Friday, September 21, 2007

The rants and raves of my job.

I have to leave for work in an hour and a half, so naturally, that's what's on my mind. It's Saturday, so I've already got the beginnings of a prep list and some minor concerns running through my head, as well as the nervous anticipation of a busy night. And if you could excuse my disjointed ramblings...well, if you all know me well enough, you've probably come to expect this, because you also know that 1. This is truly how I think - occasionally having problems spitting out a coherent thought - "it makes sense in my head!" is one of my oft-used phrases (see previous post?), usually because of 2. the quarter-full, lukewarm (yes, I'm an optimist) venti Starbucks-brand liquid crack sitting in front of me. But everyone has a vice, and I guess I should consider myself lucky that mine are few and far between.

Anyways. Yesterday was one of those days where I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to play with food for a living (and the knives and fire are just an added bonus). I really do honestly love my job, despite the stress, despite the mosaic of burns cascading down my arms (which make strangers think that I've got a nice-sized heroin addiction to go with my rail-thin stature), despite the you-work-when-everyone-else-plays scheduling. After spending nearly five years knowing most of the answers on the savory side of the line, I almost feel like a small-scale Sherlock Holmes (sans the AWESOME hat) or Dr. House (sans the Vicodin addiction - which makes three drug references in the last two paragraphs - see if you can find them all, kids!) - with only six months of pastry under my belt, in the words of Operation Ivy, "all I know is that I don't know nothin'." However, I'm slowly but surely starting to figure things out.

Pastry cooks are better scientists than savory cooks. Why didn't my creme brulee set right? (The base needs more egg yolks.) This tuile batter got screwed up. (It got too hot, causing the butter to separate.) What purpose does this glucose, dextrose, sorbet stabilizer, and trimoline serve? (I'm not even going to get into that.) It's like learning a new language. Once you understand how one is structured, and the basic rules and laws that govern each, a new world opens up, and you finally begin to find solutions for those problems that have vexed you for so long.

Ah, externs. Let's talk about externs for a minute. For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, an extern is what the rest of the world calls an "intern." (I don't understand why the hospitality industry chooses to screw with the prefix, either. Like a lot of things in this business, that's just the way it is.) An extern comes into a restaurant or hotel, sent by their culinary school, to spend a few months working in a kitchen for both college credit and experience (of which they generally have none). Externs generally get the low-man-on-the-line jobs - why should a restaurant spend the time and money to thoroughly train someone who's going to be gone in three months? But despite their lack of experience, a lot of externs are known to have a false sense of bravado and confidence. They just spent $25,000 on what really amounts to no more than a crash course in classical cooking, but think they're worth more than they are and think they know more than they do. In their world, cooking is strictly divided into "culinary" (savory) and "baking." The culinary students are the tough guys. They play with knives, they play with fire, they endure 120 degree heat for hours at a time while staying focused through a busy five or six hour service. The pastry students are the delicate ones. They make cookies, play with chocolate, and don't have to deal with the stress or heat of a savory kitchen. Pastry's referred to by the macho savory side as "dairy aisle." It's a ridiculous stereotype, especially since a lot of savory cooks don't have the patience to attempt to understand the logic that goes behind a good dessert. I can't tell you how many times I've suggested to a fellow cook that they get into pastry for a little while, only to hear "Oh, no, I don't have the patience for that," "I don't have that gentle of a touch," or worse, simply a sneer and an eyeroll.

So where were we? Externs. Right. So we've had a bunch of them in lately. It's hard to talk to them when they say "'re the pastry cook?" with an almost imperceptible smirk. You can almost see the words "dairy aisle...dairy aisle..." running through their heads. I usually shoot back with "Yup. I've worked every station up in the restaurant and decided I wanted to learn pastry, so here I am. It's really going to come in handy when I want to open a restaurant someday." The smirk fades, and I get a little respect. But after everything I've just said, isn't it crazy that I need to use my previous experience on the line to get it? We can use my roommate as a perfect example. She comes into work every day and works hard. That girl is smart as a whip and knows her stuff to a T. She's always the one I go to for answers because I trust her advice and know that she won't make something up if she doesn't have the answer. But she gets it even worse than I do, because she's a she (it's a fact, women make up the majority of pastry cooks), because she came into the restaurant as a pastry cook (at least there are a few cooks in the restaurant who respect me a bit for my work on the line), and because she's just so good at her job. But little do they know that she's got a great palate, a great work ethic, and could run circles around pretty much anyone on that line thanks to her experience with some great restaurants and chefs in Chicago. It's an unfortunate situation, but what do you do? Take the high road and just know that you're better? Or do as I (maybe shouldn't) do and take the opportunity to wipe a smirk of some brat's face?

Phew. A couple more food related things before I finish up for the afternoon. First, please take a look at the new Food and Farm Bill and do what you can to support it. (Information and links can be found here). This is really important, everyone. As it stands, quickly-spreading factory slaughterhouses are destroying the way we should be eating, and cumbersome bureaucratic idiocy is NOT helping the situation (as evidenced by Joel Salatin - read the article here ). Finally, a video featuring Tony Maws of Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, Massachusetts (whose restaurant I was lucky enough to visit last fall), giving a tour of the kitchen and discussing the importance of sustainable agriculture and local farms, not only for the environmental sense it makes, but for our palates as well. That video can be found here .

Have a great day, everyone. I know I will.

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