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!

Barn Finds: Discount Groceries and Gourmet Meals

Can you make a 4-course meal to feed 4 people for less than $10, or $0.62 per course? Absolutely!

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How? Buy your groceries at discount, scratch-and-dent type stores. As a way of showing people just how good cheap food can be, The Sober Sous Chef is proud to announce a new series of posts, which will arrive in your email inbox once a week—if you’ve signed up!

Before we get into the food stuffs, let’s talk about discount groceries. The Barn, in a small town in Massachusetts, offers weekly specials and has a wide variety of fresh, frozen, expired and bizarre food. Shopping there is like shopping at a garage sale, except you don’t have to haggle—everything is already cheap.

The bizarre food is my favorite, and comes to The Barn sometimes because of misprinted labels, or experiments gone wrong. Some of it is overstock stuff, while others are products that will expire soon after purchase. Shopping here forces you to think creatively, and my recommendation is to buy the cheapest of the cheap.

Many of my subscribers are vegetarian, or vegan, or farmers and whole-food consumers. I think that’s wonderful! But this type of cooking, which uses only the cheapest, and often chemically enhanced and produced foods, while not natural, is actually one of the most responsible and challenging types possible.

Food is really only meant to nourish us, and we have changed our opinions of it so much that it now entertains us, inspires us, compels us, whatever it does to you, in its pure, “natural” state food is a survival mechanism. While you browse through recipes and decide what to eat based on a craving you have, or argue over which restaurant to go to, remember that millions of people around the world don’t have food.

Here’s one way to help the hungry:

https://www.unicefusa.org/donate/help-syrian-children

I say it’s responsible because the food here is getting one last chance to be eaten before it finishes up fertilizing a landfill. It is here that the failed Lay’s brand chips go to die, like the Superbowl runner-up t-shirts that no one wants.

Here’s what we made this time:

Nachos with Lime Queso and Fennel Garnish

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Total cost of above: about $1.25 (some ingredients were used in multiple places in this meal) with leftovers!

About $0.31 per person

Beet and Fennel Soup

20150331_183139Total cost of above: $1.88 ($0.41 per person)

Grapefruit and Lime Roasted Chicken with Braised Fennel and Beets
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Total cost of above: $4.30 ($1.08 per person)

Plum, Grapefruit and Blackberry Sorbet

20150331_190428Total cost of above: $2.38 ($0.60 per person)

Total for the meal: $9.81 ($2.45 per person For FOUR COURSES!)

And about half of the lime curd, queso starter and things of that nature are still in my pantry, and wait for another edition of Barn Finds: Discount Groceries and Gourmet Meals.

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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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The One Must Have Ingredient

The Sober Sous Chef

20150308_214515Election Headquarters

The recent epidemic of food allergies has forced many restaurants to customize menus, cooking practices and recipes.  Some American states have outlawed certain cooking ingredients, such as trans-fat containing oils.  The list of necessary ingredients to operate a commercial kitchen is enormous, but what is the one ingredient which would be impossible to live without?

The general consensus among chefs is, in no particular order, salt, sugar, dairy, flour and lard or oil.  Some which didn’t make the list but were close behind in importance: eggs, tomatoes, potatoes (see the salt argument), rice and garlic.

Consider this:  You are tasked with cooking a feast for one hundred people, entailed in that are hors d’ouevres, bread, appetizers, salads, main courses—there must be several—sides, and finally, dessert.  Imagine you have to eliminate the other four ingredients that you didn’t choose, as though all of the guests were severely allergic.  For instance, if you…

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The Alliance for a Salty World

To the Voters,

Vote for salt, for your ancestor’s sake.

Salt is the cornerstone of eating. What is a table without a salt-shaker? It is not only a necessary dietary ingredient, but it exemplifies the point of a feast—a celebration. Salt is the celebratory ingredient. Salt brings the life out of the food. That otherwise boring and lifeless potato becomes something delicious only once salt has been added.

Before refrigeration, salt was used to cure meat.  It literally sustained generations of people, who without it, would have starved. If you aren’t yet convinced, consider that perhaps one of your ancestors wouldn’t have lived long enough to birth your family, were it not for the salt.

The character of salt is also one which must be admired. Salt is always the first to stop a chef from over-indulgence. His customers will know he’s up to no good, should something taste “salty.”

The subtle, humble salt, the one who knows it was he who made the food delicious, allows his fellow ingredients to have the credit. These chips are so good! But it is salt, who is “so good.” Without salt, you can keep your potato. For that matter, keep your entire meal. The dessert, even, is a chore without salt, hiding in the back, making sure it’s just perfect, and no one even knows he’s there.

For all that is good about food, Vote for Salt!

From,

The Alliance for a Salty World

To vote, click Here and leave a comment

The Cow from that Commercial

Neighbors and Voters,

A vote for dairy is a vote for your health.

The first thing every human tastes is milk. It is the most important of all of the ingredients, not only to cooking, but for your health. Vitamin and protein rich, milk helps build strong muscles and bones, and a lack of it can lead to health problems such as osteoporosis.

Yogurt, another star in dairy’s family, helps to maintain a healthy digestive system. Active cultures in yogurt, called pro-biotics, play a pivotal role in combating the nasty side effects of antibiotics, a medicine which is primarily used to fight off infection. They have also reportedly been known to help regulate other digestion related ailments. So, for your bowels sake, vote for dairy.

Dairy can be fun and games too, though. It is estimated that more desserts have dairy in them than any other common ingredient. Don’t be fooled by sugar’s sweet threats, for dairy has a natural sweetness, underneath a healthy, fit skin. Ice cream, for instance, actually contains very little sugar. And what is cake without butter-cream frosting? Bread, that’s what. It’s sweet, plain, bread. Certainly, no fun at all.

Dairy also works hard. Dairy based sauces have the best consistency. Not too thick, like those of the flour variety, and not too thin, like those of the salty broth variety. No feast would be complete without a dairy based sauce.

Here’s the deal: If you do a good job, and vote for dairy, you can go to the creamy!

From,

Kind, Good-natured Dairy Farmers

To vote, click Here and leave a comment.

An Apology from Flour

Dearest Voter,

I, Flour, regret to inform you that I hereby withdraw from this competition.

I tried in earnest to win your favor, over the last two thousand years. I, the ingredient which created bread for Christ to break, the savior of all human souls, am retiring. I’ve had good times over my reign, but alas, the gluten in me has dragged my name over the coals, and I cannot fight any longer. I concede to my competitors, and beg my supporters to forgive my indiscretions.

I always have tried to share, always invited strangers in from the cold. It was I who The Little Red Hen worked so hard to mill, and turn into a loaf of bread, as a lesson for all. But my fall from grace has been insurmountable, and I have been replaced.

I swear, I didn’t mean to make so many people fart. If it really was me, I am sorry. Perhaps some day people will know the truth, that it was my evil twin FODMAPs. Until then, adieu.

Always your faithful servant,

Flour

To vote, click Here and leave a comment.

The One Must Have Ingredient

20150308_214515Election Headquarters

The recent epidemic of food allergies has forced many restaurants to customize menus, cooking practices and recipes.  Some American states have outlawed certain cooking ingredients, such as trans-fat containing oils.  The list of necessary ingredients to operate a commercial kitchen is enormous, but what is the one ingredient which would be impossible to live without?

The general consensus among chefs is, in no particular order, salt, sugar, dairy, flour and lard or oil.  Some which didn’t make the list but were close behind in importance: eggs, tomatoes, potatoes (see the salt argument), rice and garlic.

Consider this:  You are tasked with cooking a feast for one hundred people, entailed in that are hors d’ouevres, bread, appetizers, salads, main courses—there must be several—sides, and finally, dessert.  Imagine you have to eliminate the other four ingredients that you didn’t choose, as though all of the guests were severely allergic.  For instance, if you consider salt to be the most important ingredient of this list, your guests will be deprived of cheese, bread, fried or sauteed food, etc.

Be an informed voter, and read the letters below.

The Alliance for a Salty World

Mother’s Against Over-Salting

The Cow from that Commercial

An Apology from Flour

Party Time…

To vote, leave a comment and tell the community what you think! Explain your logic.

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Party Time…

Party Time!

Hey, what’s crackin’ you guys!  It’s me, Shortening or Lard, or Oil—whatever you want to call me! Time to get your grease on! That’s right, I’m up for re-election! You should vote for me, cause.

No really, everyone always thinks I’m all about the party, the social hour.  But whatever, I do love having food floating deep inside me, all hot and golden brown! Yeah, you like how I cook your chicken wings! Right?

Ok, ok. This is the nitty and gritty stuff, my agent is like…I gotta say it. I cook everything you eat! True story bro, I don’t mean to brag but that’s me in your salad, me on your sandwich, me on your cake.  Dude, I’m everywhere.  Totally trending man.

So, you know what to do.  Tell all of your friends that you are too cool to vote, but you know you can’t live without me.  So go ahead, give it a shot.  We’ll turn that party into my election party! What?

Hit me up, later!

Party Dude, Oil 🙂

To vote, click Here and leave a comment.