Wednesday, October 31, 2007

....meaningful work

Edit: Word count for the night: 1278.
First sentence: It doesn’t take long for stories to turn into legends in the restaurant world, where before you know it the prep guy missed a day because he left in the middle of the night back to Mexico or else ended up in jail, nobody can track him down, and there he goes right into legend.

Memories of Halloween's past. The changed weather. There was the Greenwich Village Halloween party the year I lived in New York. When I waited patiently for midnight to pass so I could start Nanowrimo. When I wrote a fifty thousand word Nano novel because I had a soulless office job with virtually no job duties.

That was another life, so long ago.

If novels are mostly what I read why do I balk at writing them? Why not go boldly forth and be what I've always wanted to become?

I have crazy and silly ideas. I hear my characters in my head and they're tired of waiting around for me and i'm tired of getting home and saying food or writing? shower or writing? de-stress from working upwards of sixty hours a week or writing? What must it be like to be a non-creatively driven person who can go to work and come home, be fulfilled, not need to spend all their free time in pursuit of other vocations? What is it like to be able to relax every night? I don't know that feeling. I have these ideas to get impossible things done and it's I just think about the things I want, or do I do them? How do I create the space to get them done? Especially when both my jobs are asking for more of my time, for this month or from now on? I'm in a field where you don't say no to more work, you

A novel is not an idea I had in college. Or graduate school. A novel is not a vague goal. It need not be stuffy or sanctimonious. But is it the right goal? Is it where marketable, funny, informed and prescient writing most belongs? Is it vain to think (no, to know) I'm good?

I am good...but what do with it and when and how. New story ready to send out...but sometimes it feels like more of the same. Lateral. No larger end in sight, no book contracts awaiting me. I'm not in this business for the money or the fame but because it's what I need to do with my life. And now I just need to find time to do it. No more excuses.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

little moments

Spend the afternoon enrobed in sunlight, the air unmoving, a little sweaty, suggestive perhaps.

Go up to the big hillside and watch the Soapbox Derby. Swoon over Elvis in his white jumpsuit with rhinestones and not care how it makes you come cross.

Discuss baking as a series of difficult decisions. When or how much or how long. Discuss the cryptic text message I know why CF lets the batter rest overnight, the joy it brought, the way to break down the process into the most tiny details. Molecules of air and water. Membranes. Creating things and breaking things down. Remember your boss by the stove the night before, the lengthy discussion of candying, how the line cook with baker envy sidled up to you later to ask what that was all about. How you watched the rinds waiting for the moment of translucency.

Sleep. Sleep in. Discuss the joys of baking again on the way up the hill, get off the phone to meet someone, watch the dance your eyes and arms and legs do. How you move around one another, how you move up the hill and down and find your way into a bar by three or so. How it's so endearing, a girl who drinks beer in the afternoons. How it shocks you for a moment when she does not know who Anthony Bourdain is. Recall the journalist who was going to look up your blog and wonder if she ever did, and if you will see her some time in the Mission.

In the backyard garden, tell all the old stories. Laugh at the most painful and familiar moments. Open yourself up to the joy of the garden, the light, this new person who you already know you will call soon. What a touch means, accidental or not. What the contradictions of language reveal. Whether in the end you have said anything at all.

Take great joy in the day. A day off. A day you wanted to spend baking and writing and cleaning the house. It is okay to be out in the afternoon. It is okay to be shirking all of your responsibilities and passions for the sunlight and good conversation and finding space for new people so that you are a little more at home here.

(The word friend is such a funny word. At what point does it become okay to use it? And how is the offer given or revoked?)

Return home buzzed and happy, get out the battery of cookbooks. Piles of apples. Graventeins, Sierra Beauty, Pink Lady maybe? There is enough butter for pie dough.

Realize that you forget to tell your friend the thing you realized about work last night as you were baking home and so you will need to talk again, and by the time you talk there will be apple pie and apple butter.

Start to clean. Start to cook. Read over the comments from your writers group on your last piece and think about moments in angles, shards, what your characters want, how their dreams or goals may resemble yours or not, how you feel inspired these days much of the time, how it makes you by turn giddy or quiet, how you realize the same thing these days over and over

and you know it

but you don't know how to do it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

cranking up the pie factory

Today was all about batch sizes. Breaking down the recipe that calls for a 20 qt. mixer into a fourth of its size to try it in the 5 qt. kitchen aid. Realizing a quart of base is not going to yield many pies and that you will be able to fit 2 quarts in the kitchen aid, though three would probably be a lil tight. Kind of like the cream cheese frosting at the cupcake shop...

I am making caramel pumpkin pie and whiskey pecan pie, both in sucree shells. Why? because sucree is the dough that will be provided to me off the farm, in 8" disposable shells. The recipes are historic (and no doubt, storied). When no one could find the farm's recipe for pumpkin pie we got the green light to use my predecessor's recipe for caramel pumpkin pie. I made it, gave some away for tasting, decided it was well meaning but boring and I certainly wouldn't take it out on a date, and tried some things to ramp it up. Better, but also going up on the size of batter in the mini tartlet shells caused them all to crack. Who would have thought an ounce could be so powerful? Today I baked them in the entremet (to use my new vocabulary word) and got nice shells. That said, it was a bitch squeezing the entremet back on prebaked shells, and definitely not for the faint of heart! And, the dough is *still* fragile beyond anyone's belief except for maybe those I gave tarts to who found lil packages of exploded good intention.

I realized it took an hour to prepare a batch that yields 24 mini tartlets, and 3 to 4 big ones (depending on which size I use). It takes so long because I've got to wait for my sugar to caramelize and then I've got to pour on all this cream (which should be infused, but the guys threw out the herbs I was drying and I just didn't feel like dealing with it today)

The whiskey pecan pie is much quicker and takes half an hour to throw together a batch of base but the process just might get you drunk. No joke. I tasted one of the dried cherries we'd been soaking in Jack Daniels and it was like a shot. Then I had to measure out my intoxicated peaches and cherries and those fumes were overpowering. And then I had to get 3 oz. of Jack for the batter, and then when I realized the entire process only yielded me 18 mini tartlets *and* didn't utilize all the space of the mixer, I made a 2 quart batch. And had to taste test the first. One square inch of pie=another shot.

I'd told my manager we needed 8 inch shells. How Am I Supposed To Know How Much Pie I Get From One Recipe If We're Not Baking Them in The Right Molds? I said during Thanksgiving meeting 2. And while she was not able to get me 8 inch shells from the farm she stopped at Safeway before work to get 4 shells and another giant bottle of Jack because I spent last week soaking 1 pound of peaches on 2c Jack and 3 pounds cherries in 6 c Jack...hence the dizzying effect of eating just one on a baker going off three hours sleep and little food.

We tasted the first batch of the whiskey pie together and after one bite my manager had a reaction that didn't entirely surprise me: This Is Not What He Made Last Year, she said.
More Fruit? More Whiskey? I asked. The recipe called for a paltry ounce of each dried fruit, which was like 6 cherries and a peach half. I hoped it was just a matter of punching up the goodies in the batter and not the recipe being entirely unlike the written recipe, and therefore lost.
Add More Stuff she declared, and she helped me dice pecans so we could get everything tossed in there to get me a batter that weight about 6 pounds and will bake one each of 7, 8, 9 in tarts and 12 perhaps minis.

So we are getting there for numbers and for quality control. Next up is timing, and how long to prebake the 8 inch shells for. Since they're made in deeper pie pans the filling takes longer to cook and getting the prebake to the same golden color as everything else means the edges will burn, which means I should probably go for anemic coloring on the prebake...Timing and product duration. Can I freeze the pumpkin filling? How long can it keep in the refrigerator?

I'll be stopping in midweek some time once I get the restaurant schedule (how lucky for me both jobs are in the same neighborhood) to test bake the product over the course of the week.

Today we were all getting in one another's way. I had mise all over the bakeshop for these pie projects and had other products cooling and my prep cook pal kept shoving it back over on my table where I'd just cleared space to fill shell. My manager kept summoning me over to try to make excel work on the computer. Secrets come out and surprises leave everyone curious and hesitant.

But there were some moments throughout the day of gratitude. Being grateful that my manager and I are on the same page concerning the Thanksgiving pie factory, that she does not want to burden me unfairly and wants foremost a good quality product delivered in a reliable timeline, and that these are exactly the things I want. That she remembered we were out of whiskey. That she found a way to get me 8 inch shells, because she understood I couldn't really be giving her accurate information without it. To my chef and my sous chef at the other job, because even though I think I would be preparing my mental mise in the same way were it not for the restaurant job, who can really say? When someone's forced patterns start to become yours in an automatic way it's hard to tell, and each time I found myself reaching for the pen holder on the left arm of my jacket hoping to find an offset there I felt somehow less alone.

A coworker and I at the restaurant were helping savory people prep party apps the other day. I was supposed to be minding the pastry station but was really just making cornets to have on hand and watching the garde manger person slowly begin to get in the weeds between the party stuff and the normal tickets. When she skittered off to the back for something I asked my coworker who was helping out with the party if we shouldn't prepare another platter of apps since there were about five lingering on a plate. I started punching flatbread circles and she got to work quenelling toppings. The cutter consigned to the job was a dented, dull pathetic lil thing and as I slammed into it with my hand I said somewhat plaintively to my coworker:

Chef Would Never Make Us Use Something Like This. And I held it out to her, so she could see.
Chef Would Never *Have* Something Like That, she countered.

And were we to even be doing something like that, we would find a way to do it more efficiently in the first place.

Sometimes it's nice to know what you have. In things or in people. What you can rely on them for. And then in turn what you owe them. I've been at FH long enough to know what I can expect to have (but the new job is still too new) but it's still great to feel backed by my manager, and like we're in accord. Fairly soon I hope to have an idea of the number of pies one person with another full time job can prepare in the off hours (what off hours, anyway? My boss just called and before asking me to run the errand she asked me to run, she was like You're Not Asleep? No {sigh}. I did not tell her that I'd just eaten dinner and spun my ice cream).

I'm looking forward to the rest of product testing. Though I am somewhat afraid of passing out due to some sort of secondhand drunkenness from that whiskey aroma. Hot damn.

Where, and how, did that recipe make its way to FH?

Lastly, per gratitude, today I saw the xmas order form and asked my manager what she was expecting xmas to entail, because (tho I didn't tell her this)I'm pretty sure it's going to be crazy with parties at the restaurant around that time. The menu items they'd listed were all farm products, same as the Thanksgiving stuff, or strange cakes my predecessor had been tasked with. Flipping through the large and disorganized binder I found strewn like lil gifts those recipes, should I need them. Generous and unexpected.

Sleepy. Working a double tomorrow. Road trip last night left me home at one am, dios mio.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

circuitry of kitchens

I had the good fortune last Friday of spending the afternoon in Berkeley with Maryusa of Recipes for Trouble. After a much needed cup of coffee from Peet's my brain started working again and so I was able to figure out where we needed to go for the promised afternoon pastries. Masse's was mentioned as was La Farine, which my FH manager just adored. I'd had a bite of her La Farine croissant earlier in the day and was a little unsure, given the chewiness of its crust was a few short blocks from Ici, and when I'm in the East Bay I like to do as much as I can because I know I won't be back for some time. So we drove off to the cute lil bakery and split a piece of chocolate pound cake and a lemon shortbread. We didn't discuss the pastries much...they were all right but less than wonderful...but instead spent the afternoon talking about writing, food, cooking, feeding people, the self-aggrandizement of the bay area folks...and she had to go at 4:30 but I'd been talking up Ici all afternoon so, of course, we had to go to Ici first and were lucky enough to find parking spot right outside. Then we had to taste every flavor, ask about flavors that weren't featured I'd been instructed to try (pumpkin ice cream sandwiches, quince sorbet.) And when we were *finally* settled (Maryusa with a cone of apple sherbet, me with a cup of apple sherbet + malted banana), she sighed as if she'd found Xanadu and wondered if there were any possibly way she could see the back.

Well Yeah Maybe. I shrugged. If Mary's Here...I Know Mary. We'd met over the summer and then I'd seen her again just hte week before when I'd stopped in with her employee/my friend for the persimmon ice cream since I'm trying to understand persimmons. But it wasn't as if going in back of Ici to visit Mary were something I'd normally do. Still, what with Maryusa wanting to put up a cot and stay the night, I asked the counter girl if we could go back.

{I feel like people normally have that reaction to Ici. I have that reaction to Ici. You have to give yourself over to the process and try every flavor and wait and wait. It's not like a normal ice cream store. But you will be rewarded if you do so, or else you'll go away grumbling what all the fuss was about but only because you didn't do it properly, and if you do, you might be compelled to go back frequently}

So we go in the back and Maryusa chats up Mary and I look around at all the busy, quiet workers and then get around to asking Mary my sorts of questions (when will you have quince+why is the sherbet this consistency today), discussing the mastic ice cream from my job, discussing FH, and then when we go back to the front tell Maryusa all about how I met Mary and in the process I realize how completely small, circular and self perpetuating this community is.

Boston was never this way. I knew meaning hung out in the kitchen of and staged with, probably the best pastry chef in town. Though her only real competition would be from Rick Billings at Clio. And she knew people, certainly, meaning when she wanted advice from the owner of one of hte Three Good Bakeries they could chat it up, and she used to work for the owner of the Second Bakery, and they got their bread from the Third. Tight, sometimes, but not necessarily in a way where there's an exchange of information, an interdependency, a way in which the cook network can seem all consuming.

But when I saw I know Mary, I have to expand on how my bosses both know Mary, and then they know each other, and how I hang out with Mary's employee who knows one of my bosses, and how Mary's husband is chef at the restaurant where my FH boss used to be pastry chef...and it only goes further out.

SF feels like a town sometimes. Small and homey. But it also feels like an isl;and of narcissists. I have made myself a part of htis tiny community where we all pass on our ideas, where we can and do talk about ice cream base for hours, where we know cooks all over hte kitchen and have worked for and with one another's friends, bosses, former bosses, and so on. I always thought of SF as a place full of people who were too self important. Who had their niche in their worldview and who were disinterested in expanding. My old roommates in Oaktown were that way...everything they did pertained to one interest.

I am starting ot see it in myself. But I am too caught up in the currency of exchanges out here to know whether it's a good thing or not.

Another intriguing offer has found its way to my email inbox and I am considering it. Details to follow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I need some.

Very stressful non work situations impeding into my life. They ebb and flow and no matter how much work I can do to get them better in a given day (which is like, five minutes before I head to work) they only subside for a while before they come back. I'm stressed out and worried about these things and cannot take much direct action and it wears you down. It wears me down.

On top of it is the writing I'm doing or not doing. My writers group is being fantastic enough to give me comments on my piece even though I couldn't go to the last meeting due to work scheduling and told them I might have to drop out for a while due to work.

I had the best meal last night when I got home from work {at 12:30, because right after the last table had ordered dessert at ten and I was preparing to wrap things up a new table sat down, so I did not get out till midnight and in the end they didn't even order dessert. Their loss.} I was starved in that crazy way where your head hurts and there isn't anything open and all I had at home was spinach pasta. So I ate it with a little butter and parmesan and lots of pepper and salt and it was divine. I've actually got to go eat now, before work, since there's little guarantee of getting anything much before 4:30. Those prep cooks tend to gut the family meal.

I have been craving more balance or a while but then all I do when I get out of work is talk about work or else prepare to feed myself. Yesterday I made pumpkin pie ice cream base before leaving for work...or I finished up the one I started Monday night but was too tired to finish after my dairy infused with spices.

Tonight. No cooking. Which is fine because I don't have anything to cook anyway, just pounds of apples and some ripening persimmons, half and half and rice and oatmeal, but, cooking. Though I have a feeling I'll somehow end up talking about food anyway or confessing all my thoughts from Saturday at the FB....

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

you might think the boundaries of the kitchen end outside the door

we think about it all the time, we myopically scrutinize our interactions, we project our fears onto others, we talk about it obsessively outside of work, we put everything we have into it and expect everything out of it and when things stall we are frustrated outside of proportions. Or maybe that's just me.

(as I said this morning)

You empower someone in certain ways when you call them chef. In places I've worked the savory chef has always been chef but as much a token of otherness as a gift of respect. You do not do what I do. You are not on my team, though we are all together. Calling the leader of your lil pastry world Chef is a different and more meaningful enterprise. In culinary school our chef of course wanted to be called Chef, but since there were seven of us fierce neophytes and one of him, we eventually all bonded past the point of professionalism (wine with lunch, discussion of sex lives, forays into cured meats, etc, going to a bar after class). Then we began calling him Cheffy. Now he works at least 80 hours a week teaching classes of 20 and probably no one calls him Cheffy, that mixture of respect jostled by familiarity and friendship.

Until now, every other boss I've had has been a first-name basis. Is it coincidental that I did not respect them (with the exception of Maura)? When you let someone be your chef (as opposed to your boss, or your colleague), you give them that power over you and it's a power that people not in kitchens don't seem to understand. I've named characters Chef in stories and had people question me: I Don't Understand Why Everybody Calls Her Chef. Surely She Must Have A Name. Her Best Friend Would Call Her By Her Name.

Not If She's The Sous Chef.

At the cupcake shop, my boss took everyone to see Ratatouille, and she took all the FOH and BOH staff out to dinner (I managed to miss all of the above for various reasons). One of her employees house-sat for her, hung out socially with her, and got rides home all the time. This one was the clear favorite and she even got paid more than anyone else {don't ask how we knew this; secrets will out themselves}. My FH boss invites me for holiday dinners, but she doesn't supervise the work I do or even necessarily know what items I'm working on unless I tell her. She even wants to call me the pastry chef but I don't claim that title because I think it's silly to have a part time pastry chef. To give someone all of the nominal prestige but no hours, limited ingredients, and six hours of prep time in a work week.

It's an underground hierarchy and when you title someone your chef it gives you both certain roles. It's unsettling and feels dangerously foolish sometimes to slip out of that boundary and address your chef by their real name. You know it's a bad idea. But if you are not at work, you're not sure why. If your chef is before you and you are not in a kitchen and you are not wearing whites, what rules apply? I did not call my chef "chef" when were in the same social scene for a while this past weekend. But I did introduce myself to her friend by saying: Hi I'm Lindsey I Work For... Which is such a conditional identity, but seemed the most appropriate thing to say.

You get used to it, the hierarchies of the kitchen. You learn the patterns. Last night the sous chef was telling one of my coworkers to stock up the kitchen with supplies. I was cutting cake rounds...and cutting things evenly and in straight lines is not my strong suit, so I was trying really hard to be slow and careful {it's sad but true, I am not joking. My old boss used to yell at me all the time for not being able to cut a cake in 12 even pieces, but no one in my family has good spatial perception}. So my coworker would come back with 2 pots, and then mill about back to other other project. We'd say, no, look for the ladles, make sure we have enough containers. You learn to see what a kitchen needs. Each time she left we'd call out additional items after her: Sheet Pans! Half Sheets! Spatulas!

This is often how you learn in the kitchen: People tell you, and tell you, until you learn to see. Sometimes learning to see means you have to say No I Don't See How That Is Different. And then looking again and again until you can see it.

For anyone in the Bay looking for sahlab root--as opposed to sahlab powder, and if you want to know the difference you may certainly ask--I asked at Samiramis yesterday when I was buying basturma for work. They used to stock it...but few people bought it so they stopped. I asked if they'd get some if I wanted some. If my job wanted some. The owner did not say yes exactly, but he seemed to indicate he'd consider it. He told me it would be expensive, about $3/oz. But I think the Oleana people paid $100 for a pound! So that seems not expensive to me. Sahlab, I want it. Perhaps if there are enough of us, we can acquire it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

an invitation has been offered...

And I'm going to be a guest blogger here. I'm supposed to offer my opnion about various matters pertaining to writing, the literary community, MFA programs, etc. etc.

BUT I do have clearance to also write about food as it pertains. Should I write about food? About the fetishization of my industry in mainstream and other media? Should I write about the trends in food blogging, in cooking by-the-cookbook or bloggers getting book deals? {snippets of a conversation in La Farine make me smirk} Or how about how what you see of my industry leaves out the queers? (and the women and the fussy pastry chefs) How we're all participating in the myth of the patriarchal kitchen when we buy into the hype.

Or should I establish my street cred as a writer first? Perhaps discuss life-after-the-MFA, my fancy-pants writers group where people comment on NPR and do readings with Steve Almond? Talk about how online publications don't segway into getting your work accepted into journals? Talk about the reductive work of much queer literature and the trend of butch girls becoming tranny bois, female spaces becoming male space, otherness becoming not-male, and the diminishing size of my dating prospects because I don't play those games? {no, wait, that was just the conversation I had}

Time to go shower and then head to work. I'm not working tonight but I'm doing the ultimate geek thing and dropping to eat some dessert. Worked all day, talked about pastries for 2 fucking hours, put some pumpkin puree in the fridge to drain for pumpkin clafouti...and I have a lot more to tell you, so much really, but I wanted to let you know about Fringe as the borders of my world crumple in on each other again.

What news/whose news can I carry forth? Where should I begin?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

plating, deeper

Last night, we had just over fifty on the books so I made sure to have twenty at least of everything on hand...and, this is dumb, did not think to replenish the stock of defrosted chocolate goodness (that needs hours, if not overnight, to come to temperature) when I took the sheet tray of 21 to the station. Never making *that* mistake again because last night was one crazy Wednesday night.

For some reason everyone was VIP that night. From some magazine or friend of the chef or whatnot, do you need a reason? No, you don't. If they weren't VIP then it was their birthday and they needed happy birthday written on their plates and I'm still working on that skill set, so I had to go off and find a coworker who could do it with more finesse.

The window would be full of tickets, the oven a sea of bake to order desserts we were trying to get out efficiently and the chef would come over needing VIP items, so I'd drop the warm desserts for my coworker to plate, bust out the VIP items, and try to rejoin the fray. Where are we? What's been fired? What do we need? We get those in the oven yet? Meanwhile more tickets coming in, tables ordering the whole menu, the chef back sending out another special item to somebody, another birthday. The supply of chocolate desserts is trickling down. I pull some more from the freezer at some point, but it's sort of a lost cause. It should have been done the night before, or when I got to work, and we're running low on our other bake to order item, too, but the dining room is fairly empty it's jut that everyone's ordering massive amounts of dessert, and what's wrong with that? That's a victory for my kind.

All in all last night we had just over fifty percent dessert sales. All of that within about two hours. I didn't actually get on the station till 8 or so. I was in the back tinkering with things. I planned to work on my chocolate handwriting and plate things as they came in...but I got out one letter H and worked straight through the next two hours until around 10:15 the last table ordered desserts and then it was time to clean everything up. I guess it's moving in that direction of intensity...time to step things up, at least the stock of what we have on hand. Great to be so busy, definitely, but was I prepared for that kind of rush on a Wednesday? No.

There's a party tonight. Tonight is another night to try to factor the rhythm of last night into the learn as we go model. There are so many decisions to be made all the time and if you hesitate at all it's no good. Running around the restaurant in search of better handwriting than mine...I could have tried, yeah, but trying for five minutes when realistically it would not have been wonderfulness would have been a waste of time. The thing to do is practice, at home or on less busy nights. Time, the most crucial resource. If my nice warm dessert has ice cream melting away because I'm calling for a runner but no one's looking then what good is any of it? If I take the dessert out to defrost at nine, what good is it? How to manage it most effectively is what we're all looking for, how to make the right decision every time, how to have your quenelle perfectly ready to come off the spoon the first time, how to anticipate the needs you might have later. The needs of your coworker and your boss. How to remember to be nice to the servers, how to get them on your side. This is all part of the plating duty.

A couple hours sleep and go to FH and continue the discussion of the Thanksgiving pie factory...then roaming around Berkeley with much discussion of food and writing.

What I forgot to say is this: it was all really quite exhilarating. And moving toward a sense that all our hard work was bearing fruit. My team, my enormous team of coworkers...we're there all the time, giving everything we have and then some, ten hands in a pretty and well-stocked kitchen. I biked home last night and called a friend, sank onto the sofa in that muddled emotional state. happy+tired+adrenaline high+humbled by mistakes.

Monday, October 15, 2007

eating locally, in nyc

if you live in New York City or state--or have friends, lovers, colleagues, etc, who do--perhaps you can help me help a friend of mine currently getting her Masters in New Media Journalism. She runs the Fringe blog and is super new to NYC living, and is doing her thesis project on eating locally in New York. I've put her query out to friends and colleagues and now I'm putting it out here.

Lizzie says:
Basically, we're focusing on how to get local food in NYC and may be traveling to upstate (or elsewhere in the tri-state area) to see some of the farms that supply it, as well as looking at people who farm in the city. However, it'd be fabulous if you could put me in contact with some upstate locavores/farmers...

I've clued her in to writers who are local food activists and serious food writers. I've set her on to chow, the nyc eat local people, the current issue of Gourmet and the New Yorker food issue, and I should tell her about the edible publications and Hudson Valley Table. But any other suggestions are appreciated.

The Hudson's experiencing a food renaissance. It's got foamed cuisine now.

Is it because the Zagat children went to Vassar or because locally sourced food got trendy or the population of NYC-living second home folks reached a critical mass? I should be happy for it, right? The density of seriously cute towns up there is exploding. When I worked on the farm sometimes Robert DeNiro's helicopter would fly overhead. He owned a place in that town.

But the more the Hudson Valley becomes a plaything for New York City, the more it is never going to be affordable for people like me. Meanwhile the river's still dirty, Potown itself is...meh, I love it but I'm crazy, and the economy of the towns next to those cute towns sprinkled throughout Ulster County is still depressed.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

dragging myself out into the world, or trying to

Writing...which means of course *not* writing. At Philz. I'm going to work on the cut-up story.

Tonight will find me at the Sister Spit reading, deep in the Tenderloin, in a creaking and quasi literary bar. I went to the tour's last SF reading. This one should be packed with animated and angry dykes, trannies, queers of all sorts and shares, and a lion's share of writers with former drinking problems. The writers will be funny and fierce and reckless in their use of grammar. They may be published in journals you've never heard of or they may have books out. They'll make me want to be one of them. A slightly dangerous and more glamorous version of myself. Their words will be messy and juicy and breaking and I'll feel over-educated and timid and I'll want to write new stories about the world I live in.

I think the chef world needs more chronicling, but different chronicling. The voice of the pastry cook, so rarely heard. The girl in the kitchen, ditto. Queer cooks, how many do you know? What you know of my industry is Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain, but there's so much more than that. Who do you read? What do you read? What do you know of the kitchen? Why do you come here?

Like the chef, the writer is a mysterious and overly romanticized figure. The hazards of the occupation are fewer, but you will drive yourself crazy just as quickly and your quest for perfection will be misunderstood. Intense and overly analytical circles, my two worlds. Long hours toiling alone. More questions than answers. The deeper in you go, the more you realize what you don't know. You want someone to help you, to give you all the answers, but the process is far too complicated to work that way. Normal people don't understand why you do it. And you have plenty of normal relationships in your life but when you're with another writer or another chef, you talk for hours about things other people don't understand.

{talking about rice pudding last week, my boss said that If You Understand How Rice Cooks, Then You Will Understand Why You Need To Sweeten It At The End. It's the sort of koan that makes me want to not go back to work until I figure out why but then I'd never go back to work because there is always more to know about rice, and sugar. But don't you all worry I'll be at work tomorrow, claro}

I am lonely these days for a balance in my life. I cook, and then I read and think about how I should be writing. I ride my bike to and from work and think about biking around to other neighborhoods and getting to know my new city more. I used to be a balanced person before all this food stuff happened to me. I'm trying to remember that there are more things that I like to do. That I'm not just the girl in the Sox hat working the line {perhaps you are surprised that I get to wear my hat at work. I was, too. But customers talk to me all the time!}

Once upon a time I liked to read, knit, play scrabble, watch burlesque, play pool, hang out in cafes, go to all the major museum shows, ride my bicycle, play video games, go to literary readings, go thrift store shopping, grow vegetables, take my dog for really long walks, go driving around, maybe go on a date with a girl I might like. I wanted to learn to: keep bees, fish, be a better gardener/grower, make fucking sorbet which I still can't do, write a screenplay, be a cowboy, get out of debt, work with chocolate, speak spanish.

The last thing I wanted to do? Learn to work with seasonal and local produce. {&how long will it take me to learn all I should know about fruit? How many lifetimes indeed}

Writing. Happening now. I want to tell you a story about the FPFM, but I don't think I should.

Friday, October 12, 2007

bits and pieces, the heat of the kitchen

Crying in public is freeing.

I wanna cry. I wanna cry. I wanna lay down on this rubber mat and fall asleep. Just wanna sleep.

A day of choices yesterday, and the autumn leaves in the East Bay breaking down my speech. Oh my god. Oh my god. My tiny tin heart.

I Have Something For You is the currency of the week. Sometimes it’s words of advice or concern. Lengthy emails up and down the hills. Are you still happy there? Or the cake tags on the El Cerrito-Richmond border along the expanse of industrial railroad track, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, because even though I didn’t have time I found them. And then wound my way through those familiar roads to the ice cream store on College Ave, a scoop of persimmon and one of rosemary pine nut brittle, and another gift.

We are all of us manic to talk. Talking for hours about ice cream base. It’s always been Claudia Fleming for me, milk kissed with slight cream and an abundance of egg yolks but this time, too sweet, but to cut it down by four and halve the sugar will it be okay? Will it all be okay?

I make my choice on that corner, lingering far too long, strategizing over the noodle kugel ice cream until it’s ridiculously past the time I should’ve pushed on to Oakland, but I go to Oakland anyway and find miraculously, or not, the thousand dollars in the mailbox of my old house, where no one lives any more. The on the road and the car feels good, the air, it’s getting to be fall and I’ve got an intriguing gift riding shotgun.

We are the sum of our choices and I am half an hour late, but I know how to blend into the crowd. Fake manners, nice smile, deferent tone, yeah I know this drill. And Stanford is just like Harvard, all old men with tufts of white hair, a sea of whiteness, and I smile and pass through.

Heat in the kitchen, even in an outdoor kitchen, how it crackles. I know the currency of that fire. We trade in it all day long. This chef is long brown hair piled on top of her head, cute glasses, hoodie peeking out under her chef coat, tall and lean. And screaming. We carry her frantic actions out beyond the borders, rush back, try to be good. Some time through service I feel a pang for the way she works the service. And I owned how I felt about plating just the other day but there I am Hey Chef You’re Missing A Garnish, And I Need A Wipe. With my little eyes on their details. She reaches for trays as she tells us to grab them but my hands are there already, my fingers a shade faster than hers and she takes the measure of me. Smiles. Back to work as my feet our of chef clogs start aching, back to work and I am reminded of a former friend who got into the business.

I Just Know What To Do she said, and we her roommates scoffed. I’ve written about this business. But I can’t seem to leave it behind.

What it initiative? What does it mean to take initiative? Especially when the par is perfection. And you’re still trying to gauge that measure in every mark.

I Just Know What To Do.

Spin and turn and heft the weight you haven’t hefted since May. Nod in deference, move fast, through tight spaces, curry favors with the chef. I Just Know What To Do. Order around the others, Hey You Is This Your Station Got To Get It Looking Like THIS.

There is even someone there from my restaurant, because this is such a small industry.

Sometimes you just know what needs to be done. You see the measure of it without needing to ask what needs to get done. You find your supervisor and tell them I’m Gonna Do This Now, Unless There’s Something You’d Like First.

How to take initiative. When you are a pastry assistant the first thing you learn is that you are replaceable. It’s often taken for granted that you are only passing through but you are made to feel it in every action anyway. Not like this. Like this. You Fucked That Up, I Don’t Know How. The boss himself is always confused, irritable, moving on anyway and you sense these currents in the air, tense your muscles. What few duties you are given are stripped down, changed, what was promised you in your interview was not given, will not be given. You are a girl with no name, an underground queer, in a damp basement or leaky old kitchen, you are in the corner, you are alone in the daytime with a room of people who don’t speak your language. What is appropriate, what are the boundaries, when is it okay to pull the plug on a failed work relationship? Moving on, moving on, it’s all you do, there will be someone else to take your place if you don’t like the hours or the pay or the menu. You do what you are able but the system falls apart on you, you remember one day screaming about apples and were surprised to find that rage in you, your boss leaves for an hour or so no explanation and is always outside smoking cigarettes or worse, staring at the traffic, he’s on his way out so it’s as if you’re never really there at all and the chef skulks, is that amber colored liquid in his glass what you think it is? What are the rules in this world when you do what you can, and that gets taken from you? When your questions are met with deferrals for a promise you eventually realize means nothing to anyone but you.

You could leave this world. Right? But you don’t. You never do. You move on and out across to where you think you need to be, to learn the things you know you are weak at. You move so far because there’s no mobility on the market at home. No chance of something better. Or different. You grow passive because more of the same is what you get on every trail, every phone conversation, and you know not to believe the promises.

Before you leave you have a brief, happy experience. It doesn’t always have to be this way, but for five out of seven of your culinary class it is. You describe everything that came before as Joyless. Where has the love gone? Where is the curiosity, the generosity?

The conversation continues, circular. You are all trying to get somewhere but sometimes it feels like you are alone. Your tiny tin heart. The big wide world.

Throw yourself into work, and the conversation. Intimate. Advice is given when it’s not asked for. It’s okay if you cry and work just cry and work. I just wanna be sleeping just wanna be sleeping But How Come You’re Not Happy You’re Working With ME?

What does sixty pies look like? You try to envision it. You ask around. You think is it fair, is it fair to me, is it fair to my other job, will I get any sleep? Can I ask for more money? You think it won’t be that bad if only you know how to prepare. Mise and go forth. Your valiant battle plan.

Why Do You Always Need To Please People?
But I Don’t.

I Don’t Wanna Get In Over My Head And Let Everyone Down.

I’ve Never Felt This Way Before SF. Happy At Work. Don’t Wanna Fuck It Up. {When you are made to believe that you are replaceable, that you are impermanent, how do you take initiative? Ask for more money? Can you say no? Refuse to bake all night? Can you let everyone down? Do you have to let everyone down, why do you see it that way, why do you think you are a bad worker? Especially when all you do is work?

You, who would rather be right than happy. How do you take the measure of yourself if you are always moving?

To have faith that the structure will hold we must not be afraid to break it down.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

plating versus production...?

Worked lunch today and toward the end of my shift as I was cleaning the station my sous chef came out to ask me if I wanted to make the sweat-inducing chiboust. If I Don't Do That Then What? I asked, cause if the alternative was something I'd been exposed to less I'd take that one. Or Clean, she said. So I took the chiboust.

I was Asking You Cause You Seemed To Really Like Doing It, she said.

Oh Yeah. I Do. Then I paused to clarify. It wasn't that I loved preparing this particular menu item. I'm So Much Happier Doing Production, I said. I Much Prefer It To Service. I Know I Have A Lot To Learn From Doing Service And I'm Down With That But It Doesn't Make My Heart Sing.

So I whisked frantically for some time and then we super cleaned the kitchen to Le Tigre, silently singing along cause neither of us can sing. I really like my sous chef and feel like we've kind of bonded. It could have started out as just a dyke thing but I tell her what I want, pester her to show me things I haven't gotten to do yet. While we were scrubbing everything down today I told her she was doing a really good job. Not That It Means That Much Coming From Me, I prefaced the compliment.

No, It Does, she said. Surprised. And now hours later I want to tell my coworker who is new to the industry that she's really brave. And I just emailed my boss some things that had been on my mind like how I love my job, because I think it's fairly obvious but it might not be. Is it a good idea or is it a bad idea to email things like that to your boss, I don't know, but it's honest. This post has me rethinking all communication lately, not just fictitious.

I called a cook friend on my way home and we fell into talking about work. Plating. I'd Rather Be In The Back And Mise Ingredients For YOU To Make A Cake Than Plate Desserts I said. Production calms me. Even if I am only punching out cookies on a sheet pan it makes me happy.

I know that plating desserts is important. I also really like my chef's style of plating. It makes sense to me, aesthetically. At Sonsie I was always befuddled by the choices my boss made in terms of plate components and in terms of plate design. We'd do a piece of mousse cake atop a giant peanut meringue, with a tiny line of chocolate sauce like a moat around the meringue. The meringue made sense because it was crunchy and added a texture but who wanted to eat an enormous meringue with really rich mousse cake and who wanted only a dabble of sauce? No, this job is not like that. The plates are lovely and there is a certain pride to it. Each time I draw the glassy, glistening caramel down the edge of the plate in a clean line and don't mess up the edges, I'm totally happy. Placing the fig garnish in a neat line makes me smile. I am even getting into the rhythm of plating again, after nine months without restaurant positions. Lunch is actually a lot faster than dinner and having the tickets pile up while I was still trying to unmold shy panna cottas from their ramekins didn't make me nervous.

So it isn't that I don't like plating. I just don't love it. I understand that it is necessary and I understand why. Production I love. Even when it's boring. Though I'll admit I loved it a little less at the cupcakery, because nothing ever changes.

But my friend made me see it a little differently. You Will Learn So Much About The Products, he said. Each Time You Handle That Cake You'll Understand It Better In A Way You Never Would Only By Baking It, he said. And it's true that I know how each piece feels day in and day out. That a component has different value to me when I see it as a tool.

I Think You'll Get To Like It Better, my friend said.

Will I not truly understand a panna cotta until I can unmold it efficiently? Because...and this is arms are aching, actually. So all you do is warm the outside of the ramekin in a bain, loosen the top edges of the custard, and then invert it onto a flat plate and shake the plate (with your thumbs on top supporting the ramekin) vigorously. Ridiculous sounding, yeah? My sous chef actually laughed at me when I told her my arms were sore.

Do I prefer production because I see myself as less good at plating? With all of its fussy precision. Do I prefer production because it's somehow, and this is ridiculous too, more butch to heft large Hobart bowls someone my size really shouldn't be lifting anyway, to bust out all the bread the restaurant requires for the day? I'm Getting In Touch With My Femme Side, I told my sous chef after I rearranged our flowers into two tiny vials of the ones that were still alive, keeping the prettier one for the pastry side of the pass. Between that and the handwriting.

Maybe...maybe it's not a versus thing. I'm willing to consider that it will teach me not just about precision, consistency and efficiency of movement but about the raw materials I'm working with.

I miss fall. So far it seems to be the only season in San Francisco that slightly mirrors the places I've left behind. The leaves turn brown show through with green, they crumple, their veins oddly vibrant. I pick some up off the Embarcadero on the way to work and hold them in my mittened hands, delighted. The air has the same weight and smells similarly and it makes me want to be home, on the other side of the country.

The apples are gorgeous, heroic in their variety. But even the tightness of their flesh reminds me of the East. It's October baseball and the Sox are in the playoffs (and the Yankees suck). Watching baseball makes me miss the shy and awkward enthusiasm of Bostonians.

I've got something really heavy and difficult in my life right now, and it requires me to act like a calm and rational adult all the time, and that is hard to do. Yesterday the situation got, oh, five percent better, which is something.

Last night after work I walked my bike home from the 24th St. BART in the rain and ran into my coworker from FH at his other job. You know you're home in a city when you run into your Mexican coworkers in distant parts of town and have conversations half English, half Spanish. I am here now, but this visceral longing unsettles me.

I've got Earl Grey ice cream base in the fridge, and orange shortbread cookies to make ice cream sandwiches, but what I don't have is the silky hot fudge sauce from work to drown it in. Tomorrow I am maybe, hopefully, eating persimmon ice cream and/or quince sorbet. Oh, and the noodle kugel ice cream is coming along. We have a plan. It is going to be fantastic.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

leave it hanging: more revision(ist) strategies

By the time I leave for work this afternoon the carousel story will be cut and hanging on my walls. More like an art exhibit that a written piece. This is the best strategy I learned in school, but you should only do it when a piece is almost there.

Cut the story up at its transition points. When do you flash forward or go into backstory, when do you jump space or time? Tape your components together. Hang them up sequentially. You'll see then how you have a three page backstory in the middle of a fiften page story, or how the information you know needs to be at the beginning of the story is buried on page 6. You'll find the holes. You will understand what's missing, what you have failed to say, how you have tried to address the problem with the father in three places, but are they all necessary?

At the end of a story, fiction is a ruthless enterprise. What deserves to stay on the page?

Who controls the content? Why do we trust that the frame will hold?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

edge city: revisionist strategies

Saturday night I took my bike down Folsom to Embarcadero, then down all the way past the Fisherman's Wharf crowd and out to Aquatic Park, then home via Polk to Van Ness with a stop for doughnut sampling at Bob's {I'm serious bout these doughnuts, man}. I meant to stop at Aquatic Park and walk out along the pier but it was blocked off for Flight Week. Some time ago I wrote a story and a pivotal scene ended up happening on that pier (only I didn't know it then, and the logistics of coordinating a story three thousand miles away that I didn't know was messy at best, but it was the only way to try to be here). It's a great place to see the city because you've got the tackiness of Ghirardelli Square at your back, Alcatraz Island lurking in the depths in front of you, and you can look toward the Golden Gate and open ocean beyond. I had some questions I needed to work out, and I needed to put myself in my characters' frame of mind for the stories that get edited once this carousel story is finished. Back to the chef cycle: the line cook, and the sous chef.

All of these pieces and the carousel too are so similar in sentiment. A professor I had once said that there are two plots for stories: A Stranger Comes To Town, and the other one whose name I forget. And all of these pieces are variations on that theme. Sometimes you meet someone so wonderful and you know that the sum of all you have isn't enough for that person but it's all you can give so you stand before them with your hands outstretched, knowing it's futile, knowing you have to. Because you are lovesick, or your mother is ill. Because you love another (you do, right?) but you are compelled. Because you are not enough alone. Because you want to believe in love. Because you are young. Because of her smile. His stutter, his red cheeks. The Stranger Comes To Town, and you are not so ill-prepared.

I needed to feel that painful emptiness and how the city melts around you as you move through it. How the water laps at the shore. How small it makes you feel. How you try to find messages in the street lamps and shards of conversation you overhear. Because at present there is no one that I can act so recklessly for.

I think for one I understand the line cook's story better now (though it is far from being good and will inevitably pose its own problems as I continue), and the carousel story will be easy to complete, but it's the sous chef's story that stumps me because its potential for betrayal is so total.

There is another short piece in the works about the inability to accept love when it's given.

These thoughts all beg another question: how do you know when it's right? How can you take it on faith that you will love something?

When I first found Claudia Fleming's cookbook in the library I loved it. I read it hushed and awed on the T, wanting to understand the ideas behind each choice, looking to decode its clues. I wouldn't return it to the library. I kept renewing it. When it had to go back, I'd wait and then check it out again. It was one of the last items I returned before I moved to Oakland and I'm pretty sure at the time it had late fines. But I only made one recipe from it during all that time. Having recently made a couple others I was confused and saddened when one resulted in an overly sweet confection. And I'm down with sweet things, but this was just wrong.

I don't *love* things frequently, least of all food, my own or anyone's. But I just missed my chance at the Saturday market to tell Mourad Lahlou how exquisitely perfect everything we ate at Aziza was, and how for two full days after every pause in conversation was a return to shared sighs. I made a list of the food I can say I've loved and it came down to six Bay Area chefs and three in Boston (three!) Recently I told someone I loved her food...or, rather I knew I'd love your food before I tasted any of it, and I do. How do you know when it's right when it's just an idea? How can you take it on faith? Why have I only had roast chicken that is PERFECT twice in my life?

And maybe that is what the story is missing. The faith that to heal the structure we first need to break it. Break it down. The guts to go all the way to the problem. Which is probably why I love that first piece so much {the one that takes place on the pier, in part}. It's a devastating scream from someone who has always been in utter control. It's the bid to keep the Stranger even as she's skipping town. It's the recognition that you are not enough, in all your failed grace, that you will not change, that your promises will not be kept.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

new york, day two

Thank you to all New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers for your wonderful suggestions.

So I said the pretzel croissant was all right. I forgot to mention the part where on day two I woke up and I had a breakfast destintion all planned out but really...I just kinda wanted another pretzel croissant. It's like how I felt about zaatar the morning after. Sometimes things just take a day to be brilliant to you. I *almost* bought another more than once that day...but I ended up with something even more instructionally interesting.

From the beginning, however: I woke up in my friend's dorm room at a too-early hour and due to my not having coffee hopped on a Brooklyn bound train. Figured out somewhere around Schermerhorn Street things were not quite right. My farmer was waiting for me, all dolled up in a pretty dress, by the time I got to West 4th, and we got the last available table in Patisserie Claude. Croissant for me, roll of cake for my friend. My croissant is buttery and flaky, and the coffee is good although I am initially skeptical, and we sit in the too-hot bakery amidst the other people who have no work obligations, maybe because it is Rosh Hashanah and the whole city seems to be free, and we tell each other the big news. I haven't seen her since February. She's one of those people I love so fiercely that we can't stop hugging, we find little excuses to touch one another, and as we walk down Christopher Street afterward I stop and take her hands in mind. I Have To Tell You Something. I tell her all about how I Love New York Again.

We both know what this means, and we get there, as I take a look at my notebook full of pastry suggestions and decide that if we walk down Spring Street we will hit three of my selections. The Hudson Valley House, one whatever town I can afford. I've been making calculations based upon this house for years now. Maybe I'll Be Bi-Coastal, I say, a sigh, San Francisco a kink in all my well laid plans. But not even San Francisco can take that upstate house from me. It's in my blood, or something {and I do have relatives buried in the cemetery in Wappingers Falls}.

On the bakery tour, I fall in love with Balthazar, which is so adorably European and otherwordly, but we're too stuffed from breakfast so instead we muscle past the hostess and stare at the pastries and I decide to save it for next time. Just a little further down the street is button-cute Ceci Cela, with the most luscious looking glazed puff pastry and pear tartlets I have seen Ever. Jewelboxes glinting in the sun. But I'm still too full for something so large, so settle for a financier, which is smaller in size. Almondy and brown buttery and fine, but as we walk around the corner arguing about which way is uptown I'm longing for the puff pastry.

My farmer demands real food and she kind of wants French, so when we stumble upon Cafe Gitane it's great. I'm wearing my Harlem shirt and when the cute server comments I mumble about how I used to live in Brooklyn. My farmer orders a lentil-cranberry-walnut and smoked trout salad, which she succeeds in making me try. And like, despite my mistrust of cold foods and suspicion of smoked fish. Seriously good. I was more than happy with my cucumber mint yogurt salad dusted with rose petals, topped with a mound of hummus and perfectly toasted warm pita points that were faint echoes of Aziza's wonderfulness. I *did* kind of want a lil sumac on my salad, and a dash more rose, but it seemed outside the lit of reasonable requests.
Sometimes you can sit in silence with people and it's better than talking. Sometimes it's okay that someone is three thousand miles from you because they love what they're doing and they worked so hard to get there, and since you love them you know it's for the best, even if your heart is jealous.

After lunch we walk to one more bakery, the Build A Green Bakery/Birdhouse endeavor. I almost buy another pretzel croissant, which, it's worth noting, is fifty cents cheaper at the 1st Ave./13th St. Green outpost than the actual City Bakery. I also almost buy a giant cookie, but instead go for the miso plum cake and stash it in my bag for the long bus ride home. My farmer catches a cab uptown and we try to say goodbye. Too many hugs. Kisses. Promises. I shuffle off to my old place of employment to use the Zagat guide and get directions.

I walked up to Kalustyan's and almost bought so many things. Reminisced about my friends' old Murray Hill apartment and nights spent wanting so many things. I'd walked so far that I was trying to remember the quickest way back to a subway without walking the ten or so more blocks uptown to Grand Central but couldn't recall and ended up in Herald Square catching the F to Canal, where it was just two exactly and I was going to have to wait an hour for the bus.

But at Canal you can catch the JMZ, and if you go one or two stops you're back on the Lower East Side which is not all that far from Doughnut Plant and though I've already got a pastry in my bag for the bus I think some sugar and caffeine will get me out of the so-tired-I'm-going-to-pass-out and back into happy. Doughnut Plant is smaller than I expected, at least the retail side. I inspect the doughnuts and ask the man: peach or blueberry jelly? There's a note that explains they've started making their own jams and jellies. Blueberry, he says, then grabs a fresh rack from the back room and turns out he's been a baker, too, so we discuss the life. Kitchens. I take a bunch of photos and leave, tearing into my doughnut on the walk toward Chinatown. Square doughnut. Blueberry Jelly. Vanilla Bean Glaze. I'm not expecting the way the glaze flakes apart onto my hands as I eat. I've never actually *liked* a jelly doughnut before, certainly not the Dunkies version, but the blueberry jelly is wonderful and falling all over my hands. I've got no napkin so I'm licking it up and continuing to eat and stumbling closer to Chinatown. I'm revived. I'm in love again. I can't wait to come back.

Lest you forget I still had the miso plum cake to eat. If there had been more plums...mountains of plums! As it was, the cake alone was kind of crumbly-dry and hard to eat, but when eaten with the juicy plums it was heaven. I sort of resisted eating it for a few hours because I had that doughnut aftertaste in my mouth and didn't want to ruin it. But the cake was so intriguing, and the whole time I kept eating it I couldn't stop thinking about my upside down cake dilemma. What else was the miso cake but another form of that (well, I'm sure it wasn't baked upside down, but what is the seed behind the idea? what shape does the form take?)? I didn't have to make something I didn't like. Even if it was Chez Panisse. Even if it always sold well.
After all that, I went home and ate BBQ and was then convinced into going for ice cream to JP Licks. I got my favorite choice from there: oatmeal cookie yogurt with caramel sauce. But I also asked to try a new flavor: noodle kugel. It was amazing. I'm going to have to figure out how they did it from the tiny tasting spoon bite I had. Milky, cinnamony, tiny shards of noodles.

What's Kugel? my friends all asked.
It's A Jewish Food...I said.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

the girls do it better than the boys

Bread, that is. Some lonely like cook wandered into our kitchen a couple days ago to use the big mixer, and I'm not sure what he did (or didn't do, more appropriately), but all of a sudden he was shoved aside and my boss was coddling his bread dough.

There was no salt, for one. So while she explained to him about the importance of salt, what salt's role is in dough, she finessed the right amounts of water and flour. He left. He didn't come back for a while, so she continued, taking the dough out of the mixer, kneading it into a bowl, whispering sweet nothings into its yeasty lil ear. One of the sous chefs came by and was like We're Supposed To Get It Like A Windowpane, Huh? That's What You're Doing?
Short answer, yeah.

As I was hastening to get my second pot of goodness on the stove, I saw how the sous chef was shaping the bread. I stopped. I've got about nine months of day to day bread experience-rolls, focaccia, cornbread, crackers, light wheat, potato bread, biscuits, pizza dough-on my resume. And he was treating the bread like he was a kid playing bouncy ball by himself and he had all day to shape those out-in-the-air lil rounds as if they weren't gonna get crusty. I planted myself next to the prep table, picked up a round of dough. Spun it in one hand, feeling the contours of the dough ride up against my fingers and tighten. Like A Baby's Bottom, my old boss used to say. It's a body memory.
Like This, I said. Feel This. Now Feel Yours. His were flabby. We loved this dough into existence for him and I was not gonna let him do the next step without giving him something to aim for. I barely had time for a mini explanation before my arms were overloaded with dairy and I was back to work.

There's this chiboust I've been making every day at the new job. Ostensibly it begins as a pastry cream, but all the body memories of pastry cream are stripped form it and the project's turned inside out. Yolks and flours, flavorings are whisked into hot milk and the entire thing is cooked on the stove, on extremely low heat.

But mostly it's being whisked like you're Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is after you. Did You Break A Sweat? my boss asked the first time I made it. Well You're Not Whisking Hard Enough.

if you can talk you're not whisking hard enough
if you breath in-out you're not whisking hard enough
if you can think you're not whisking hard enough
if your muscles aren't straining burning, if your hands aren't calloused
you're not doing it right

One of the guys said if he had to make this every day he'd hate his job but I just shook my head and bent over my task. Each time I come to it I notice something new. Each fresh batch is a chance to whisk it better, to see how it reacts each time some level of starch or dairy is cooked out and the mixture thickens. To take it less seriously is to risk ruining it. I was trying to explain to a friend while biking home last night why it needed this level of care. That's Crazy was all he said. I've got boys shirking at the thought of whisking something with all your might for the better part of half an hour, but you know? You figure out what the purpose of movement is, what it really means to whisk something, what you bring to the kitchen and what kind of compromiser you are.

Each time you try to do it with all your heart.

Oh, and per the bread: there is no jest here. It's the sort of thing where if someone told you that you'd be in a kitchen where talented chefs were doing amazing things, and coaxing every molecule of yeast into its full potential, and everyone around you would be all flushed and happy and you couldn't wait to get to work every day, you'd laugh because you wouldn't think it could ever be true that you oculd be handed such gifts.

Monday, October 01, 2007

CUESA Sunday Supper: the pear tasting

I was in a room in the top of the Ferry Building last night and everybody else was there, too. Well, almost everybody. The first and last course were prepping in the same room and the main course chefs were somewhere else. Fifty plates per team. I had no idea what my new boss was doing, but I met her by the FH shop, and ran into my old boss on the way. She was dropping off cupcakes, and acted quite happy to see me, but she must have gotten her table partners to plate them up for her because she never returned.

How's Your New Job Going? my boss asked. Your Chef Is Kind Of A Minimalist.
Really? I wrinkled my nose, reflecting on it. I wouldn't have picked that word.
Upstairs, as we unpack the coolers and I see the extent of what we've got to plate, I laugh and say I Understand Why You Think She's A Minimalist. We served the following eight components:

Vanilla-Tokaji poached Warren pears with pear sorbet, plum-raspberry sauce, raspberries, gingersnap cookies, candied fruit (lemon and orange), FH figs and frozen muscat grapes. The figs and grapes were FH; the berries were Ella Bella.

We lent some figs to the Slow Club boys who were prepping a salad. I watched Mourad Lahlou slather cheese with tomato jam and Elizabeth Faulkner work the room. Dessert got pushed back. The CUESA volunteers and assorted chefs kept stopping by to pop frozen grapes into their mouths. They were so sensual and a blessing in that hot room. My boss got all tense. I started plating. I've done enough banquet FOH stuff that they don't really make me all that nervous...I was more nervous-excited to be elbow to elbow with all these wonderful chefs.

When my boss oohed over the Aziza plates and said how she wanted to go I told her she needed to. And Go Somewhere Else For Desserts, I said, after explaining the loveliness of the food.
You've Been To Aziza? How Have You Been To Aziza? she asked, slight frown.

When the apps went out, we reclaimed the table and got to work laying down plates, taking the grapes off the stems. Apparently my boss put the recipe in the Bay Guardian and she was telling me about her process. Very funny how they wanted that recipe because it was basically: 1. wash grapes, 2. freeze them. I said she should have lied about a fabulous technique. But they were good. Really good. Reminiscent of those Alfieri grapes I got for about a month, the ones that were my reason for living.

The plates went from crowded but orderly to fairly cluttered what with the addition of more sauce, more grapes. The dessert time got pushed back and then pushed up. Clusters of assistants trailed behind chefs quenelling frantically. I tossed grapes. We lured the Slow Club boys into helping us because when someone tells you you've got twenty minutes and they says you've got five, well, what do you do? Sauce, wipe, grapes.

Afterward when the chefs went out to greet the public, the CUESA volunteers, the expediting chef and I conducted a dessert tasting. Almost everyone turned to pears. Elizabeth Faulkner's were poached and then bruleed with a sexy sugar crust. There were some tasteless components and then a nice, surprisingly salty pistachio pesto. Someone else's pears were poached and set on insanely dry cake. It just exuded moisturelessness {yeah, not a word}. Downtown Bakery had poached them and set them in a lattice crust but there was something unsatisfying about the texture of the pear, and something salty and not sweet enough about the overall dish. The Ritz placed apple compote in tidy squares on cake, the covered the whole thing with a pink peppercorn meringue {they used a foam cannister and I missed it}, huckleberry compote and a dried apple chip. Gorgeous but the flavors didn't mesh. Rubicon had large quenelles of mousse? pudding? chocolatey goodness, with the smallest eights of pears poached in honey syrup and orange peel.

The cupcakery, plain old chocolate cupcakes with a mint leaf garnish. It made me sad and it surprised me--because my friend had been telling me they were going to do an apple cupcake and they'd been testing it all month--but not entirely. They talk a good game on using sustainable ingredients and locally sourced everything. It's what attracted me to the job. But in the end it's a decision between which is more expensive, or expedient, or whatever. They were supposed to make the apple, but they got the apples too late and it got lost in the shuffle or a normal day. The Sunday Supper was a celebration of harvests, food, farmers. We didn't just all do pear desserts because we love them. We did them in the spirit of the event. The chefs at the Supper didn't need the publicity. They're already the top game in this town. Will the cupcake shop move slowly toward seasonality and using farm-fresh goodies? I don't know. But it's time to let go of them. Good things this new job is taking all of my time.

Sometimes you put what you want out there in the universe and it comes back to you in all kinds of ways. Saturday night there were fresh doughnuts, warm and adorable and redolent of my doughnut plant love.