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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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.

Barn Finds: Popcorn Pudding with Bacon, Maple and Cajun Caramel Corn Ice-Cream

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Chef Toddler’s Latest Creation

Popcorn pudding. Like bread pudding, only made with popcorn. Yes, it’s gluten-free, and cheap. If you consider sugar to be among the most important ingredients in a kitchen, which The Sober Sous Chef does, and don’t count the entire cost of a five pound bag against the it, the total cost of this creation was less than five dollars.

We strayed slightly from our last Barn Finds post, and used some ingredients which we didn’t buy at the scratch-and-dent store. Rest assured, though, in the spirit of the article, the Cajun spice has been on my shelf for well over three years, and the eggs in the custard had a sell by date of April 9th.

Use it or lose it. The most wholesome cuisine, the least pretentious, and the most responsible. You might call it “omnivore,” but it goes beyond that. The point is to actually seek out food which is about to expire, or be thrown out. Don’t dumpster dive, unless you enjoy being dangerously ill, but employ the restaurant industry’s standard of FIFO, or First In, First Out. Use up the old, and make room for the new.

An omnivore’s “use it or lose it” diet means no guilty conscience wondering if someone used chicken stock in your vegetarian soup, no conversations about evil farmers poisoning corn, no obnoxious chef asking if frogs and capybara fit into your pescatarian life. No calorie counting, no picky bitching, no nose-holding, no half-eaten meals, no bloated “food baby” bellies, no trends, no funny languages, no rude and demeaning waiter, no reservations, and a hell of a lot of trial and error.

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It’s just food. If you screw it up, fix it. If it doesn’t taste good, make it taste good. Add to it. Change it. Unless you’re on death-row, it won’t be your last meal. If you eat it, you will live to try again. Some people can’t eat. You can help those people by clicking this LINK and making a donation, then make this decadent dessert (which we fixed—a couple of times—before it was perfected).

Feeds Six

For the Pudding:

  • 3 cups air-popped pop corn, preferably unsalted
  • 4 whole, past the sell-by-date eggs
  • 1 cup light cream
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 over-ripe banana, sliced
  • 1 bruised granny smith apple, roasted and sliced
  • 1 snack-size box of stale raisins
  • Vermont or Massachusetts Maple Syrup (to taste)

Mix eggs, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and cream in a bowl. In a greased two-inch deep pan, place all of the dry ingredients. Pour egg mixture over dry ingredients and gently mix by hand until all of the popcorn is wet. Cover with foil or a tight lid and bake for approximately 30 minutes (or until it’s done) at 350 degrees. Just prior to the custard setting completely, remove lid or foil and allow the top to lightly brown. When serving, add a little more maple syrup to the top of the pudding, if you desire.

For the Caramel Corn Ice-Cream:

  • 4 cups air-popped popcorn
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1 smart phone to post pictures on facebook
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup chopped bacon
  • 2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Pint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Warm popcorn in oven, set at 250 degrees. Combine all remaining ingredients and melt over high heat, stirring constantly. When a caramel color forms, pour over popcorn and mix well, coating all pieces. Spread on a greased pan and bake until desired color results. Using a sturdy spoon, or with a paddle attachment in a mixer, incorporate the caramel corn into your favorite flavor of ice cream.

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The result is a salty, sweet topping for the popcorn pudding, with a slightly spicy after taste, which goes really well with a cup of strong coffee. Then again, what doesn’t go well with a strong cup of coffee?

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Highlights from the Western Mass Home and Garden Show

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Watch The Sober Sous Chef prepare a Chop Chop Salad, Braised Beef Short Ribs and Crème Brûlée at the Western Massachusetts Home and Garden Show. Video quality is better in full-screen mode.

For the Salad:

  • Iceberg Lettuce
  • Red Onion
  • Corn Kernels
  • Peas
  • Carrot
  • Cucumber
  • Tomato
  • Bacon
  • Blue Cheese Crumbles

The name of the salad, Chop Chop, is also the preparation instructions. Toss with ranch dressing.

For the Short Ribs:

  • Boneless Beef Short Ribs, or Flap meat
  • Oil
  • Flour
  • Mirepoix
  • Garlic
  • Red Wine
  • Beef Broth
  • Salt and Pepper

Dredge the meat in flour, and sear on both sides in a hot, oiled, pan. Add mirepoix and saute until the vegetables begin to tender, add garlic, red wine, beef broth and salt and pepper. Bring to a low simmer, cover and finish in the oven at 200 degrees for approximately 4 to 6 hours, depending on the size of the meat etc.

For the Crème Brûlée:

  • Egg Yolk
  • Heavy Cream
  • Half and Half
  • Granulated Sugar
  • Vanilla Bean

Heat cream, half and half, granulated sugar and vanilla bean in a saucepan. Temper hot cream into egg yolks, and fill oven-safe dishes. Create a double boiler and put in 300 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until done.

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Addiction and Crisis Workers Threaten Strike

Northampton, MA-

Clinical and Support Options union representative says strike could result if action is not taken.

Two weeks before McDonald’s workers plan to walk-out of their jobs, in an effort to earn $15 per hour, front-line mental health workers in Massachusetts attempt to raise awareness of their own underpaid and stressful working conditions.

Shannon Gamble, one of about 150 CSO workers to rally outside of CSO’s headquarters in Northampton on Wednesday morning, with representatives of each of the agency’s five locations present—Pittsfield, Amherst, Athol, Greenfield and Northampton—says the rally is intended to, “raise awareness and to let CSO know that we’re not happy with the meager pickings that they’re throwing at us and to also bring it to the public’s attention that the working conditions that we work under are not acceptable.”

Providing out-patient services for addicts, an important service in light of the recent heroin epidemic in Western Massachusetts, is often times done without pay, as Gamble says, “we’re dealing with it everyday, and yet we don’t get paid if people don’t show up. So, we’re working with addicts, of course their going to show up some days and not other days. We don’t get paid if they don’t show up.”

Gamble left the interview to attend to a patient in Athol, and Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser elaborated on the poor pay. Shapiro-Rieser has a long list of expensive degrees and certificates, “I have a Master’s Degree, I have a Doctorate of Ministry in Spiritual Direction, I have a Graduate’s Certificate of Autism Spectrum Disorders; I found out that I make less money than my son—with no degree at all—when he was a shift manager for a parking valet firm. He made more money than me and got better benefits.”

One of the complaints of the union is that the productivity demands on salaried workers have increased, in the guise of bonuses and benefits, which are difficult to meet. Shapiro-Rieser says meeting the increased productivity demands depends largely on the responsibility of the clients, who are “not good about getting it together.” With many drug addict clients, service workers go without pay far too often, and if productivity drops below CSO’s guidelines, workers will be reduced to part-time employment.

The union wants better pay, and productivity demands lowered. Shapiro-Rieser said the CSO has a bonus program, but she only knew of one person who ever qualified for a bonus, at the expense of not taking any vacation or sick days for an entire year.

Representing CSO workers, SEIU Local 509 Director of Communications, Jason Stephany says 250 of a possible 350 front-line CSO workers signed a letter to Clinical and Support Options Chief Executive Officer, Karin Jeffers, in which they claim clinicians and support staff with Master’s Degrees often make less than $35,000 per year and “those with Bachelor’s Degrees in social work or other certifications make less than $15.00 per hour.” Or, a little more than current fast-food workers, who have the nation’s junk-food eaters bracing for a possible fair resolution to their demands.

Stephany says a strike is not eminent, however, “In the coming weeks workers are going to do whatever they can to raise awareness of the challenges that they face and the impact that those challenges have on the services they provide in the community. And that could include a strike.”

A measure that extreme would have to be voted upon by the CSO union workers. “Front-line workers certainly would hope that it doesn’t come to a strike” said Stephany. He cited time and continuation of care as the two most important things which front-line workers value, and that the current working conditions hamper these critical aspects of social work.

The CSO’s productivity requirements for clinicians impacts the amount of time they can spend on each patient, which, says Stephany, could be the difference between successful intervention and tragedy. He says the poor wage for these highly qualified clinicians leads to high turnover, and ultimately disrupts the continuity of care.

The rally was broken up by the presence of two tow trucks, which appeared ready to tow any one of the dozen illegally parked cars of picketers. They did not tow any vehicles, and the building manager, not the CSO Management, were the ones who called the trucks to the demonstration.

In other news, fast-food workers will hold a demonstration as close to Northampton as Hartford, CT, where they will also demand more money.

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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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