Some weeks there's just too much going on.

Oh my, we have so much to talk about.  First things first:

  • Nopa needs a cook.  Someone intelligent, hard working, and passionate about food.  An interest in organics and sustainability are a plus.  You can email me, or drop by Nopa (560 Divisadero @ Hayes) to have a chat and a stage. 
  • Anthony Myint of Bar Tartine, and recently the Mission Street Food truck contacted me and is planning to sublet a kitchen and bring in cooks to showcase their food--"kind of an attempt to create an indie chef movement" to put it in his words.  It sounds very, very interesting--the kind of thing that cooks always talk about doing but never actually see through.  So there it is--two exciting opportunities to be a part of San Francisco's unique dining scene.

Eating out in SF is fun.  It's such a small city, and an even smaller restaurant industry, so when you go out you'll always run into people you know, offering their favorite dishes and a smile.  Before I moved here, it seemed so daunting;  Was I good enough to hack it in SF?  Were the cooks there different?  Now that i'm here I feel like im part of something--this familial community.  Eating out and/or cooking for others brings on a warmth that I cant describe.  Sure, ive had bad meals, but they were nothing that a good meal at Delfina or Magnolia couldn't cure.  So when Corey relayed his story about eating in Lafayette, I had to laugh:

--he's eating in a new, hip spot, and is enjoying his food.  he thought the fries were really well done, so he asks the server how they do them, what kind of potato, etc.  the server doesn't know, so she asks the kitchen.  the answer that comes back is:  "Look on the Bouchon page on Thomas Keller's website.  That's how we do them."   Well what a stupid fucking answer.  This is what I don't understand:
  1. Why wouldnt the server know something as rudimentary as how the fries are made?
  2. Why couldn't the chef just give a straight answer?
  3. Why did the chef feel the need to reference Thomas Keller?
  4. Did the chef know that Bouchon uses frozen fries?
So what is it about the San Francisco dining scene that makes us want to share and serve each other?  I remember when I was working in Walnut Creek that there was this feeling of rivalry among all the eateries there.  Sure, we would get VIP's in, and they would get styled out, but there was never that good feeling about doing it.  Especially in the VDV kitchen:  We thought we were the best in town, and we wanted everyone to know it.  One has to wonder, why isn't that communal spirit more alive out there?  (this isn't to say that this sense of community doesn't exist in Berkeley, Oakland, or Albany)

Seeing chefs from so many great restaurants (there was a sixteen star table the other night--one 4 star chef and four 3 star chefs), coming together and sharing--that's really what this job is all about, isn't it?

How to save your kitchen money in a hard economy.
  • Use everything.  Fennel tops.  Celery leaves.  Pork trim.  Fish bones.  Keep a spatula close, and use it to scrape down everything.
  • Revisit your recipes.  Where are you not being efficient?  Are there ingredients in there that you could be making in house?  Cheeses, spice blends, curry paste, breads, charcuterie, pastas--you can make them better than what you're buying...and for cheaper
  • Cook seasonally for fucks sake. 
  • Get to know your purveyors.  Learn who to trust, and who not to.  Don't be afraid to ask for a cheaper price. 
  • Change your menu when you need to, not just when you want to.  If something isn't working, change it.  Move your ingredients around so as to not to have certain items that really sell, and other that are just there.
  • Dont be afraid of the oily fish.  $20 a pound snapper vs $1.95 a pound mackeral.  You figure it out.
  • Limit your menu.  Any menu over 25 items is really tipping the scales.  One fish entree, one steak, one pork/duck/chicken item.  Offer a veggie entree.  Don't get carried away with foie gras and caviar.
  • Use everyones ideas.  A cook on a station knows exactly how much mise en place they need for a night--so ask them how much prep they think they'll need for a service.  Analyze your prep list constantly.
  • Get creative with family meal.  The true test of a cook is taking all those leftovers and making something that will satiate twenty cranky servers.

  • making fun of ann might cause her to dunk your hand in the deep fryer
  • sometimes sitting around all day, drinking beer and playing rock band is ok.
  • this blog turned 1 year old in September.  it's gotten thousands and thousands of visitors, and the emails and comments i've recieved have been really nice.  i plan to keep updating as much as my schedule allows me to, and to keep it ad free (except for my adsense experiment all the way at the bottom--net profits to date?  14 cents.)  in the future im hoping to offer a drm free linecook related book or something, but in the meantime, thank you for reading and commenting.
  •  quote of the week, paraphrased:  "No matter how much you might hate that guy next to you on the line--i mean really hate, if you were at a bar and someone fucked with them, you would kill that person."  -Chef
  • Nopa's press this week:  7x7, Food And Wine, San Francisco Magazine, and Check Please Bay Area (link lands you at the start of the Nopa segment.)  You'll get to see Chef, Al, Corey, Paul, Ann, and even me in action.
  • other quotes this week:  question:  "You remember the sluttiest girl you ever boned down with?"  answer:  "Yeah dude, I married her"  -Corey  Quote #2:  "I'd put my pen in her inkwell."  -Corey
  • next week:  my old blog revisited, cooks that shut down under pressure, and the worst chef I ever worked with.

where this blog is written.

the end of service.

the middle of the line, mid service.

pasta party.

I bet Ponder an Asahi that he couldn't eat this whole dessert in one bite.  He did.

Start of service cocktail:  Blue bottle espresso and a popsicle in sparkling water.



We're sitting there after a really hard night, having a cold beer and passing a bottle of whiskey around. Everyone is quiet. There's so much to say--but no one knows how to say it. Then this happens.

"Does it make you guys mad?"
"What? Tonight?"
"Yeah, tonight. But more than that--does it make you guys mad that we only get a finite number of services?"
"Before what? Before we get fired?"
"No. A finite number of services to get it right. To get as close to perfection as we can. And we just threw one away."
"We didn't throw anything away. It was just a bad night."
"Bullshit. Think about it. You get about two hundred some-odd services a year. That's barely more than a season of baseball. Whats worse is that we just threw away another night as a group. We've got something special here, and one day this group is going to part ways...and tonight was a waste."

It sounds dramatic--only getting a certain number of chances to "get it right." But did you ever think about it? There are so many variables in this industry that would seemingly make every service more important than the last: success is fleeting, and a good group of cooks never sticks together for too long. Anyone that's ever cooked as a part of a closely knit brigade knows this. If you remove a part of the puzzle, does it still work? How hard is it to intergrate a new member into the crew? And at what point is getting by not good enough anymore?

Every service needs to be building towards something bigger--a bigger contribution not just to the people we serve but to our craft itself. It's not good enough to just draw from the well of culinary history--we need to be adding to it also. I'm not saying we need to go out and invent an entirely new way to make stock or cook protein--we just need to collectively maintain the traditions passed on to us, and try every day to improve on them. Even if that happens one very small step at a time.

So the next time you're in the kitchen, think about it. Every day is one less chance at perfection, one less service with your friends. Think about the combined knowledge and experiences of you and all the people around you--what can you do with that? How are you going to make your contribution to our be craft--be it something small or the next big thing. Whatever it may be, you need to hurry up. The clock is ticking.

every kitchen has a term for that cute girl (or guy) in the dining room. whats yours?
  • fire tortas
  • side of tomatoes
  • table 9
  • papas
  • fire milkcrate
  • guava!

bauer comments on prop 2.
curtis duffy blogs.
ruhlman breaks down pollans essay.
bourdain runs his mouth off with buford and ted allen.

corey has some interesting ideas about duck fat and sustainability. ask him about it next time you see him.

amy's honey hands.

CTC lunch fun.

30 day pancetta.

wish you were here


the question.

the question.

Cooks have strong opinions. They're quick to tell you which restaurants suck and which ones don’t. They'll go on for hours about what their favorite seasonal ingredients are. When they taste your food, they're likely to tell you it needs more salt, and that the olive oil you used is starting to go rancid. So it's surprising how easy it is to stump a cook with a simple question--one that you would hope they could answer easily and confidently. The next time you're talking to one, ask them: Why do you cook?

* "I’ve been doing it for years...im good at it..."
* "I hated my old job, but I have fun cooking..."
* "My parole officer set me up with this job..."

The truth is, there isn't just one answer to this question. It's complicated.... like the cooks themselves. What’s obvious is this: we don’t cook to get rich--that would be stupid. Too fucking hard, and too little pay. We don't cook in hopes of being famous one day--for every Daniel Boloud there are ten Rachel Rays, and a thousand "top chefs." The answers are there. They're just not plain to see.

One reason we cook is because we're masochistic martyrs. No, no, you guys go out and have a nice Friday night. I’m going to stay here and put myself under intense pressure and intense heat, and fight and struggle so you can have a good time. I'm going to miss out on all the fun stuff you go do, but that's ok. I want you to have a good time. Good times would be wasted on me. And besides, I kind of like the nightly struggle...it makes me all tingly inside. In fact, you might say we crave that panicky feeling right before service.

We also cook because at our hearts, we're whores. Deviant sensualists that seldom experience pleasure like that of giving someone a perfectly seared piece of foie gras, or a slice of a perfectly ripe pear. We're voyeurs. When you order a dish that we cooked ourselves, we're watching to see how you react to it. We want to see that pause of enjoyment--that perfect moment when everything else melts away for the guest and they just taste. That wry grin the grill cook just shot you? It's because he knows he's just played a small role in getting you laid tonight.

We cook because we're heroes and villains all at the same time. Virtuous criminals...good guys that just love being in trouble too much. Our brigade is our gang, and we're fiercely territorial...at least when it comes to FOH being in our kitchen. Cooking keeps us in check, and mostly out of trouble. Hopefully it either starts to set us straight, or beats us down so much all week that we're too tired to go out and get into mischief. Check a cook’s resume from before they started cooking. I guarantee there are a few gaps on there from jobs they either left suddenly or got fired from.

The main reason we cook though is because we like to take care of people. We're hospitable. This reason often has selfishness at its heart. When you feel good, we feel good. Seeing the smiles and laughter, people giving themselves over to the experience--it warms us quicker than a slug of whiskey. We get to watch people fall in love (or lust) right in front of our eyes, every single night. We see people let their guards down, and let their true selves come out. It's a nice thing to watch. Sure, there are moments when we might resent our guests...and if those moments start to outnumber the moments when we love them, it's probably time to look for a different line of work. If we're not doing it for the guest, we're at least doing it for the brigade we work on--pushing our own boundaries (and levels of tolerance) so as to not let the team down. And if we're not cooking for the guest or our team, then they're only cooking for ourselves...and in that case we might as well all fuck off and become private chefs.

The truth is there is no one answer. We don’t have any preset answers to why we cook. We do it because it gives us an overwhelming sense of compassion and camaraderie...and pride. We do it because it's our outlet--the place we find our peace. (even if that peace comes in the midst of a roomful of guests and 35 plates to pick up) It's our way of connecting to the world we sometimes feel removed from. Lastly, cliché as it may sound, we do it out of love.

childhood food memories:

* mom's chicken and rice soup when it was cold...with biscuits
* corn on the cob at nanny and pop-pop's in the summer
* fried fish and miso soup at grandpa's
* dad's teriyaki on the grill
* food from the garden

Cooking professionally is hard. Really hard. So when a cook starts to settle into a groove, it's easy for them to stop evolving. Why push so hard when things just started getting easy? The thing is, a cook is nothing without good technique. What's the point of putting your craft on display if it's foundation is built on shortcuts and doing things the "easy" way? The good news is improving your technique is surprisingly easy...if you're willing to make things harder on yourself for a few nights.

1. Ditch the tongs. - No, seriously. As a sautee or grill cook, there is almost no reason at all to use them. Sure, they come in handy sometimes, but using them to flip your fish, then stir a sauce, then plate your pasta seems kinda...gross, doesn’t it? Try this: for one night, only use a spoon or spatula to plate your food. A spoon is elegant--and hopefully, so is the food you cook. Once you start to feel comfortable with that, branch out and start using it to turn your protein, emulsify sauces and stir veg. Once you make the switch you'll be shocked how natural it feels.

2. Chop your herbs to order. - Have you ever looked at your chopped herbs at the end of the night? Despite any sort of wet towel you put under them, they always end up wilted and bruised by the end of service. So try this: pick one herb and try cutting it to order all night. This doesn’t mean wait until the last second to do it--when the order comes in, take 15 seconds to pick it and chop it, then put it aside. It won’t take long for this to become a part of your rhythm. (The exception to this rule is thyme and rosemary, as they’re pretty hearty, but how often are you using these herbs as garnish or in a pasta?)

3. Mimic the cooks that are better than you. - A good cook works clean and fast with a poetic economy of movement. They find ways to save time and energy for when they need it. Watch these cooks, and take the best qualities of each one. The fish cooks touch, the grill guy’s intensity, and the sous chefs’ focus--you need it all.

  • check it out!
  • sometimes a menu change means a massive timing change
  • the progression of seasons makes the year fly by
  • working sick is horrible
  • top chef - does anyone care anymore?

the aforementioned spoons.


duck proscitutto

stinky pancetta

corey's guanciale

9 hour bolognese


dinner at the moss room was amazing--not just because of the sweet treatment we got, but because of the smooth service and the delicious food. its a hell of a thing to finish a nice meal and be standing in golden gate park. chef justin simoneaux is really doing some nice stuff on the menu, like perfectly seared sweetbreads, a crispy guinea fowl confit, and one of the best fish entrees ive had in a while--black cod, chanterelles, short ribs and cippolinis. after dinner i stopped in tsunami, where the nice treatment continued with all sorts of beer and whiskey and sake snacks. it was a truly heart warming night....hospitality is alive and well in SF, depite the sour economy.


slash and burn.

It's my last week of culinary school, and i've just put a Joyce Chen sashimi knife through my thumb. You see, in the final weeks at CCA, the chefs see fit to start to give us nicer ingredients--langoustines,
lobsters, lamb and rabbit.  Im already a stew of over confidence and
cockyness--believing that I am already a "chef", and that my ascension
to Thomas Keller like status will be quick and painless.  Four stars
can only be a year away, at most.  Dylan has given me the Joyce Chen
sashimi knife that he got at Whole Foods, and although I havent been
able to use it yet, im very excited about it.  It's one sided.  It
looks Japanese.  It's pretty fucking sharp.  It has a faux-bamboo
handle and a wooden sheath.  Despite the final class having an Asian
fusion theme (ack) I still have yet to see a twenty pound loin of tuna,
or a side of hamachi.  My new gift is going to waste.  So when the opportunity to kill and break down a dozen lobsters comes up, I have the bright idea to use it.
Everything is going fine, until about midway through, when I try to work faster.  Ginger is standing next to me, prepping.  In one swift movement I go to stab into the lobster and my knife slips on the shell.  It glides down, straight into my thumb, and out the other side.  I dont really remember what happens next...except that I pull the knife out, grab my finger, and walk to the handsink.  Im unable to talk.  Ginger will tell me later that she heard the cut...a statement that sends chills down my spine.  I get stitches and try to call into VDV--there's no way I could work like this.  Chef tells me two other people have already called out, and that I have to work.  It will end up being one of the worst services I ever have.

Eventually the memory of this painful day will fade and become my first war story.  Until this happens:

It's a Saturday night, and im making carnitas.  Gringo carnitas--the only kind that I know how to make.  Service has been cranking all night--but the recent purchase of a pressure cooker has made my approach to family meal different.  Whereas pork katsu and shaking beef salad have been staples lately, now I can execute "slow cooked" items much quicker--without occupying the stove for too long.  I sweat down some onions and chile, brown some beef, and add more veg, beer and a little bit of orange.  The pressure cooker is filled to the top--something that tingles my spidey sense, yet I carry on cooking. 
Saul warms tortillas while Joey makes pico de gallo and guacamole.  My pressure cooker is screaming now...so I move it to the sink to let off the steam.  Normally this takes 4-6 minutes...but this time it only takes two.  Again, this seems strange, but I ignore it and go to remove the lid.  It sticks.  Now, absolutely this should have stopped me dead in my tracks--but what can I say?  Hunger's a bitch.  I force the lid, and a crack like a gunshot goes off.  212 degree liquid sprays out all over my right arm, landing almost six feet away.  Later I will find that a piece of pork fat has clogged the blow off valve--due to over filling--but for now im dunking my arm into a 22qt cambro of ice water.  The burn ends up looking like this:

The final damage is fairly devastating.  I spend the next few weeks dressing and wrapping my arm several times a day, gritting my teeth during service and popping vicodin when im home.  I curse myself for my stupidity in forcing open the pressure cooker, but also revel in the fact that I have laid claim to the "worst burn" story in the VDV kitchen--which isnt to say that Rossi's nipple burn wasn't a close second.

Like Angelo says to me: "At least it wasn't your face." 

Cooks wear their burns like badges of honor--and a good cut will get you a couple of free rounds at the bar.  But have you ever wondered why?  A cut or a burn usually represents a lapse in judgement or concentration--you were moving too quickly, you got distracted, whatever.  Ive noticed that a seasoned cook is usually less enthusiastic about their marks--too many strange looks while in line for coffee, too many concerned friends wondering just what the hell is going on at that job of theirs.  When I became a sous and moved off of a regular sautee shift I kinda missed my burns...would I not look hardcore enough among my fellow cooks?  Now I worry about burning my tattoo off. 
That first big burn and cut are for one reason or another a moment to remember in a cooks life.  At some point though, taking the extra two seconds to avoid them in the first place seems worth it.


  • nicknames this week:  mongoose, sardine face, spaghetti brain, and stink foot
  • eddie fell for the "do you have any updog?" joke
  • new clogs are a bitch to break in
  • spending the day at crissy field drinking an asahi and watching the blue angels is pretty damn nice
  • iphone.  wow, the bill is really fucking expensive
  • Marina bowl.  What does that mean exactly?
  • True Blood and Life and Times of Tim good.  Heroes and Fringe not so good
  • When did it become cool for hipsters to try to look like Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona?

pimp shoes.

Four Barrel Coffee...maybe not as fresh as Blue Bottle

Inside Four Barrel.  Not sure whats up with the boar heads.

That's a very full oven.

Nopalito testing.

Days off should be like this.

the playlist 10/08
  1. mysteries - yeah yeah yeahs
  2. give it to me - rick james
  3. you dropped a bomb on me - gap band
  4. you're my only one - cadallaca
  5. last night - mission
  6. salute your solution - the raconteurs
  7. hey - the pixies
  8. battle of evermore - the lovemongers
  9. naked eye - luscious jackson
  10. london dungeon - the misfits


The most important thing.

photo by mark linthicum

What do you think is the most important thing for a restaurant to have? Great ingredients? A passionate staff? Nice cooking equipment? A great wine list? Caring but discreet service? Clean bathrooms?

The answer is yes. And no. Of course you need all these components to make things work. But what a restaurant, and more specifically, a kitchen needs is great communication--on all levels. Let me explain:

(I'm not very good at math, so please excuse my poor algebra.) 90db noise + hot, cramped kitchen + a group of people that don't speak
the same language + intense pressure = a perfect storm of poor
communication. The Chef needs to be communicating with the sous chef who needs to be communicating with all of the cooks and prep cooks and dishwashers who in turn need to communicate among each other so they can go back and communicate with the sous chef who will communicate with the Chef. It's a whirlpool of nouns and verbs and lines like "so like fuckin, the fuckin peppers are fuckin from yesterday, and fuckin, they like, look, like, fuckin kinda beat." Decoding the essential information takes more brainpower than a chess match.

The thing that makes communication so important (and difficult) is that rarely is one piece of information more important than the other. How much fish you ordered--the AM shift needs to know about that. The nozzle on the hose in the dish pit is leaking--the sous chef needs to know about that. There are only 9 chicken left--the front of house needs to know about that. But wait! The am sous chef ordered squab, and its already been prepped--the Chef and the sous chef and the front of house need to know that. And that fish special has been coming back to the dish pit with plates almost full all night--the whole kitchen needs to know about that. Add to this the constant chatter between stations during service, the Chefs critiques on the plates coming out, or the GM letting you know that a food critic just sat upstairs, and you've got a lot of information flying around.

What serves us in the Nopa kitchen is that we all speak the same language--and I dont mean English or Spanish. We all understand the timing on the food, and what exactly "five minutes!" means. (in my experience, a minute in a kitchen is never actually a minute) The sautee cook knows what I mean when I say "watch your color" and the grill cook know what i mean when I point at his grill while he's plating. When it's all clicking, it's a special thing to watch.

photo by mark linthicum

i used to give new cooks homework. culinary terms to look up. articles to read. places to eat. it's interesting, how many cooks think the job ends when they leave the kitchen. sure, cooks like to look at (not read) cookbooks, and sure, they like to eat out...but how much information is being absorbed there? there is no way to grow if you're only focused on whats going on where you work. having said that, there is really no way to grow if you're only focused on the type of cuisine you cook. (i had a duck dish at slanted door that would probably have been more at home on chez panisse's menu, and it was inspiring.) get together with your fellow cooks, trade books and articles, and eat out as much as you can. just dont drink too much.

  • im trying to write, but this vice-presidential debate is making me want to stab myself in my eyeballs
  • sundays. they're never, ever fun.
  • "she looks like a cross between maggie gyllenhall and john goodman." "she looks like she's spent a lot of time in tents."
  • moleskine. why did i not have one before?
  • my wife sings bad country music while she cooks
  • two quarts of asahi might be too much
  • bloodsugarsexmagik on rock band. hells yes.
  • what the hell is a shlada?

the flat top at dotties. yum

you've been warned

al's got links.