Looking back on time in the kitchen

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For almost a year now I haven’t worked in a kitchen. Yes I still walk through them every day, I’m still around the people and I haven’t been away from them long enough to forget anything that goes along with working in them. The sore feet, aching back, the heat, the stress and of course the gratification. The amount of times per month that I miss being in a kitchen is shrinking rapidly. I have embraced the change of scenery, the new job duties and responsibilities, and in all honesty I’m as happy as I have ever been.
However, being out of the kitchen has given me the ability to figure out what it was I liked about it the most, why it’s attractive to so many people and how those of us who spend time in a professional kitchen rationalize our life. The chance to step back and see so many more sides of the profession has been enlightening to say the least and I have learned as much about myself in this last year as I have over the last ten.
If you’re hoping for a new recipe, then this post probably isn’t for you. But if you have spent time in a kitchen, or been curious about it then this may interest you a great deal.

If you do an internet search for articles about life in a professional kitchen you will get plenty of results.  You also will have the opportunity to read several different views of how many hours a day or week we work, how hard and thankless the job is, and don’t forget the aspect of having to work all holidays and special occasions when the “normal” people in the world are having a good time.  All of those things are true but I’m going to try and cover a little more ground here, perhaps dig a little deeper and give some more insight in to not only the “what”, but the “why” we enjoy this lifestyle.

So lets cover the most obvious subjects then shed some light on how “kitchen people” view them, because on our best day we are a little twisted and we wouldn’t want to be any other way.

The long hours:  Yes it’s true we work long hours and I don’t think there are any words that I can put together that will articulate that any better than anyone else.  However I do feel I can offer something as to the reason why we do so.  When you make the choice to work in professional kitchens it is normally due to a deep seated desire to please people.  That is the one common bond among us; at the base of all we do is a very simple and basic desire to make others happy.  So at the end of the day, when it’s time to go home if we feel that we have made people happy then we have a sense of accomplishment, and a desire to come back the next day.
Another common phrase you hear that is true is that being a Chef isn’t a job, its a lifestyle. And this is intertwined in the heart of a kitchen employee, because when you’re off work its still in your mind. In fact, it never goes away, you think about the order of scallops you overcooked, or how your going to attack your prep the next day, every night the thoughts of doing something to make yourself better tomorrow goes through your head. If you’re not thinking about things like this each and every night then you may as well go back to washing dishes because the moment you stop trying to become better, or stop caring about becoming better, you have no business serving people. The main point is that even though you may not physically be at work, mentally you still are. And in most cases you’re going to show up early, or stay late on a regular basis in order to make yourself better. This alone will add weekly hours to your work load when customers are not even around.

Missing important family time:  This one is the toughest of all, and I think the one that most people only look at on the surface.  I can’t count how many important family functions I have missed over the years.  Things that I would have attended, or paid attention to if I wouldn’t have been in a kitchen.  Some of them more important than others, but they are all grouped together in the fact that I wasn’t there.  Birthday’s, ballgames, important days at school, the list goes on and on.  It’s bad that you miss these things, and it is something that is bothersome.  However the worst part of this is that when you are missing these important times of your families life, you’re having fun.  You’re in the kitchen, you have tickets hanging and you are thinking about nothing but getting the food out, it’s what we do and it’s what we enjoy.  It is perhaps the most selfish act that a parent, spouse, or significant other can commit, but we do it over and over; and during the time period when we are being missed by our loved ones, we, are happy? Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t care, it’s not that it doesn’t bother us, and it’s not like we don’t realize what we’re missing because we do. It’s just that when orders start coming in, and food needs to be prepared we really only know one approach and we enjoy it that way.  In order for us to do the job that provides for our family, that’s where we are supposed to be mentally so although we may be missing something that breaks a family members heart, and our own, we are doing what we love for them in the only way we know how. If you have never lied in bed and lost sleep over this then you either aren’t approaching professional cooking properly, or you don’t know what love is.

Another aspect of the same subject is how we deal with missing important events in our family lives.  There should be a set of rules to this, or a disclaimer that comes with us to make sure we are the type of person who deserves to be able to have children before we do.  It’s so simple and basic, but I have heard the wrong words said to children far too many times in my life.  If you tell a child “I’ll make it up to you”, then you are intentionally doing damage to someone that you are supposed to have unconditional love for.  The one person or persons in our lives that we are supposed to do anything for should never be made to feel the way those words will make them feel.  Because it’s a lie, plain and simple you are lying to a child and rationalizing it to yourself by saying it’s what your career demands, and that’s bullshit.  How is someone that misses their child’s eleventh birthday going to make that up to them? You’re not, because you weren’t there, it’s that simple.  They will never have another eleventh birthday, or opening day game, or program at grade school but you’re trying to make them think that an ice cream cone on a Sunday evening should make all of that go away.  Well it doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try to convince them that it does.  Accountability is one of the most important things that I demand from my staff, and if they can’t give it to their family I honestly don’t want it from them in the kitchen.  Be accountable and explain why you’re not going to be there, and apologize for it; believe it or not a child will understand.  It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt them, or bother them but at least you were honest with them about why you’re not going to be there, and you’re not telling them a lie about making it up to them.  If you feel that telling a child “I will make it up to you” makes it acceptable for you to miss something important to them, then you miss one of the most important aspects of parenthood.  And some day the child will realize that and all you will have is what you can find within the walls of a kitchen.  Being true and honest to your family allows you to be better in a kitchen, makes the profession honorable and will lead you to becoming a Chef.  Misleading a loved one, but never missing a “shift drink” makes you a self centered cook on your best day, and I promise you will never know the proper way to season food, or show a family member you love them.

At the core of our chosen profession is self gratification, we work the long hours and miss the important days because of the gratification we get.  It’s selfish of us, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that because of what it does to our loved ones.  We spend our days serving people, and when we go home at night we should take any time that we have with our family to serve them with even more attention to detail, because at the end of the day they are the ones that are paying the price for us to do something we love.

Stepping away from the kitchen has been a positive for me, other than the realization of how selfish I was over the years.  I just hope that those that I love do really understand all of the things that I missed and why I missed them.  I’m thankful that they’re not waiting for the magical day when I will make something up to them, because I never allowed myself to say that.  And I hope that deep down they know that they mean more to me than the people that I served over the years.

 

 

 

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French Onion Soup

On a cool fall day, sometimes one of the most enjoyable things you can make is French Onion Soup. I decided to do that today, and also keep notes on how I make it here at home to share here. I hope you enjoy!

What you need:

1 Bag of onions (3lb)

½ Cup Red wine

4 Quarts of Beef Stock

1 Stick of butter

3 tsp of AP Flour

1 Bunch of Thyme

1 Bay leaf

Croutons (Preferably home made)

Provolone cheese (One slice per bowl)

Kosher Salt and Black pepper to taste

To start get all of the onions ready to slice, then slice them and place them aside in a large bowl. When I make this I use two different pots. The first is just used to cook down the onions, it has a thicker bottom and is a lot easier to control the temperature that the onions are cooking at. However, it isn’t large enough to hold the whole batch of soup, so once I cook down the onions I transfer them to a larger pot to simmer

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Let the first pot get warm on the stove top then add the butter, and let it melt completely. After that place all of the onions in to the pot, season with salt and pepper add the thyme and let them cook, make sure you stir them occasionally so that all of the onions get cooked through. I generally let them cook down for about 90 minutes. You don’t want the heat to be too high, but you do want them to simmer.

Once the onions have cooked down to where they are nice and soft I sprinkle the flour over the onions, stir everything well then add the bay leaf and red wine, then bring the pot back to a simmer, let this simmer for about 15 minutes. It is at this time that I put the beef stock in to the second pot and bring it to a boil. Pour the onions in to the larger pot and bring this pot to a boil, then reduce the heat and allow it to simmer. Let this simmer for at least two hours.

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When you’re ready to serve the soup make sure your broiler is on in your oven. Put a ladle of soup in to the bowl, and drop some croutons on top of of it, cover with the cheese and place it in the oven under the broiler. Once the cheese has melted and starts to bubble, remove from the oven and enjoy!

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Doing french fries at home

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It seems to me that all too often when having fries at home, everyone is always willing to settle for “less than” great fries.  Think about some of your restaurant, bar, or pub experiences and how many times you have thought, said, or heard “man these fries are great”. Having great fries to go along with a burger, sloppy joe, fish sandwich or heck even a bologna sandwich can transform a simple dinner at home in to a great meal that is just the way its supposed to be.
Me personally I have vivid, wonderful memories of eating fries in my grandmothers kitchen just after she took them out of the grease and seasoned them.  Crispy on the outside, soft and tasty on the inside and steam rolling out of them when you take a bite from them.  That’s the way fries should be, they shouldn’t be an after thought or a vehicle of soggy tasteless starch just to fill the void of hunger in your stomach. They should compliment and enhance what you’re having for your meal. 
Now let’s assume you don’t have one of the fancy new small home kitchen deep fryers that are in the market and have been for a long time, that’s ok never fear you more than likely still have everything you need to make the perfect fries at home.  I use a small sauce pot for this at home and yes sometimes I do wish I had a deep fryer like we use in the restaurants at work.  However I can get the exact results I want simply using a sauce pot from the cabinet. The main thing to remember is to not get in a hurry, and don’t fall in to thinking that high heat on your stove will work wonders for you. Hot grease is dangerous, and from the second you turn the burner on you should never leave the sauce pot unattended until it has cooled. 
So let’s look at how I cook my fries at home:
What you will need:
A small sauce pot
Lard
A colander
A large bowl the colander will fit in
Some paper towels
A slotted spoon
Salt
And of course your favorite bag of fries

I start by placing the large bowl beside the stove where I am going to be cooking the fries.  I put the colander inside the large bowl then place a few paper towels in it.
Then I put a few spoon fulls of lard in to the sauce pot and place it on the burner and turn the fire on medium.  Remember there is never a need to use the high setting when doing fries at home. Once the lard has melted pay attention to how much liquid is in the pot, make sure it is below the halfway mark of the pot, an inch of liquid is more than enough.  Wait for the lard to get warm enough to cook the fries, and when you think it is drop one fry in the pot. If it starts to bubble and cook then you’re ready. If it sinks to the bottom then raise the heat slightly and wait for it to start to cook. If it begins to pop and crack and it obviously too hot then turn the fire down slightly and give it a few minutes to cool down some.
Once you have the right temperature place a handful or two of fries in the pot and let them start to cook.  After they have cooked for a minute or so use your slotted spoon to stir them so they do not become a single unit of deep fried stickiness.  The time that they cook depends on how thick your fries are.  Usually we buy the shoestring fries and they take about 3-4 minutes per batch.
As they start to crisp on the outside give them one more stir to make sure they have all been cooked through and using the slotted spoon start taking them out of the pot and putting them in the paper towel lined colander.  Give the pot 30-40 seconds to get back to the proper temperature then place another handful or two of fries in the pot.  While their starting to cook season the fries that just got finished cooking with salt, again this is a personal preference as to how much to use and make sure you try one while the second batch is cooking.  This will let you know if you cooked them too long, or not long enough. 
Continue cooking batches of fries until you have enough for lunch or dinner.  When you’re about to remove the last batch reach up and turn the burner off under the pot so that it can start to cool.  Once it has completely cooled I normally will store it in a jar, or large coffee cup as you can get more than one use from lard, so why not use it as many times as you can?
Now this does take a little more time than a large deep fryer, however if you just take your time, and be patient while you’re cooking the fries they will end up being a side for your dinner that is going to invoke the comment ‘these fries are great”.  And the beauty of cooking at home is you don’t need to hurry, you don’t have customers waiting in the dining room, you have family members that you’re going to enjoy dinner with.  So take a few extra minutes and make some memorable fries the next time you have burgers and dogs at home.