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?

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A Busy Saturday (Part 2): Hawkers Market

It has been a busy past few weeks, amd last Saturday was one of those days where just one of those days where it was just packed.

In the last post, I talked about the apple tarts that I created for the Calgary Food Bloggers’ Bake Sale, which raised a whopping $1058 for local Calgary charity Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids. It was a shame I couldn’t have made it to the sale myself, but as they say, “duty calls.”

Because that same evening, after finishing up at my job at Co-op, I made my way downtown to Test Kitchen, the site of this month’s Hawkers’ Market.

For those of you who don’t know, Hawkers’ Market is a collaborative night market consisting of many up and coming chefs and food lovers, pulsating to loud house and electronic music, with beer provided by local craft breweries. First begun in Vancouver, the idea has spread across the Rockies to Alberta, with markets happening in both Edmonton and Calgary.

Working with Jay and Eats of Asia, we have found a nice home here. The crowd is friendly and receptive to our brand of Asian street food, and the atmosphere between each booth is not of stern competitors, but more of friendly, yet collaborative, rivalry. Each booth brings a different thing to the proverbial table, and you, the diner, gets to try each one — and all without the hassle of running around this city to do so! It’s kind of like speed dating, but with new cuisines. And the results are always delicious!

Photo courtesy @calhospcareers

Photo courtesy @calhospcareers

The evening’s atmosphere was enhanced by the phat beats coming from the DJs of Calgary’s own BassBus. I’m not a big electronic/house music kinda guy, but something about their spinning really makes me get in the mood!

Pull dat noodle!  (Image courtesy @calhospcareers)

Pull dat noodle!
(Image courtesy @calhospcareers)

Every Hawkers seems to bring in new vendors every time, and in a way Jay comes up with a new item to wow our audience. Of course there is my now seemingly legendary noodle pulling act, which always seems to draw a crowd. What will my next performance be like? You’ll have to go to the next Hawkers to find out!

Laksaaaaaa... (Photo courtesy Bernice Hill)

Laksaaaaaa…
(Photo courtesy Bernice Hill)

As for the food, on top of the freshly hand pulled “dan dan” noodles, there is our laksa, a curry-based soup with rice noodles, tofu puffs, fish meatballs, prawns topped with cilantro. It’s proven to be quite popular!

image image image image

But it’s not just us dealing in the goodness — our friends over at the Spicy Jamakin (also at the Market on Macleod), Billingsgate Fish Market, Taiko Taco and Made by Marcus Macarons were also there. I have to say I was deeply impressed by the Earl Grey chocolate ice cream sandwiches from Marcus, and the jerk chicken from Lyle. One was perfectly sweet with floral notes, while the other was fiery as the Caribbean sun.

With all this food around, it certainly doesn’t feel like what one would consider work!

Dim sum caaaaaart!  (No tea dresses needed!)

Dim sum caaaaaart!
(Photo courtesy of @calhospcareers)

A new addition this time is the collaborative dim sum cart, in the style of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. Each vendor contributed an item onto the cart, which was rotated around the venue. To access the goodies that ranged from Electric Jelly’s donuts, to Eats of Asia’s chili wontons, to Brix and Morsel’s wonderful lamb barbacoa steamed bun — all of which I didn’t get to try, a sad indeed. But if you were in attendance and didn’t get to stop the cart — never fear, as the cart will return to YYC for the next event, which is slated for February.

Eating for a good cause!  (Photo courtesy @calhospcareers)

Eating for a good cause!
(Photo courtesy @calhospcareers)

Also new is Hawkers’ partnership with Mealshare, which “makes dining out into helping out”. Guests were encouraged to make a donation to the program, which brings meals to local shelters such as the Mustard Seed and the Calgary Drop-In Centre. It truly makes you feel good about what you’re eating!

There is so much more that I didn’t get to show you, like National’s oyster and whiskey bar, but below is a video put together by Jay’s sister Kristina. which showed off some of the highlights from the evening.

And with that, another night and another Hawkers Market is in the books. The market will return in 2015, bigger and better — and plus, I’ve heard a rumour that the next location will be super nice. So if you are curious, come on down and check it out!

Thank you to Bernice Hill, Adrian Hopkins and Calgary Hospitality Careers for the photos!

A Busy Saturday (Part 1): The Apple of My Eye

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post — life has been a bit hectic lately, and with my first eight-week apprenticeship technical training period starting just a month from now, the craziness is just beginning.

This past Saturday is an example of that. While I was working my day job at Co-op followed by noodle slinging for hungry patrons at Eats of Asia’s stall at that same evening’s Hawkers Market, my handmade pastries were on sale at the Calgary Farmers’ Market. I’ll have more on my night at Hawkers’ Market shortly, but first…the bake sale.

This was the first time I was invited to bake up goodies for the annual Calgary Food Bloggers’ Bake Sale. The sale was started four years ago by local nutritionist and food lover Vincci Tsui, and has grown ever since. While I am only able to see what goodies other bloggers, chefs and other food celebrities created via the power of social media (one of those darned downsides of working!), I can tell you about my own.

I’ll have to admit, I am not the greatest baker in the world — but I do know one thing, and that’s how to bring an Asian twist to classic dishes. Apple desserts, for one, are one of my favourites to bring such twists given the spices that are already being used for them.

Your standard apple pie usually uses cinnamon, but recently I’ve discovered that Chinese-style five spice powder works just as well (if not better) than just cinnamon. The combination of Chinese cinnamon (a.k.a cassia), cloves, fennel, star anise and Szechwan pepper, along with a touch of ginger, adds a new dimension of flavour. Add a little Canadian touch with a bit of maple to go with it all, and I think I’ve got myself a winner.

But of course, I know most of you don’t exactly have five spice powder kicking around in your kitchens — so I thought, maybe there was a way to mimic it. Without access to Szechwan peppercorns, fennel seeds and star anise, I created my own blend of Saigon cinnamon (which has an aroma that I’ve found both Ceylon or Chinese cinnamons don’t have — hence the priciness of it), grated orange zest, nutmeg, cloves. and black pepper. The mix may look a bit more like a citrus rub one would use on meats, but of course that’s a story for another day.

As for slicing the apples, a good knife usually does the trick. But one key to remember, especially if you are looking to create slices instead of cubes, is that slices must be as even as possible for an even cook. And for decorative purposes, a thinner slice (usually under 1/8″) will allow for more flexibility for shaping into, say roses, inside the pastry. This guide will give you a better idea, but if you are truly not confident, a mandoline set to a very thin slice will also do.

You may notice that I didn’t put a traditional egg wash in the recipe, nor did I use milk in the dough. Since I was making it for a crowd, I wanted to have as many people enjoy the pastry. While I did use butter for the crust, most other solid fats can be used if you are sensitive to dairy.

As for the end result, I’d have to say that they ended up looking pretty good. I certainly hope for those of you who picked one up, you enjoyed it because I certainly enjoyed making them for you! Plus you can feel good about that pastry (or any other goodies you picked up at the sale) — all proceeds goes to Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids.

So that was just one part of my busy Saturday last week. Stay tuned, as next we look at Hawkers’ Market!

 

Asian-Spiced Apple Mini Tarts with Maple-Ginger Glaze
Makes 10-15 tarts or 8-10 galettes

Filling Ingredients:
– 2 large firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith
– 1/2 lemon
– 1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon, ground
– 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
– 1/2 tsp ground cloves
– 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
– 1/2 tsp grated orange zest
– 2 tablespoons turbinado (golden) sugar

Pastry Ingredients:
– 8 ounces all-purpose flour
– 4 ounces butter, ice cold
– 3 ounces sugar
– Pinch salt
– Ice cold water as needed

Glaze Ingredients:
– 1 cup maple syrup
– 1/4 cup water
– 6 pieces candied ginger, chopped fine

Directions:
1. Start by creating the filling. Slice off the “cheeks” off the apples and slice thinly, using a knife or a mandoline. Season apples with a squeeze of lemon juice, add in spices and sugar, and and let sit.
2. Create pastry. Mix sugar, salt and flour together in a bowl. Cut butter into small cubes, and crumble into the dry ingredients until small gravel consistency. Add ice water to pastry gradually until dough forms. Chill until ready to use.
3. Bring water and maple syrup to a boil, add in candied ginger. Reduce by 1/4 and then remove from heat to let cool.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry to approximately 1/8″ thick. For galettes, cut out 5″ circles, for tarts, cut out 2-3″ circles.
5. Lay out apple slices on centre of each galette or tart pastry placed into tins, drizzle any extra juices onto each tart.
6. Bake at 350°F for 25-30 minutes until apples are cooked and the pastry is golden.
7. Remove from oven, and glaze tarts. Serve warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, or let cool and wrap for sale.

A Night at the Circus (Concessions): Circle the Wagons

It’s no secret that I enjoy street food immensenly, and when Calgary’s street food revolution took off I am proud to say that I was (and still is) swept up in the fervor. But these days, I’ve gone from merely eating street food to making it.

These past few months on Sundays, I’ve been spending time working under Chef Jay del Corro at his Eats of Asia booth inside the Market on Macleod (formerly called the Kingsland Farmers Market), learning the ins and outs of various Asian street food dishes, as well as learning how to cook on a line in a small kitchen. So far, this has also taken me to events like the Food Lovers Urban Market and the first ever Hawkers Market held in Calgary.

Last Saturday, however, was a new frontier for me as Jay and I served Asian street food at the first ever Circle the Wagons.

Jay and I arrived early to the site, the Marda Loop Community Centre. Our friend and market neighbour Margaret from Primal Soup was already there, not for the event but for the Marda Loop Farmers’ Market. The scene was serene and calm, until of course the parade of food trucks arrived around 9:30am, led by the BassBus.

The food trucks arrive...

The food trucks arrive…

Once the trucks had pulled into the park and settled, it was time to get the trailer ready before hungry patrons arrived to take in the circus atmosphere and the various music acts. Getting the power generator on, getting the equipment fired up and ready, and getting the ingredients ready for service — it was a lot to get done in 90 minutes in a small space, but we got it ready.

The hungry masses...

The hungry masses…

And when service finally began, it was go-go-go. Like in any kitchen, the words “stop” or “break” does not exist when you are serving hundreds of hungry patrons eager to try out your wares…especially if it’s something that they’ve never seen before, and you’re eager to introduce them. And by and large, I think we succeeded in making quite the impression on the festivalgoers especially with our cooked-to-order, hand pulled biang biang noodles in a sesame dandan sauce, as well as the kimchi dirty fries.

By the time Jay’s brother David (also a fellow aspiring chef) and sister Jenny arrived to help out after they had closed up at the market, the dinner rush was already on when they arrived, and let’s just say incoming calvalry is always a welcome sight, especially when the chits are lining up. And lined up they were — at certain points, we were six or seven orders deep, with even more folks waiting.

It's a beach volleyball court. In a hockey rink.

It’s a beach volleyball court. In a hockey rink.

Despite it being busy, I did find a bit of time to check out some of the other vendors. Our market friends from Billingsgate was nearby selling fresh sashimi, while others brought their own unique items like Shogun Grill’s takoyaki (Japanese squid donuts) to Family Squeezed Lemonade’s lemonade with mint, Happy Fish’s seafood tacos and Ranch BBQ’s pulled pork made on-board their truck. And that is on top of the purple hippo that spewed fire, the acrobats, the fire dancers and did I mention the various indie music acts?

#StackPaper!

#StackPaper!

In a small space and with a crew of four, we sent dozens upon dozens of hungry festivalgoers away happy. By the time we closed, all of us were exhausted but we had a blast doing it. Sure, the space may just be a smidge bigger than our usual accommodations at the market, and MUCH smaller than the kitchen at Co-op, but it was fun. It was an exhiliarating, long 16 hour day, but the smiles and the “Oh my Glob look at that noodle being stretched!!” made it all worth it. It kinda almost makes me want to open my own food truck…oh right, that’s what I want to do!

This is definitely not the last event I’ll be working in temporary kitchens. Rumour has it there will be a Hawkers Market on October 25th and 26th at the Commonwealth Bar — maybe I’ll see you there?