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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Butts in Chairs—Cover Counts, Speedy Service and The Closing-time Guest

How to get the best service at your favorite popular restaurants.

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In one of the most competitive businesses in the world, including professional sports, restaurants have to do anything and everything to get your butt in the chair, keep it there long enough to empty your wallet, and get you the heck outta there so another butt can drop in.

In the restaurant industry, we call that a cover count. When cooks and chefs exchange stories of previous restaurants in which they’ve worked, they will inevitably discuss how many covers they used to do.

Keep in mind that cooks will almost always exaggerate this number, or perhaps use one of the busiest nights as the barometer. “We used to do over three-hundred covers a night,” might be adjusted to, “We once did a few covers short of three-hundred on our busiest night,” and should actually be, “We used to average over one-hundred covers on weekend nights.” This is an involuntary recollection cooks have—like a reflex—and I don’t consider it to be a lie, they are, rather, “mistaken in their minds.”

Long before I ever started counting covers, we used to do over ten grand a night—in sales (by the way, the average check was probably less than fifteen dollars). There were also quite a few nights that we did less than one-thousand dollars. But if anyone ever asks, the first number that jumps into my mind is the biggest, and that goes for just about every restaurant that I’ve worked in.

Unfortunately, the stories of covers and sales never mean anything to anyone except the cook who did the cooking, and the owner who did the counting. You see, covers are relative.

When I was the Executive Chef of the Front Porch Cafe in quiet Putney, VT, we used to serve over one-hundred covers (a few times), with a staff of myself, the two owners, an occasional server and a versatile dishwasher. Few people will appreciate just how efficient we were, considering many other places I’ve worked serve over one-hundred covers an hour.

Recently I read a retired chef’s story about a hotel kitchen serving over two-thousand covers a night sometime in the 1960’s. I did some math, and figured they probably averaged about seven-hundred on a weekend night. That sounds like a lot of work. I bet, though, that the Executive Chef didn’t work half as hard as the one from Putney, VT, where often times we’d serve less than fifty people.

Why is that, you ask? Because the more covers a place does, the more cooks and servers they will have helping. Not just as a whole, but isolated down to precise in-and-out times to maximize labor dollars and efficiency.

Let’s talk logistics, and figure out the best times for you, the butt, to get the best service and the fastest meal with the greatest number of people dedicated to your butt, and yours alone.

Restaurants have slim financial margins, and even the underpaid, overworked servers are on the clock. Though they are the lowest paid employee’s as far as management is concerned, those dollars—however few—add up quickly.

Logistically speaking, restaurants need several servers to prepare for the dinner rush, several more to execute it, and, as business fades at the end, several to clean up the mess. One thing you should know about servers: if they don’t have butts in their chairs, they’re going to clean real quick.

On the other side of the wall, in the kitchen, the logistics are similar, although many more hours go into preparing for the rush than the execution of it, when business fades, cooks are “cut,” or sent home. If your order comes in when clean-up has already started, the speed of your meal will decrease, as will the attention to detail, and flavor and garnish etc.

Don’t be the last one to show up at a restaurant. If you are worried that you might be, check your watch and ask the hostess what time the place closes. If she says, “in ten minutes,” you should consider going somewhere else. Restaurant workers passionately despise the last customer of the night. If I write enough of my experience on this blog you might someday understand why, but for now, know it’s a faux pas.

There is absolutely nothing worse than a customer who calls to find out what time you close, and says they’ll “be right there, we’re hurrying!”

Just don’t do it.

Anyway, in order to get the best, most attentive meal and service, show up for your reservation just in the waning moments of the dinner rush. You actually want there to be a short wait when you arrive.

The short wait will ensure management hasn’t made any cuts, and servers aren’t expecting to be cut just yet, so they haven’t started their cute little cleaning projects yet, and won’t completely ignore their guests for another half-hour or so. The kitchen has had a steady flow of tickets for a few hours, and should be in the zone, and they won’t recognize the lull until after your meal has been made, so you can trust they haven’t started drinking yet.

Specifically:

  • Lunch—about 1:30
  • Dinner—about 9 on a weekend night (if the place closes at 9:30, go earlier).

Of course, these times change depending on the location, atmosphere etc. Rural restaurants close early, restaurants in the heart of the night-scene will be busy much later.

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A Food Photographer’s Conflicting Interests

And a recipe for a healthy snack!

I have a conflict of interest. As an online writer who specializes in food things—restaurant industry, recipes, fun food facts—I should never allow an elaborately plated and vibrant dish to leave the kitchen without some photos. As a professional chef, I won’t let a dish sit on an unheated surface to be photographed like some bored model at an unorganized photo shoot.

With that in mind, many of the photos you will see on this site are staged specifically for this site. Before I began this blog, the only reason I ever photographed food was for a practical reason—to show an employee a specific presentation—or for a joke:


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Above: Chef Wilson

I subscribe to the philosophy that cooking is a science, not an art. There are several reasons I believe this to be true (outlined in a previous post) but the first and foremost is that I’m a lousy artist! I can’t draw, paint, write poetry, sing, dance, play music; I have absolutely zero artistic aptitude.

In fact, I am so inept at the “art of food photography” that each food dish you see is selected from a file of a dozen or more blurry, smudged, poorly lit photos destined for the “Recycle Bin.”

And the only way I can get a good one is if I re-enact a glitzy and flamboyant stereotypical Los Angeles photographer, which is rather ridiculous, considering my model won’t pout or smile, and I circle around the dish, and the entire table it’s on, to get those all-important crooked angles. I could just as easily turn the plate, or tilt it ever so slightly.

Anyway, sometimes the science of cooking lends itself well to the art of food photography, as in the case of these inexpensive little snacks, or appetizers. It is an easy recipe—fifteen minutes with ten minutes of photos—and it is somewhat healthy. I suppose anything that’s green is healthy, but I’m no expert about that. Here are the pictures, the recipe follows.

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Above and Beneath: Marbled Rye Sausage and Watercress Stuffing

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Above: Place a thinly-sliced radish in the wrap for some bite and a fresh “crunch.”
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Above: The stems of the Swiss Chard make for a nice, eye-catching tower for the wraps.

Sausage Stuffed Swiss Chard Wraps

For the Stuffing:

  • 5 slices marbled rye, dried or toasted and cubed
  • 2 sausage links, cooked and diced (I prefer Andoulle Sausage) (cook with butter and de-glaze the pan with chicken stock to increase the stuffing’s flavor)
  • 1 cup of mirepoix
  • 1 1/2 cups of Chicken Stock
  • 1 radish, diced
  • 1/4 cup “crunch” (I used roasted chick peas, but you may use some sort of nut or sunflower seeds)
  • 1 cup watercress leaves

Directions: Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix, adding the chicken stock a little at a time. If the stuffing is too moist, place it in the oven to dry it out some. If it is too dry, add some extra chicken stock. Read the Disclaimer to find out why the measurements might not be perfect.

Assembly: Roll the swiss chard up with stuffing and a slice of radish in it. Finish the dish with a drizzle of light salad dressing.

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Chef Wilson is happy with you.

Addiction in the Restaurant Industry

As published in The Montague Reporter, April 9, 2015

As a somewhat sheltered teenager, I got my first consistent job as a Saturday morning dishwasher and janitor in one of the only restaurants in town. In that restaurant, and the dozen restaurants and over twenty-five kitchens I’ve worked in since, I’ve seen and been a part of some things which I am not proud of.

Drinking, smoking and drugging while on the job was something which I started in that first restaurant, and continued until I checked into Father Martin’s Ashley rehab facility in January of 2013.

It was there that I learned just how much of an impact the environment of these restaurants, and the people within them, had on my addiction. It was the staff at Father Martin’s Ashley who first told me to quit my job, and find another way of supporting my family of five. Against their advice, I have remained and thrived as a sober restaurateur—one day at a time—for over two years.

Over the past sixteen years, I have worked with some incredible people. Some of whom have addiction problems, and some of whom do not. I have worked closely with hundreds of cooks, and probably a thousand servers, and can’t imagine ever having worked in another field. The work I do is one which requires toughness and mental fortitude; without having survived in it so long, I might lack those necessary ingredients of sobriety.

This is not my story. It is a story which generalizes the exponentially varied culture of restaurants, and was written in an effort to begin a conversation about a problem that often goes unnoticed.

As someone who worked his way up from the bottom to some relative success and someone who nearly lost it all, only to return as a better and more qualified chef and leader, understand that I love my job and all of the people with whom I have ever worked, and can’t for one moment imagine my life without it or them.—E.D.

The Enticement

The restaurant industry is a 500-billion dollar enterprise in the United States. Restaurant jobs are available in every state, every community—always.

The restaurant offers a fun and exciting environment, where a diverse group of teenagers, college students, and seasoned professionals work side by side, day in and day out. To the teenager, any job will suffice, and to the college student, restaurants offer part-time, flexible schedules to accommodate their busy lives.

For the addict, the draw of the restaurant is the regular cash, and the fact that so many of the employees are engaged in a drug-and alcohol-fueled social life.

Steve Kelly, former owner and chef of The Big Kitchen Cafe in Northfield, MA, and recovering alcoholic and worker at a local half-way house, said, “The reason I chose the restaurant was I realized that most of the people I met that worked in restaurants were into drugs and alcohol, so I figured that would be a good place to work.”

The Problem

To the professional, restaurant work is more than a job, it is a way of life. Because, in part, of the long and unusual hours, restaurateurs’ social lives revolve around their jobs and involve heavy consumption of alcohol and the use of illicit drugs.

There have been numerous books and stories written about the behind-the-scenes life of the industry. Most notably, Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, describes the life of the restaurant worker as someone who works all day and parties all night.

This is the same Anthony Bourdain who brought big-time cameras to small-time Greenfield and Turners Falls. The show, Parts Unknown, which aired last fall on CNN, exposed the rural heroin epidemic now being addressed by the Opioid Task Force in Massachusetts. Bourdain used Greenfield to exemplify the kid-next-door drug problem which reaches across the United States.

Most who read this will have two things in common: they will know someone who is a restaurateur, and they will know someone who has a problem with alcohol or drugs. Restaurants are a haven for such derelicts, for sordid and otherwise unemployable folks.

The local owner of a popular restaurant, Mr. X, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of this article, explained, “I just think it’s because of the easy employment. Usually there’s always a job in the restaurant business, and an addict and person like that is not reliable. They tend to lose their jobs faster than most.”

Mr. X considers the problem of restaurants having a high turnover, and restaurateurs being more likely than those in most other professions to abuse drugs and alcohol, as a sort of chicken or the egg paradox. “That’s why there’s turnover in the restaurant. Does the restaurant turn them that way? No, a lot of them come that way because of the easy ability to get a job in the restaurant business.”

Not always condoning the lifestyle, but seldom forbidding it. An old cliché in the industry is, “What they do on their time is none of my business.” But it is. It’s everyone’s business.

The Addiction

Are addicts drawn to the restaurant, or is the restaurant the malevolent force behind the addiction?

Alcoholics and addicts come from all walks of life. Lawyers, pilots, engineers and construction workers are all equally vulnerable to this disease. Mr. X asserts, “Do some dishwashers come in and become drug addicts? Yeah, but would they have become a drug addict if they were in the landscaping business?”

Addiction is hereditary and does not discriminate. But the prevalence of drugs and the unlimited opportunities to drink make the restaurant a dangerous place for those who have “addictive personalities.”

In a 2007 study of workplace drug and alcohol abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, found that 17.4% of food service workers were illicit drug users, which was the most of any profession studied.

The Most Vulnerable

Parents who bring their adolescent teens to fill out their first application for work are wise to steer clear of the local eatery.

The combination of the availability of drugs, the stress of the job itself, the peer pressure from much older and already deranged cooks with a splash of an undeveloped teenage brain will quickly become the perfect cocktail for drug and alcohol abuse later in life.

Mr. X says, “Most of the kids are seventeen when they get here so they’ve already been exposed to it.” But the prevalence of users already established in the restaurant will make access to drugs and alcohol much easier for the teenager.

The camaraderie of a restaurant lends itself to this exposure, where a seventeen-year-old who works hard and shows an ability to follow simple instructions will quickly earn the respect and friendship of the older workers.

Dr. Frances Jensen, of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, said in a January interview with National Public Radio, “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain. They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.”

This is largely in part to the brain being yet undeveloped, and the brain’s reward center being trained to receive pleasure from narcotic and alcoholic stimuli.

It can be difficult for one to establish the difference of a teenager or young adult who is simply using drugs and alcohol as part of an experimental phase, and one who will grow into a full blown alcoholic or addict. Not until the early twenties is the brain fully developed.

Kelly, who has been sober for many years, says, “A 22 year old kid, they should be drinking. It’s totally normal. Nine out of ten people can do that.”

The Shift Drink

An expectation of the restaurant worker is often a “shift drink.” In fact, for some, it’s one of the only reasons to stay on board.

“Our guys are supposed to have one,” says Mr. X.

One shift drink often turns into more. As the manager’s leave for the evening, and the overnight crews come in to clean, cooks and servers are often left behind drinking. “You know they’re having two or three. People ask me, why don’t you enforce that more? Well, you know what, they’re ten- or eleven-dollar-an-hour employees—it’s kinda figured into their pay. It’s an incentive.”

That incentive is one of the few allowed to part-time, and sometimes under-the-table employees. However, not all restaurants offer a shift drink.

The shift drink is slowly going by the wayside. It’s a tax liability, in the same way a drink “on the house” is. Restaurants in Massachusetts are supposed to pay tax on all alcohol consumed, not just sold. As a cost-control measure, and a means of complying with the tax laws, many restaurants have eliminated the shift drink altogether. Some even forbid employees to remain on premises and purchase alcohol as guests.

Corporate chain restaurants and high-end places are most likely to have policies forbidding employees from drinking while at work.

Undoubtedly, though, the employees of these places often move their party to other restaurants and bars. Local chain restaurants are full of late night guests from competing restaurants, and thus the lifestyle persists.

One certain way to avoid employees having a shift drink is to run a “sober” restaurant. In the case of The Big Kitchen Cafe, this was a fundamental policy from the get go.

The restaurant would allow guests to bring their own alcohol, but the lack of a liquor license absolutely had a negative impact on the success of The Big Kitchen Cafe.

Kelly said, though the license was available at the time, “We didn’t want to—in good conscience—serve alcohol, and the other, more important reason: [if] it’s March and it’s snowing outside I didn’t want to be staring at a bottle of Johnny Walker while no people were in the restaurant. It was a combination of the two things. We couldn’t feel comfortable selling alcohol and being in recovery, and we just wanted to protect our sobriety.”

The Complicated Solution

Dangerous lines of work, where a person could injure himself if working under the influence of drugs and alcohol, test employees regularly. Many jobs require a clean drug test as a condition of employment.

Restaurants, however dangerous they are, seldom drug test employees. Would that be a possible solution to the heavy drug and alcohol problems faced in restaurants?

Mr. X said, “You’d have to drug test, because you can’t just accuse someone of something. You’d have to have some concrete proof. Believe me, I know some of the guys and I know what they’re doing. To see them doing it or catch them doing it, that’s a different story.”

When the two interview subjects of this article were asked why restaurants don’t drug test, they both had a good chuckle. Mr. X said, “Because they probably wouldn’t have any help.”

And Kelly, “If I did a drug and alcohol test on my employees they would have all failed.”

While the restaurant industry might not be ready for conditional drug tests to help create and foster a healthier social scene among their workers, some restaurants have found ways of at least limiting what happens on their premises, by removing the “shift drink,” and writing internal policies helping addicts get treatment rather than terminating them.

Insurance companies and the state legislature could make incentives for implementing conditional drug testing.

There are also management training programs that restaurants could take part in, and help curb their employees’ habits, or at least help them recognize the signs before they head down the dangerous path to addiction.

For the restaurateur who is battling a drug addiction, Kelly advises avoiding the social part of the restaurant. He said that hanging out and drinking soda will only last so long,

“If you go to a barber shop everyday for a month, you’re going to get a haircut.”

Finally, when push comes to shove, for the restaurateur new in recovery, Kelly urges, “You have to be working closely with someone—call it a sponsor or guide—and you have to be willing to walk away. If you’re there, and you find yourself being tempted, then you on-the-spot quit.”

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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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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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Croquembouche for Too Many

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Published March 26th, 2015 in The Montague Reporter

Croquembouche (kroh-kuhm-BOOSH uh huh wee) is French for “crisp in mouth,” but for all those who’ve had the responsibility of making it, croquembouche is synonymous with “pain-in-the-rear.” In it’s most simple form, croquembouche is a pyramidal stack of cream puffs with a hardened caramel coating. If you are a “foodie,” you already knew that.

Foodies, or epicures, know everything about food. At least, they think they do. They are like the back seat drivers of the restaurant business.

Their comments that they post on internet based review sites always give them away. They start with something like, “Anyone who knows anything about cooking knows that you should always . . .”

They intentionally imply that they know something about cooking. So why are they the one’s eating, and not cooking? Don’t like it? Make it yourself!

The other irritant, though slightly drifting from the topic here, is the foodie that complains about slow service when he or she ordered a two-inch-thick steak well-done. It’s the incessant, “Are we there yet?” coming from the back seat.

Croquembouche is a foodie favorite. It has just enough pain-in-the-rear appeal to it for the ultimate pain-in-the-rear customer, or dinner guest, should you dare to feed these people, who actually become more obnoxious when they’re pleased. Then the comparisons come out, about this chef and that restaurant and it just never ends. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, a sort of let-them-have-their-profiteroles-and-eat-them-too compromise, I will teach you a couple of simple tricks to make the process a little bit simpler.

First off, buy the cream puffs. In today’s fast paced work, shovel, cook, sleep, repeat life you’re wise to let someone else do the baking.

In all reality, the hard part is the sugar, and there are no ways around that.

The second trick is to use a filler. For instance, take an upside down soup cup or small cereal bowl and put it in the center of the plate or platter you intend to use.

Last, add some chocolate covered strawberries to the first row as a solid, tacky foundation. For clean up, I recommend a hammer and chisel.

Now comes the hard part. Prepare an ice bath large enough to fit a small saucepan into. Using that small saucepan and a wooden spoon, melt two and a half cups of granulated sugar with two thirds cups hot water. If you have a candy thermometer, stop reading this article.

For everyone else, allow the sugar to melt and boil over high heat, stirring constantly, until the color begins to darken.

The darker the color, the harder the sugar will be when it cools. When the color is a nice light brown, or resembles that of caramel, take the pan off the heat and dunk it in the ice bath, just for a few moments to stop the cooking process, stirring all the while.

Quickly and frantically dip two cream puffs at a time in the sugar, and glue them together. Scream at the top of your lungs when the molten sugar sticks to your fingers, and shake it off.

It’s important that you get as many cream puffs stuck together as you can, so don’t go running off to bandage yourself now.

If the sugar hardens, put it back on the burner and stir until it is syrupy again.

If you used the chocolate covered strawberries on the first row, and were careful in selecting your plate ware, you should be able to glue two by two, and then start gluing one on top of the other, in a circular way around the plate, until you get something like a pyramid.

Now, for the spun sugar, there will be yards of tiny and shinny sugar hairs, gleaming in the smoke burning from the splatter of sugar on the stove top.

You can either dangle the melted sugar above the croquembouche-like-thing and let strands of sugar drape over it, or just collect all of the residual strings that are now getting permanently hardened to your counter top.

Or you can attempt to make spun sugar, or just plop another strawberry on top.

When you’re finished, and satisfied, turn off the smoke alarm, then announce to anyone who cares to know, “There’s your (expletive) croquembouche!”

You think it’s over, do you? Local pastry chef Mark Wikar recently told me a nightmarish tale about an elaborate event he hosted at Captain Toby’s restaurant on Nantucket,

“There were so many people in the room that the temperature rose past eighty, causing my sugar that held it all together to melt, causing my croquembouche to start to fall apart onto the dance floor.”

Wikar also suggests to use the ice bath, in addition to cooling the sugar, for the burns you will have on your fingers.

There you have it, Croquem-pain-in-the-bouche.

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By Eric Damkoehler

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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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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