Sunday, March 30, 2008

reading: amy bloom, away

I've been a big Amy Bloom fan for a while, ever since Love Invents Us. She writes mostly contemporary fiction (novels, short stories) and always features queer characters of some sort in her writing, which is something I always find really interesting. But I wasn't very excited to read Away, a novel set in 1920s America chronicling a Russian Jew searching for her long-last daughter via an overland journey from New York to Siberia. Originally it was Bloom's prose more than the story that won me over...the story seemed like a mishmash of all the other narratives of displacement, rootlessness. The plucky female heroine immigrant road trip, or at least that's how the logline for the movie would read.

I read the book in a day...can't remember the last time I did that. I had two MUNI rides to get started, and stayed up late turning the pages. The details were vivid, sharp, unique. There was the requisite backstory (think Beloved, think Lipshitz Six), a horror story of violence, and that threaded repeatedly through the book.

What turned me off from the book was Bloom's habit of flashing forward. Since the book is a road narrative, the main character leaves every character she encounters, and all those characters give her something (physical or psychic, tangible or immaterial) to push her on her journey...and each time the MC leaves, Bloom offers a paragraph summary of where that person ends up. This is how he dies, or lives, this is where she goes. It's's the gratification of the reader impulse to "know where" the secondary characters end up, because they/we have come to care about these characters. But it gets old. It gets annoying. Especially as the book nears to a close.

I think it's in part the gimmicks of omniscience that turn me off of third person fiction. The author's tidy tricks. Life is much messier than that. In reality, those characters fade away. It's interesting to think about the novel's weak points in relation to my own work.

I've been writing a lot, especially on MUNI...put on the ipod and go. It feels really good. I'm writing a lot about food and it allows me a place to push against things, think things over.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


It wasn't strawberries this year that made me kick-start giddy into spring. It was rhubarb. We were tasked to come up with a dessert special, maybe a crisp, and suitable ice cream was made. We all brought cookbooks...rhubarb the great unknown, the pinkish vegetable, the first blush of spring. I was the only one who'd used it before.

I had never thought to peel rhubarb before but my coworker (who must've read it somewhere) told me to do so, and I had another stupid moment as I chopped the peeled rhubarb, a body memory return to last spring and the mountains of rhubarb I used for crisps and whatnot at Frog Hollow. The slices would always stick together by this fibrous membrane, and I'd curse it out and hand-separate them (or not, mood depending). But it never, ever, occurred to me to peel the thing. Genius.

So it was the body memory that got me, and then the smell. A rough earthy smell, a green smell. Not a perfume, nothing sexy. A smell of spring and beginning. It took me back to the Oakland days, to when I knew nothing and no one here. To how great it felt to finally be on my own in a kitchen and playing with whatever produce was on hand, plus the flip side of that, ignorance, the thousands of unanswered questions and uncertainties and things-left-to-learn. smelled so new again. And like a thousand old things I'd left behind.

Maybe because of the rhubarb, maybe not, but the rest of the night was great. I was working both stations and getting enough garde manger tickets that the board was getting filled up and I needed to work quick and clean and wipe...and when the intermittent pastry ticket it was time to turn around and tend to the cakes, custards, sauces. We had a good number of dessert sales, too, and though I gave my coworker a 20 minute shot at the station because she missed it (and went off to consolidate walk-in stuffs), on the whole I was into service and had a really good rhythm going.

The whole night was like a gift. A reminder of what I am here for. I love working with food. I love the excitement and possibilities of a new dish. Especially a dish like crisp is so fraught with memories for me. I thought back to all the FH crisps that were too soggy or too stiff, the parade of peach and nectarine varietals, the experience of making 9 months' worth of crisp and having to guess the right amount of starch to balance out the liquid from the fruit. I love my coworkers. It feels like we've all been here for so long, but really it's been the blink of an eye. In September, I stood in the Oleana kitchen nervous to go back to SF and start a restaurant job with serious people and Maura said to me that all restaurants weren't like the ones I'd worked in. She promised me there were good restaurants and good people, and when you see it? It's seductive. You can try to explain it to the other people in your life, those who aren't in the industry, but they won't get it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

kitchen lit

I'm almost finished reading Marco Pierre White's The Devil in the Kitchen and I'm really enjoying it. However, for a book whose title promises sex pain AND madness I'm not finding much of any of that. He's got a temper, sure, but in the book he's very quick to explain that the verbal outrage is directed at the act, not the person. Temporary in nature. And, sure, at the time that doesn't make the verbal slap feel any better...but it reads like just another day in some chef's kitchen.

It's strange to say but he seems almost normal to me. He concentrates on describing his effort to achieve 3 michelin stars and picks away at that thorn in our side, consistency. How to achieve the same presentation with 40 diners a night as with 100? How to serve the sort of meals he wants to be serving in a small kitchen?

I remember the first time I read Kitchen Confidential I thought Anthony Bourdain was totally insane plus sexist. No One Really Does That, I was convinced. Now it's another day in the life.

Change and consistency, two sides of a coin. As much as things are supposed to be consistent, there's always change. You have to be ready to work with what you've got even if sometimes it's next to nothing. I made croutons today with a baguette because we were out of olive bread and I sold 2 out of 3 orders of what I had to start with...the flavor and the shape were compromised but something's better than nothing, even as backup. Pastrywise, we're such big planners that we tend to not run out of anything at all, but it's nice to be in touch with the idea of being flexible during service.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I had to put down the march issue of Gourmet twice on my morning commute to work. First, I flipped to the back page where I was intrigues to see a recipe for a galette, with no filling. To me a galette is a free-form tart filled with fruit, tho I suppose it could be filled with something else and I'm sure it could be adapted to be savory.

But...FILLED. I would never tell you I baked a pie, and then hand you an empty sucree crust. This galette recipe was pizza dough brushed with butter and sugar, then baked. I'm almost equally annoyed at the fact that, not only is the recipe not a recipe for any sort of dough (and so not teaching you how to work with dough) but it's also not teaching you, really, what a galette could be.

Then I saw this crepe-cake recipe. I read it through fairly fast but something didn't sit right so I read it again, slowly. They didn't have you rest the crepe batter at all, which most cooks do, but we didn't rest crepe batter at work when we were using it in two different preparations, was an interesting opportunity for a discussion of philosophy but no matter. Then, in the instructions, they had you butter a pan and then heat it, and again I read it a couple time before my head sent off a little flag of NO, silly, you're supposed to heat a pan and then add fat and then let THAT get hot and then carry on. Little things.

I got to the charlotte recipe that called for melted vanilla ice cream and I puzzled over that for a second before I realized they were probably going for creme anglaise, but figured no one would be interested in learning how to make that.

In between these half-assed recipe was a very interesting article on omelets, actually on achieving perfection in cooking via the omelet.

You shouldn't inspire someone to greatness and then give them inadequate tools. Does it take up too much space to print a recipe for creme anglaise, or it it too difficult? Sometimes we want something quick, easy, without all the fuss. Without using every pan we own. That's fine. Gourmet is the only food mag I subscribe to, Food Arts aside (and how many people think that Food Arts is fascinating, because I do, but please, it's hard enough for someone like me to fudge a subscription). If I wanted to learn to make a simplified version of some Michael Mina dish or some half-cocked version of custards or cakes, I'd buy Food and Wine.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I taught someone how to bake something today and, well wouldn't you know, it was really fun. I have never really considered the rewards of teaching someone to do something. Other than teaching college kids who want to be writers about writing, that is, which is still something I think would be rewarding...

But we're talking about cupcakes now. And that is one thing I have a LOT of experience baking. I showed up at Meredith's house and she had some recipe for chocolate sour cream cake from epicurious. I read the recipe and we got to work. She measured and sifted the dries. I got the butter soft in the microwave, measured out sugar, did the eggs and added an extra yolk, and substituted milk for water cause the sour cream was lowfat and it all made sense but, I'll admit, I was kinda keeping my fingers crossed like maybe it would be too fatty, or too many different things changed and it would somehow be bad and all my fault, but then I figured that it would probably be fine. When everything was measured I told Meredith that she was going to make the cupcakes and I'd watch and be moral support. So I narrated: cream the butter and sugar, scrape it down, keep creaming. Add the eggs (which I'd pre-mixed together) little by little, scrape, add 1/3 of the dried, 1/2 of the wets, etc.

As she sifted the dries I told her the latest thing I'd just learned about sifting, and as I heated up the butter and then the milk I told her about the importance of keeping ingredients at room temperature, and the the batter would probably look curdled because the eggs were still cold, but that it would come back together when we added the dries. I coached her through each step. We put the first tray in to bake and I monitored the baking time very, very carefully. Because I really didn't know how long it would take to bake cupcakes versus a 9 inch cake. And because of everything lately at work. I told myself I couldn't think about anything other than how the cupcakes looked. Were they still mushy in the middle? Did they spring back underneath my touch? Or just almost, begging for one minute more but no more?

Like, damned if I was acting as someone's professional baking coach and I fucked up their cupcakes. So now I stretch this moment somehow, find a way to hold onto it.

Later, when we were walking home from the bar where we'd gone after she cooked me some yummy, home-cooked meal man! and she wouldn't let me help or help clean up!...she was thanking me for my help and I was brushing it off saying they'd have been fine. No, she said. You're the one who told me to add the eggs a little at a time, otherwise I would've just dumped them all in. And it was a small thing, but I felt sheepish and happy and I wanted to call up everyone who'd ever taught me anything and tell them that I spent my evening helping someone be a better baker and it was fun dammit! And it made me reflect a lot on, yknow, what's been going on of late.

Friday, March 14, 2008

plating, v.

Realization of the day:

I really enjoy plating up the sorbet. In fact my enjoyment of it is out of bounds with the actual effort involved in doing so. The requisite first step is tempering the sorbet so that when you go to scoop it, it's lovely and fluffy and not rock-hard. It's two scoops or sorbet (no quenelles this time) in a bowl, accompanied by some citrus supremes (currently in house we have blood orange and cara cara), and then since we've got approximately 4 quarts of candied lemon peel, a sliver of candied lemon peel because why not? Frozen bowl, cute green plate underneath, and good luck trying to find a food runner!

Plating it up makes me happy in a cute, puttering, grounded sort of way. Just like the kumquat salad, when I can succeed in making the mache pile up and not get oppressed by the heavy endive shards.

It can't be that plating orange things brings me joy...

Consideration of other things I most enjoy plating:
pistachio dessert
kumquat salad
feta spread

And those I enjoy less:
romaine salad
goat, which is curiously my favorite dessert
cheese plate

Today was better. You have a bad day and you get over it. If you're lucky, you convince yourself out of bed at an early hour and get downtown just as the sun is breaking through clouds and you think, goddamn this is a beautiful city and, goddamn I'm lucky I'm here and, goddamn, I should get ready for lunch so fire up the ovens let's go, so that by the time lunch actually starts you can just roll out dough and start ticking items off the prep list.


If not offering excuses is the first step, then I'll say it here:

I fuck things up.

I am guilty of daydreaming, of being inattentive to things sometimes. My boss got very frustrated with me today because I overbaked some tart shells and then I underbaked these lil phyllo shells. I should know how to do these things better but I forget to taste and touch and smell and it's stupid. I shouldn't forget those things. I have a very physical job and I should be physically engaged with it, with more than just my hands.

I am not sure why this is happening because it's not like I ever overbaked a tray of cupcakes at my last job. But. It is, so then...

I hate disappointing people. Especially those who are my boss/my friend. People I respect. I hate expecting to disappoint them. I should stop it, right? Admit my faults, right? Because that is the only way to get better, and if I keep being mulish I'll only ever dig myself out of a kitchen, out of learning, not in.

And I want to be in. I want to be in enough that I ate some raw lamb the other day, and I have never eaten lamb and not eaten red meat in 14 years. But now it's in a dish on garde manger and I was disappointing the chef, and my boss, and B, and I knew I'd get in trouble for it if not that night then soon. Imminently. I had to be able to taste it and I have to be able to taste it now, each time I put an order out, and it may not be something I like at all but it's necessary.

I don't want this to sound like I'm whining because I'm not whining. I don't want sympathy or any sort of assurance. I don't like being told what to do but I don't like doing the wrong this just as much, so it would make sense that I learn to do the right thing, and do it, rather than think I know what the right thing is. It would make sense, yes. Stop being so pigheaded, jackass.

I like to pretend that I'm tough, that I'm tough enough. I hold myself at a distance without meaning to and then when people see my vulnerability, I like to think they see it all the time. I like to think they know how I really feel/what I really think even if that wall goes back up because we're close now and it's sometimes scary. I have this problem with women, too; I'm detached enough to pursue the ones I'm not very interested in, and have such a push-pull with the ones I do like, because, god, would there be anything worse than admitting I might like you? And it might be all wrong, or you might not like me, or that it might not be enough to push aside the other things in life? I like to think I know the score, the inside information. Sometimes, it's true, I do. Sometimes all of what I think can turn out to be so not true, or half-true. Sometimes it doesn't even matter.

I am not where I could be. Not even where I should be, perhaps. In order to get there-or at least try-I need to give up a little on all of my ideas of certainty.

Because, clearly, I don't know.

I can be strong and stubborn and stupid. This can serve me well when, say, I have no savings, but a home and a stable job but desperately want to move across the country where no job awaits me, and nothing, and no one. But here, now, it's not working for me.

I'm so hungry. I forgot to eat this morning and I'm kind of sick so I don't have an appetite (or taste buds or a sense of smell). I ate a lot of staff meal but that was hours ago. It took me an hour and a half again to get home on MUNI cause my line stops running direct after 9 pm. And the bottle of cough syrup I had in my bag spilled , and then dripped from my bag all over my leg, so I was commuting home in chef pants with sticky wet goo all over me. I should get some sleep so I can get up early and go open tomorrow, but my mind's too wired. But I'll get up and go in early tomorrow, even if I feel worse than I did this morning, because there's no such thing as a sick day in my industry. Never mind running late. And you know what, no complaints. We have long crazy days. All the time we've overworked, running on little sleep or food or both, and it's just how things are.

I used to be such a good student in high school and college, even grad school, but I wonder if it was because I liked being taught per se, or I liked being rewarded for being smart and knowing things, or struggling together to figure them it can't be that I don't want to learn.

I think there is a a part of me that worries that if I admit my faults I still won't get better. Irrational, perhaps? Of all the things my old boss said to me, there's only one that echoes in my mind, sometimes, like a superstition or a curse:

It's Clear You Have Potential, But No One Can Seem To Get It Out Of You.

Monday, March 10, 2008


If you have to encase the full contents of your bakeshop in plastic, as B and I did on Saturday night, then I am convinced you could not have had a better time than we did. I worked both stations, running in the back in between to help scale out bread and shape it, sheet dough, relieve some piping bag monotony, while B got the prep list done and cleaned the kitchen. Everything that could went into the ovens, and the rest went onto two tables. I cleaned down my stations, wrapped, did a hasty inventory, then came in the back and started cutting plastic bags with scissors. MJ blared from my ipod, so loud sometimes that we had to shout. The dishwashers and a sous chef puttered about, checking the items the line had wrapped. At some point in our taping job I noticed B left a backup roll of tape inside the pile, so I removed it and started taping. We worked pretty quickly, puzzling over some items. What to do with the vat of hot fryer oil? (It got its own bag of plastic) How to get the back of the ice cream machine? We took no chances with the stereo speakers. We took pictures. We were alone; we'd been alone most of the day since K was sick and we'd sent her home in a flurry of assurance that we could handle everything. We could babysit the bread, bake it nicely, finish the piping job, and we didn't need much for the stations, we'd be fine, she should go, really, now, cmon...Then a few hours later we found out about the plastic wrap situation and only toward the end of our job did we think of calling K to let her know because, dios mio, what if we left something out?

Then we left for a well deserved beer and watched drunken straight men rub up against one another, ate greasy and delicious pizza, stayed too late to catch MUNI. Home was a flurry of buses and waiting on street corners, tumble into bed for a crazy Sunday of running all around town and shopping.

I am pretty sure that by the time I get there today, the bakeshop will be back in order, but if not, then I'll have to join in its reshaping.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

last year

I am going to buy myself a digital SLR.

I alternate between saying Yippee and thinking Christ Of All The Things To Spend My Money On.

But. I was never happy with my digital camera, some Canon powershot model. And without a camera I feel sort of naked.

(Taking pictures at work yesterday of the whole pig carcass with my cell phone camera, no way to do it justice).

I've had Canons, Nikons and Pentax and I think I've settled on an Olympus this time. The e-410 model, decently inexpensive, comes with image stabilization unlike the Nikon I was looking at, 10 megapixels, blah blah blah.

It ain't a leica lens but hey...I'm no professional.

Work promises to be another full day. We've been quite busy lately. I'm working garde manger tonight and then the next two nights I work as well, so it'll be a bit of a vacation from pastryland...there have been some menu changes and now there's all sort sof things that I haven't seen/don't know how to do/have only seen once. But picked sardines means that avocados are in house again, which means that I can have avocado-and-flatbread sammiches at the end of the night again, which is delicious and resonant of our early days when only BC worked garde manger.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

"you could tie up a lot of girls with 100 feet of rope"

Some people always annoy you. Some people always misunderstand you. Some people always comfort you, like a hug or my awesome ikea blanket. Some always tease you, or you let them tease you. Some inspire, are good for a few beers, make you act protective, make you act girly, some are only better in times of crisis, some are better on the road.

Some, like my buddy Brandon, mostly sit around in restaurants with you and talk about gambling and women. This is most of our relationship, coupled with a search for good fried chicken. When we're not sitting around some restaurant before or after a shift, we're doing random things like kidnapping me to Davis. Driving me out here. Duct-taping the plastic cover underneath my car back onto my car so it doesn't drag on the street. He picks me up on street corners: Embarcadero, pier 3. Fulton and Park Presidio. Church St. Safeway parking lot. 24th and Mission.

Almost a year ago to the day, we pulled up to Oakland together and he left me in a strange house for what I thought would be a temporary adventure.

Almost a year later, we picked up a mattress in Noe Valley, strapped it to the roof of my rental car with a tarp and 100 feet of rope, and drove back to Ingleside where I now live. Because he was convinced this was illegal in California (and it may be, I don't know, but on the east coast it's simply what you do and one time I even moved a mattress and box spring by myself on top of the car, from Somerville through Cambridge and into Boston proper. So, Brandon had never done this and was entirely convinced that 1)I was crazy and 2)it was bound to fall, so 3)we'd better take side streets. We snaked through parts of SF I've never seen, arrived at my house, dragged up the mattress, deflated the world's largest air mattress, hefted up the dresser I scored it Redwood City and now I have a lot of unpacking to do.

This is not really about food, no. It's about how we fall into patterns with people, how we seek out certain people for certain things. This one for friendship, this one for refuge, this one for desire, this one for adventure. My buddy might not be the most attentive boyfriend, but he is always a perfect gentleman to me. I've known him for almost six years and though it's possible that we'll start playing tennis together or cook dinner together, we probably won't really do anything other than sit around and talk about women and life, which is comforting in its own way.

mixed messages

We lose the scrap of paper on which we wrote down the phone number. We lose the phone or it breaks. If I ever had your phone number, I've lost it (again) because my phone broke (again). The text message fails to send the words we write but do not say, the invitation is obscured, the blog post deleted. We try to manage our communication but sometimes it balks at us, makes us human only. Sometimes we are out of touch with what we mean to say/what we are actually saying/what they are actually hearing. And then what, what next?

Oh wait I'm pluralizing again, how selfish of me.

It's an emotional thing for me, being in touch with people. Now when someone texts or calls, I get to know them once again. You are not lost to me is what this says. You are still here. Some people I know I will lose. Those who have no email. Those who know no one else I know, who are outside the chain. If I ever had your phone number and you are reading this, take a second to send it to me again.

At work yesterday, I rolled the better part of 150 phyllo pastries. After a while, whenever I stopped (to get another half-cup of coffee, or to melt more butter, or to refill my pastry bag), my mind kept trying to roll phyllo. When you do something like that for so long it seems like it is all you do or ever could do. Like piping rosettes onto cupcakes with a pastry bag....Do you stay connected to it? Think about how even though this is the 110th pastry you've rolled it's someone's first experience of this dessert, and so it needs to look just as good as if not better than your 17th pastry? Or do you shut down your mind, not think just act? Become the machine that moves phyllo from spot a to spot b, butters the phyllo, sugars and repeats, pipes, butters, rolls, repeats? My boss wants me to stop thinking. Focus on the series of movements that make up a task, focus on doing them cleanly, fluidly. It seems like it's not hard for other people but it's hard for me.