to prevent it from boiling over. “We don’t do that anymore. That is the old-school, you dipped it in to keep it from boiling over, but we don’t do that because of allergies.” Andrews says there is a new product for this purpose, a de-foaming product, “we use almost none of it. It’s a natural product that we buy from the Bascom Sugar House.” They keep the product on hand, because, “if it boils over in the pan it could start a fire pretty quick.”

A fire would certainly put a damper on what has been a good start to the sugaring season. According to Andrews,

“This year seems to be panning out really well. If the weather stays cold at night, warm during the day—like it has been most of the time—it should turn out to be a really good season.”

Courtesy Chuck Andrews

Courtesy Chuck Andrews

When buying syrup, remember that the higher grade is not necessarily the better. Andrews, personally speaking, prefers a medium amber. “Some people like the light, but I think the darker syrups have much better flavor.”

Should you be so inclined to celebrate this season of local syrup bounty, here is a recipe for Butternut Squash Ravioli with Spinach and Toasted Cashews to accentuate the delicious, signature Western Massachusetts product.

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Chef Toddler Makes Butternut Squash Ravioli

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With a little help from his brothers, and a professional chef.

This is a great recipe to try with the kids.  Making pasta is actually quite simple, as demonstrated here.  If Chef Toddler can do it, so can you.  Makes about a dozen large ravioli, so it will serve about two adults and two kids, or one adult and three kids.

For the Ravioli:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 # butternut squash, peeled, seeded and rough chopped
  • 2 tbsp fresh minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • to taste salt and pepper

For the Sauce:

  • 1 pt heavy cream
  • 1/8th cup maple syrup
  • to taste salt and pepper
  • 2 handfuls spinach
  • 1/4th cup chopped cashews
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Instructions:

Create a crater in the two cups of flour.

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Add whole eggs to the center. Using a fork, mix eggs in a circular motion, slowly incorporating flour.

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Continue to push flour into the egg until a dough is formed.

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Flour a table and roll dough into sheets. Use a pasta maker to assist, or a rolling pin.

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Roll pasta dough into sheets about an 1/8th of an inch thick. Cut circles or squares large enough to add a spoonful of the butternut squash mixture.

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Boil squash until fork-tender. Drain. Add garlic and butter and smash with a fork or whisk. Season to taste.

Add a tablespoon of squash to the center of the shapes of the pasta dough, and either fold over at the center or place a matching shape on top.

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Wet the seams with water, and press together firmly.20150318_171916(0)Use a fork to give an outline, being careful not to split the pouch part of the ravioli.

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Heat heavy cream in a sauce pan. When the cream begins to boil, add the maple syrup and salt and pepper.  Subscribe to get The Sober Sous Chef via Email.

20150318_163209Reduce by half, or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, known as nappe.

Boil the formed ravioli in salted water, until the pasta is cooked. The ravioli will float to the surface when they are ready, however, air bubbles in the pouch may cause them to float before they are cooked.

Toss the chopped cashews in maple syrup, butter and kosher salt. Gently toast in the oven.

Wilt the spinach in the cream sauce and pour over cooked ravioli. Garnish with the toasted cashews.

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Stop! Don’t salt the soaking split peas!

A humorous Split Pea and Leek Soup recipe.

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By popular demand, I give this recipe for Split Pea and Leek Soup, or at least the closest version to it that I can remember, and convert into approximately 12 servings.

One of the first times I made split pea soup, I thought I would be clever and add some salt to the soaking process. Here is an example of too much love being a bad thing. The peas I used came in a bulk package, 20 pounds, and there were no warnings or cooking instructions on them. After the 24 hour soaking period, I cooked the soup. And cooked it. And for an entire day I let that son-of-a-gun simmer and confound every bit of scientific and cooking sense I had. Finally, I stuck an immersion blender into the darn thing and pureed it. Even after that, the skins of the peas had not broken down, and it was eventually a big, messy, ugly pot of pig food.

It occurred to me that the salted soaking water was the culprit, however, it wasn’t until recently that I confirmed it.20150317_140851It says so right on the label! It goes on to say that you don’t have to soak the peas, but for this recipe I did. Maybe in another 12 years I’ll have some evidence that it made a difference in the outcome.

The following recipe came from a batch of soup that fed over 100 people. The ingredients are all here, however, the amounts may not be perfect. Use your judgment when making the soup, and remember that you can always adjust it at the end—when you add the salt.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2# butter
  • 4# mirepoix-small dice (mirepoix is the guts of most soups—onions, celery, carrots. It’s 2 parts onion to one part celery and carrots.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped garlic (or substitute granulated garlic at the end)
  • 3# leeks—washed, sliced lengthwise, washed some more, sliced into half-moons, and finally washed again.
  • 3# split peas—washed, soaked, unsalted (or follow the manufacture’s guidelines for not soaking the peas)
  • ~1/2 gal chicken stock (depending on the consistency you prefer, start with a little bit less, and add some more to thin it out at the end)
  • Salt, Pepper, and Balsamic Vinegar to taste
  • 4 oz Prosciutto—sliced into thin strips
  • 1 stalk Scallions—cut however your heart desires, for garnish
  • 1# Bonus Ingredient: Ham—whatever ham products you have around.  Omitting this will still yield an unbelievably good, simple soup.

Instructions:

  1. Make soup.
  2. Eat soup.
  3. Subscribe to The Sober Sous Chef’s email updates

Actual Instructions:

Heat a large pot, and melt the butter over high heat. Let the butter get as hot as possible without burning and then add the mirepoix, garlic and leeks. Let the vegetables saute until the onions are translucent and the carrots are soft. Add the chicken stock and split peas.

Cook the soup on medium heat for about 50 minutes, or until done. Arrange the prosciutto on a pan and pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. About ten minutes before the soup is finished, place the prosciutto into the oven, and toast it until the edges begin to crisp slightly.

Finally, add your salt and pepper. Start out with less, and add more. The addition of the Balsamic Vinegar gives the soup some life, an attitude, if you will. Garnish the soup with the toasted prosciutto and scallions. If you happen to have any ham products—bones, trimmings, etc—adding them when you add the stock will help the soup’s final flavor, however, it is not necessary to do so.

Remember one more thing; the better the stock, the better the soup. However, good food can be made from ready-made ingredients, including chicken stock. If you re-heat the soup over the course of the next few days, you will need some chicken stock to thin it out again. Just like people, pea soup gets thicker with age.

Editor’s Note: Rule 20 of An Approach to Style, from William Strunk, Jr.’s and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style tells us, in regards to using foreign languages (as used here with “mirepoix”), “It is a bad habit. Write in English.” In some English translations of Homer’s poems, there are words which appear in Latin, because there aren’t any suitable words in our language. Such is the case with mirepoix. It is a French word, the basis for nearly everything liquid and savory, and our language hasn’t found a suitable word to replace it with. Remember that the next time you are comparing American Cuisine with that of the rest of the world.

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Walk-in Amnesia

How to avoid the inefficient time-killer of forgetfulness.

Have you ever left one room and entered another, only to wonder why? If you have, you may have more in common with cooks and chefs than you thought.

Imagine you are extremely busy, so busy that you could grow three extra hands and still not be able to do everything demanded of you in a reasonable amount of time. Imagine that during this insanely busy period of time, you have to stop everything you are doing and run—don’t walk—to another room to get something you need.

Imagine that room is 39 degrees Fahrenheit, and filled to the brim with food. That room is called a walk-in refrigerator, or walk-in, to the restaurant worker. Now, imagine that this little trip to the walk-in, in the middle of the busiest part of your day, is being taken at the possible expense of finicky dishes which require every part of your attention, and you have a dozen such dishes all burning away. You have calculated in a fever that you have about 20 seconds before your workload is compiled to the point of impossibility, and you spend five seconds dashing to and five seconds sprinting back from the walk-in door.

In the walk-in you have but 10 seconds. 10 measly seconds decide whether you will be able to succeed in your job or fail; 10 seconds decide if your customers will be happy or not; 10 seconds decide if you will let down your friends and coworkers or not.

The importance of those 10 seconds cannot be overstated. If you miss one ticket or burn one sauce, the mistakes will compound and it will cause a snowball effect of more and more mistakes. The timing of the entire restaurant will be compromised. Other cooks and servers will have to change their timing to accommodate your mistakes, and the entire building will turn into a chaotic war-zone, where friends turn to bitter enemies. Seldom does a busy night in a restaurant end without an apology, and a bygone forgiven.

Back to the walk-in. Supposing you made it there in five uninterrupted seconds, you must find what you’re looking for quickly. If it’s pickles you need, you must hope the bucket is already open (in a forthcoming post, you will learn some tricks for being more efficient in the walk-in). Same goes for onions, which can be a pain-in-the-rear to remove from the bag, and if it’s meat, you may have to move two or three 80 pound boxes to get to the one you need.

All of those little bits of work add up fast. Other times, someone has put something away wrong—more time. You wonder how hard it can be to find something in such a small space? If the manufacturer of the product changed the label recently you may be staring right at it and have no idea where it is. Distraction after distraction, in the cave-like hideout of the restaurant.

Often designated as a hold-up safe-room, walk-ins are built tough. The walls in the walk-in are insulated, and usually offer a good sound barrier. It is a necessary baffle sometimes for aggravated cooks, a place where swearing is never chastised. A haven for exchanging secrets, or a place to spout off about the boss, with no repercussions. Cooling off figuratively, and sometimes just to stop sweating, and have a glass of cold water.

At least everyday, though, you can find a frazzled cook, in the midst of a busy push, standing, frozen in place, with a look of disbelief. Scratching his head, wondering aloud, “What the hell did I come in here for?”

If it happens to you, try this trick: Say aloud over and over again the item you are looking for, as you enter the next room or the walk-in.

Too late? Then grab something that you know you will need eventually, and get yourself back to your station so you don’t screw up everyone’s night. You will remember what you needed at the next worst possible time, at which point you can start the whole process again.

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5 Things You Should Know about Chain Restaurants

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Common misconceptions that every diner should understand.

5: Casual Dining Chain Restaurants Aren’t Local

The profits aren’t local. The cooks, servers, bartenders, dishwashers, managers and cleaning staff are all local. Whether you live in Germany, Australia or Massachusetts, the fine folks serving your meal are your neighbors. The large chains may bank elsewhere, but the people working there have bills at your gas company, your electric company, your tax office. Many chain restaurants combat this opinion by promoting their General Managers into General Managing Partners, which turns the biggest boss of a particular location into a part owner.

4: Casual Dining Chain Restaurants are Politically Correct

In regards to branding, customer service, and Human Resources, yes, they are. However, a kitchen is a kitchen no matter the sign on the front door. There will be the same sort of shenanigans in a chain restaurant as there are in the mom and pop operation. Cooks will still sneak outside at closing time, and servers and bartenders will still hang out at the end of the shift. The biggest difference is that the chain restaurant doesn’t want it to happen in their “store.” Employees often do their drinking at rival restaurants.

3: Casual Dining Chain Restaurants aren’t Innovative

Who is? The wonderful thing about copying a concept is that you can learn from the original concept’s mistakes. Being innovative in the restaurant industry is a good thing, but not required. What chain restaurants do is take innovative ideas and perfect them—fine tune them—and remove the error of the original. From a business perspective, there is nothing wrong with that. If you have a Thanksgiving dinner and tell the cook it was the best you ever had, do you fault him for not inventing it?

Besides, chain restaurants are innovative with their technology.

The process of getting food to the guest has changed dramatically because of chain restaurants. They serve guests so efficiently that competitors had to invent ways of speeding up their process. Thus, many technologies like self-cleaning fryers and computer monitors above the cook-line have been created.

2: Casual Dining Chain Restaurant Food Isn’t Homemade

A good server, one who knows you tip well, will probably tell you which items are, and which are not, homemade (22 percent is a good tip, 25 percent is better, 18 percent means you think the server should find another line of work, 15 percent means you are on your way to the funeral home to pick out your casket because nobody tips that badly anymore). There are several items in chain restaurants that come from a warehouse, ready to microwave. But there are also many, if not most, which are made the same way in the chain restaurant as they are in the locally owned eatery. Look for the items which are fresh, and signature items; those items are the most likely to be homemade.

1: Casual Dining Chain Restaurants Put Small Restaurants Out of Business

Small restaurants put small restaurants out of business. The oft repeated statistic is 10%. Only ten percent of restaurants stay open through their first year of business. Those restaurants, just like the other eight before them, are destined to fail.

Competition drives sales. Have you ever left your house to go out to eat, before you’ve decided on where to go? If you have, you will gravitate to the center of the restaurant district. You go somewhere where you know you will have options, and if you didn’t plan it out, you avoid the high-end joint that gives you a guilt trip about your lack of a reservation. The chain restaurant provides a seat, a hot meal, and, although it may not be the best meal ever, you can count on being served by a local college kid or a retired homemaker.

And, no, there are no chefs back there, as illustrated here.

The images contained in this article are the property of their respective owners, who in no way endorse this article. Please don’t sue the author.

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