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.


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


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.


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.


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?


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
  • 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!


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


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


Chef Toddler

5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Love Cooking

Turn the medial task of cooking into wholesome family fun.603925_10151118666662212_979419821_n

5. Shop with them

Bringing kids into the grocery store, especially toddlers, can be a hassle, for both you and the other shoppers.  But the nice old ladies, and the lessons the kids can learn are worth the headache.

To keep the kids behaving and help them understand food, reward them with a fruit, instead of candy.  If you bring your kids to the fruit aisle and allow them to choose a fruit for good behavior, and require they vary their selection each time, they will gravitate toward the more bizarre fruits.  They will learn to be experimental.

Ask them what things taste like to spark their curiosity and allow their imagination to do the hard work of convincing them they like something.

Point out prices, and help them do some simple math, to figure out how much a single portion of something will cost.  A valuable math lesson and a lesson which will remind them that “food costs money!”76960_10151192523672212_1067767517_n

4. Involve them in the entire process of cooking—including the “dangerous” parts

Chances are you’ve taken a kitchen tool away from the kids on more than one occasion, and chances are better one of them was a knife.  Unless you have finely honed steel knives, this should be something you encourage…at the correct times and under the correct supervision. Teaching kids the proper way to handle a knife and respect for that knife will take away the mystery and translate to more appreciation for the dangers.  Most kitchens have at least one fifty-cent knife, which is shaped like a chef knife, looks like a chef knife, but isn’t.  Toddlers won’t be strong enough to cut themselves with that fifty-cent knife.  Use it as a practice knife, and buy a practice cucumber each week.

Don’t cook your kids.  Burns hurt, but they’re great teachers.  Allowing your kids to put things in the oven, or stir sauce on the stove may teach them a hard lesson, but a lesson nonetheless.  If you show them to be careful, and how to handle the equipment correctly, instead of forbidding it, the mystery will vanish.

Make cleanup fun!  Then invent a perpetual-motion machine, then tackle World Peace.

3. Don’t make them cry when they spill the milk


Professional chefs spill things all the time.  Grownups spill, too.  The kids are going to make a mess, so be ready for it.  Have a broom handy, or lay a shower curtain on the ground where you are working, depending on the scale of mess you expect.  Cleaning as you go will teach the kids to be organized and help them become more efficient.  The saying goes, “A clean kitchen is a slightly-less-disgruntled kitchen.”

2. Taste!


This is strong advice to give to adults who want to learn how to get off of the couch and into a kitchen.  Kids must taste everything!  And they will want to taste things which you have never tasted, such as raw potatoes.  Keep the raw meats and chicken away from the other ingredients, and encourage them to do this.  It will give them an understanding of what french fries are. Teach science, or demonstrate the change of the ingredients throughout the various cooking stages.  The curiosity bug will take over, and they will want to see more, and learn more.

Kids have the attention span of gnats, and their impatience will require you to let them snack as they cook.  Keep this in mind when planning your dinner.  Let them have a small piece of as many ingredients as possible, even the dry pasta and flour.64727_10151317559307212_594051988_n

Season food with them.  Taste before and after.  Taste the seasonings themselves.

1. Love to Cook!

How can you expect the kids to want to cook if you don’t want to cook?  If you and your spouse constantly argue about whose turn it is to cook, only to settle on take-out, kids will learn that cooking is a chore.  If you are sick of cooking, try to do new things that you haven’t made before. Cooking is really quite simple, and if something looks too hard to make, it probably just has a snazzy garnish on it.  So skip the garnish, and make it!  You might not find everything to be your favorite, but you will have fed your family, and learned something.

Just remember how children are sponges, and absorb everything. When you go out to eat, and you tell the waiter you don’t want onions on your salad, or hold the sauce, you are teaching kids that it is okay to be closed minded.  When you scold them for not eating their broccoli, and they say they hate broccoli, it’s because they heard it from a friend, or saw it on TV.  Or it may be really overcooked and poorly seasoned, which you can fix.  You don’t have to eat the broccoli, or onions, just don’t let the kids know.

If your toddler tells you something you made tastes like Styrofoam, he has a discerning palate; he is complementing you.  Toddlers love Styrofoam.  But, just to be safe, you should skip the next Hamburger Helper day.

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