the trainer.

Teaching someone how to sautee is very, very difficult.  Working quickly, flipping pans, searing fish--these are the easy parts.  Controlling your heat, working efficiently, communicating--these are the hard parts.  Strangely, as I came up as a sautee cook, none of these lessons were being taught to me.  After a summer of working the five AM pastry shift, I was being brought back to the hot line.  Being in pastry had been good for me--after curdling creme anglaise and burning profiteroles enough times, I had honed my technique down to a point where little time was wasted, and no detail was overlooked.  My chef either saw talent in me, or was desperate for new blood on the line.  He paired me with T, a 40 something journeywoman cook with a gruff demeanor and a hot temper.  Most of the other cooks showed her a good deal of respect--not just because she was older, but because she had been holding down the busiest station on the line since the restaurant opened.  Now it was my turn.

"Hold your pan like this, and you've kinda got a deep fryer."  I was watching T cook crab cakes--a huge seller on that menu.  They were gently cooked in a beautiful new all-clad pan, in grapseed oil, then warmed through in the oven.  Getting them right was hard--too much breading and they burned, too wet and they wouldnt brown, too loosely packed and they fell apart.  T was showing me shortcuts--but in her mind this was just the way it was done.

"You can sear off five orders of crab cakes at a time, then just heat them up when an order comes in."
"But chef doesn't want us to..."
"Well if you want your station to go down, then I dont give a fuck."  She stormed down the line, then back, then down to the walk-in, then back. 
"Can you help me with the scallop..."
"Get out of the way."  She shoved me aside and cooked a couple of orders, saying nothing to me.
"There, now its your turn."

Any questions about technique, or the whys of cooking were met with a short, angry response--like I was stupid for even asking.  I struggled through my shifts in the following weeks, and when the chef caught me searing off more crab cake orders than I had on fire, he went crazy. 

"Since when do we sear off more orders than we have on fire?!?"
"Um, that's the way I was trained Chef."

As soon as those words crossed my lips, I came the realization that my training up to this point had been a bit of a waste.  All of those questions I had been asking had been ignored because T didnt know the answers.  All of the short cuts came because she didnt know any other way to keep up.  Such an epiphany is great for a cook, but it doesnt get them out of the weeds in that moment.  It would mean many hard nights with my Chef literally standing over my shoulder, watching every movement, screaming at me to re-fire the second I did something wrong. (despite the yelling, at least he was telling me where I was making mistakes)  I scoured cookbooks, trying to gather as much information on technique as I could.  T glared at me every night from then on--after all, I was the culinary school punk who had outed her as a bad trainer.  Eventually she left, and not long after that I moved into her old lead cook position.

Training a cook has greater ramifications than just running a good or bad service.  You're passing on hundreds of years of culinary tradition when you teach someone.  You're leaving a part of yourself with that cook.  If you do it right, the cook will remember the lessons you taught them.  If you do it wrongly, the cook will only remember you.  As the teacher, its not enough to just show technique--you have to teach how to communicate--and how to be aware in every moment.  When you start to get good, its like time and space slow down for you.  You're no longer frantic.  You are in control.  And its your duty to pass the right lessons on.

  • out the door spring rolls are worth the extra money
  • pizzaria delfina opened on California street--a quick bike ride from my apartment.  eating there was fun--there was so much nervous energy in the room they probably couldve powered the whole block with it.  the food was exceptional (best. tripe. ever.)  so was the espresso from the e61.

  • most of you were wrong.  the correct answer was Heart.
  • when your adrenaline rush meets your caffiene rush, it will either be beautiful, or you will want to throw up.  sometimes both.
  • whats worse--mental or physical fatigue?  does one lead to the other?
  • san francisco, I love you. 


Well done = Poorly done

This is a Nopa burger.

It's a thing of beauty, a true labor of love.  As my Chef says, everything on that plate has good intentions:  local grass fed beef, ground daily--organic lettuce and onion, and a housemade bun.  This burger has a devoted following in San Francisco.  The "burger record" (currently at 78 for a single service) is a hallowed achievement in the Nopa kitchen.  If the grill guy is getting drilled from the beginning of service with them, his eyes go slightly wild.  "Im on pace tonight!" he'll shout.

Eating one is a sensual experience--in a way few other foods are.  Watching a person eat one feels wrong--almost voyeuristic.  They go quiet, burger juice running down their hands, trying to savor every bite.  It's not rare to see their eyes roll back in ecstacy.  Enjoying one on the line, at the end of a busy night is something I try to save for a special occaision;  usually a really busy night or my 'friday'.  Danny has a more serious burger habit--almost daily.  When he's crouched in his station eating one, he is not to be disturbed.

So it begs the question--why must people eat this seven ounce patty of love WELL DONE?  As cook, I understand my job is to cater to the guest.  You want your sauce on the side?  Sure.  You want to sub a salad for your fries?  Done.  But the well done burger, I can assure you, is breaking peoples hearts.  (as is the well done fish, pork chop, lamb, streak, and even french fries.  seriously dude, you're gonna chip a tooth on those things.)  You see, when the order comes in for a well done, the first thing the cook does is fire it.  Timing with this 'thing' does not matter.  When its plated, it will be a dry, shriveled lump of protien--a sad shadow of its former self.  Looking at it next to all the other properly cooked food is depressing.  So much promise and potential, never fully realized.  As Bourdain said, cooks even save certain sub par items for well done.  The thinnest piece of fish, the smallest piece of lamb, and that chop you used as a demo for the new butcher--that's the pool your food is being pulled from.  It's not uncommon to discuss cooking such items in the deep fryer.

A couple of years ago I went through a short bit of idealism--thinking that maybe I could translate the ethereal experience of properly cooked food to the well-doners.  I tried everything;  a little stock in the pan to keep it moist, constant basting and turning.  More often than not my efforts were ignored, or even returned to me.  "Not well done enough." the food runner would say.  One night I went the opposite route.  Cooking sous vide beef tenderloins was an exciting thing to me--a chance to really get this expensive piece of meat just right.  So when the well dones started pouring in, I just started to smash them under all my weight before they went in the bath.  Nothing came back.  One well doner said it was the best steak they ever had.  It sounds cliche, but a small part of myself died that night.

The people who cook for you want to be trusted.  They come in every day, working long hours to present you with their best craftsmanship.  You're afraid of getting sick?  That California roll you got at Whole Foods this afternoon is more likely to do so.  You dont like the texture?  Im not asking you to order your food rare.  Can't we settle on medium?

-my rabbit likes beer
-if you could only listen to either heart, journey, queen, or styx for the rest of your life, who would you pick?
-these sounds make me happy: a knife tapping on a wooden cutting board, a coffee cup settling into a saucer, stock deglazing a hot pan
-my email is in the "cook" bar to the right of this.  drop a line sometime
-my feet and hands may be beyond repair.



My early cooking career was peppered by two constants:  poor training, and being hazed.  They rarely overlapped one another, but thankfully the distrust that stemmed from being hazed led to me questioning the poor technique I was being taught. 

My first real hazing was at Sushi Ran.  I had been working for a catering company in the morning before school, and I was learning some good stuff--knife skills, making vinaigrettes, sauteeing and grilling.  That I was learning these skills without the stress of a dinner service was a good thing--hours of cooking that would become muscle memory...instinct.  As my skill set grew, so did my ego.  I started to challenge my instructors at school--finding ways to use their own lectures against them.  One teacher, out of either admiration or disgust for this rebellious streak set me up with a job at SR.  I was about to change to morning classes, so my job at the catering company was more or less over at this point. 

Upon showing up for my first day at work, I was given a twenty five pound bag of carrots.  The sous chef had been extolling the virutes of smoking weed while drinking espresso when I arrived--he called it the poor mans speedball.  I was simply an annoyance, so he led me to my corner, carrots in tow.  

"Small dice this bag."
"The whole bag?"
"Whats it going in?"
"Dont worry about it.  Just do it."

Twenty five pounds of brunoised carrot is going to end up being around 15-18 quarts.  If it's going in mirepoix (something rarely used in a Japanese restaurant) youre talking about almost eighteen gallons of veg.  Baffled, I started peeling and cutting.  Around the second hour of this my vision started to blur a bit, my neck tightening.  Around the third hour my knife callous started to become raw, an excruciating little jolt everytime I pushed my knife down.  I cant remember how long it ended up taking me, but by the time I was done the resturant was well into service.  The stomach area of my coat was stained orange, as were my fingers and side towel.  I felt gaunt, like I had entered the culinary equivalant of a sweat lodge.  The only difference was that instead of an epiphany, I saw only a hollow future of being this restaurants vegatable bitch.  The sous stepped off the line and ran his hands through the large mixing bowl mounded with carrots.


Then he dumped the entire bowl in the garbage.  The whole line, Chef included laughed. 

"You can go home now."

Up until this point I had never considered that I was making a mistake by choosing to cook for a living.  Now I was retracing my steps until this point, trying to figure out where I had this mental lapse that landed me here.  I went home, furious.  I mean really, throwing away a bag of carrots?  Just to humiliate me?  Even to this day, it seems excessive.  When I came back the next day I was given real tasks--plating for a cocktail party, making ponzu, and grilling burgers for family meal.  That I even came back was enough for these guys;  I was still the culinary school asshole, but at least I was persistant. 

I like to think that my brand of hazing was more creative.  The VDV crew, being the cocky alpha male jerks that we were hazed everyone.  New cooks, food runners, servers, hosts--it didnt matter.  Everyone got fucked with.  Some of our favorites: 
  • the aioli creme brulee, complete with garnish
  • wasabi filled profiteroles
  • duck fat ice cream, perfectly quenelled into a chilled glass
  • the classics:  wooden sautee pan, left handed sautee pan, spaghetti batter, chopping flour, jet wash...
The thing about hazing is it has to lead you somewhere--it cant be done just to be mean.  If youre going to be 90% poison, then your 10% of sugar has to be really, really sweet.  Hazing should be to break the ice--a twisted way of saying welcome to the family.  It has to be coupled with strong training, and it has to be done very, very carefully--the chances of it turning into bullying are far too great.  One has to think back to their own experiences with it, and remember the feelings it left them with.   

a quick guide for new cooks:

  • read everything ruhlman has written about cooking.  not just the laundry cookbook--start with the making of a chef and work your way through.  man cannot survive on bourdain alone.
  • cook on your days off.  start with breakfast, even if it's at 1 in the afternoon.  hit up a market, a produce stand, whatever.  spend all your money on food. (and a little on whiskey, beer, and wine.)  make something simple, but re-work the recipe to challenge your own technique.  if your dirty bowls, pots and pans stack up faster than you can wash them, you're probably doing it right.  invite your friends over for added stress.
  • sharpen. your. fucking. knives.
  • please, im begging you--do not try to learn recipes by watching the food network.  let's keep the molto mario watching to once a month.
  • go back and re-read soul of a chef.  yes, i know you just finished it.  you missed stuff--trust me.  also read the fourth star, the perfectionist, heat, letters to a young chef, cooking for kings, larousse gastronomique, and on food and cooking.  on second thought, read on food and cooking twice also.
  • use the internet.  it's your most important resource.

-"I like to think I put the taint in sustain(t)able"  -corey
-if you can't accept blame for your own actions, you should not cook
-salt cod.  it should be salty.
-rotating my matress got rid of the knot in my shoulder. 
-out the door imperial rolls + lunch with dan at the berkeley marina = awesome
-cooking successfully is just a never ending cycle of contradictions.  more on this later.


are you one of us?

bus stop @ divisadero & hayes. 2:25am.

server: you guys had a stage tonight?
cook: yeah.
server: how was he?
cook: he was ok.
server: ok? so not so good?
cook: i dont know. he was just ok.
server: soooooo....not fast enough? talked too much? spit on your shoes? what?
cook: i dont know dude. he just didnt have...it.
server: it?
cook: it.
server: ...
cook: i cant explain it...it's just....it.

So everyone's wondering, do you have it? Are you one of us?

Do you stand enjoy the blast of heat in your face when you open the oven door? Do you run your fingers across a knifes edge because it makes your heart race a little? Do you let out a laugh instead of a yelp when you burn yourself? Do you feel a little sad when your plates hit the pass...like you're saying goodbye to an old friend?

Are you one of us?

A brigade is a force of nature...the collected experiences of a group of people, operating independently but relying so completely on one another. Different personalities, cultures, faiths...giving and taking...eventually becoming a single family. Loving and hating each other...usually in the same ten minute span. Teaching, learning, competing, and congratulating each other. How can one crack into a group so closely knit?

The short answer is no--you are not one of us. You probably dont have it. Strangely, a good cook can sense it in a person the first time they meet them. A cook with it is enigmatic...walking with swagger thats been dipped in humility. They have a bounce in their step...a lightness in their touch. They ask all the right questions, and dont hesitate to jump right in. A cook that doesn't have it might not do anything wrong in particular--they just always seem to be in the way.

I've seen many a stage come through the kitchens ive worked in. Things ive had to say to them:

"I dont really give a fuck if thats the way they do at your old job, this is the way we do it here."
"Did you just wipe your spoon off on my side towel?
"That's great that your last job had carpet in the kitchen. Can you sweep now?"
"Starting wage is eleven dollars an hour. No, I dont think Chef will pay you fifteen."
"Um, when youre done sitting down/talking on the phone can you help out on apps?"

and every cooks favorite:

"Can you just shut up and stand over there by the ice machine?"

You see, its not that we're the best cooks out there--we're just the best in our own kitchen. We used to have a saying at VDV: "I dont care if you're Thomas Keller--you're going to learn to do it our way." Someone new is given all the trust a substitute teacher gets. They have to balance their humility and confidence. They have to adapt not to our technique and style, as much as they have to adapt to us.

  • 8 months at nopa has gone by really, really quickly
  • in response to reactions ive gotten from the tavern write up last week: expect the very least when you go out to eat--that way you're never disappointed.
  • we sent chicken and broccoli to beck at the independent last week. why do i get the feeling his roadies ate it?
  • summer is here in san francisco...and its a beautiful thing
  • to everyone who reads this blog--sometimes im shocked that people react so well to it. writing this blog comes together in scrawled notes i collect in my pockets all week...so its surprising that it all comes together in a semi-coherent way. in short, thanks for all your comments.
  • bill burge--come say hi next time youre in town
  • slow food nation. nah, enoughs been said about it.