Category Archives for "Behind the Apron"

Ode To Prep Cooks

Prep Cooks are the backbone of the kitchen. They break down the proteins, start the stocks, chop the vegetables, keep the walk-in organized, and do just about anything else that needs done. An experienced Prep Cook makes their job look easy – almost too easy, even though it’s one of the toughest and most exacting roles in the modern kitchen.

Here’s a few reasons why Prep Cooks are awesome:

They keep the trains running on time
The prep cook is responsible for just about everything before it goes to the line for service. Today’s soup? Prep Cook. Minced onions? Prep Cook. Bread? Pasta? Sauces? Prep Cooks do it all. And if that’s not enough, many Prep Cooks also manage the ordering, organize the walk-in, and conduct inventories. Without someone handling all the infrastructure even the best kitchen is going to be off the rails.

They come in early
Most prep cooks are the first people into the kitchen each morning. This means they have to deal with whatever the closing crew failed to do. If the Line Cooks left a mess, forgot about the stock or didn’t put everything away, it’s the Prep Cooks that find it. While most cooks work hard to ensure a clean station at the end of their shift, things get missed – but then fixed by the Prep Cooks.

They stay late
If the line runs through a necessary item, the Prep Cooks step right up and make sure it gets done. While it might look like a kitchen job with regular hours, many prep shifts go long in order to get the job done. Stocks and braises can take hours, if not days, and it’s the Prep Cook that keeps a steady eye over everything.

They know their shit
The Prep Cooks know the foundations of the menu better than anybody. Every stock, every herb, every protein passes through their hands. If something is wrong – like the wrong fish was delivered – it’s the Prep Cooks who’ll notice first. When the season is winding down on tomatoes, it’s the Prep Cooks who’ll let you know.

They play the best music
Ok, so this might be a bit subjective, but when it comes to tunes at work Prep Cooks have it down. Different Prep Cooks go in different directions: Heavy Metal, Hip Hop, Way More Morrissey than you’d expect, but all of it sounds great while working. It’s as if they optimize their music for getting shit done (even Morrissey!)

 

If you have an unstoppable prep cook, let them know it by tagging them in the Facebook comments.

Build Out Your Knife Bag

The knife roll is central to a cook’s working life. As cooks file into their kitchens, the ubiquitous knife roll is the first thing onto the counter. The contents vary from cook to cook, but there are always a few items that can be found in just about every roll.

If you’re new to cooking and want to have a head start in your new kitchen here are a few thoughts on what makes the ideal knife roll from our friend Eytan Zias, proprietor of both the Phoenix Knife House and the Portland Knife House.
What knives should every professional cook have in their knife roll?
We consider the core 5 knives to be:

  • Chef Knife 8-10″ – This is the primary knife which will be used for the vast majority of your work and your main priority.
  • Paring knife 3-4″ – Used for tasks off the cutting board such as coring and peeling.
  • Slicer 10+” – Used mainly for portioning of meat, fish and carving. The idea here is to reduce the amount of strokes needed by using a longer blade.
  • Boning Knife 6″ – Used for working with bone-in proteins such as breaking down whole chickens and lamb racks (not necessary for cleaning fat and silver skin).
  • Serrated Bread Knife – A must if working with bread since a crusty loaf will dull any plain edged blade no matter what the quality.

If a cook is on a budget, what are some brands they should look for? 
Short answer: Tojiro and Victorinox.

Long answer: Using the 8″ chef knife as an example, and ones widely available – Victorinox is the “old standby” at around $35-40. A better buy these days are the Tojiro DP and Misono Handmade series, both in the $80 range. Tojiro is known for providing excellent steel in a basic package, and if carbon is an option they also make a great white-steel chef knife at $60.

The $6 Victorinox Fibrox paring knife is one of the “must have” knives in the kitchen and they make great bread and boning knives in the $25 range.
What are some tips for choosing a knife?
Blade steel and geometry are the most important aspects of a blade – the harder the steel and thinner the blade the better it will perform for most tasks. Avoid buying heavy, full bolstered blades – that is not a sign of quality and will work against you.
What knives should be avoided?
Cooks should recognize the type of work they do and the amount of time they are willing to invest in maintaining a blade. A good example are the traditional Japanese single bevel knives which are incredible tools in the right hands – but they are very task-specific and should only be used by people who do their own water stone sharpening and perform that type of task.

We see many chipped and rusty knives in the hands of people who would be much happier with a well-made stain-resistant western style knife. And the same works the other way, anyone doing precision work would not be happy using a heavy German style blade.
What are some tips for maintaining a knife?
Maintenance is everything! Every knife needs regular honing and sharpening and the only way to improve is by practice. A medium grit waterstone (#800-1200) is a must for any knife (polishing is optional) and if you use a honing rod then a fine ceramic will be the most effective (just don’t drop it).

And avoid draw-through sharpeners at all costs.
Thanks Eytan.

If you have questions about knives, reach out to us at blog@poachedjobs.com – we’d love to hear from you!

 

The 5 Stages of Food Coming Back

Nothing can disrupt a smooth enough night like food coming back through the window. The rail is full of tickets – special orders, VIPs, add-ons and big-tops. But you and and crew can handle it all… until you see Carl the Host heading your way with a plate in his hand. Food coming back is part of the job, but it’s also one of the worst things that can happen on a busy shift.

Here are the 5 stages of dealing with food going the wrong way through the window:

Denial – I didn’t put mayonnaise on that. You must have the wrong table, or maybe the customer doesn’t know what they ordered. I checked everything on the expo. This isn’t the right burger…

Anger – What do you mean they’re allergic to eggs? No one is allergic to eggs. Did you make a note on the ticket? In pen? In the red pen like we talked about during standup? This dumbass backwards unsophisticated Hell’s Kitchen watching bridge and tunnel weekend warrior yelp reading yelp reviewing mother-yelper has no idea what a good burger even tastes like MUCH LESS AN EGG MUCH LESS MAYONNAISE!!!!

Bargaining – Are you sure they can’t eat mayonnaise? It’s just a little bit, barely any – I mean I can just scrape it off and they’ll never know. I’ll make sure you get extra staff meal, just help me out here. I have a full rail and that 8 top is about to hit. We can work something out.

Depression – Why do I always end up here, standing in the window with Carl debating some lady’s condiment aversion? Why did I even come in? Why did I take a job washing dishes back in high school? Why did I learn prep and fryer and sautee? Why did I ever think lead-line was the right move? I should’ve just gotten hammered and stayed that way. Life is a series of empty promises, meaningless events unconnected to perceived outcomes – the Universe is indifferent as I stand on this slowly warming rock spinning in bleak and empty space…

Acceptance – Oh, I’ll just throw a new bottom bun on the grill real quick. Refire up! Runner! CARL!

9 Things You Learn from Working the Front of the House

Working the front of house at a restaurant teaches you things that you can’t learn anywhere else. You meet people from all walks of life on any given day and the experiences that brings you, combined with the lessons you learn while making your way through the day (or night), will continue to be valuable to you throughout your life.

1. The same joke over and over can still be funny.

Portlandia Chicken Server

Due to a certain television show, every 3rd customer thinks it’s clever to ask what the chicken on the menus’ name is. At first this seems tiresome, but after awhile you’ll realize humor isn’t about the joke, it’s how it’s told.

2. The proper order to stacking plates.

There’s an art to clearing a 6 top in one trip. It doesn’t just start at random either. You quickly learn how much or how little you can carry and still make it to the dish-pit.

3. Regular customers are what makes it all worthwhile.

Your regulars are the lifeblood of your profession. You’ll watch them meet the love of their lives, get married and have children. You might even see the children grow up. It’s a gift to have regulars – treat it as such.

4. Wine glasses are a perishable item.

You’ll break more stems than you’ll ever be able to count. You’ll probably be able to differentiate between a Burgundy glass and a Cabernet glass just by the sound of the crash alone.

5. Cutting yourself isn’t just for the kitchen.

You’ll have plenty of opportunities to cut yourself with all sorts of dull, unsanitary objects. My personal favorite is slicing a thumb on the foil of the bottle of wine you’re about to open.

6. Folding napkins is a Zen practice. Just let yourself BE the napkin. And then BE the fold.

NapkinJacket

7. How to walk through crowded rooms.

Once you’ve worked a busy floor, you’ll have the ability to get from one end of a crowded room to the other without a problem. This lesson is especially useful in bars and at shows.

8. Fernet is delicious.

If you’ve worked the front of the house you know this is just a self-evident fact.

9. It’s not about what went wrong – It’s about how you made it right.

Maybe you forgot to bring the side of fries or didn’t let the kitchen know about the gluten allergy until after the burger comes back. Don’t try to hide the mistakes or blame someone else: own it, fix it and move on. No one will hold a mistake against you if you quickly resolve it with grace.

And The Winner Is…

 

Our #dontchopbelieving Instagram contest ended strongly yesterday evening with a few entries sneaking in just before midnight. We had over 200 chefs from all around the world submit photos of their knife kits and they thoroughly blew us away. From the hobbyist, to the executive chef, to bakers, collectors, and food artists of all kinds, we were so excited at the photographs that were shared. Throughout the contest we chose chefs whose showmanship we particularly liked to receive a Poached Jobs swag box; but at the end of the day there could only be one winner of the Chubo Kazan 8” Chef Knife. So, without further ado, I announce your #dontchopbelieving winners:

Our 2nd Runner Up and winner of the ‘Any Way You Want It’ Award: @girl_eats_all

Our 1st Runner Up and winner of the ‘Faithfully’ Award: @conroy_matt

Our 1st Place ‘Don’t Chop Believing’ Award & Winner of the Chef Knife: @earlthepearl4

Congratulations to our winners and a huge thanks to Chubo Knives (@chuboknives) for their contribution.

A photo posted by Earl Gray (@earlthepearl4) on

A photo posted by Matt (@conroy_matt) on

A photo posted by Allison (@girl_eats_all) on

5 Spring Ingredients to Make Patio Season Tolerable

Spring means a lot of things – warm breezes, sunshine and patio-service. It also means you’re about to see some of your favorite ingredients coming in from the farms. While your floor manager is getting ready to double your seating capacity (without a thought of the number of burners or oven space available, naturally,) you can at least get excited about putting some new dishes up in the window. Here’s a rundown of what might be coming in through the back door over the next couple of months. Don’t miss out – some of these are only in peak season for weeks at the longest!

Morel Mushrooms

Morels can come twice a year. It’s not so much “seasonal” but “something awesome that happens when it’s around 60°F and just rained.” Still, if you can score some morels for your Spring menu you’ll never regret it. Morels go with all the other bits of Spring produce – pea shoots, asparagus, fiddleheads – The list goes on and on. Plus, there’s nothing quite like talking to a mushroom hunter. As a game, see if you can get them to reveal their favorite hunting grounds (they won’t.)

Pea shoots

I’m not sure who was so impatient that they started eating pea shoots, but they made the right choice. Peas shoots offer an intense flavor of the peas to come. If you’re looking for something to make a plate just a little fresher and lighter, a small pea shoot salad can go a long way. They can also serve as a distinctive garnish to a soup – like the last batch of the potato-leek you’ve been ladling all winter while waiting for Spring.

Asparagus

When they’re fresh just grill and salt them, finish with a squirt of lemon and everyone will think you’re a genius. If you have any left after a few days, make some soup – garnish with the morels and everyone will still think you’re a genius. Pickle some and serve them with your bar program’s Bloody Mary and everyone will think you’re a drunk genius, which fits everyone’s image of geniuses anyway.

Fiddlehead Ferns

You can pretty much take any of the suggestions for asparagus and apply them to fiddlehead ferns. People will not only continue to think you’re a genius, but you might even get nominated for a MacArthur Grant. Ok, we might be taking this a bit far, but seriously. Grilled, sautéed or even pickled, Fiddlehead ferns are the epitome of Spring on a plate.

Rosé

The above items can be difficult to pair with wines – particularly asparagus. Your resident wine buyer should have no problem putting 2 and 2 together, but just in case, ask him about Domaine Sorin Terre Amata Rosé. Why the specific suggestion? Well, it’s cheap and it’s good. Restaurants often depend on high margins on wine to make ends meet. The Terre Amata usually comes in cheap enough to be able to make for an affordable glass pour that matches your new Spring menu (state to state of course – looking at you, Pennsylvania.)

What ingredients are you looking for this season? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know.

 

We Never Stopped Peeling Shrimp that Summer

I had never set foot in a professional kitchen before. In fact, I’d only been in a fine dining restaurant once and I’m not sure how high-end it was considering Shania Twain was twanging from the speakers. I hadn’t even been able to enjoy it because I was so nervous about the bill the whole time. Not because I’m cheap but because I was in my early twenties and I was flat broke.

The chef, my soon to be lord and master, asked me to come in a week before I was due to start. I sat at the bar to wait for her. When she came downstairs from the second floor kitchen to meet me she merely introduced herself and handed me a menu, telling me to study it and that she’d see me in a week. We shook hands.

I took the menu home and studied it. I had never heard of piri piri or skordalia before. The menu was eclectic and had been ever since the restaurant opened in the late 70’s by a hippie rock star and his wife. When they started out, opening the restaurant in what had once been a livery stable in the 1800’s, they were embraced by the town who appreciated their eclectic menu that featured influences from all over and offered dishes as diverse as latkes, duck and green peppercorn pâté, nasi goreng, doro wat, cassoulet, chicken mole, ribs…

The extent of my culinary education came from Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living and the Food Network and there was no Google in those days so I couldn’t really delve too deeply into what the heck piri piri was. I showed up on my first day a blank slate and chef gave me my first job – peeling shrimp. Luckily no quiz on the menu was forthcoming.

The kitchen in this converted (and rumored to be haunted) stable was 350 square feet and that included the hot line, garde manger, the dishpit and pastry. Somehow they’d even squeezed in a walk-in fridge. From that space we’d serve 125 seats and, in summer, an additional 75 seat patio. I could not have landed in a better first kitchen. To handle service for 200 people on a Sunday brunch in July or a Friday night in August was to be forged by fire into a rock solid cook. No one left that kitchen without the ability to whip up any number of completely disparate ethnic dishes out of practically thin air with nothing more than a sharp knife and a screaming hot cast iron skillet.

The most popular menu item by far was the Gambas al Ajillo, shrimp cooked very quickly in a hefty glug of oil with chilies and garlic and served with crusty baguette. We sold so many that it seemed to me that every single table that came in had to be ordering the gambas.

So I peeled shrimp, first taking the headless thing and using kitchen shears to snip along its rudimentary spine. This served two purposes; to open up the shell and make it easier to remove and then slice open it’s flesh to gain access to the poop chute, so-called because this gritty tube apparently held the shrimp’s last meal. Pull out the poop chute and crack the shell off leaving the last centimeter in place so the tail would still be attached. My first lesson in haute cuisine: classy joints serve shrimp tail on.

I peeled shrimp endlessly. We all did. Anytime there was a lull, which was practically never, we could always keep busy peeling shrimp. In the middle of every crazy service I moved like a high-speed Garde Manger automaton, plating Niçoise salads, frying chà giò, sprinkling peanuts on cold Thai beef salads and racing back to the walk-in to grab more shrimp whenever chef screamed “Gambas!”

We never stopped peeling shrimp that summer. That was my first kitchen job and I loved it.

5 Tips for Crushing the Working Interview

A long tradition in restaurant kitchens is the working interview. The purpose is threefold: First, the perspective employer wants to see the level of skill and experience a candidate possesses. Second, it’s a chance to see how the candidate interacts with their potential co-workers. Last, it’s an opportunity for the candidate to evaluate the job and to fully commit to it. While the working interview is less common in other industries, it has served restaurants well.

Be there and ready 10 minutes early.
Promptness is a very attractive trait in a job candidate. If someone asks you to come in at 3pm, 2:50pm is even better. You need a few minutes to get your chef jacket on, your knives organized and your head in the right space. There’s a large direct benefit to you as well: you won’t feel rushed. There’s nothing worse than trying to be on time just to miss a bus or get lost in an unfamiliar part of town. Take extra time and not only will you arrive calm, cool and collected, but your future chef will know you’re a serious cook.

Wear clean clothes.
It’s actually totally fine to show up in casual pants and a t-shirt, as you’re probably going to be wearing a jacket or an apron anyway. Most restaurants expect/accept a certain level of casualness (but do your research; The French Laundry may have different expectations than the local pub.) What’s most important is looking clean, and not smelling of some other restaurant, cigarettes or worse. Chefs consider hygiene to be very important – especially as health inspectors have become stricter through time.

Bring sharp knives.
If you have your own knives they should be well cared for and sharp – really sharp. A savvy chef will likely ask you to chop parsley or some other herbs. They might not even need the parsley, but they’re looking for how well you perform. If your knife is dull and your technique is weak, the parsley is going to oxidize into a muddy shredded mess. If your knife is sharp and you know what you’re doing, the parsley will look fresh and vibrant. Chefs notice these details.

Be friendly to your potential co-workers.
Say hello and be polite. You don’t need to be the life of the party, but present yourself as someone who is good to work with. At the end of your working interview the chef is very likely to ask the other cooks (and servers) what they thought of you. This is a large factor of the working interview. The chef knows your experience from your resume, they know your interests and background from the first interview, but they don’t know how well you play with others.

Ask thoughtful questions.
You might know everything about cooking, but you don’t know anything about cooking for this restaurant. Every line is different; just as every chef has their own take on even the most classic of sauces. Good questions show your knowledge of culinary technique and tradition. You should look over the restaurant’s menu before the interview and pick out a preparation you’re familiar with. If they show you some ingredient from that dish on the line, ask about how they set up their mise or how long the fire-time is. The trick is to show you’re not only knowledgeable, but willing to learn.

Bonus! Tell the chef you want the job.
If you want the job, tell the chef. If the menu excites you and you want to learn the techniques, tell the chef. If you think you can contribute to the team, tell the chef. It’s that simple.

A Natural History of the Chef’s Hat

Chef-Hat-JD-001-

Tall Hat, Funny Picture.

Look up. Don’t see it? Look to the cook standing next to you. What the hell is that white bulbous growth coming out of the top of his head? And who thought that fire hazard would be a good idea?

If you haven’t yet gotten what I’m getting at, I am talking about the once omnipresent Toque Blanche. No, it has nothing to do with weed, but it is pronounced the same way. The Toque Blanche (often shortened to just Toque) is a white cloth or paper hat traditionally containing 100 pleats to represent the hundred ways a professional chef can cook an egg (or ways they can use each English profanity).

History has conflicting accounts on who first thought up this kitchen accoutrement, but for your reading pleasure I have chosen only the most entertaining stories.

Our story begins in 7th Century Assyria, long before the invention of modern cooking appliances or tattoo sleeves of pork-cuts. Now don’t get too big of a head (your toque may no longer fit), but Assyrian chefs in the royal household wore pleated caps, essentially cloth versions of the king’s crown. This represented their position within the king’s court and also the kitchen. Those cloth crowns (and the stature that came with them) acted to protect the royal family: Treat the chefs like royalty, crown and all, then they won’t poison the real royalty.

Let’s step forward a whole millennia to the Byzantine Empire, the next culture in history to take credit for the Toque. Byzantine accounts claim the Toque didn’t come about to protect royalty, but to protect the educated chefs who found themselves heavily persecuted because of their bourgeois positions. The church took them in (knowing who really brings in the bacon), and they donned the clothes and hats to fit in and survive. Being just as scared of God as the people trying to kill them, chefs later adapted the priest hats to the white, pleated form of the toque today to avoid being smote by God.

Steve Martin

Next up, we visit the British Isles. The Brits couldn’t leave their legacy out of it either (did their empire ever?) and many accounts have them taking credit for the proliferation of the Toque Blanche. Legend has it that the “Almighty” King Henry VIII found a hair in his bowl of soup. You know what happened to that chef. The next chef, hoping to avoid the same fate began wearing a hat to keep his hair where it belonged. They say the rest is history. Keep your heads, gents!

Liberté, égalité, fraternité! It’s a little ironic of the French to turn this all further into hierarchy by adding different heights to each Toque within the kitchen to display status. This change along with the formulation of the modern chef uniform (double breasted jacket and toque) is credited to Chef Marie-Antoine Carême of the 1800’s. He is believed to have had one tall hat, 18 inches with a full 100 pleats (something Napoleon could have used!)

Now, in my humble and “unbiased” opinion, the most important change to the chef hat was made by us Americans in the form of the un-pleated baseball cap and low profile bandana. We have a way of matching the functional to the awesome.

Now if you want to get your hands on Poached Jobs’ very own rendition of the bandana, shoot us an email at blog@poachedjobs.com with your restaurant name and address.

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Toque it up!

I was a Teenage No Call/No Show

Ok, so I was in my 20’s, but I was living the Spartan day-to-day of a teenager. I had just returned from an extended stay in Alaska and just wasn’t feeling like getting back to work. I was wishing for a perpetual summer in the face of the coming rain in Portland, OR.

Part of me thought ‘get over it’ and I tried my best to get back to working. I picked up two jobs in short order. I got some lunch shifts at a little neighborhood café near my friend’s house, and some night shifts bussing at a really nice place in a trendy area across the river. For the first few weeks everything went as planned. I worked my AM shift, hustled across town and bussed tables for the PM shift.

One day I worked my morning shift like usual, but as I was counting out my tickets something felt different. I thought about waiting for the bus and I just shuddered. I didn’t want to cross the river. I didn’t want to clear plates and pour water for well-dressed people. I didn’t want to collect a wad of hand-me-down dollar bills. I wanted to go hiking.

So I went hiking.

It was a pleasant enough hike, and a nice enough evening. It barely crossed my mind what I’d done. Even the next morning I felt fine with it. To me I was just a replaceable cog in the restaurant machine. If I didn’t show they’d have a new body hired within days – no big deal. So I went on with my life.

Years later, I was hiring a lead server. I went through the candidates’ resumes and arranged the interviews. One of the names felt familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it. It wasn’t until halfway through the interview I recognized her: She was the other busser, the one who had to cover my section years ago. What was worse is she recognized me straight away. Or at least I thought she did. She made a lot of effort to emphasize her “Professionalism” and her “Follow Through.” She felt that she was “Always dependable” and “wouldn’t ever think of letting her team down.” She also made a lot of eye contact as she reiterated her “respect for the jobs she’s worked.”

I called her later that day and left her a message offering her the job. She didn’t call back.

In the restaurant industry, reputation is everything. People want to work with people they know and trust. It doesn’t matter if you’re hiring or trying to get hired – If you’ve done right by your community, they’ll do right by you. And that’s why No Call/No Show is a big deal.

 

 

 

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