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Archive for the ‘Memories from a Young Chef’ Category

Originally I was going to call this where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But I have never had nor started a kitchen fire in my life. Burned some cookies maybe, but thats about the extent of it. Although I do have a few friends that when the smoke alarm goes off we joke, dinners ready. All kidding aside this is about when I landed my first kitchen.

Yup, mine. In control. Me! The big cheese, top toque. Well okay, so it was kitchen of one, but who cared! It was all mine. To set up as I saw fit, do with as I pleased. It was the summer before college and I needed a job. One to stave off boredom (and get me out of the house), secondly get me cooking again and lastly to earn money for my ever burgeoning music appetite. Having spent  3 years under a very talented and very strict European chef, I had more than mastered the basic rudimentary kitchen skills. I figured finding a job would be a snap. Wrong! Wilton was (and still is) an incredibly small town and back in the days of yore, there was not much going on. Anywhere. Taking into consideration I had no car also threw a wrench into my plans.

But luck was on my side, for on the way out-of-town there was a funky little place, and given that my father had to drive by it every day on his way to and from work, was an added bonus.  It was a small compact “upscale” deli with a few tables for eat in and some foot traffic. So I sauntered in, gave the owner, an affable fellow named Howard, my CC story ( with some bull shitting thrown in about management skills) and lo & behold  had a job. Howard had originally bought the “Nibbler” as everyone called, it for his wife, who wanted her very own mini Dean & Deluca. Six months in to the venture she lost interest.

So there was Howard with a business that had potential, just no one w/ the skills to run it. A ship without a captain, a boat with no oars. There was a meager staff for the morning commuters since the train station was within walking distance. Coffee, bagels w/ a smear, the NYTimes, not much else. My job was to increase business by offering breakfast goodies, luncheon items, some sweet treats and so-forth. No problem! Piece of cake. I cobbled together a menu of quiches, sandwiches, soups, salads  all “on the go” foods. Easily eaten on the train or at the office.

It was an instant hit. For there was nothing else like it around. In New York you had D&D, Zabars, Fairway. But for the Wilton commuter, with precious little time we offered something better than greasy diner food. Which by the way was our only other competition in town. Orems Diner. Still there. Still crappy. That & the local Market, and they were always trying to steal my ideas.

In essence I was my own boss. I learned a lot about managing my time, ordering food, menu creation, sanitation, and how to deal with delinquent staff. The 2 counter people we did have, who became friends of mine, far preferred to spend their time smoking weed in the basement. I would be lying to say I never partook. I did. Just usually at the end of the day, while waiting for my Dad to pick me up.

I had to learn how to put together a catering menu, figure out food costing, how to recycle product so not to have waste (think soup!). It was total creative freedom and I thrived on it. Being alone, with no one telling me what to do, was a dream come true. I loved it. It also set the tone for all my future culinary employment that was to follow.

Being able to experiment with new ideas & recipes was incredible. I was limited only by time & my budget! Chilled Champagne melon soup ~ crisp spicy gazpacho ~ silky smooth lobster vichyssoise, so refreshing on a hot summer day. Cheesy 4 onion ~ white bean, sausage & escarole ~ hearty chunky chili, which was never complete w/ out a side of jalapeno-cheddar corn bread. We always ran out. Pasta salads, BLT bow tie, greek orzo w/feta, chickpeas & kalamata olives. The Bounty~a sandwich composed of turkey (oven rst of course), cool cucumber, cream cheese & red onion on 7 grain bread freshly baked by me. Chicken salad w/ apricots, grapes, red pepper, scallion, almonds & curried mayonnaise, in a whole wheat pita or over greens.

On the weekends the place was insane. Whole & mini quiches, soups by the quart, the deli case full of salads, warm fresh breads, Danish, mini gleaming jewels of tiny fruit tarts, cheesecake, old- fashioned  3 layer cakes by the slice, jumbo cookies, decadent double chocolate brownies. Eventually I added a line of imported cheeses & had a few select breads & good bagels brought in from New York. I was like a kid in a candy shop, only it was my candy shop!

Granted, not everything I made was successful. I had my fair share of mistakes. My first attempt to make  Sushi was, to say the least, priceless. I don’t think even the crows were interested. I knew nothing about seasoning the rice, bamboo mats, etc..rolling it up, was of course, no problem! Japanese food was still pretty avant-guard. I tried. I failed, but I tried.

The summer came to and end. I tried valiantly to pass on some favoured recipes, but the young woman hired to replace me had no passion, no love, no desire. It was just another job to her. She did not share in my enthusiasm, and this girl was to head off to school in a year ( the CIA) what became of her I have no idea. I was headed in a different direction. College. Cornell. One of the ancient eight. Time to get serious.

“The Nibbler” closed, though the building is still there on Route 7, housing a succession of convenience stores. But I can’t help thinking when I drive by what valuable lessons I learned & what fun I had doing so.

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So, this was supposed to be about the 12 days of Christmas,well after doing a little research, I decided to toss that idea right out the window! Besides, Christmas will be here in 9 days, maybe next year. So onward I forge with yet another tale of my budding young culinary career.

Needless to say I wasn’t going to be content baking for the neighborhood boys forever, and whipping up treats for my friends (read stoner) after school to appease the ever-present cases of the munchies was only partially satisfying. Kitchen playtime was fine by me, but I hungered for more. New ingredients to work with, professional equipment and of course what drives everyone, deep down, the desire to get acknowledged & paid for my culinary talent.

It was also during this time period that I was elevating my reading repertoire. Betty Crocker was forsaken for Escoffier, James Beard, Elizabeth David, MFK Fischer, and the crown jewel of my collection, The Larousse Gastronomique all 1,400 pages of it. I also managed to finagle my way into a weekend job at a local country club. The chef was european and an incredibly stern task master. Yet the lessons he taught me have served me well. They were some of the most valuable I have ever learned. Cleanliness, organization, taste, creativity, be true to yourself and learn from your mistakes. Be positive. Cook what you love. Do it with passion.

I started at the bottom of course, in the “pantry” also known as the cold station. Chef always called me the “garde manger”. Made me feel important and gave me a sense of pride. I was soon put in charge of making a few simple desserts on the weekends. One particularly lovely saturday chef wanted me to make cream puffs. Now pate au choux dough is not a terribly complicated process, although it was going to be the first time I would be alone in the kitchen. The line cooks were going on their afternoon break as I was coming in. Wow! The entire kitchen to myself, with the exception of the dish washer- prep, I was it.

The chef had given me the recipe, and since I was to make about 300 of these delicious little treats, the sous chef had weighed out my ingredients for me, due to the volume that was needed. I just had to make the dough. Piece of cake, I thought.

I brought my liquid & butter to a boil, added my flour & sugar & salt and cooked until dry. Into the huge crank mixer, add eggs, check to make sure the dough was the proper consistency and pipe onto parchment lined sheet pans. Bake. Cool. The day before I had made 2 mousses, one was dark chocolate and one was strawberry. I was to plate 3 per order, filled with the mousses & the last one with vanilla ice cream, some sliced strawberries, drizzle of chocolate sauce, dusting of powdered sugar and my dessert would be complete.

All went well, my cream puffs were gorgeous! Golden, crisp, puffed to perfection. Bursting with pride, the chef came in and I showed them to him. He picked one off the sheet pan, bit into it and promptly spit it out. With a very definite, Merde! The sous-chef was laughing hysterically. Chef gave me a long hard look and asked me if I had tasted my dough, no chef I replied, how about a finished one? No again. By now I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and kind of knew what was next. Try one, he said. I did. Yuk!  Crisp~ yes, soft inside~ yes, puffed~yes. Sweet, no.  A mouthful of salt was all I could taste.

While my pate au choux were undeniably gorgeous, they were alas inedible. The sous-chef later confessed to switching the superfine sugar with salt. He did not like me ( I wouldn’t go out with him) and thought it would “teach” me a lesson. It did, just not as he intended. Was I humbled? No. Did I think he was a jerk, absolutely. Never, ever let someone else assemble your mise place for you, and always taste your sugars & salts. That is until you’re the boss and then they won’t dare mess with you for fear of losing their job.

I was saved from kitchen shame that day because a trick was played on me. Not a very nice one, but thats life. There are people who do not like to see others succeed. My advice? Move on & accept that attitude and ability count for far more in the long run.

Now about that dessert, luckily I had genoise in the freezer, plus the mousses, fruit & the sauce I had already made. A little sprinkle of grand marnier simple syrup on the cake and behold individual trifles! Because at the end of the day you & you alone are accountable for what you do. Taste, taste, taste! Just make sure to have fun too. Hey, it is only food.

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In case anyone was wondering, I have not forsaken my so-called blog. Just been caught up in all the fun and joy that are the holidays. Though thats no reason to let my duties as a budding writer lapse and fall by the proverbial way side. I mention this because unlike most food blogs, mine is full of personal stories, ancedotes and what not. It does not contain (yet) flashy photos, video tutorials or food advertisements hawking yet another product. I realize that if I were to add these things, the traffic to this site would most likely increase, maybe even cause someone to sit up and take notice of my brilliant writing skills, and superior photography, but that is not why I do this.

No, I do this for one reason, pure and simple, I am in love with food. Everything about it. Sights, smells, textures, tastes, shapes. Have been ever  since I was 6 years old and my mum let me create my first “composed” salad. She had everything chopped and at the ready for me, right down to her prized wooden salad bowl from her father. Mum just told me to make it beautiful, and I did. From then on there was no stopping me. There was no “easy bake” oven in my future, no sir, not for this girl. When I was 8, I wanted and got a wonderful electric griddle. My parents figured that was safer than having me stand on a stool by the stove. It plugged in, so I could whip up my creations on top of the kitchen table. Usually pancakes were on the menu, but I dabbled in mini hamburgers too. Sliders, as they are now being hailed. Please. Been there, done that.

I also loved to cut up hot dogs ( bangers too) and fry them on my griddle and put them on potato chips with a squirt of ketchup or mustard, depending on who the customer was. Pickle chip was strictly optional. So its safe to say I was into making hors d’oeuvre at a young age. Truth be told, I just liked small food! Thought it was cute.

I particularly enjoyed making silver dollar pancakes with bacon which I would sprinkle with sugar because I liked how it got all crunchy and sweet. Candied bacon anyone? On to grilled cheese with tomato or bacon or both! Eggs followed, fried or scrambled. And the first real meal I made was egg foo young, with chopped ham, canned bean sprouts & water chestnuts. My mum had a can of those fried chinese noodles and extra soy sauce, dinner was served. By now my parents knew that my obsession with food was more than a passing fancy.

I believe they indulged me hoping it would encourage me to eat, anything. Picky eater was an understatement. Now of course if I made it, I would generally taste it, at least a bite that is. My first cookbook was the red checked Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book which I still have to this day. That was followed by The Joy of Cooking, a simply exceptional volume of recipes and reference. Everyone, and I mean everyone should have a copy of this on their kitchen shelf.

By the time I was 9 or 10, my trusty griddle was packed away and I progressed to the stove, which I adored, because it had 4 burners, thus enabling me to make more than one dish at a time. Ditto with the oven and learning to use my grandmothers Sunbeam kitchen stand mixer. I thought it was the most incredible machine ever. So my career as a young baker got its start.

Even as a young girl I discovered food to be a wonderful way to any ones heart. That holds true today. Who doesn’t love a care package full of homemade treats lovingly crafted by hand just for them! On that note, I must bid you all adieu and go start on packing up all the goodie boxes I have lined up for family and friends this Christmas.

So indulge your children’s or a friend’s or even your own flights of fancy in the kitchen, you may not become the next Martha Stewart or Thomas Keller or a Food Network Star, but you sure can have a tasty time doing so!

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