Sunday, November 27, 2005

Restaurant Confidential #1: First Day of School

Long posting. Please bear with me.

Friday night, I went over to Westwood Village to enjoy a night of lonerness. Equipped with my Professional Chef book, I grabbed a slice of pizza, two actually, at Enzo’s and sat in Starbucks. Tomorrow, I would be starting my first day at The Restaurant and wanted to be prepared for the unexpected. I figured that reading my book to familiarize myself with stocks, herbs and meats might save me some face and embarrassment. After all, I was Mr. I work 9-5 and am voluntarily working here out of passion without a culinary degree guy. There was a higher chance of error on my part, but I was ready to get hazed and reprimanded.

I walked into The Restaurant with my cheapie Calphalon Chef and Santoku knife I got for $25, after the Bed, Bath and Beyond 20% off coupon (those do come in handy), black vato-dickies pants and Payless, slip/oil-resistant shoes around 12:30 and met with the Chef. If you read the last posting, the chef forgot who the hell I was, so I re-introduced myself. I was then paired up with a girl who recently graduated from some school I’d never heard of. We’ll call her ‘Tiny’ for now, to protect her identity. An experienced line cook gave us our coats and aprons and showed us around the kitchen. As I put on the double-buttoned coat, I couldn’t help but smile, looking down so that no one would see my flash of excitement. If you guys remember Ben Stiller in Something About Mary, visualize the reaction he got when Mary asked him to go to the prom. Yes, I had a stupid look on.

As a pantry cook, I was responsible for garde mangre, pronounced ‘gar-mun-jay’. It’s French for the cold food station and includes soups, salads, appetizers and desserts. To me, it was French for bottom of the restaurant food chain – a culinary peon. What did I care? I was here to learn, not hope for a chance to stand side by-side-by with that arrogant Bobby Flay. The fact that they were paying me didn’t interest me at all. I initially thought they would just give me an internship. I guess that means more money for me to go out and get trashed and add more ninja-like knives to my collection. The pantry station took about 2 hours to prepare and as soon as I was done I proceeded with my Q&A with all of my experienced coworkers. Notebook in hand, I fired away with questions and jotted every juicy bit of information down. This was like gold to me. There’s a lot you don’t see behind the cookbooks and tv shows. All the shortcuts and secrets that go into making your restaurant experience enjoyable.

What goes into lobster stock??

What the hell is a remoulade??

Can you actually eat that??

The more and more I asked and annoyed them, the more they knew how interested I was in jumping onto their ship. Everyone was surprised that I was doing this on my own leisure in addition to my full time job. They probably thought I was crazy too. A few people told me that they’d rather work with me than with a recent culinary grad with an ego the size of an air balloon.

It was now 4 pm and dinner was to be served in an hour. All restaurants partake in a ritual dinner called “family meal”. In addition to the food prep, every cook is responsible for conjuring up some kind of dish for the whole staff to eat. Usually with older foods and scraps. I was in charge of salads, naturally. I looked over at Tiny and asked if she wanted to make something. Surprisingly, she said no. The whole day, Tiny was helping me out with the proper way to do things, which i appreciated. When she asked me where I studied culinary arts, I said “I’m studying here at The Restaurant Academy.” She gave me a slight look of concern and confusion, as if I had no place in here. Which is true. But it helps to know people that can get you in.

And back to the family meal. The meat cook came by and was like, “Hey man, please make some kind of new dressing. I’m fucking tired of the Caesar, House and Walnut Vinagrette dressing. Fucking tired of it.” I hate salad, but the only decent salad I can make is a Chinese chicken. So I grabbed soy sauce, orange juice, sugar, sesame oil, Sriracha hot sauce (I like mine spicy), water, shallots and chives. I had to do without the Hoisin sauce. As I whisked the dressing up, my hands trembled, for I was deeply worried. Now for the taste test. About four cooks came by to test out my monstrosity.

“Add some sugar.”

“More O.J.”

“I want it spicier.”

“Too much vinegar.”

It’s amazing how these people would come by and quickly dip a finger in for a taste. Everyone was so on the dot, and when it was finally done, the dressing tasted WAY better than what I had originally thought was satisfactory. Even over the wilted, brown romaine/endive salad. I liked my new coworkers instantly. For dinner we had a nice smorgasbord of goodies: butternut squash ravioli with cream sauce, garlic/mustard roasted chicken, sun-dried tomato frittata (an Italian omelette), roasted pumpkin soup and corn chowder. With a lineup like that, who the hell was gonna eat salad. I sure as hell didn’t.

5 pm. Showtime. I had forgotten to bring some kind of hat so I was stuck with wearing the 10” chef hat made out of paper. It was so lame. I felt so embarrassed since we were right in front of the window. I made sure that the next time I came in, I had my own hat with me. I’d rather wear one of those 10 gallon cowboy hats instead of that paper hat. Anyway, the first ticket came out and of course Mousy snagged it before I could even read it. I looked at it and completely blanked out. I had already forgotten how to make the dish. Good thing Tiny had a description of how each and every dish was made and plated, taped up to the wall. After about 2 hours, I got the hang of things, eventually making each and every single dish we had prepped for. I even did desserts, which I have no interest in because of my heavy smoking.

In addition to Tiny, I had a few coworkers around me, all from the Pasadena Culinary Institute. Next to the pantry, we had the dessert, grill, meat and fish station. The desserts were handled by a sweet, Korean girl who’d been working for almost a year. I’ll call her Sweetie. She made awesome chocolate cake, bread pudding and Crème Brule. She had worked pantry before and was very helpful. Over at the grill station, stood a small Mexican guy, no more than 4’14”, that everyone called Man-Boy, because of his boyish looks and deep voice. Man-boy took care of pastas, stocks and anything fried. Man-boy was constantly dodging this gay waiter that totally had a crush on him. For snacks, Man-boy made some awesome salsa nachos from scratch and was happily complimented by the gay waiter, who said they were, “So ammmmmmaaazzzzzzzzzzing.” I don’t know if he was referring to the nachos or to Man-boy. Maybe both. Over on the meat station (pan-fry, sauté, oven), we have this other Korean guy who’s been working for 6 years in San Francisco and the Caribbeans. I’ll call him Rivers because of his black, thick-framed glasses – similar to Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. This guy was so knowledgeable and had MOVES in the kitchen. His arms were full of cuts, scars and burn marks. True symbols of culinary war. I once saw him cooking 7 courses at a time, flames flying, kicking oven doors closed, etc. I want to do that. He gave me a piece of Kobe steak to try and boy was it delicious. I don’t think I can afford more than 3 ounces of that because it’s $12 an ounce. And over on the fish station, there’s an awesome chick who looks like she’s in her 20’s but already has two daughters, 20 and 14. I'll call her "Mami". She’s gotta be at least 36. She also had moves and was constantly calling me over to watch her cook fish and foie gras. She was my new-found smoking partner.

After work, we headed over to a bar in downtown and met up with cooks from our sister restaurant. As we all drank beer, stories about the day in the kitchen were told and were hilarious. A few people took themselves to another mental level and most of us, drank the night away.

As I drove home, I couldn’t stop wearing a smile because I had a great time this weekend. My hands were tired from obsessive chopping. My Achilles tendon was sore from trucking up and down the stairs, holding stock pots. My back hurting from constantly bending up and down to reach for things. So what? It was all worth it and I couldn't wait for next weekend when I can go in again and ‘play’. I’ve made some new friends and gained new knowledge. And all of a sudden, I felt alive again. Completely alive. Read more!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Chabuya Ramen - The Newest Baby in the Sawtelle Family

Driving up Sawtelle, I always slow my car down at the La Grange corner. I’m always drawn in by the beautifully designed restaurants in that particular strip of West LA’s Little Tokyo. Most of the restaurants, such as Orris, serve up some delectable food for reasonable prices. Yesterday, as I was leaving from Nijiya Supermarket, I slowed my car down as usual and my eyes caught on to a metallic sign: Chabuya - Tokyo Noodle Bar sign caught my eye. Hell yeah. Another ramen shop.

Chabuya is the newest addition to Sawtelle’s restaurant row. In it’s second week, this place is already getting a nice influx of ramen enthusiasts. The dimly lit ceilings and tall windows really give you a nice welcoming feeling. As I walked in, five Japanese waitresses greeted me in an audible volume: “IRASHAIMASE”. No where as loud as Shin Sen Gumi in Gardena, Fountain Valley and now Rosemead. Since this place just opened up recently, they had a limited menu. The waitress pointed out that I can only have “Cha Shu Ramen”. Don’t twist my arm. I was going to order that regardless. I figure if a noodle shop claims to be a noodle shop, then they should be able to make immaculate Cha Shu Ramen. Same goes with a bowl of pho in a vietnamese restaurant.

And now a few words from Chabuya.

“Straight from Tokyo, Chabuya is the urban ramen bar that revolutionized a favorite Japanese pastime. Its menu was conceived under the meticulous eye of Master Chef Yasuji Morizumi, renowned for his peak season ingredients and an uncanny talent for arousing the senses. Taste Chabuya ramen and two things will strike you immediately. The first is an instant appreciation for the fresh, organic ingredients cooked to mouth-watering perfrection. The second is an overwhelming urge to take another bit.”

The Cha Shu Ramen, what Chabuya calls “The Classic with Cha Shu”, came after only 7 minutes -- $8.50. (The Classic is plain ramen with green onions and bamboo shoots sans Cha Shu -- $6.75.) It was served in a tall, red bowl and had a strong scent of fried shallots. I’m a sucker when it comes to fried shallots because they make anything taste good. And now for test #1: the broth. I dipped my spoon in before disrupting the beauty of the ramen bowl to taste the broth… and it was… AWESOME. I could taste a lot of pork broth, shoyu, miso and shallot oil. Since you can’t customize your ramen like Shin Sen Gumi, I’d suggest that you request for less oil, because there was a lot. I just like it. I then mixed up the bowl, preparing for test #2: the noodles. These weren’t the typical gummy kind you’d get from Ramenya or Kinchan’s. These were more like Chinese yellow mein – thin and cooked al dente – how I like it. Noodles weren’t bad at all. Something tells me that the chef takes pride in his soup more, thus selecting thin weight noodles for a lighter taste, so you don’t become overstuffed.

And for the final leg, test #3: the Cha Shu. I was given about four THINNNNNNLY sliced pieces of what I made out to be pork shoulder or butt. There was a thin layer of fat on each piece. Not bad, but there was a very strong taste of dark soy sauce. I believe the chef had first pan seared the meat in dark soy sauce to give it that dark colored edge before braising it into Cha Shu.

The gyozas came next and I was a little bit suspicious of it. It looked too similar to frozen gyozas at the market because after tasting it, the skin was very, very thin and broken. The filling tasted a little bit watery; a result of being THAWED before frying. Either the chef had overcooked the dumpling or he’s just a master at making paper thin gyoza skin. Still not a bad deal for $3.75.

Overall, I had a great meal. I think the ramen is a little pricey considering how small the portion is. But then again, they use organic ingredients and honestly, everything tasted really crisp and fresh. Especially the spinach and green onions. I didn’t want to waste the broth so I decided to Supersize my meal and ordered a bowl of rice and dumped it in to make Cha Shu Rice soup. Good as well. Another thing I look for is a place with a small menu. Chabuya serves nine courses plus gyoza and shu mai and I know the spend more time perfecting each and everyone. Believe it or not, Ramenya and Asahi will still be open for business the next day if you should decide not to eat there. Give Chabuya a shot, I think you’ll be satisfied. Thanks for reading.

Location: Look up Orris (Los Angeles). It's 2 doors down on Sawtelle/La Grange. Read more!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Restaurant Confidential #0: The Epiphany

It seems that everywhere I go, no matter what time of the day, my mind is constantly battling inner aspirations. I’ve always been very fickle with everything. Hobbies. Food. Music. Girls. It’s not a wonder that I become bored with things really easy. I’d work hard toward something and once it’s complete or gets ‘old’, I move on to the next. It may be that I have a short attention span? Or it may be a natural instinct for me to want to try as many things my life would allow me – you know, before the batteries run out. This fickleness definitely applies to my career choices.

When I graduated from college, I panicked. Growing up in a Chinese family, or even as an Asian American for the most part, there were only three, ‘acceptable’ career paths.

Was I going to be a doctor?
No. I suck at the Milton Bradley Operation game.

Was I going to be a lawyer?
I don't think i can help someone win $2.1 million.

Was I going to be an engineer?
Well, i did make fully functional beer bongs that could hold up to 9 beers at a time.

Mom and dad, I’m breaking all cultural ideals and going into advertising. Advertising? Wus dat? (Just kidding, my parents speak perfect English.) I want to be a part of an industry that devises clever ways to make you buy things you don’t need. Why? It’s fun to be a part of pop culture. There’s a little bit of celebrity hood within it. How many people do you know that can actually be proud of an annoying billboard you see everyday on your way back home from work? Anyway, after three years, I managed to complete my portfolio and finally got a job as an Art Director. Boy did it feel good to finally get to the top of the mountain.

Guess what? I love advertising, but I’m already tired of it after only a year and a half. It seems that I’ve traversed back down that mountain, only to turn around and raise my head up, gazing upon the new challenge. I blame it all on the Food Network. During the first three years, I fell into a comfort zone. I’d do the 9-5 like everyone. Go home. Eat. Sit and watch TV. Three years. And one day, with nothing to watch, I flipped to the Food Network. Alton. Tyler. Rachel. Emeril. Bobby. Anthony. Ina. Giada. Paula. Marc. Mario. I watched EVERYTHING and absorbed every bit of information regarding food. Soon after, I started cooking more, researching knives and pans and buying cookbooks. What has happened to me? I had created a monster. My very, own monster. I was a full-fledged foodie.

I had befriended a co-worker whose boyfriend works as a grill cook at a restaurant in Los Angeles. He was telling me how he had gone to college and settled for a sales job. One day, he resigned and jumped straight into the kitchen. Seven months earlier, he had worked up from the pantry to the grill - a huge step in the kitchen world. Last time I talked to him, his last words were, “Hey man, if you love it, just do it. It’s hard but it doesn’t hurt to try. You’ll never know if this is or isn’t for you, unless you give it a shot. I can get you in, but you have to want it. I cried because I got rocked by the chef, but it only fueled my passion for it.” He is a chef and a coach – all in one.

Two weekends ago, I sat at home thinking about the restaurant. My only option is to work on the weekends because I’m not divorcing advertising just yet. We’re still doing okay. I guess you can say this is going to a be an affair. Short? Long? Who knows. But man, seven days of work is mind-boggling. Working in the kitchen is going to be hard enough, but add another 40-50 hours on that. Fuck it. I’m doing it. I don’t anything to lose if it’s not for me. At least I tried.

I went into The Restaurant last Tuesday to meet with the Executive Chef. I had talked to him on the phone briefly and could tell he was stern. I knew he was giving me an opportunity only because of my coworker’s boyfriend. I knew he was already giving me a month-tops. Whatever. So I had prepared for the interview by mentally rehearsing the right things to say. Here’s how the interview went…

Me: So I heard you need some help in the pantry?

Chef: Yeah. When can you start?

(That’s it?)

Me: Um. Next weekend.

(Chef then starts scribbling on a fresh piece of printer paper.)

Chef: Meet here for orientation at 10 am. I’ll see you next weekend. Bring your own knives. We got a coat for you. Buy your own shoes and pants. I recommend that you don’t wear khakis or white jeans. (Who the hell wears white jeans besides girls? Aren’t those illegal for men to wear?)

Me: Ok.

Chef: Any questions?

Me: No.

Chef: Wait, what was your name again?

I’m serious. Total time: 5 minutes. 4 of those minutes went towards paperwork. I shook hands with him and as I walked away, I felt a knot in my stomach. I don’t know what the hell I just got myself into. Nervous? Anxious? Excited? Yes, all of that. As soon as I walked out of the restaurant, I approached the steps quickly - a perfect ramp for that memorable, slow-motion Toyota leap from the 80s commercials. I felt like doing that but I thought I’d save it for another occasion.

So this past weekend, it was time to gear up. I felt like it was a back-to-school sale. Pencils. Pens. Trapper Keepers. Jansport backpack. Mead paper. I bought my first pair of black Dickies. I figured I’d be safe as long as I’m not walking around the streets with them. Brought the ubiquitous Bed Bath & Beyond coupon to the store and bought some cheapie Calphalon’s. Who cares. They’re going to get f*cked up.

This Saturday, my life is going to change as I start my first day. Will it be for me? Or will it not? I’ll fill you in after this weekend. I’m just glad to know that there’s a fellow blogger going down the same path with me. Yoony of Immaeatchu is interning at the AOC winebar pantry. Like me. Thanks for reading. Read more!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Coq Au Vin Recipe and Emeril – Chicken Cooked in Wine

I am an epicurean, which means, that day and night, my mind is somewhere in the vicinity of food and drinks. I use the three regular meals to get through my day. When I’m eating breakfast, I’m already planning what I want to eat for lunch. At lunch, I’m pondering my dinner course. And sometimes, after going out to see a band or to some other social function, I consider the possibility of eating a midnight snack. Usually something fried and savory. I don’t know about you, but if I don’t have a satisfying meal, I feel as if there’s a void and become irritable.

Most of us, I assume, have the Food Network on sometime of the day. Whether or not you’re actually paying attention to the show, it’s just so comforting hearing the language of food. Even if it’s the annoying “bam”, “EVOO” or “yummm” (Rachael Ray) sayings that have desensitized us. Yet, we force ourselves to endure such cheese, because we truly are pigs that live to eat. The second I get home, the Food Network is flipped on.

One night, I sat on the couch in a completely, vegetative trance, watching Emeril Live. The lame lines we’ve grown numb to, simply had no effect on me.

“I don’t know where you get your ______ from. But where I get mine, they don’t come seasoned.”

“Call your cable company and order Smell-a-vision right now!”

“Use your knob.”

“See, they’re getting happy.”

“Just needs about 80 cloves of gah-lic.”

Ugh. So repulsive. Nothing on his show ever appeals to me and I question his true ability to cook. Like most celebrity chefs, they’re just an act. A face. Does anyone really think Sandra Lee from Semi-Homemade can actually cook? Hear what Yoony of Immaeatchu and Slash Food bloggers have to say about Miss Lee. I think it’s awesome that Bourdain could give a rat’s ass about no longer working for the Food Network. If you’ve read his wonderful novel, Kitchen Confidential, you’ll feel the love he has for Flay and Legasse. In one part, Bourdain tells us how essential it is to have the squeeze bottles for final touches, stating that “Bobby Flay has been making Mexican food look like Haute cuisine for year with these bad boys.” Funny. It’s also interesting to note that Emeril has his show setup like a modern, monkey-lab experiment. He’s got everyone wired to a metal cap that sends out electric shocks every time he mentions the word ‘garlic’ and ‘pork fat’. And the crowd never fails to respond. Bourdain sums up Emeril’s crowd as basically “a group of barking seals at Sea World -- hoping for some of the crap that he cooks”. Hilarious. I’m pretty sure anyone fortunate enough to sit at his counter is told beforehand to pretend the food is remotely delicious.

But once in a while, he will cook something that does sound appealing. If it doesn’t involve 80 cloves of garlic, 2 whole blocks of butter and 1/2 a bottle of Rum, I’ll actually continue watching. For me, it was Coq Au Vin, a French stew consisting of chicken, vegetables and wine. Cooked and dredged in alcohol, this rustic farmers dish was a great way to combine ‘not-so-fresh’ ingredients for a Sunday brunch. The chicken meat falls off the bone beautifully and is lathered with gravy made from the wine and chicken broth. Yum. And the best part of cooking this dish is that you get to employ some pyrotechnic techniques known as flambéing with Brandy. Pure fun.

Ingredients for 4
12-14 drumsticks
1 bottle of cabernet sauvignon (my wine of choice. Use pinot noir for a sweeter overall taste. Say no to merlot. It’s way too dry and tannic.)
1 cup of brandy
2 carrots
1 large onion (or 20 pearl onions)
Crimini mushrooms
1 can of chicken broth
2-3 pieces of bacon
Bouquet garni (a sprig of thyme, parsley and bay leaf)
Parsley (garnish)
Salt & Pepper to taste

Here we go. This is damn easy, and adds a nice scent to the kitchen.

(1) Salt & pepper the chicken. Heat your pan and add olive oil and butter over medium heat. Next fry the bacon until all the fat has been rendered out. Once the bacon is crisp you’re good to go. Remove the bacon and add the chicken and make sure it’s been browned nicely over high heat. Don’t worry about the meat being undercooked because that’s what braising is for! Once it’s browned, reserve about 2 tablespoons of the rendered fat. You don’t want to overpower the dish.

(2) PAY ATTENTION. Remove the pan off the stove and add the brandy. Ignite the brandy and let the alcohol burn out for about a minute or two. Cool huh? Once the flames die out, set it back on the stove and lower the heat to LOW. Let it cook for a few minutes. (*Note. The reason professional chefs can add alcohol over direct heat is because they have high-ceilings, $10,000 overhead fans and FIRE EXTINGUISHERS.)

(3) Heat up a dutch oven or large stock pot and add butter/olive oil over medium heat. Get it nice and hot and add the carrots, onions and mushrooms with some flour for thickening/browning. (10 minutes).

(4) Now combine the chicken/brandy pan into the stock pot and add the whole bottle of wine, chicken broth and bouquet garni. Simmer for about 1 hour, or until desired tenderness of the chicken. The veggies should also be fork tender. Salt & pepper to taste and garnish with parsley.

Coq Au Vin can be served as is, or as I like it, with a plate of rice. I do have to maintain integrity for my people right? Thanks for reading. Read more!

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