Good Chef/Bad Chef

Your chef.  He's worked in the best restaurants.  He can taste flavors you didn't know existed.  There's a lightness in his step, despite the fact that he's been on his feet for 16 hours.  He speaks French.  When he cooks something, it tastes good every time.  Unless...he's worked in restaurants you've never heard of, or that aren't in business anymore.  He sits down, sometimes for an entire service.  He speaks horrible, broken Spanish that's borderline offensive to the prep cooks.  And when he cooks something, it's so overloaded with cayenne and paprika that it brings tears to your eyes and stains your mouth red.

Some cooks never get to experience the "bad chef."  They go through their entire career, more or less hand picking their moves, and they learn from the best.  The rest make their moves based on a combination of necessity, or convenience, or even desperation.  And often this leads to a run in with an obnoxious sous chef, or a cocky chef de cuisine, or the witless exec.  And in rare instances, an evil combination of all three.

On my way up, I went through a spell where I was good enough to lead the kitchen, but didn't have enough experience for my chef to promote me.  Because of this, I was introduced to an endless array of some of the most inept, sexually harrassing, no skill having, racist homophobic chefs since season's 1-4 of Top Chef.  I was frustrated, stirring up shit among the cooks, complaining to my boss, and eventually contemplating quitting altogether.  There would be screaming matches, yelling, distrust.  Every day was hard, and when I would go out for beers with the boys, all I could talk about was the bullshit going on at work.

Eventually, you realize that good folks are going to come and go, and all you can do is take care of yourself, contribute all you can, and not worry about anything else.  The bad chef always ends up filtering himself out, and at very least, you get to have a laugh or two along the way--or possibly challenge yourself and learn a thing or two.  Things become clear for you, and in the future, you can see a bad situation coming--and when you're in a good situation, you really appreciate it.  And at very least, you know to go easy on the cayenne.

  • Bake sale Betty's fried chicken sandwich can lead to a dangerous habit.
  • Calling people back is sometimes very difficult.
  • A new iphone model?  Already?  Is it wrong that im annoyed and excited all at the same time?
  • The more I think about my meal at Domo, the more annoyed I get.
  • Prosciutto and pancetta are not the same thing.  Who knew?
  • All that build up for the Bocuse D'or, then we get 6th place.
  • Falafels, Nizario's pizza, and Lil' Chihuahua might lead to a very bad stomach ache.
  • It's true:  Blue Bottle Bindhi coffee is better cold.

Quotes and conversations.

Me:  Sophia, tell me something interesting.
Sophia:  Do you watch America's Next Top Dance Crew?

  You know, like you order a ham, and they give you the whole ham on a plate.
Me:  They call that the Flinstones portion.

Chef:  I think Corey's balls are the new Rubik's cube.
Corey:  Hey dude, they aint that hard to figure out.

Corey:  Don't get me wrong, it's hard, but I enjoy it.
Me, to Amy:  He's talking about penis.

"I have seen one.  Timecop."
-Maritess, who got a new nickname this week.

"Torta's get extra bacon."
-Ponder.  Who is completely correct.

Me:  Corey, how was your day off?
Corey:  I didn't do shit.  I watched America's Funniest Home Videos.  Saw a pig roll down a hill.  Shit was funny as hell.

Me:  Hey Corey, I have a business proposition for you...that doesn't involve you taking off your clothes.
Corey:  Hey dude.  How did you know I was gonna say that?

Me:  What should I do with all these pasta sraps?
Amy:  You should make a vest.
Corey:  You should ball it up, put it in a sack, and hit Al with it.

Me:  Can I have some maple syrup with my pancakes?
Al:  You mean crepes.
Me:  You're right.

Al:  That was one of the funniest things  you've ever said.
Me:  Thanks Al.  I'm trying to be funnier.
Al:  Yeah, you should try harder.

"She should win a burger bun for torta of the month."
-Ponder.  Trophy maker.

Me:  Ponder, would it be gay if I got a tattoo of us riding a tandem bike together?
Ponder:  That'd be doooope.

Me:  Eddie, how was Santa Fe?  Did you bring back any Hopi Indian jewelry?
Eddie:  No, I didn't bring you a turquoise cock ring.

from top: old knife/new knife, table, bakesale betty's, berkeley farmer's market, gibraltar, foil man, boards, menu, home is good, hostility flow chart, torta of the month award, eddie curing bacon at 1am, hi jamie


two chefs. and a whole lot of other stuff.

two chefs.

a while ago I wrote about three chefs that I had worked with that had an impact on me--they changed the way I looked at food and cooking in general.  now as I go deeper into the jungle that is cooking, i've come across two more chefs that have made me take pause and appreciate what we do. 

Ann Merrell.

I hired Ann at Pres a Vi.  We worked together, and for a while it was all good...and then it wasn't.  To ask her to give a number value to how much she hated me then, she says "9."  When I arrived at Nopa, and we needed a sautee cook, Merrell came in and killed it--running the station on her stage.  Former co-workers of ours were baffled that we would work together.  But a sincere apology and many busy services later, we're friends.  Merrell is considered the best sautee cook in the kitchen, and her progression and passion for the kitchen life has won her the respect of all the cooks.  (She's also been mentioned as a future sous chef.)  To have a cook that you know you can constantly challenge and push is a comforting feeling--and knowing that Merrell is cooking can be enough to put you at ease.  She's a friend, and I hope I get to cook with her for a long time to come.

Corey Nead.

If you read this blog, you know who Corey is.  He says funny shit--usually crude, innuendo filled self depricating stuff.  What you dont know about him is that he is a deeply talented cook.  Grilling, sausage making, and a homemade ice cream making habit that is slightly suspicious are all components of this cook.  He has a relentless thirst for cooking knowledge, and had the notebooks to prove it.  Cooking with him on the line is great, but it's the quiet one on one moments where he is at his best.  His sausage and charcuterie have a bit of a following at Nopa, and now that he is moving into the AM sous chef role, it's going to be interesting to see what he brings to the menu.  Having him around just seems to make everything a little more fun. 

contradictions about linecook415.
  1. im not a linecook anymore.  i've been a sous chef for 4 years now.  i could still serve your ass up on sautee though.
  2. despite all my talk about being in kitchen and giving yourself over to cooking, I recently chose to take Fridays and Saturdays off to spend more time with my wife.
  3. i live in the 415, but the area code on my cell phone is 925.
  4. i'm one of the worst blog readers around. 
  5. this blog was meant for me and the cooks I work with.  didn't really turn out that way.

  • 210 covers in three hours is a lot.
  • pauls nicknames this week were boner and mosh pit.
  • sometimes I just wish Bourdain would keep his mouth shut.  He talks shit on the orthodoxy of alice waters, and doesn't realize that he has his own orthodoxy...
  • a girl was mad at matty because she said he called her fat.  the next night i saw her wearing a dress that was tearing at the seams.  i shit you not.
  • sometimes I love San Francisco so much it hurts.  like loving your favorite band when you were 13 hurt.
  • speaking of SF, it's interesting how different the city looks during different weather.  its like seeing it for the first time some days.
  • if you need good cooking music, play barracuda by heart.  put it on repeat.
  • cooking is not a competition.
  • if you go to bevmo, make sure that the price tag on your bourbon says $28.99, and not $289.99, as this can lead to an emberrassing moment at the register.

quotes and conversations

"Oh, that's what I smell."
-Merrell, whose towel was on fire.

Me:  "You look like George Clooney in the first season of ER."
Al:  "Oh really?  I used to have a picture of that guy in my closet."

Me:  "Here dude, have some beet juice."
Corey:  "That's ok.  I make beet juice every morning in the shower."

"Al's kinda funny.  Like a fat kid got ice cream on his face funny."
-Corey, who makes great ice cream.

"You can get the handjob, but you can't get the thirty dollars."
-Paul, who is thrifty.

Me:  "There's essential oils in nuts."
Speez:  "You've got essential oils on your nuts."

Me:  "It's not a democratic system, it's a socialist system."
Ponder:  "Yeah, you should know about that one Frenchy."
-on trying to convince Paul to buy Asahi's

Paul:  "It was getting old, so I was trying to use it less."
Me:  "Oh, just like your dick."
-on the way Paul calls back fry time.  he took a lot of shit this week.

Chef:  "Ponder's done a lot of mushrooms.  You can tell."
Me:  "Really?"
Ponder:  "Oh yeah."
Me:  "I've drank a lot of kombucha, so it's almost the same thing."
Chef:  "I've eaten a lot of mushroom pizzas."

from top:  dinner, nopalito masa grinder, amy, organic eggs, chicories, fried sage, 4 qts of garlic takes a long time, tortellini, filthy clogs, fizzy lizzy tattoos, dim sum, goose, merrell, coffee at blue bottle, corey, my suspension form from 1996.  Mom still had it.

photos via flickr by metagrrrl and violet blue

photos via flickr by Jamison Litten, who is a considerably more talented photographer than I am.


You're missing out.

Parties.  Concerts.  Dinner parties.  Birthdays.  Dates.  Family gatherings.  Weddings.  Remember going to these things?  Being a part of it all?  Having a life?  Wasn't it nice?  Hope you took lots of pictures and didn't drink too much at these things, because when you're neck deep in kitchen life, it's all a memory. 

Sarah calls it FOMO.  Fear of missing out.  The nagging notion that you're missing out on something great.  Like one day all your friends will call, text and email you the details about how they ate a hand cooked meal by Thomas Keller, then took a supersonic flight to Tokyo for sake and beers, then boarded a cruise ship where everyone got laid and 2Pac and Biggie came out of hiding to give a private concert.  And all this while you were working salads on a Monday night where you did 30 covers.

Some cooks let this nagging feeling get to them.  They decide that they want some "me" time, and maybe they take the day off for their birthday.  Then they request off for the 4th of July.  Then for Superbowl Sunday, because it's gonna be slow and stuff.  Slowly they give in to themselves and in a strange turn of events, the kitchen world begins to pass them by.  They weren't there when everyone did 400 covers.  They weren't there to see Daniel Boloud come in and eat.  And worse than that, they weren't there when the things got hard, and the kitchen needed them the most.  The chef looks at them and sees someone that's unreliable.  The brigade looks at them and wonders when this person is going to put in their notice.  And this cook looks in the mirror and considers giving up cooking all together.

There is no easy way out in cooking.  You give yourself over to it, completely.  You sacrifice everything, and hopefully have friends, family, and a significant other that understand--or at least tolerate it.  You work as hard as you can, and take all the overtime given to you, and in the case that overtime isn't authorized, you work off the clock.  Scratch that-- you go to your chef and volunteer to work off the clock.  If need be,  you get sneaky and stay after, late night to work on your projects.  Your days off become a carefully coordinated, expertly timed series of tasks and visits and chores and phonecalls and errands and rest and maybe, just maybe a little bit of fun.  And in the off case that you get called in, the answer is always yes--no matter what.  You just took three hits of acid and drank a bottle of scotch and shot heroin in your eyeballs?  Chances are that your chef will understand.

So the next time you get FOMO, ask yourself what it is that you're really missing.  Juxtapose this against the importance of immersing yourself in the kitchen and what paying your dues will end up getting you, and ask yourself if its worth it.  Everyone needs me time--but no one ever got 4 stars by letting themselves have it.

  • a note to potential yelpers:  heaven's dog is not a hot dog joint
  • on the subject of yelp:  my 10 year plan includes listing myself on yelp, waiting for someone to talk shit, then suing them
  • duct tape wallets are awesome.  especially when made by one of my wife's students
  • paul enjoys chocolate cake in his day off.
  • in one week I had someone tell me they weren't stalking me, and another tell me that they were. 
  • names floating around the nopa kitchen are eduardo, ricardo, and gerrardo.  this can get confusing.
  • to anyone that might ask, no, I dont have a fork tattoo.
  • name your top three simpsons episodes:  mine are the one with mr sparkle, the australia one, and the one where homer eats the spicey chili and hallucinates.
  • fries with lamb gravy taste good
  • interesting post here about a girl trying to make it in a boys kitchen.  she should talk to merrell.
  • this heat wave is messing up my allergies
  • nopa is all over twitter. 
  • blue bottle sweatshirt.  cool factor = 10.  workmanship on the zipper = 0
  • from chadzilla
    I found your last post interesting (as I do all of them). 
    Definitely in the sense that I believe most of us go through this
    quandry in one facet or another.  The real reason for this is that the
    line between 'new cooking' and 'old cooking' is becoming more and more
    blurred (just as the lines between sweet and savory).  It was easy,
    some time ago, to put that stick to the sand and say, "Alright now. 
    You guys into the new stuff can stand over here, and all of you who
    think that traditional is better can stand over there."  I think, that
    the purity of cuisine cannot be divided so easily.  Looking through
    your stack of books (of which I have each and every one pictured) blurs
    those lines even moreso.  This is an increasingly exciting time in the
    food world.  Traditionalists used to cite Keller's name in defense of
    their craft.  Ironically, "Under Pressure" is a bible of modern
    technique.  Whether I am cooking at home or at w
    ork, I approach things the same and ask myself the same questions...
    what will make this better right now in this setting?  Sure, we will
    make mistakes, but only a fool does not learn from them.  The chef ego
    is slowly becoming an endangered species, and the forums for sharing
    knowledge are growing.

    I truly believe that the real mark of cuisine (just as your quote
    in disagreement with Bourdain, "the best cook is the best cook") is
    simply how good it is and how much respect is given to the
    ingredients.  The best food is the best food.  These ideals are held up
    by both the Robuchon's and the Adria's.  You should not concern
    yourself with what side of the fence you are on because it's obvious
    that you are very aware of what is good or not.  Your choice of
    expression will not deter the message within the ingredients as long as
    you are honest with yourself and to your food.

conversations, quotes, and jokes that fell flat.

wife:  I just want a job that's mindless next summer.
me:  you should get a job in gavin newsom's administration. 
wife:  how am I supposed to get a job in gavin newsom's administration?
me:  blerg.

me:  hey al, that's the chef of Greens over there.
al:  no, that's the chef of Redd.
me:  that was a joke.
al:  you don't have a very good sense of humor.
me:  you're right, it's my fault.

me:  well, it's more expensive than if you ate in the cafeteria.
eddie:  yeah.
:  are you guys talking about strippers?
-on the moss room

"she looked as happy as if she was at mickey grove park."
-mongoose, on mickey grove park.  whatever the hell that is.

"merrell, i'm ready for monkey sex.  i'll bring the poop and bananas."
-corey, on making love.

"he could probably kill me with string and sunny delight bottles."
-corey, who is afraid of mongoose.

the food runner shows me her nails--they're all different colors.
me:  why?
runner:  why not?
me: um, because they don't match.

:  j-lo, fire burger medi-
j-lo:  fry time.
-on cooking burgers very, very quickly.

me:  amy, if I fall, I want you to have my undershirts.
amy:  don't fall.
corey:  if you fall, the only thing that's gonna catch you is a hot pot of stock.
-on changing light bulbs when you have very high cielings.

"looks like corey's balls."
-merrell, who didn't like my drawing of the lamb shank.

corey:  as long as it doesn't come out a crack baby, it's all good.
rachel:  well, you've got a 50/50 chance.
-on corey being a dad.

"i'm pretty good looking."
-merrell, on humility

me:  i'll fill a 22qt, and you can dump it on her head.
al:  a 4qt is fine.
-on wearing a lot of perfume

"any girl that gives you her number written in eyeliner is probably not a keeper."
-ponder, who gives good advice.

merrell:  is today the 14th or 15th?
me:  it's the 16th.
merrell:  oh.
-on making labels.

from top:  hi there, fernet, four barrell, adios, nopalito kitchen, dinner, like really rare, chickens by ponder, lamb shank, paul is messy, nopalito popsicles, herbs, amy from above, dinner #2, cooking, pre service, bellies, salt cod, duck prosciutto, corey's baby, spring rolls, broc o bama, kozy