Walkin’ On The Line: A Rookie’s First Night on a Restaurant Line

When I started on this whole chef apprentice’s journey, I knew sooner or later the whole unionized job environment was going to have to end. So I went and got a job at real, honest to goodness restaurant.

While it’s true that while working at Co-op, I did learn a fair bit of the basics. However, it was about a week into classes at Chef School that I knew there was so much that I needed to learn, and there was no way I could ever hope to learn them in a kitchen that didn’t even have a stove top. So with much encouragement from more experienced colleagues and the well wishes of my now former co-workers, I set off to find a job in a restaurant kitchen.

Now you’re probably wondering, “What the fuck are you thinking?!” 

Yes, I know. The world of restaurant cooking is for the young twentysomething…yadda yadda yadda, crazy shit, blah blah blah. Trust me, I’ve heard the stories (no, I didn’t bother reading Bourdain’s book). And when I set out to be a chef, I mentally prepared myself for the crap that was to come. But where was I to find this opening to get into a restaurant?

Lucky for me, I have made some connections. While some turned out empty, one of my mentors got me into the door at a recently opened Spanish tapas restaurant in town, where an old co-worker of his was now one of the sous chefs.

I had the standard interview with the executive chef, and less than 48 hours after finishing writing the first year final exam I would be starting my new job. I still don’t know how that connection did it, but well, it somehow miraculously happened. Maybe it’s my sparkling personality and fiery passion that won the chef over? Or rather I had worked at the same market as one of the sous chefs who has seen me in action? I’d like to think it’s a combination of both. Whatever it is, I got in.

Anyway, the night before I was due to start, I sat down for a couple beers with said mentor. He’s someone whom I’ve grown to deeply respect in the short time I’ve known him, and he has helped me immensely in my career so far (plus he’s bailed me out a few times during school when I contemplated throwing my hands in the air!) — plus he was one if the biggest proponents of me getting out there into the big wide world.

“Look,” he told me, as he tool a swig of his beer. “You got to be ready for anything…heck, for all you know they could start you on dish (pit).”

I kinda had a feeling that it could be a distinct possibility, knowing that I would be the lowest on the proverbial totem pole. Most of my classmates did mention they started there when they first worked in professional kitchens. I hoped that it wouldn’t be the case, but girded myself for the possibility anyway.

“Do whatever you can, help out whenever you can, and wherever you can,” He continued, “You’ve got some hard people to impress.”

I nodded, and took a drink. I was more worried about letting myself down by making a stupid, stupid mistake and also getting yelled at on my first night by one of the chefs. That would suck royally, and probably make me even more nervous. No one wants to get fired on the first night, right?

That night, I slept intermittently. Was I really ready for this jump into the world of restaurant cooking? And why on Earth would I choose a Saturday night as my first night?

The worry stayed with me, all the way up until I walked into the restaurant. Before that, I paced around nervously at a rooftop park nearby for a good two hours, while my friends tried their best remotely to keep me from losing my shit.

After a short wait the sous chef came out to greet me, happy to see a familiar face. Well, at least he’s happy to see me.

We went through the motions, and I got to meet most everyone that I’d be working with. I had deliberately gone in a little earlier, so the grand tour per se was a little more leisurely paced. But when you’re nervous, it kinda felt like forever. At the end, I was given my uniform shirt, and was told to change into it immediately before heading to the kitchen. I was already wearing a buff to cover my hair, and brought my own apron along thinking it would bring me a little luck (if not a little style!) — so the change was a snap. I took my trusty knife roll with me downstairs, and headed into the flourescent glow of my destiny.

Immediately, I was paired up with my station partner for the evening. I would be assigned to garde manger (the fancy way of saying “cold kitchen”). That meant plating up salads as well as desserts, but before that could happen we needed to make sure our station was ready to go before the dinner rush.

The first task I was given was to slice some bread for crostini. Sounds simple, right? Try doing it with a slicer that looked older than I was…and it was on a push cart. I won’t bore you with the blow by blow commentary, but let’s just say it caused a bit of a mess, and a few pieces of bread that didn’t end up being crostinis plus a massive amount of crumbs that fell to the floor. And unbeknownest to me, all while I was having a right fight with said slicer, the executive chef was looking at me.

He didn’t have a nice look to his face, so I stopped and tidied up before continuing on, hoping to avoid his steely gaze that seemed to pierce through my soul even deeper than Aprile and Leung combined.

Bullet: dodged. Sort of.

The rest of prep after the bread slicer went relatively smoothly, as my tag team partner and I walked through the remainder of the list. There were a few early tickets, the sound of the buzzing printer almost melodious (it would become background noise throughout the night), but for the first few hours it was a brisk pace.

It was about 6:30pm that the first rush finally began, and my partner duly showed me each dish as they came through. Slowly, and with a little trepidation I managed to get a plate or two done by myself to acclimatize. So far so good, I thought to myself.

And then, it happened. 7pm hit, and the tidal wave arrived. By that time I was feeling a little less stressed, but still nervous. While earlier tickets coming off the printer didn’t always have cold dishes, all of a sudden tickets were coming in hard and fast, with salads, desserts, side salads and appetizers spread across. In retrospect I think it was because many of the early seated diners were finishing their meals, while the later seatings were just starting theirs. On top of this, we were also plating canapés for a party. This convergence caused a massive tsunami that threatened to swallow the rookie and his tag team partner.

We were warned at the beginning of the service that we could potentially be caught under, and my worst fear was unfolding in front of my eyes. Scenes of myself fucking up and getting yelled at and told to leave flashed in front of my eyes, as one of the chefs jumped in to help us clear the tickets. But even as we worked like mad to get the salads and desserts out, the tickets still kept on going, the buzzing of the printer melding with the ticking clock, threatening to pull me asunder.

But then, a voice came through in my head.

This is your moment, Johnny. I told myself. Shut up, keep your head down and do as you’re told, and bang those dishes out like the fucking champion you are.

Like a Red Bull for the mind, something just clicked in my mind and all of a sudden all I heard was the tickets being called out, and like magic my hands just went to the dishes and banged out the dishes. It may have taken a little longer (and sad to say a few plates did come back), but by around 9:30pm we were back under control. The final canapés went out as the dessert orders were still coming in, but by that time we were on a roll.

By 10pm, I finally breathed for the first time in hours. The sous chef came by, and asked how I was doing. By that time I was breathless, and could barely eke a word out. I was working on adrenaline fumes by that time too, so likely words would have made no sense even if I had opened my mouth.

“So, you survived a Saturday night. Well done.” He smiled, as the other cooks nodded in agreement. I had done it. I had survived the first night of many, many more.

As we talked, one of the waitresses called me over. Puzzled, I walked over. She told me two people in the dining room were looking for me, of all people. Not any of the chefs, but me.

Who on Earth could it be? Surely it couldn’t be my folks, or anyone from my class, or any of my fellow food bloggers or even my mentor. So who?

As the waitress led me out, I was surprised by the sight of my friends James and Matt, who had seen my two nervewracked Facebook statuses before I went in, and decided to check out the restaurant (and probably to see if I was okay, most likely!) I was blown away, and thanked them for coming in…again, adrenaline fumes makes tongues tied. If I had let instinct taken over, I probanly would have bawled a little with joy. But I didn’t and I think they understood that I was a bit worse for wear to say the least.

But knowing I couldn’t step away too long, I excused myself, and went back to bang out the rest of the tickets for the evening while cleaning up the station in preparation for shut down, and filling up the mise en place for the crew coming in after us. After all, ’tis better to leave a station filled with mise than to leave it empty for the next guy, and you don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t refill the station with prep!

While I was doing that, I remembered my mentor’s advice: help out anyone who needed a hand, from dishes to prep and a few other places in between.

So being a good cook, I helped the swamped guy in dish put away plates, while running around making sure everything was neat and tidy. Being the new guy, I was keen to make that good first impression, and by and large, I think I did okay there. At least no one yelled at me. Not tonight, anyway.

Once our station was clear, I finished a last sweep of the station, and then bid te rest of the kitchen staff a good evening. Finally, at around 11:35pm I stepped out of the restaurant, and into the chilly night air.

As I crossed the street, I took a deep breath, and allowed myself a small smile. Some of the self-doubt and nerves escaped into the night as I exhaled, lifting a metaphorical weight off my mind.

I had survived the first night on a restaurant line. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest night but I survived it nevertheless. But then I was quick to remind myself; this was just night one, there is still a hell of a long road ahead on this path to greatness. But at least, for the first time in a while, I felt like I was on the right path.

So, night one is in the books — what’s next?

Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 2

When we last left off from the story, our hero had been goaded into a culinary battle. The antagonist himself has chosen to forgo the challenge, leaving our hero to find a weapon to defend himself against the wild.

After much work, the hero has found his sword in ramen — something familiar but also challenging to execute. How will he stack up when the chips are down and the clock is ticking? 

 

The morning was bitterly cold when I arrived at school on the morning of the competition. I had gotten the call to compete the day before, and after having practiced my dish with Chef Volke for two days and getting a good night’s sleep I was feeling rather good.

Stepping off the train, I ran the execution procedure of the plate over and over in my head, while chef’s advice rang through my head. It was nervewracking in a way, but also reassuring as well. The feeling was in stark contrast to the final moments before I hit the MasterChef Canada “fight club” kitchen. I was a ball of nerves going in, the pressure only intensifying its vice-like grip as time ticked down, coming to a head as I met the judges.

I got changed into my uniform, and headed upstairs into the kitchen. Some of the other competitors were already there, some with their partners and families. I was alone. Alone as the only amongst the other competitors who were from the professional cooking program, and alone in an unfamiliar kitchen that bears no resemblance to the kitchen we usually worked out of.

To compound the worries I saw two of the judging panel, and one of them was someone I was told to be extremely wary of, especially since I was making ramen.

Chef Kat Mori. The man the sensei had warned would be the most critical about the Japanese noodle. There he stood, ready to judge. Somehow my instincts told me this would happen — and there he was.

Shit, I thought to myself, I’d better not screw up. 

Once all the contestants arrived, the debriefing was given. Two hours, one dish featuring chicken with three vegetables and a starch along with a sauce. On top of this, we would not only be judged on the presentation and taste of our dish, but also on our work in the kitchen, including cleanliness and following kitchen protocol (a special judge was brought in just to evaluate that aspect alone) — And in the case of a tie, overall impression would decide the winner. It was a tall order, not only to execute a dish but also to be able to stay on-game in the kitchen.

We were allowed 30 minutes after the debrief to gather our ingredients, and prepare all the tools we needed. I had brought most of the ingredients I would need, such as the katsuobushi, kombu, bok choy and enoki mushrooms — but other vegetables I had left a little to chance, hoping that it would be in the fridges. And therein lay my first major mistake.

In my practice round, I had used blanched snap peas (mange-tout) tossed in red Hawaiian sea salt as one of my vegetables. I searched in vain in the fridges for those peas to no avail…and immediately I panicked. One of my three vegetables would not be possible as it wasn’t available. What was to do?

Lucky for me, during my search I had located some fresh shiitake mushrooms. Then, I remembered that the ramen sensei makes a mirin-and-soy soaked shiitake mushroom that went well with many of the noodle dishes he served. However, in a pinch I had to rapidly deduce the production method — it would be a gamble I had to take.

Once the clock struck 9AM, the cooking started. Many of the other competitors began by seasoning their chicken or preparing their vegetables, and meanwhile I was beginning the process of rolling out ramen dough with semolina. Mix the kansui powder with water, add it to the semolina. Knead, rest, knead and then rest before rolling on a pasta rolling machine that a fellow food blogger had loaned me after I had forgotten to mention to Chef Volke I needed to loan his. That right there could have easily been a fatal mistake — but somehow, Misty came to the rescue after I posted an SOS on Facebook.

As the dough rested, I set out to begin making the double soup: a clarified chicken stock paired with a fragrant umami-loaded dashi. I had messed up on the chicken stock clarification on my first attempt at rafting (egg whites mixed with mirepoix and other herbs and spices) during a practice run, so I aas determimed not to do it again — there were no room for errors. I soaked the kombu, and once it was thoroughly soaked turned up the heat and added the katsobushi to the heating stock. The soups bubbled away, as I began to try to recreate the mirin mushrooms.

Slicing a few mushrooms, I soaked them in a soy-mirin mixture with some seasonings and let it boil. Thinking it was safe to walk away to knead my noodle dough for a second time, I encountered Mori-sensei as I kneaded the dough.

“What are you making?” He asked.

“I’m making ramen with roasted chicken and double soup,” I responded, rather matter of factly.

I didn’t get a good look of his face, but judging from the tone I could hear it piqued his curiousity. Here was a Chinese kid trying to make ramen from start to finish in two hours. Surely he must have thought it impossible?

With the dough finished its second knead, I returned to the mushrooms…the heat was on high, and it was burnt. I cursed my luck, and continued on with trying the mushrooms again. I started the stove at a medium heat, and let the new batch cook while I prepared my other vegetables: blanched broccoli, enoki mushrooms, grilled bok choy and a red pepper garnish.

I had left a pot of water boiling for just such a task, but when I returned to it, I found a pan of creamy peas in the place where I had left my pot of boiling water. This would be a common sight for the next hour, as the contestants tried to get their dishes done — it may have been understandable, but annoying nevertheless.

With an hour to go, I was feeling good. Most of the vegetables were complete, the mushrooms were ready and the chicken had been seasoned. The dough by that time had been resting for about half an hour — my worst fears about the noodle dough not setting up had been unfounded; I would be able to calmly saunter over the finish line, with all my elements on the plate ready to be judged.

And that is when reality hit me like a million ton of bricks.

I set up Misty’s pasta roller, and took out the dough from the fridge. It was malleable, so I took it out and sliced it into portions for rolling.

And then, as I flattened the first piece and put it into the machine, it began to crumble.

I panicked, and grabbed some more water to hydrate the dough. Once it was wet enough, I rolled again. Still too dry, but at least it was coming out in a single sheet. I continued rolling four portions out, struggling slightly at the crumbliness of the dough as I wasted time adding more water to each piece, and kneading it. When the noodles were rolled, I sliced them into thin strips, tossed them in flour and let them sit for last minute cooking.

Then, it was time for the chicken. My butchery tutor had gone over chicken cookery with me the one time we had together, and it was time for me to not let them down.

I had seasoned the chicken not just with some salt and pepper, but also some sumac and grains of paradise for colour and flavour. I placed the chicken breasts onto the hot pan, and seared them. I brushed on a little bit of a glaze, flipped over the breasts, and put them into the oven to finish. That technically SHOULD leave enough time with about 15 minutes to go to cook to perfection….right?

Again, that would be a resounding no.

The oven, which SAID was set to 350°F, barely cooked my chicken to 135°F — forcing me to switch to a Rationale oven and forgoing the grilled glazed bok choy.

A few minutes later, with a dearth of time, I pulled the chicken out of the oven. I tempted it, clear juices leaking out as I did.

I sliced it open, and gulped loudly.

It was white. Perfectly cooked, moist and juicy. Last time I was in this situation, Claudio Aprile and I both saw pink. This time, I was confident he would have been thrilled to dig in.

However much I wanted to celebrate though, I had no time. The chicken was finished, but leaving me with precious little time to plate before the deadline. I had to cook my ramen, too…something that proved to be another time-eater when I found my water had been moved aside by another contestant. Ah, the joys of sharing stoves — a luxury that I fortunately didn’t have to endure in Toronto.

But somehow, I got it done. The plates were assembled albeit in the most haphazard of ways, and sent to the judges for evaluation.

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Here it is…the plate!

 

I cursed myself under my breath for the messy plating, and joined the rest of the contestants in cleaning our ustations as we sweated out the results. The judges were of high calibre; including Chef Mike Dekker and Chef Kyle Groves. My sensei and I had speculated that former Gold Medal Plates winner Chef Hayato Okamitsu would be amongst them — lucky for me, that wasn’t the case.

It was at this time my best friend in the whole wide world, Christina, arrived with her mom. Her mom was a graduate of SAIT’s culinary program, and was retreading old stomping grounds, and my friend was along for the ride. I was relieved to see friendly faces after having been alone for most of the competition, and certainle helped break a little of the tension building inside of me.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the results came in.

…and the winner was not me.

Another plate was the clear winner, although my plate generated a lot of buzz amongst the judges. Many stood in awe that fresh, cooked-to-order Japanese-style ramen could be pumped out within 120 minutes. In fact, five days later the chefs are still relaying to my instructor how incredulous they are.

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The winner’s plate (Photo courtesy Christina Ho)

 

Some enjoyed the orange-hoisin glazed chicken, while others enjoyed the stock. Some found the stock too weak while others such as Chef Mori found the stock over-rendered (since I had left the katsuobushi boiling, instead of steeping it) — others like Chef Dekker found the wing bone part of the chicken breast awkward to eat, but most, including Chef Groves (whom I didn’t recognize at first) found the plate a bit of a mess, a result of the lack of time left to artistically craft the plate.

Bur none complained of raw or undercooked chicken.

I celebrated that fact, which exorcised a massive ghost from my past. While this victory over a personal demon wasn’t captured by television cameras for viewing by a national audience, it does not diminish the significance of what that did for my psyche! The undercooked chicken was a massive burden on my mind, but in a stunning moment, I have rectified it.

So while I didn’t walk away a winner, I’ve still won a massive victory over the past, and proved to myself that I could compete again.

Watch out, Chopped Canada — I’m coming for you!

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Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 1

It’s been a pretty hectic these past couple of days (my first weekend at Crossroads with Jay and Eats of Asia’s new location being one of the big highlights) and things are about to get even busier these final three weeks of chef school, as our class enters the longest and possibly the most deceptively challenging module: hot foods. Stocks, soups and classic dishes…it’s all here.

But you’re probably not here to hear about my weekend, right?

Oh, you are? Oh yeah…Saturday. For the first time in a year since MasterChef, I actually entered a cooking competition. The challenge? One chicken breast dish, two servings, two hours. Serve it with a starch and three vegetables. Simple task for someone who has served steak and fresh pickled kimchi to a four-Michelin star chef within 65 minutes, right?

Turns out it’s not as simple as it sounds.

As you may recall, a bit of pride goaded me into entering the contest, dubbed the Cast Iron Chef Challenge. It was a way for SAIT to show off its professional cooking program during its winter Open House, which is one of the best in this country. (No, I’m not saying it glibly!)

In the days leading up to the challenge (even before they had given me the call to compete), I pondered what I would make. I scoured my notebooks trying to find an inspiration, all while the ghosts of my past failure with chicken still haunted my mind. But it was during a weekend practice session after my week of butchery classes, that I finally came up with a recipe for the chicken dish, almost like a bolt from the blue. My butchery tutor (he knows who he is) was the first person to taste it, and from his words of encouragement I knew I had hit upon a winner, and the competition provided a platform for it! How fortunate is that?

But the chicken was only one part of the story; there needed to be a starch and three vegetables to go with it. My mind raced again and again, until one night, it struck me.

I would attempt to make fresh ramen from scratch in two hours, and serve an upscale bowl that could feel like home in the high towers of Tokyo’s Roppongi, but could also be appreciated by the salaryman taking a late night snack on Ramen Street in Chiyoda, or a tourist craving an authentic ramen meal in Jimbocho. Lucky for me, I knew someone who makes ramen from scratch and sells it to critical acclaim — so I had a lead. Of course I did my own research, but nothing really spoke to me.

“Why don’t you try to use Lucky Peach’s recipe?” My ramen sensei said.

Of course — Lucky Peach. While I had considered using Ivan Orkin’s rye flour recipe, I felt that the colour of the noodle needed to play its part in the overall presentation — and for that, I needed those noodles to be bright but not unnaturally coloured that you could see it in the dark.

I kept researching, as the days to the competition drew closer. No call came, and both me and Chef Volke got a little nervous. Was I going to get picked?

But undaunted, I kept pressing on. I looked through more recipes, with each calling for different types of flour, and even one that called for vital wheat gluten. Some needed kansui, others needed kansui powder, and some with none at all. Lucky for me though, I had a way to test out my theories on the Thursday before, as it would be pasta day, and we would be making our own pastas. Some of my classmates made ravioli, another made pirogis, but one would attempt to make ramen.

Some classmates were intrigued. Ramen? Isn’t that the stuff that comes in the packs No, I reassured them. This was going to be the good stuff.

The day before, I baked off some baking soda to make kansui powder. Harold McGee, the food writer who popularized the concept, called for it to be dried by a third. Duly doing so, I had kansui powder at the ready, and with vigour charged headfirst into the noodle battle.

And then, I stopped. What flour was I going to use?

I looked at the all-purpose flour, and then eyed the semolina next to it. As I gazed upon its golden beauty, it was as if a lightbulb came on in my mind.

Almost involuntarily, I picked up a container and measured out some semolina. I dissolved some of the kansui into the water, and mixed it into the flour. I kneaded it with all my might, and following the Lucky Peach method, let it rest for a few minutes before sparring with it again. After the second knead, the dough took a time out in the fridge to settle, while I experimented on the other elements of the prospective dish. (Later I would discover McGee had also used semolina…thanks, Harold!)

When all the other parts were done, I came back and checked on the dough. It was firm but not impossibly so. I cut it into portions, flattened a piece, and ran it through the pasta machine.

What came out next is beyond words — a golden sheet of pasta came forth. I rolled the dough a few more times, each time getting it thinner. The magic of fresh ramen was unfolding in front of my eyes!

But as I was being dazzled, I didn’t see what was coming. I rolled the dough to cut it into thin strips. They looked a bit rough on the first go, but hey…practice makes perfect. I popped the first batch of noodles into a pot of boiling water, getting it to the required al dente.

I popped a noodle in my mouth, and all of a sudden there was a party in there!

…and then, it tasted like someone threw up.

Suddenly, a taste of bitterness came through, and while none of my colleagues could taste it, it got to me. I left the class wondering what happened — I had followed the recipe, and it looked fine. Just the taste.

I spoke to the ramen sensei again, and he figured it out. I can’t tell you what it was (trade secret, I guess) — but when the next day came, I was ready for another round of testing. By that time it was the day before, and I had only one day to do a trial run of the entire dish (with Chef’s blessing of course.)

I ran through the elements, closely keeping my eye on that clock. It didn’t tick loudly, but there was a ticking sound in my mind driving me on. The noodles had to be hurried along, and with great resolve I pounded out the dough and anxiously set it down to chill.

But this time, with a few adjustments — there was no bitterness. The dough was a bit drier (I had cut back on the amount of water) and came out crumbly at times in the roller, but it still worked. The noodles were al dente, and came out beautifully yellow, while sitting in a serene pool of double soup along with the roasted chicken and various vegetables.

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Is this a winner?

The class dug in, and my classmates raved. The noodles were gone within a few minutes, and I knew I had a winner on my hands. But would I be able to come out on top when the heat is on?

I’ll leave that to Part 2…tomorrow!

MasterChef Canada S2E1: A New Season Begins!

It came a week early, but a new season of MasterChef Canada has arrived.

I don’t think I’ve ever wished for a Super Bowl game to end this much before, but when the final whistle went CTV brought us a frenetic-paced episode, packed with auditions from a new group of home cooks eager to make their mark and ready to fight for their place in Canadian culinary stardom, plus $100,000 and a shiny trophy to demarcate their victory.

Because of the breakneck pace of the episode, many of the auditions were very much like last season; lots of people were shown in blink-and-you-missed-it moments. For those who were able to secure one of the coveted white MasterChef aprons, we will see them again. For those who did not, I always say this: never stop cooking with love and passion, and never give up on your dreams!

From my count, 11 aprons were given out — I wasn’t able to pinpoint one of the home cooks who got one, but I’m sure we will see her again in the near future. Below, I’ve evaluated most of the auditions…I try to be nice, but there are some who just need a good wake up call.

So…who is looking suave in white, and who is drowning their sorrows at the Heartbreak Hotel bar?

 

THE APRON WINNERS

Sabrina: She missed her only sister’s wedding to cook a traditional Italian medaglioni (stuffed pasta) dish for the judges, which earned the ire of her family in the process. I know the feeling; and just by the look of the simple yet elegantly put together plate, I knew she made the right gamble, securing Claudio Aprile and Michael Bonacini’s vote to win a white apron.

Jon: Normally as a Stampeders fan I would be playing the world’s smallest violin for some BC Lions player, but this guy has some moxie, tearing a page from mine and Bubba’s book with a steak-and-perogy dish. He ran into trouble with what looked to be very rare steak, which Alvin Leung found to be tough. The plate looked fine, and Jon moved on in a 2-1 decision.

Andrew and Debra: They were just briefly shown, Andrew with his deconstructed Halifax donair and Debra and her beautifully seared scallops. Both won aprons, so we’ll be seeing them cook again.

Christopher: Christopher is one of the 8 home cooks I had originally pegged as one to watch, and he has repaid my faith in spades. The tart looked a little shaky on the plate but the bright golden colours looked amazing enough for me to try to eat the screen (I didn’t, of course…screens do not taste great and I don’t have Taste-O-Vision. My original statement on him stands — my Canto homie is still one to watch!

Tammy: This single mother of SIX (yes, SIX) arguably delivered the plate of the night; a simply plated, straightforward plate of elk carpaccio. A few greens on the rare meat, a few drizzles of sauce, and there you have it: the season’s FIRST unanimous decision, and probably the biggest tear jerker of the night. She was not on my radar before, but she definitely made her presence known!

Michael: Very reminicent of Dale from last season, his plate stood as a counterpoint to Debra’s scallops (centred and looks full); it was far too artsy (my chef instructor would have had a field day with him about it being overworked), way too much empty space on the plate (at least Dale used the whole plate) and as Aprile said on the flavour, it had “no boom.” — but somehow he got through on Bonacini and Leung’s vote.

Nathan: Was the only one out of three “comfort food” makers to make it out with an apron, his April Bloomfield-inspired fish and chips won over the judges and made me want a whole plate of that stuff. Could be a sleeper pick.

Jennifer: A self-professed “chatter box”, her blueberry pie looked a bit rough but the flavours won over the judges. However, she committed a cardinal MasterChef sin: she talked over BOTH Leung and Aprile. If she is truly serious about going professional and possibly working in a restaurant kitchen, she will need to learn how to shut up. The first and last words out of your mouth should be a hearty “YES, CHEF!” — and you NEVER talk over him/her!

David: The final home cook to win an apron, he was forced to drop out of school at Grade 10 to work in the concrete business. He kind of reminds me of Danny, a battler who is now finally getting his chance to shine. It certainly helped he put together an amazing looking dish of miso sablefish that wowed the judges, but his kids ARE SO ADORABLE!

Kristen: She’s the one whom we just got a glimpse of — a shame, as she is Newfoundland’s FIRST White Apron Club entrant. What Shane, Billie-Jo and Kristal could not do, she’s done it! NL is on the board!

 

THE EMPTY HANDERS

Kristal: This Gander, NL home cook certainly does not lack confidence; she proudly proclaims to the judges that her daughter calls her “the best cooker in the world”. News flash — if you did not remember Leung bellowing to us that “AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER!” at the beginning of season 1, you are just asking for trouble. Plus, when adding sugar or any seasoning, ADD IT GRADUALLY. Once it’s in, you can’t pull it back out. Her plate did look okay, but ultimately, the amateurish performance was too much for Bonacini and Leung who sent her home, putting Newfoundland & Labrador at 1/4 over two seasons with one more Newf next week.

Clarissa and Shane: Guys, it’s cool you want to show off. But a) raw shrimp paste in a dish is a TERRIBLE IDEA, and b) if a judge asks you something about your technique, you better have an answer!

Carmen: You get one shot with the judges, and their rule is cook first, talk (and hug) later! Plus, as much as I try, I can’t see lobster and blue cheese being a good match. Sorry, mamacita.

Mishie: Oh my goodness, no matter how bad your dish turns out, saying you want to learn from someone by opening their heads and eating their brains is not a good idea But hey, take solace you made Leung laugh, which is incredibly rare.

Lisa: Both Mylene and Andrew had a whale of a time last year with soup, and looks like the MasterChef Canada soup curse has struck again, with Lisa serving a soup that was too salty. I do like the confidence though — if you were afraid of somene in the Top 49, why even stay?

Kenya: The only member of Team Alberta seen tonight. The Edmontonian bragged a lot about her travels, and then got her bubble burst by Leung who derided her for serving chicken and waffles when she had been all around the world. The chicken was far too dark, and the waffle looked mediocre at best, failing to entice the judges. I’d say something about that plate being the epitome of Edmonton cuisine, but…I’ll hold back.

 

So those are the home cooks we saw this week. But as an added bonus, each week I will name up to three Stars and three Goats. Who made it this week?

My Third Star this week is Christopher; he made an excellent plate, and made all of his Canto bretheren across this country proud.

Second Star goes to Nathan, who while getting very limited screen time showed off an amazing plate of fish and chips that looked great, and probably tastes amazing.

And my First Star of the week has to go to Tammy, for obvious reasons.

Now, to our Goats…

The Third Goat of the week goes to Jennifer; if she wants to last, she must learn to tone down the chatter, as it will end up putting a target on her back.

Second Goat goes to Kenya; way to represent our great province with a disappointing dish.

Lastly, my TOP GOAT of this week goes to a surprise candidate: Kristal. Using your child to judge of food is NOT a good idea, especially when the other judge is a seven Michelin star chef. S/he may think you’re a great cook…but when you get on MasterChef Canada, amateur hour is over.

 

That’s it for this week — next week, we will see the remaining hopefuls visit the judges, followed by the dreaded stress test to create the Top 16. Myself, Marida, Narida, Jason, Dora and Billie-Jo will all be live tweeting and chatting with home cooks (and of course, all of you out there) during the show next Sunday (personnel and times vary from time zone).

I will also be tweeting from Nikita’s viewing party. So look out for that. And now, time for me to catch a few winks before school tomorrow!

Chef School, Week 4: Bad Moon Rising On The Midpoint

Well folks, I’ve survived four weeks of school. Four more to go!

And yes, I am still super nervous about the ever-ominous axe of failure that hangs over my head. but at least I’m starting to get into a groove now that the worst of the worst (math, bakeshop and surprisingly, butchershop) is over. We’ve entered into the Cold Foods segment, which for me allows me to draw from the experiences I’ve gained so far, as opposed to going into it completely blind — a massive relief!

Plus, for the first time, I feel like I’m learning amazing new things to apply to my cooking, and getting inspired at the same time. The sheer fact that I’ve not had to constantly question my own worth as a chef and feeling deflated about it, really eases a lot of the cramping on my creative outlets. Heck, I’ve been inspired enough to put my hat into the ring for a cooking competition at achool. But more on that later.

Meanwhile, for those of you who don’t know, MasterChef Canada season 2 has had its season premiere bumped up a week to tomorrow right after the Super Bowl on CTV. Call it perfect timing or whatever you like, but I got a neat little writeup in the SAIT school paper The Weal this week. Originally I had planned on keeping my origins a secret (save for one classmate whom I trusted enough after week 1) lest some of my classmates would look down upon me — that ruse certain didn’t last long, as one of my work colleages at Co-op tipped off one of her friends at the Weal about my origins. Call it my diva instinct, but how does one turn down an interview request? Ya don’t.

So anyway, the cat is out of the bag. I had a bad hunch somehow there would be trouble, and shortly after the copies of the paper hit stands across the campus, it found me.

There are a few classmates of mine who work for a certain hotel chain (you know the one) that seemed to have a superiority complex over the entire class, and for the sake of this story I’ll call him Emile. Emile has had a lot of experience in the food business, and has even earned a certification from another province. Since said certification isn’t recognized here in Alberta, he is forced to do the Red Seal course. This seems to annoy him greatly, and it shows in his attitudes to his fellow classmates and even to the instructor as well. Now it’s great to be experienced, but being a dick about it constantly is just crossing that one bridge too far.

This attitude usually gets Emile into a lot of grief from the instructor, which spurs another one of his colleagues from the same hotel chain (we’ll name him Joe), and another guy from another restaurant (let’s call him Len) to do the same thing. Together, Emile, Joe and Len seem to cause endless amounts of headaches for Chef Volke, and that’s not including the massive headaches my inexperience cause him. Lucky for him though, Len has recently been forced to drop out and Joe seems to have settled down. Which leaves Emile, who still hasn’t seen the error of his ways. Most other chefs I’ve talked to chalk it up to the culture of the company that owns said hotel chain, and so far Emile has proven them right.

Which then brings us about a day after the cat came out of the bag, Chef announced that there would be a competition being held for the first year PCK and apprentice students during a SAIT Open House. Naturally, the competitive side of me was piqued by the possibilities, given that most other contests outside of school are usually reserved for folks under the age of 30. And as much as many a liquor store clerk mistake me for under 18, turning 32 in real years in March means I’m largely ineligible. (Although I do harbour dreams of going on Chopped Canada sometime in the near future, in the footsteps of Steve Glavicich, Paul McGreevey, Pierre Lamielle and Dilan Draper — but that’s another post for another time.)

So I thought to myself, why not? There’s not many options for competitions for me, so why not give it a shot? Screw the nerves, I was going to do it. And it looked as though a couple other classmates (Joe being one, plus another…let’s call him Tanner.)

My mind was made up, but what pushed me over the edge was the next little exchange with Emile.

“So, you’re going to cook that chicken fully, right?”

I laughed, covering a direct hit on a sore point in my psyche while ignoring him. It wasn’t worth getting into an argument with a dumbass. As a friend taught me to do, keep calm and find my centre. It’s not worth the energy, or the effort. Zen…

Chef handed out the entry forms, and I filled it in. Emile goes on the offensive again, looking for a killer blow.

“Make sure you cook that chicken!” He laughed derisively.

I can only be nice about being attacked by a dick for so long, and forgetting the whole zen/calm mantra, I snapped.

“Emile, the joke is only funny the first six thousand times. Fuck you.”

Lucky for me the instructor didn’t hear, but I was incensed. Insulted, humiliated. I had bared my own soul on that plate as an amateur, and I’ve largely moved on…mostly. Maybe it was the sniffling at where I work (a grocery store kitchen and a street food booth), or maybe it was the constant distraction he was causing, or maybe it was the derisive way he treated many of us — whatever it was, I boiled over.

After the lecture, I stormed out, form and toolbox in hand, and went to hand in the form. No dillying, no dallying. I put the form into the receptionist’s hands, and walked to the kitchen where our lab was. I’ve never been so incensed about something like this before, but I’ve never been so insulted in my life culinary-wise. You can joke about my failures on national TV only so many goddamed times before I lose my patience, and for someone like Emile to add his two cents just pushed me over the edge.

Actually, you know what? I hope he enters too if his ego actually lets him through. I’d love to see how he cooks that chicken (which yes, is the theme of the challenge) — will I get picked in the random draw for contestants? I certainly hope I will. Because I’ve been working on a dish just for it.

Pierre Trudeau once told a reporter in 1970, “just watch me.”

You should be. Not Trudeau. Me.

#ChefSchool Day 15: Defying Gravity

Today I step back a little from the every day workings of chef school at SAIT (the last three days were fine, thanks for asking — we took apart some ducks, pork ribs and some salmon and I did okay…and no, I’m not trying to be rude) and post a few more cerebral musings. I’m just in that kind of mood righ now,

Ever since broadcasting, I have been going to school with people who are much, much younger than I am. I recall a few of my fellow “newsies” being fresh out of high school, while only three others (a “techie” and a “creative”) being older than I was. I was filled with life experience, and by and large I felt out of place. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate broadcasting school — Quite the opposite, in fact, but I just felt like a fish out of water. It was a feeling that I never shook off.

But this time around, how the tables have turned. Many of my classmates are now much more experienced in the food business — and I am the young (can I even say that?) inexperienced buck. A few of them have worked in kitchens for years, starting out from the very bottom rungs of the restaurant brigade. Some even got their start in high school, where some schools these days have full-on kitchens that not only develop chefs for the future, but also provides food for the school as well (I do dream of getting my alma mater one of those one day, but that’s a whole another blog post.)

It used to be a massive problem, for me: in a sense, I had been (and probably still is) considered “going backwards” — as one ages, one is expected to “grow up”: settle down, 2.4 kids, house in the suburbs with the white picket fences, and all that kind of hullabuloo. I don’t think that expectation varies all that much between cultures, although some are more hard wired into that concept more than others. Maybe that is what has helped contribute to that feeling of being like a fish out of water. It certainly didn’t diminish my enjoyment of broadcasting school, but it was certainly weighing on my mind.

Anyone who has read either L.A. Son by Roy Choi (founder of Kogi in Los Angeles) or Fresh Off The Boat by Eddie Huang (founder of Baohaus in New York) will have an idea of how it feels; to live in a world that you don’t feel like you belong, while life surges by at breakneck pace you’re meandering on the freeway, wondering where the fuck you are, and asking why you aren’t flowing wid it. You’re “crispy” while all the others around you seem to be raking in the green. You try to join in with the crowd, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t resonate. Society certainly doesn’t help, either.

It’s a feeling that is hard to appreciate if one hasn’t gone through those motions, but when I read both their books, it was like, “damn, so both (Choi) and (Huang) went through the same shit I’ve been…”

In a sense, sans the deep addictions and the street styles, I am almost living out a chapter of Choi’s life while he was at the Culinary Institute of America, and the chapter of Huang’s run on Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, except replace those two with me, the show with MasterChef Canada, Guy Fieri with Alvin Leung and Claudio Aprile, and the CIA with SAIT. It’s weird, but also incredible at the same time that all our stories could be so different, but could be tied so neatly under a common thread of the culinary arts — even if our cuisines and visions (Korean-Mexican, Taiwanese street and modern Cantonese) aren’t the same. And we certainly don’t sprechen sie the same bloody lingitty!

We all took a leap of faith, to defy a gravity that demanded one stay on the ground, and follow a path well-trodden. Cooking was something that was left to others, and those who had to do it for a living were individuals whom “smart kids” (the grown ups’ words, not mine) like me would be bossing around. In short, for most of society a life choice has pretty much boiled down to a single truth, that it is only “cool” if it has a by-the-book happy ending. But as we all know, life ain’t into following the form book, and enjoys throwng wrenches into plans, and running scripts through industrial shredders so it can throw the fresh confetti back in your face with a hearty “fuck you”.

If I had been following the form book, chances are I wouldn’t even be writing this blog. I probably wouldn’t have gone to broadcasting school. And what’s the fun in that? I’ve done the pencil pushing thing many times, and I know it ain’t me. My life is bound to be in a kitchen, whipping out top-notch modern Cantonese dishes. It ain’t the glamorous life of a doctor or a lawyer, but I’m sure as hell going to enjoy doing it a lot more than pushing paper, dotting I’s and crossing the T’s.

So maybe I’m hanging with people younger than I am, and with more experience than I have. Sure, they’re showing me a thing or two…but is that a crime? My mind keeps telling me that it is, but is it really? To quote my favourite part of Elphaba’s signature song from the musical,

“I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try, I’ll never know!
Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost!”

Too long I’ve been afraid of being judged, and too long I’ve been afraid of being seen negatively for what I’ve done and what I will be doing. That’s a love lost that to win back, truly comes at much too high a cost.

Judge me if you want for defying gravity, but at least. for the first time in a long while, I am once again flying free.

#ChefSchool, Days 11 & 12: Two Days in the Little Butchershop

I’m trying to write, but I am fearing tonight will be a short entry; our family suffered the loss of my grandmother earlier this morning, and I’m still in a bit of a haze.

Anyway, chef school continues no matter what. Besides, that’s what you’re here to read about, right?

So with the start of a new week, we finally began a new topic. Gone (for now) is the twin horrors of math and baking, replaced by the ever fun world of meat cutting and butchery! (If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may want to stop reading right now…) Yep, we get into the really fun stuff now.

Or is it?

Our first lab assignment was simple enough on the surface; trim and cut a large side of sirloin into steaks. What trim that can’t be used would be ground or rendered, and errors would be made into stir fry steak strips for the Four Nines’ short order line. Portioning steaks. How hard could it be?

Turns out it’s not as easy as it sounds. First, the sirloin is admittedly one of the hardest cuts to trim. There are three major seams that separate the three chunks of cow, and one wrong slice could mean massive repercussions down the road. Knowing that, I set out on trimming and portioning steaks for the first time.

First, trimming the cap. That is the part that when cut into steaks, looks a bit like a striploin. Easy enough…follow the seams, and cut it off. So far, so good. I cut the cap off, and it gives way. Thump! It hits the hotel pan. I look around, and see most of my classmates were at the same stage. Not bad for a total rookie, I thought to myself.

Next, was what insiders call the “chicken” muscle. I don’t know why it’s called that, but it needed to go. Pulling the entire sirloin, I freed the chicken from its tendon jail, and set it aside in the trimming tray. Still not doing too bad, as I moved on to trimming the sirloin proper, in preparation for dividing and portioning. Think of it almost like shaving…you take the fat, the silverskin and other gristle off, without taking too much of the good meat off.

Slice! goes a piece of silverskin. Oh oops, a couple milimetres of meat went with it.

Slice! Some fat and silverskin go along with some more meat. That yield sheet is going to make for some horrible reading. Lucky for me, this was only a practice loin.

A little more shaving later, the loin was ready to be portioned. Slicing the meat into three chunks, I went ahead to try and portion out some steaks.

Slice! Thump! The first steak falls onto the scale. Under the mark. Off to the stir fry bin.

Slice! Thump! A second steak…it’s marginally over. Okay, I’ll let it go.

Slice! Thump! Another goes on. Over. I frantically trim, trying to make weight. It goes back on…and it meets the mark. It joins the acceptable pile.

And so it went, with the cap meat (now sans most of the fat cap) and the loin. When the result came in, it was grim. The pile of discard and other trim was higher than a mountain, while only 12 steaks made the cut. About 34% yield, on the first go. Not great, but still room for improvement. Not discouraged, I went to grab another vacuum packed sirloin.

Another loin later, and I wasn’t in such a forgiving mood to myself.

The discard pile was higher, the portioned steaks rougher…everything was just BAD: the yield was a paltry 25%.

I stumbled out of class, void of emotion but inside I was tearing myself apart. I failed, and failed spectacularly while I was at it. How could I have let myself slip so badly? (Noticing the chef seemingly turn many, many shades of red watching me work only made me more nervous and angry) How could this have happened?

Throughout the night, I sought anwers. But somehow it just made me more frustrated — until a very strong pep talk from a friend (she knows who she is) via Facebook Messenger that got me back on my feet. I won’t bore you with the details of what transpired, but she taught me one thing that all chefs needed to be: humble, and accepting of mistakes. Also, to challenge oneself, and to keep LEARNING. Plus, also to love what one does.

The next morning, I got a call from another individual — the one man who got me into this whole chef apprentice journey in the first place. He reminded me of what I was capable of, and while he did reiterate a lot of what my friend had said, he added one very important thing that finally turned the proverbial lightbulb on in my head: that at the end of the day, I needed to screw up. If I didn’t, how would I learn anything?

With that mindset, I went into today with fresh resolve. With chicken (my old nemesis) as the meat du jour, I took my time, made a few mistakes (cutting a little too far out from the keel bone when removing the breast, etc.)

But what ended up happening was, even though it took me almost an hour to debone three birds into chicken suprêmes and ballontine thighs, I did them CORRECTLY. Not perfect, but correct nevertheless. Perfection will come with practice, but today, I am relieved, and feeling back on track.

It’s a feeling I have missed. After two bruising weeks, I walked out of class today just a little more confident in myself. Plus, I feel like by conquering chicken butchering, I am that much closer in exorcising a major demon. (To be continued on that one…)

Now, let’s see if tomorrow can bring more. I’ll have to fight off a little bit of the feels, but it IS pork tomorrow.

Chef school. The story continues…