Monday, October 19, 2009

My evening with Heston Blumenthal

There's a lot of overhyping of chefs these days. I used to be a Gordon Ramsay fan, and now all I want him to do is stop using that orange self-tanner and sit down and be quiet. All the overexposure about his multiple restaurants, his near bankruptcy and his alleged affair with a "professional mistress" have detracted so much from what made him famous in the first place: his food.

Being used to that...I expected something similar when I went to watch Heston Blumenthal recently. He's got multiple TV shows as well, many cookbooks (although I don't know anyone who actually cooks with them) and has generally become one of those hot shot chefs who's names are tossed around internationally.

I'll tell you one thing. From what I've seen, Heston is not a man who loves to talk about himself, or much at all. But when he talks about food, you can see why the man has earned three Michelin stars for his restaurant, The Fat Duck.

Heston was in town to promote a new home sous vide machine. That's right, you read correctly: HOME sous vide machine. As in, you can sous vide at home. For people who don't know, sous vide is when you vacuum seal food into plastic bags and cook them at very low, controlled temperatures in water. A lot of professional kitchens now have these things, which look like big plastic tubs of water with thermometers in them. They're quite expensive though, so American Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades invented this home sous vide machine called Sous Vide Supreme. It's just starting to get off the ground now so they're trying to build momentum and demand in the chef/foodie community. They say it all started with the search for the perfect pork chop...which can evidently be achieved via sous vide.

Who better to enlist as a promoter than one of the world's foremost chefs and proponents of sous vide? I mean, the minute I saw Heston's name I agreed to go. And I'm so glad I did.

It was a pretty small room of people, mostly local chefs and food writers. It was so intimate that Heston spent the first fifteen minutes just walking around and talking to people in the room. He did not, as I expected, spend any time checking his Blackberry (if he even has one) or stick with his entourage (which was only his sous chef). He was totally down to earth.

Listening to Heston Blumenthal talk about food is like taking a university course. He doesn't dumb down what he says and man...does he know his stuff. He doesn't pretend like sous vide is God's answer to food. He admits there are certain things, like langoustines, that actually become worse when you try to sous vide it. He described how the protein strands "snap" and the texture becomes "pappy", which I took to mean that the meat becomes cottony and unpleasant.

The true highlight of the evening was when he described his recreation of a Victorian era dish, mock turtle soup. It's a dish that was created when the British stopped drinking turtle soup. Mock turtle is different parts of a calf (tail, head, etc) boiled together. I suppose it's the gelatin from these parts that create a mock turtle texture. Heston showed us a slideshow of this. It started with him talking about Alice in Wonderland and describing a drawing of one of the characters, a mock turtle, that had the head of a calf. The whole "mock turtle" recipe explained the drawing of course. But I had no idea where he was going with this whole "Alice in Wonderland" thing.

I never should have doubted him.

AS the slideshow played on, you saw a video of the stock they prepared. They boiled the ingredients and vac packed it, froze it, then let it defrost over a piece of muslin. The cloth kept the solids while releasing the liquid. They further concentrated the flavour without boiling (heat decreases the flavour) by freezing it again and using a machine to shred the ice. The water is separated from the rest...somehow. After further concentration they add gelatin sheets to create an even stickier concentration.

Here's the genius bit that ties it all together.

They pour the liquid into molds of little watches (ala the Mad Hatter tea party in Alice in Wonderland, get it?) and they COVER THE STOCK WATCHES WITH GOLD LEAF. They're suspended on little strings. They're served in big teacup bowls. You pour boiling water over the watches and it becomes the mock turtle soup with gold flecks in it. It's all poured over an intricate arrangement of vegetable garnishes.

I was amazed and delighted. And Heston just loves talking about food. He gets really excited explaining it all. He can barely keep up with the video, there's so much detail he wants to tell us about. If only he could explain every dish he made to his customers, he could probably charge double what he charges already.

Of course, we were there to see what these home sous vide machines could do. We ended up trying scrambled eggs (Heston topped it with some beurre blanc and shaved white truffles), brined salmon, steak, eggplant, chicken and poached pears. The best tasting parts for me were the salmon, steak and eggplant. However, the steak and eggplant were both seared off in hot pans after they were removed from the bags.

My one criticism would be that people are not going to love the texture sous vide creates in everything. The chicken in particular had a very soft, almost mushy texture. However well cooked, the texture took some getting used to.

I still have my doubts about whether or not this home sous vide thing will take off. Not because the machine doesn't work or anything. It seems to work the same as an industrial one...but more compact and less expensive. Still, it's going to retail at just under $500 US, so it's not an impulse buy. Plus, cooking for hours at a low temperature when you can't exactly combine foods (cooking chicken and celery in the same bag probably won't work unless you want them cooked for the same length of time) isn't going to be helpful to someone pressed for time. Sous vide is also a relatively new concept in the culinary world and even chefs are still figuring out what they can do with this. I guess time will tell if the home cook is ready and willing to sous vide.

But I am a bigger fan of Heston's after meeting him. I went up to him after the demonstration and he was unfailingly polite and surprisingly humble. I mean, the man doesn't expect applause when he walks into the room. He flinches when people mention his Michelin stars. But he loves food. He is NOT a natural public speaker. Half the time he pretty much forgot about the talking and went to plating, tasting...basically what he does best. I hope he doesn't lose sight of the food. We need him to help the culinary world get a grip and get back to cooking.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Twenty

I have missed a couple of entries here, and I figured it's better to be accurate about what week I'm talking about rather than having them all sequential.

This week was my last week at Lumiere -- at least, my last week going consistently. I've had an incredible six month run. When I first started I was working just to become familiar with my surroundings. In the last few weeks, I finally nailed down the art of forming a quenelle of cream with one spoon.

I've been referring to my final day at Lumiere as my "final exam". It's very appropriate. The minute I walked into the kitchen the meat cook says, "you know today's the Steve Nash dinner right"?

The Steve Nash dinner he is referring to is the fundraiser for Steve Nash's foundation. A $1500 a plate dinner. I had gotten multiple emails about this through work via press releases, but for some reason it hadn't sunk in that if I showed up that day, I would in fact be working for the dinner.

It also hadn't sunk in that executive chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Daniel Boulud was also going to be there.

"I assumed that's why you were here".

Noooooo, no no no. I had been so glad I wasn't there on another weekend Daniel had come to town because I specifically wanted to avoid having anything I was doing scrutinized by this legendary chef.

So the dinner involved prepping for a yet unspecified number of guests ("thirty to sixty people" is what I heard). The dinner was happening at db Bistro -- they closed down the restaurant for the event. The only dishes coming out of the Lumiere side was the crab dish from the garde manger section. Keeping in mind that when I say "only" I mean we ended up prepping enough crab for about 100 dishes...on top of the regular prep for dinner service.

That's ten pounds of crab that needs to be picked over, then mixed with half a litre of chopped herbs among other things. I don't even know how many mangoes they went through, slicing them with a mandoline and cutting strips to wrap the crab with. Then preparing half a litre of mango bruinoise and piquillo peppers. Then forming and wrapping all the crab. Then wrapping over eighty crab rolls with rice paper wrappers.

It was go time.

In the midst of all this, as I'm squeezing a dozen grapefruits into juice, I hear a deep rich voice calling out behind me. I know it's Daniel. The Vancouver Sun was there to film Daniel and Dale making the scallop dish with corn succotash. I didn't dare turn around to watch, but listening to Daniel direct the action was amazing. He's a producer's dream. He knows what angles are the best, what to shoot, when to shoot it, what to say, how long to talk...considering he does this kind of thing all the time I'm not surprised. But I am in awe.

What's Daniel like in the kitchen? A pro. He doesn't have time to waste, he knows what he needs to get done and gets it done. I got to see that first hand during "the" dinner service. We had set out 87 plates on tables in the narrow hallway that joins the two kitchens. I had been tasked with plating the bruinoise of mango and piquillo peppers onto all the plates. The staff at db were tasked with building the crab stacks, slicing the rolls and plating all the rest.

We were right in the middle of Lumiere's dinner service and I we've run out of the coriander sticks we're using in the crab stacks. The rest of them are all in the db kitchen. I go out into the hallway and everyone is right in the middle of trying to get these 87 plates of crab out of the hallway and to the tables. Because it's so narrow nobody can fit around each other. The servers are on one end, the chefs are at another, the chefs are yelling for people to take certain plates away. Not all the plates have the same design on them so a lot of juggling is involved. Add to this the fact that the crab stacks are plated on top of mango puree which is making the stacks slide around and you can imagine the pressure.

Of course, I know better than to actually try to get anything from the other kitchen during all this. I head back and wait for the rush to subside.

The dinner was supposed to run from 7 to 8 pm. That was going to work out perfectly because the Lumiere dinner reservations had a gap between 7 to 8. There would be free hands available. At least, that was the theory. The dinner got pushed back to 8:15...when a bunch of reservations would have just arrived. It's amazing what you can do when you have no other choice.

And that's what really divides people who work in kitchens and others who don't. There's a breed of people that thrive on adrenaline and stress. The thrill of getting it all done and knowing you can do it.

I got called over to the db kitchen for the main course plating. Picture two lines of cooks on either side of a massive stainless steel prep table. db's chef, Stephane, yells out instructions. I end up near the end of the line, plating the beef and adding a romaine garnish to the plate just before Stephane sauced them. We probably plated everything in five minutes or less. I loved being part of that.

In the middle of everything Dale comes over and asks me if I want to take a picture with Daniel Boulud. Note: you do NOT say no to a picture with Daniel. I'm pretty sure that's a law somewhere. I was thrust into a corridor with him. He has no idea who am I or why I'm there but takes the picture anyway, which you can see to the left. Yes, I'm planning to print that out and hang it somewhere in my house. I don't even have pictures of my family hanging in my house yet, but you can be damn sure there'll be one of Daniel.

So the dinner went off successfully, as did the dinner service we did. Lots of momentary panic but it all got done as it always does.

I've had a bizarrely circular relationship with Lumiere over the past year. When I ate there the first time it reopened last November I met Daniel, as a patron. I gushed about it profusely in this blog posting. Now I've met him as a pseudo-employee. I won a chance to eat and work in the restaurant and ended up staying for six months. I don't know how it all worked out so seamlessly, but I know this has all been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

People ask me what I've learned. Everyone thinks I'm hosting these incredible dinner parties now but the truth is that the most thrilling experience I've had is getting to be around people who genuinely love food. It's an egalitarian love. You can love ham and cheese sandwiches just as much as duck confit. I could talk about wanting baked Alaska and have a roomful of people talk about their awesome baked Alaska experiences with no hint of snootiness, just a pure love for food. I got to be a part of the monumental task of putting a fine dining meal together. I found out what lengths people will go to work with food just because they love it. Oh yeah, and I finally nailed one-spoon quenelle making!

My time at Lumiere has been absolutely incredible. I am so lucky that chef Dale Mackay and everyone in the kitchen not only allowed me to be there but took their time to work with a total novice. I used their tools, I made mistakes but I hauled ass as best I could. Thanks so much to those who've stayed and those who've moved on: Dale Mackay, Nathan Guggenheimer, Doug King, Alex Amos, Brad Hendrickson, Jesse Zuber, Rhys Jones, Suyin Wong, Celeste Mah, Tony Chang, Trevor Bird and all the people at db Bistro as well for making me part of the team. I'm going to miss working with you but I know I'll be seeing you all around.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Seventeen

I can explain my procrastination this week. My parents were in Vancouver visiting. After a few days of parental catharsis they're now gone and I'm free to blog once more.

Either I've really earned some trust in the kitchen or the garde manger is giving me new stuff to do just to see what I'll say about it. Just kidding. Sort of. Lots of new dishes at the restaurant means lots of new tasks for me.

I have a new favourite task: making grapefruit juice. I don't have to make beet juice anymore (victory dance) because the hamachi dish has been changed to a beautiful grapefruit salt cured hamachi with grapefruit gelee, tofu puree and other delicious things. Yeah. That'll do as a description.

We can't put the grapefruit through the juicer because it makes it cloudy. So I just cut them in half and squeeze them as hard as I can over a chinois. I believe the garde manger's exact words were "use your superhuman strength to squeeze them". My reply was, "have you met me?"

Lack of superhuman strength aside, it's actually fun to squeeze the bejeezus out of grapefruits. Very theraputic. It also makes your hands feel awesome, really smooth. And they smell nice afterwards.

The tomato gelee and mascarpone roll component of the amuse bouche has been changed. Now we made a mascarpone that's set with gelatin, pour it into our eyeplates and once they're set we top them with chopped up tomato gelee.

Because the amuse bouche is so much easier to plate, I get to do more in the way of plating with the cold starters. It feels like a promotion. I take my victories wherever I can get them.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to bring my parents to the restaurant. They'd be hearing about it all this time and they had never been to a fine dining restaurant. I was so excited to bring them there and it pretty much lived up to everything I could've thought of. The chef came out to say hello and he took one look at my mom and said "wow, you guys look exactly the same". My mother and I DO look very similar. It made me laugh because I've often thought about the fact that the older I get the more I look like her.

They certainly got a full experience. A couple of the owners -- David and Manjy Sidoo -- were sitting with a party at the table next to us. It was my parents' second trip to Vancouver and they were getting to experience quite the West Coast life.

I had a fabulous meal of the aforesaid hamachi (which I was forbidden from trying the week before because I was coming in for this meal), scallops with corn succotash (I had been dying to try this, it was fabulous), the new duck dish with daikon and cherries, the beef dish (one of my favourites that I'd never eaten in its entirety until then), finished off with cheese and a new dessert: tiramisu sundae. I think we all got sundaes because Fernando wanted "the thing you pour chocolate onto and it melts", by which he meant the sundae. My dad was full so I actually ate his too.

Part of the mignardise was a tiny carrot cake with a tiny marzipan carrots. My mom was fascinated by it. She couldn't stop talking about how small it was. Even the next day I kept hearing about it. She'll never forget that detail. So this meal definetely qualifies as one that's unforgettable. Thanks to everybody in the kitchen and the front of house for making them feel so at home and taken care of.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere: Week Sixteen

I've been really terrible at getting these up on time lately. My apologies.

So I didn't go last Friday because I was busy moving into my new home. Woot! Now everything's moved in and almost everything's been unpacked and put away. I can finally concentrate on food.

I did a lot of rejoicing the week before when I found out the amuse bouche had been changed. Not because I didn't like it, but because the new one is 150% easier to plate.

Old amuse: heat up pea puree (which almost always exploded on you if you heated it just a LITTLE too much), heat smoked sablefish under salamander, get heated soup (which turned brown all the time because of the chlorophyll), yell for the bacon foam, coordinate that all together and out it goes. It's not the most difficult thing in the world but could be trying.

New amuse: plate tomato gelee and mascarpone roll ahead of time. Pull out of lowboy when needed. Place heirloom tomato pieces at bottom of cup, pour cold soup into it. Fill puff pastry piece with tomato jam. Done.

This will have changed significantly by the time I head back this Friday. It's a work in progress. But I love the soup. It's a really simple tomato consomme: tomato, basil, cucumber and celery put through a food processor and left to hang over a bowl overnight in a cheesecloth. It's simple and refreshing. The small pieces of tomato inside look like little jewels. Sometimes they float and sometimes they don't. The sous chef figures it has something to do with the size of the pieces. I personally love the way it looks when it floats. With the drops of basil oil dripped into it it is a visual sensation.

There were an inordinate number of people complimenting the dishes this week. Perhaps it's because there are a number of new dishes on the menu, including this absolutely mouthwatering corn and scallop dish I have yet to try. Usually people just send their compliments in with their server or occasionally come into the kitchen to say hello.

This week two guests came in that I will never forget. They were an older couple from Austin, Texas. I only know this because that's what they said. I can't quite describe how they looked, only that they were very American looking (perfectly coiffed hair, artifically whitened teeth). They said it was a "life changing meal".

The woman says, "We're from Austin Texas, where the streets are paved with guacamole".

I don't know what it was, the accent, what she said and the whole American-ness of it, but I could barely hold in the laughter after she said that.

I suppose she was trying to illustrate that there isn't a lot of fine dining in Austin. But it was hilarious to me because only Americans say things like that. This is why we have a saying in (Canadian) radio: Americans on the radio are gold. Because they'll say anything. Love them. They scooted out of the kitchen, saying they would "tell everyone" about this. God, I hope they send more Texans out this way. And if I ever go to Austin I'm bringing along a big bag of nacho chips to sop up all that guacamole.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Food porn

Thanks to the hard work and photo taking skills of our expeditor, Christopher Cho, I now have plenty of gorgeous pics from Lumiere to share. I'm also largely relying on him for descriptions, given that's what he does for customers every night. Set your tongues to drool.

Pistachio crusted rack of lamb, apricot "canelloni" stuffed with braised lamb, stewed japanese eggplants and chick pea panisse

Curry and cornmeal encrusted scallops on corn puree, fried okra and corn succotash

BC spot prawns, cauliflower puree and pork belly crusted with puffed rice

Duck breast on a bed of spinach, poached cherry, Hennessy gastrique and daikon filled with cherry cardamon puree

Uni crusted halibut, asparagus risotto, asparagus salad and black garlic sauce

Sweet and sour glazed duck breast, duck shoulder spring rolls, banana yam and red wine braised cabbage, pomegranate glaze

I get to watch them recreate these dishes week after week. More pics to come!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere: Week Fifteen

Last Friday was my first time back in two weeks. I really did miss being at Lumiere last week.

Although I haven't worked in any other restaurants, I know the kitchen at Lumiere totally kicks ass. All the counters, cabinet doors and drawers are stainless steel. Refrigerated areas are built into the back part of each counter for butter and other refrigeratables during prep and service. All the drawers are refrigerated. It's large enough to accomodate the six to eight people who work in there a day. It's beautifully streamlined. It's even air conditioned (at least, the area that's close to the front of house is). I'm guessing this is necessary for the pastry station with all their meltable chocolate creations.

It's gorgeous. And because I generally don't spend much time near the stove areas, I never really get that hot.

I got a nice dose of heat last Friday though. The temperature outside was over 30 degrees Celsius, which is about as hot as it ever gets in Vancouver. No amount of air conditioning was going to keep things cool in there. The poor cook working the meat section had to change his jacket halfway through the day after sweating so profusely it had pretty much turned into a transluscent sheet.

I should mention that I'm far from the only stage working at Lumiere. Although I seem to be the only one that comes in consistently, there are a number of people that come in during the week for a day at a time. This week there was Jennifer, a student from the Pacific Culinary Institute on Granville Island. She was there at the same time I was. She came fully prepared (as one is supposed to) complete with all her tools. I continue to show up wearing my camo canvas sneakers and NO tools.

I'm continually amazed by the people drawn to food. I've been getting to do a lot of food stories as a result of my work for The Early Edition. One of my favourite pieces of all time was one I did last Thursday. It's about a Vancouver chef named Don Guthro who's started a culinary school of sorts at a North Vancouver homeless shelter. His students are mostly residents at the shelter -- either homeless, formerly drug addicted or disadvantaged in some other way. These students work all day long learning to make food, which they in turn serve to the residents at the shelter. They do a lunch AND dinner service every weekday. After sixteen weeks, they go on to an apprenticeship and then hopefully onto paid work and a career in the culinary world.

When I got there, they were just finishing up lunch service. They had made Monte Cristo sandwiches. After a quick break it was onto mayonnaise. They were whisking it by hand. If you've never done this before, it takes FOREVER. I'm talking over an hour for a decent bowlful. It was a wonderful sight, seeing these people from various backgrounds in their whites, patiently measuring out Dijon mustard, separating egg whites from yolks and whisking away steadily. Everyone was concentrating hard. You could tell they really wanted to be there. It was incredibly heartwarming.

Contrast the above mentioned hour long whisking with my failure to properly whisk a chick pea mixture over the stove on Friday. It's supposed to be whisked over the stove until it's thickened up enough to form a cylinder that stands on its own. I don't exactly have strong arms. After a couple minutes trying to force my forearms to keep going in the tremendous heat I was melting. I will NOT be making mayonnaise by hand anytime soon.

I kind of redeemed myself by whipping some cream later on. I didn't have to stand over the stove for that. Plus the pastry chef showed me an uber easy way to do it. Just move a balloon whisk rapidly back and forth through the cream in a metal bowl rather than in a circular motion. Apparently my method of whisking in the traditional motion would've taken "a month" to finish.

While I was whisking I thought about those students at the shelter making mayonnaise. I thought about how much food can bring people together, not just eating, but creating. It's what keeps you going even when you're ready to burst into flames.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere: Week Fourteen

I'm really late posting this one. I actually ended up missing last week's stint because of money transfer issues re: my new mortgage. Here's some of what happened the week before (which would be July 17).

When I first started at Lumiere they had a whole slew of menus going. There was a five course menu, a seven course menu, a nine course menu, a BC menu (three courses for $55) and a la carte. It's no wonder I never fully figured it all out. Now they're back to tasting menus (three of them). The way it was explained to me, this was supposed to make things easier on all the stations because there were fewer dishes to prepare.

However, the fish station was eliminated, shifting the prep from that station onto two others instead. When I first started I used to go from station to station waiting for someone to give me something to do. This week I ended up with people waiting for me to be done one thing so I could do another.

I ended up making a giant batch of sable dough. We put the tiny sable crackers under the morel and pea quiche for the amuse bouche. They've got a lovely crumbly sandy texture. When the garde manger pulled out his notebook for the recipe, he warned me "it's going to take you half an hour to measure this out". I thought, there's no way. There's like, six ingredients on that list. Of course he was right.

At home you end up measuring everything using volume. Teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, litres, etc. In the kitchen everything is measured by weight. Because of that, I now know that an egg yolk weighs about 20 to 25 grams. Flour, butter, salt, yolks and something called inverted sugar. Wikipedia tells me that it's a "is a sucrose-based syrup, produced by splitting each sucrose disaccharide molecule into its component monomers, glucose and fructose. The splitting is achieved through the action of invertase (a glycoside hydrolase enzyme), or an acid. Comparing solutions with the same dissolved weight of sugar, inverted syrups are sweeter than sucrose solutions; at equal molar concentrations, inverted sugar syrup has only 85% the sweetness of sucrose solution but complete inversion of a solution of a disaccharide (such as sucrose) doubles the concentration of sugar molecules - this makes the resulting, inverted, syrup sweeter than the original sucrose solution." All you really need to know is it's a very very dense sugar syrup.

There's also ground up Szechuan peppercorns in them too. When I first got to the spice shelf I had no clue what to look for. There are at least five different kinds of peppercorns, none of which are labelled. When I asked I was told they were the ones "that smell soapy". Sure enough, they have a spicy soapy smell that is very distinctive from the other ones.

Anyway, I finally had all my ingredients together. Everything had to be blended in this industrial sized mixer.

To make the actual crackers, you take some of the dough, roll it out until it's a few millimetres thin and then cut them using a dough cutter set to about an inch and a half. You bake the squares on a Silpat until they're just golden. Too long and they get a funky darker brown, which is still fine but not that perfect golden colour.

The more I learn about what goes into each item, the more I weep (inwardly) when I see someone send it back.

While I wasn't actually in the kitchen last week, I have spent the past two weeks filling in for the reporter on the morning show. She gets to do the food column every Wednesday and this week I got to do it. I finally got to tackle some food stories! I got to make THE quintessential Brazilian dish of feijoada (pork with beans) with the "Queen of Samba" Lucia Azevedo. I can't believe there aren't any authentic Brazilian restaurants in Vancouver. The one that existed apparently shut down some time ago, which is sad because I'd actually eaten there and enjoyed it a lot. Anyway, Lucia and I (mostly Lucia) made enough food for a small army. From Lucia I also learned that chefs are the same everywhere, whether in a restaurant or at home. They all want things done their own way, so the best thing to do is just stay the hell out of the way. Her way works though. Her feijoada is delicious, as is all the side dishes she made as well.

This week I took a tour of the UBC Farms with chef Andrea Carlson from Bishop's Restaurant. Bishop's is all about utilizing fresh food from local producers and sustainable growing. It was great meeting chef Carlson and talking to her about the industry, women in the industry and the kind of people who get into it. Apparently they've had a stagiere in their kitchen for some time. He's a lawyer who isn't changing careers. He just wants to keep a hand in. I'm happy to learn I'm not the only one in this limbo. And it was great to make just a salad, but not just a salad. Pea tips, baby kale, mizuna, etc. with turnips and raspberries and a fresh raspberry vinaigrette. Exploring different kinds of greens is something we rarely do nowadays because what you find in the supermarket is about as diverse as the gene pool in the Ozarks.

Andrea also told me about her most vivid food memory, involving a shipment of turnips from a local producer. Her description of the crisp, sweet taste was the one thing I had really wanted to hear out of everything else. I find that people who love food have the best food memories and it usually involves something simple, like turnips. I love hearing those stories because everyone's face changes when they tell them. It's like they're remembering their first loves. It's a reminder that the simplest things can bring you the most joy.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere: Week Thirteen

It was a Jaws kind of service. No, we weren't attacked by sharks or anything. And no, Richard Dreyfuss wasn't there either. There we were...quietly prepping for the day, thinking there were only going to be about 25 tables, when unbeknownst to us an entirely different matter was going to unfold.

Last week was the week I learned to hustle. When you end up with almost twice the number of diners you anticipated, believe me you have to get out your four inch platforms and done hustle quick.

Here's an example of what I mean: Doug only prepares a certain amount of crab for the evening. It really can only hold for one night, then whatever doesn't get eaten goes in the garbage. You can imagine how expensive it would be if he were constantly chucking out leftovers. So at every station people have learned to gauge how many of each thing they should prepare based on the number of reservations and what the chef says. Sometimes he'll ask someone to prep more of something because we have too much of it in house and he's going to try and get the servers to play it up so they can sell more. I couldn't tell you exactly how much crab we prepped, but it wasn't a ton.

This plan usually works out great. Except when about twenty people walk in unexpectedly. It was the first time we'd ever had a walk-in table of NINE. For a fine dining restaurant, this is quite unusual. Welcome, but unusual. And it's not that the kitchen can't handle this number of reservations, but dealing with twice the number of diners you expected is crazy. There's so much prep that goes into each item that you can't just make more soup or prepare more lamb shanks. What's there is pretty much there. Ideally you have some stored away in one of your lowboys (storage fridges, every station has a shelf). But some things you just can't store, like the crab.

Very quickly into the evening we ran out of crab. It's easily the most popular dish off of the garde manger station so usually it is the first thing that goes. It happens. No big deal, we still have the hamachi and terrine dish to send out.

Oh wait a minute. We barely have enough napoleons (creme anglais and prune puree, frozen into individual layers and layered on top of each other) to make it through the evening. Meanwhile, because we have this relatively new and complicated terrine dish, I am whipping sorrel leaves into the backs of the duck proscuitto wrapped plum pieces as fast as I can so the garde manger can actually assemble the 10 dishes in front of him. I used to hang back and try to stay out of the way when there was a plating frenzy. Now I jump in and do everything I know how to push them out. It feels great. Hectic, but great.

I may not love rollercoasters or jumping off cliffs, but when it comes to work I'm definetely an adrenaline junkie.

I can feel myself using all the skills I've gained over the past three months. The entremetier gets me to make a bunch of romaine lettuce "fronds" in the middle of service. They're the tips of romaine lettuce, cut so they resemble miniature trees, with rounded tops and small stems. I remember the first time I did this I was so nervous because I had to do it on the pass with everyone watching. I didn't know how everyone else could do it in twenty seconds and why it took me five minutes to shape just one.

Not anymore! I whipped through those puppies in no time.

If you look in that picture of the beef dish, the frond would be the green thing sticking out of the square potato garnish. Every item gets its own prep. They don't miss a beat.

These little victories made the otherwise incredibly busy service really satisfying. I felt the way I used to doing my chase shift in radio. Like I was a mop, having the dirty floor water wrung out of me so I was clean and ready to go again.

I have no clue how busy it's going to be tonight. But whatever comes...bring it on.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Home Ownership: Speed Dating Edition

I've never been part of a whirlwind romance. My husband and I dated for a good solid six years before tying the knot. I've been living in Vancouver for three years and only NOW do I actually like being here, though there's still a tough kernel of Easterner stashed away in there.

If you had told me that I would end up being a homeowner in less than a month after I started looking, I would've called you a liar. Stood right up, jabbed an accusing finger at you and called you a filthy lying scumbag. Ok, maybe not that strong. But you know what I mean.

As you have probably gathered, I am a homeowner. Fernando and I now own a one-bedroom plus den on the North side of False Creek in downtown Vancouver. This is quite the accomplishment. We're both first time homeowners who are pretty much on our own. We saved our own downpayment and are paying for everything ourselves.

Thing is, we only started seriously looking a week ago. We got preapproved for a mortgage. We had been to some open houses on the weekends, checking out different buildings. The open houses downtown are as abundant as dandelions. We got ourselves a real estate agent and prepared a shortlist of places we liked. We had a whole afternoon planned with the agent to look at prospective dream homes.

It turns out there was one place that just got put on the market that morning. This is a much coveted building in the much coveted neighbourhood of False Creek. We were told we would love it.

And we did.

For a one bedroom condo downtown, it has a ton of flex space. There's the perfect office space, the huge pantry right next to the large kitchen (with gas stove! YES!) which has a WINDOW...totally unheard of downtown. It's a corner unit with a balcony. Tons of light. Sigh.

Love at first sight.

So we decided then and there to send in a proposal. Unfortunately so did a bunch of other people. Our real estate agent got repeated calls saying there were several people who wanted to put in offers.

This is how fast real estate moves in downtown Vancouver. If you blink, you're homeless.

Luckily our agent kicked ass. His name's Ryan DeLuca if you're wondering, and no, he did NOT pay me to write this! He was all over it, put together the contract and then we played the waiting game. Not very long though. We put in the proposal on Sunday. On Monday he went to submit it to the seller and Fernando and I pretended to be high schoolers waiting for a date to call and stared at the phone.

It didn't take long for it to ring. Turns out there were THREE other people who were going to bid against us (yeah, I know, CRAZY competitive market) and two of them dropped out because they didn't want to compete against so many people. Heh. I LIVE for competition.

So it was us and one other offer. Guess what? Turns out the other real estate agent didn't even show. He faxed in his contract. So even though they bid $3000 more than we did and had fewer subjects attached...we got it!

Normally I disapprove of excessive exclamation points. But !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We got called to come over and sign the contract ASAP. I felt so anxious the whole time walking over there, like I was going to pick up a baby. We took a look around afterwards and thank god, we still loved it as much as the first time we saw it.

So June 30th: apartment ours. July 17/18th: we take possession. You just can't stop for one second in this real estate market.

Now it's time to make this baby ours. We're planning to put in hardwood floors. I want to change the kitchen backsplash. We're looking for new furniture. As my friend Devon puts it, I'm a "real adult now, not a fake one".

My parents (well, mostly my dad) are somewhat pissed that I didn't go to them for advice. But I like the fact that we did this entirely by ourselves. I get to use words that didn't mean anything to me until now, like building "equity". I'm opened up to a whole new financial world. I really am an "adult".

I expect it's just a toboggan ride into middle age now. Oh, who am I kidding, I've never been young. I hope this whole love at first sight things works out. Haven't made a bad life decision yet, so here's knocking on wood...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere: Week Twelve

Quick thought before I start: Just reread my last post and I feel I should clarify my comment about low pay and verbal abuse in kitchens. I'm talking about the industry in general, not specifically about Lumiere. Although it's a safe assumption that all kitchens function on these general principles to some degree or another. Of course, it never stops new people from entering the industry because of all the other benefits, like the opportunity to work with food and some great colleagues.

Moving on. I had a breakthrough this week. For the first time, I felt like I hit my stride. During prep, in service, everything. I was moving with confidence. For the first time I felt like I belonged there. In fact, the entire service was one of those ideal services you always pray for but almost never get. Tables were staggered in such a way that we were just consistently busy but never crushed by demand. The last table sat down at 8:30, which meant an early exit.

They changed the terrine dish. There's a picture of what it used to be to the left courtesy of the garde manger Douglas King (in fact all the photo credits go to him -- he knows I stole them). The one pictured is a pheasant and foie gras terrine with prunes, with foie gras mi-cuit and prune gelee to the right. I just found out last week that Doug likes to take pictures of all the dishes. If I had known that sooner I would've started stealing from him earlier. This is the dish where my turnip carpaccio would be used (see them under the terrine)? Because we're no longer doing this dish, the turnip carpaccio has been nixed. Cue the sound of angels. However, the replacement terrine dish comes with its own bag of challenges.

The new terrine (I took the picture last week but he hasn't posted it on Facebook yet for me to steal) is something I actually don't know a lot about. From what I remember it's a foie gras terrine with tiny portions of plums, marinated in spices and wrapped with duck proscuitto. I figured out how to wrap them "naturally" as instructed, although I silently questioned where in nature plums would be ensconced in any kind of meat. You set these little bundles on a trap, standing up, so that when the order comes in you can insert a tiny sorrel leaf into the back. They look incredibly cute like that, little soldiers standing at attention. Unfortunately this is very time consuming and not something you can do ahead of time because the leaf will wilt. This becomes one of my main tasks, while the garde manger is sprinkling hazelnuts on half the foie terrine.

I actually had a bright idea when I was watching him do this. He was struggling to keep the nuts on just one half. I noticed that the pastry folks always use rulers to sprinkle their sprinkleables onto dessert plates and suggested the garde manger do the same. It worked beautifully.

People ask me what the difference is between regular dining and fine dining. You just read it. It might sound overly fussy, but there is a time and a place for food like this. It's not supposed to be food you eat every day. It's supposed to be a special experience, something you think about and dissect or just really, really enjoy.

On a completely different note, I am getting the benefits from working in the food industry. It's a small world and you run into people you know everywhere. I learned that last night while eating at Maenam, the latest incarnation of the late Gastropod on West 4th. It turns out one of the hostesses at Lumiere is a server at Maenam as well and we just happened to be at her table. Not only was she extra attentive, but also passed along a couple tasting glasses of wine for our main (David Thompson's three flavour fish, amazing). We also got a little taken off the bill. It was totally unexpected but so nice.


It's Friday morning right now. Every Friday I get up and feel exhausted, wondering how I'm going to get through today. But then I get into the kitchen and the energy picks me up. It's not just the food -- it's the energy of the team. At one point during service, Doug turns to me and asks "Can you feel the energy in the kitchen"? Oh yeah, I totally can. It's electric. Everyone's got their rhythm down, moving to the same beat and coming together for the service crescendo. It's a thing of beauty. It's addictive. And I'm going back in less than two hours for more.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Eleven

Whenever you take someone out of a kitchen equation, there's a noticeable difference. After what sounded like a great staff outing at the beach (which of course included some great food) it turns out the sous chef broke his arm during a touch football game. His absence was particularly missed during Thursday when apparently the number of diners hit a peak. I think he was supposed to be out for two weeks. Yikes.

Which meant, as usual, prep time was that much more precious and scarce. I know the drill by now: pick chervil tips, shaving turnip carpaccio, prepping shimiji mushrooms...

Lately I've also been making beet juice. I've mentioned this before, but not what the process is. The beet juice is used to give the hamachi a beautiful colour and flavour after it's been cured in salt. When you cut into the hamachi, there's a beautiful ring of beet juice on the outside with the pale flesh inside. It's gorgeous.

For the juice, you just peel, trim and cut up the beets and then use a juicer to get out all the blood red goodness, then strain to get the foam and solids out. The fun part is seeing the awesome red colour. The annoying part is the fact that this juice will stain ANYTHING. I wear gloves for every step of that process, including cleaning up the machine afterwards. I pray every week that I don't accidentally spill it all over myself. This hasn't happened yet. Knock on wood.

I got to tackle foie gras for the first time. If you've never seen a lobe of foie (and why would you have unless you worked at a restaurant) it's the size of a smaller papaya fruit, which is to say pretty damn large for a duck's liver. I had to devein it, the first step in making it palatable. Having never handled foie before, it was surprising to see how soft it is. It's just pure fat, basically, and it handles much the same way. You have to spread it out with your fingers, layer by layer, as you remove the stiff large main veins. Honestly, it was kind of disgusting. Fascinating -- but didn't really make me want to eat it. I think foie gras is one of those things that is less pleasant the more you know about it. But it is damned delicious. Why else would we eat it when there's not a single nutritional redeeming factor?

I will reiterate that I love learning new stuff. I mean, that's why I'm there and I think they know that. Sometimes I think they give me new tasks just to give me something to write about. Either way, keep it coming!

After weeks of hearing about it, Fernando finally came in to visit the kitchen. I could see the pride that Dale felt hosting someone, showing him his brigade, his food. Fernando was impressed by the professionalism of everyone there, and I'm glad that what I do with my Fridays is no longer an intangible mystery to him. Yet another example of how food brings people together.

I have to address something that keeps coming up. My radio coworkers keep asking me if I'm switching careers. Here's the thing. I have been working as a journalist for the past ten years. Working at the CBC was always my goal. I still love my job, even when I'm ready to throw myself out a window. As much as I love being in the kitchen, there are many, many reasons why making a switch would be almost impossible. The main reason being that I'm just that into my current career track.

But I will say that I frequently think about working at Lumiere when I'm not there. I can totally see the pull of working with food. Despite the long hours, usually terrible pay, verbal abuse and stress, clearly there's a love that many people feel that transcends all that. It sounds idealistic but it's true: why would so many people still do it if they didn't have to? It's because they want to be. That's something you only really figure out by being there, working, talking to the people who've chosen this as a career. This is precisely the kind of insight I was hoping to get by working in a kitchen and an eyeopening one to, on some level, understand.

I'm lucky to be able to do this in addition to my first love. In a perfect world, there would be some way for me to do both without having to work all the time, and for a long period of time. Obviously I can't be a stagiere forever (although I'm sure my chef wouldn't mind!) I'm just taking what I can get for as long as I can get it. Nothing lasts forever.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

David Sedaris at the CBC

I'm taking a quick break from my staging reports to write about another passion of mine.

From the first page of the first book of his I've read, I've been a David Sedaris fan.

In fact, I'm a raging Sedaris fan. If I hear his name mentioned from across the room I'll go over to join the conversation. So when I found out he was coming to CBC for a Studio One Book Club, I was THERE.

He squeezed in one hour for a conversation with hosts Sheryl MacKay and Jen Sookfong Lee...and over 120 Sedaris heads. I knew this was going to be popular, but not everyone else seemed to anticipate it. The first person there was in line at 9 am...and the second at 10. The book club didn't start till 3 pm.

Yeah. If you don't know David Sedaris you won't understand why, but if you know him, then you know.

I was sitting in the back next to the technician. I asked him if he'd ever read David Sedaris. He said the name was familiar but he wasn't well versed.

He spent the first ten minutes reading from his diaries of months past. It's really hard to recreate his stories without just transcribing them, but here's a synopsis by most prominent words: breastmilk, marmots, marshmallows, get the idea.

The story that stuck out for me the most was one he told when someone in the audience asked him why his writing style has changed over the years. He said that he had hurt someone in one of his stories. If you've read "Me Talk Pretty One Day" you know the story about his trying to learn French and his sometimes outrageous French teacher. In the story he talks about how the teacher jabbed a student in the eye with a pencil and screamed at them a lot. However, as David says, he neglected to say "we really liked her". He regretted not adding that in. Very illuminating moment.

I knew if I didn't ask a question I was going to regret it so I asked him, as someone who writes a lot of poignant stories, which ones were emotionally difficult to write. He brought up the story about his mother's death...and then digressed into struggling to articulate his experience at a nudist colony. He said he didn't quite "get it" until he rewrote it while naked.

Sheryl and Jen were laughing so hard during this I actually felt bad for them because I could tell they were trying to keep their composure. It's hard to laugh at someone when you're right next to them -- even when you're laughing at something they've said -- if they're not laughing with you. I discovered that when I was standing up there, trying not to pee my pants while he was answering my question.

There was a great exchange right at the end between David and an audience member. She gave him some facts on breastmilk..

Audience Member: Did you know breastmilk can squirt across the room?
David: I met a woman who used breastmilk to write her name in the snow. She ran out of "ink".
AM: It can squirt spontaneously.
DS: I met a woman whose breastmilk squirted out in the shower. Later, when she came back to the shower there were ants on the wall and they were eating it.

So for future not try to out-story David Sedaris. At least, not when it comes to breastmilk.

At the end of the show, I asked the technician if he was going to go get one of his books. He said yes. I think another fan was born.

What I was really hoping to do was to meet him face to face. Because he got there just in time and was whisked off right away, I didn't get a chance.

But as I was leaving the building -- there he and his entourage were -- waiting for a cab. I have always hated asking people for autographs and photos. I would so much rather take them to lunch and have a genuine interaction with them. Of course this is almost always impossible. I watched another guy race out of the building to get a couple autographs. I suppose I could've jumped on his bandwagon, but watching David hurriedly try to sign these while his people were getting his bags into a cab...I would rather remember our interaction at the book club. Him -- being hilarious, thoughtful and honest and me -- trying to politely listen while laughing and crying at the same time.

By the way, you can hear the whole Studio One Book Club on North by Northwest THIS Saturday on CBC Radio One -- 690 AM and 88.1 FM in the Lower Mainland. I don't know what time it'll be on specifically -- but the show runs from 6 to 9 am. It's worth waking up early! Trust me!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Ten

This week has just zipped by. I'm keeping the entry short this week but detailed nonetheless. Sorry for the lazy transitions!

You know you're one of the team when there's actually an apron waiting for you at your station. Yup -- for the first time, I didn't have to ask someone to get me one. Usually I grab the smallest jacket and pants I can find off the uniform rack and have to find someone to grab me an apron. It's really the only thing keeping me from completely disappearing into the uniform (who sizes these things anyway? Small my ass!) As ridiculous as it sounds, being anticipated was really nice.

In triumphant news: I finally made something from start to finish! Before you burst out into applause, it was croutons for the staff salad. This, surprisingly, turned out to be more complicated than I thought. One: I don't make croutons at home because I don't eat salad with croutons in it. I'm Chinese, what can I say? Two: I've never made croutons en masse (for like, dozens of people). Three: I've never made anything for a bunch of cooks so it's SCARY. Of course, I didn't know that rule one of making croutons is setting a timer so they don't turn into charcoal. Luckily they got taken out at just the right time. And can I just say -- they were pretty fabulous. I wish I could take all the credit but actually the garde manger totally helped me out.

Here's the very useful lesson of the week: making fresh pasta is surprisingly easy. All you need is flour, egg yolks and some saffron water (for colour). Mix them in a food processor. It's all about the feel. It can't be too dry or too wet. I'd describe the perfect dough feel as something like fresh Playdough, maybe slightly less wet than that. Then you have to knead it for a few minutes.

As for observations: It's weird having guys show you how to do stuff, guys that are mostly much bigger than me. For example, when the garde manger demonstrated crushing garlic, he just pressed down lightly with his (what seems like to me) gigantic hand lightly. I have to bring down the flat of my knife down hard, several times, to achieve the same effect. I also can't reach stuff on the top shelf. I've been adapting ok but it makes me wonder what I would do if I ever had to work by myself.

Service: this really was the most disastrous service I've ever seen. All the food went out just fine, it was more like a weird vibe in the kitchen where stuff kept being dropped. The clock fell off the wall at the amuse bouche station and one of the eyeplates smashed to the foor just as it was supposed to go out. One of the servers had two very hot glasses of tea spilled down her front. She had to stay out of the dining room the rest of the night because she was just soaked. And to finish off an already tiring service, as I was taking the induction burner away...the cord brushed another eyeplate onto the floor. Did I mention they're expensive? Yeah.

It was a bit of a mixed bag this past week. I sincerely hope my klutziness dissipates before tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Nine

When I tell people about working at Lumiere it feels like it's been a long time since I started. But if you put all the days I worked together, it's only been nine days. So really it hasn't been that long at all.

I definetely realized that last Friday. Now that business has picked right back up, stress during prep time is back up. And I got to learn a whole new bunch of things I didn't know.

Usually there are two people working the garde manger station. There's a lot of stuff to do. Here's an example: to make the pea and morel quiche that's part of the amuse bouche, you have to peel about a litre of peas. Like, individual peas, the kind you buy frozen in the store. Yeah. Ever done that before? The cook working garde manger does this at least once a week. It takes hours. In fact, he confessed to me that in the early days he would take these peas home and do it on his days off. It would take six hours, or "three movies" as he puts it.

Anyway, last Friday turned out to be my busiest day ever because when business was slow, they pulled a cook off of garde manger. Now that things have picked back up...staffing levels have remained the same. Not surprised. I mean, the exact same stuff happens in every industry.

There was no lack of things to do: making beet juice, peeling mangoes, prepping shimiji mushrooms...and then I got the most valuable lesson of all.

Vac packing stock is the worst, worst, worst thing ever.

Flash back to those terrible infomercials with the Food Saver. Remember, you put food in these thick plastic bags and it sucks out all the air, thereby allowing you to store food for like, forever? Just like that but industrial sized. Half our stuff gets vac packed -- cuts of meat, stock, my beloved turnip carpaccio, etc. I was vac packing a bunch of stuff for the meat cook. All I had to do was stick the bags in the machine, push down the lid and the machine did the rest. Easy.

Nobody warned me about the stock bags though. How they frequently dribble out. In huge globs. All over the inside of this expensive, industrial machine. That you then have to take apart and clean.

Which of course is exactly what happened. Twice.


So, in the middle of an already incredibly day, I had to take parts of this thing out and clean out the oily, thick lamb stock that now coated the bottom of the vac pack machine. A couple people walked by and remarked casually, "oh, did it explode?"

Thanks guys.

Last week I wrote about someone who -- for no discernable reason -- sent back half a lamb dish. Really uncalled for. This week -- a little lesson in making reservations.

It's ok to make a later reservation. I mean, ideally everyone would eat earlier so the kitchen could start clearing up and the hard working cooks could leave earlier, but hey, the restaurant is open later for a reason. Fair enough. But when you make a later reservation -- or any reservation -- for the love of god, BE ON TIME. Someone booked a late table and then proceeded to show up half an hour late and ordered a six course tasting menu. Please, please, please don't do this. It's unfair to the kitchen to have to stay extra late (and probably for just your one table) and unfair to YOU because well, who wants to be the only table at a restaurant? I like the atmosphere. It's a social contract: you make the reservation, you're on time. Don't be a douchebag.

On to more pertinent things.

It was the first day I got to serve someone on my own. One of the suppliers had forgotten a case of maitake mushrooms and had to make a delivery during service. It wasn't very busy at that time, so the chef asked the chef de partie to make up the spot prawn dish for him to try. While he was doing that the sous chef asked me if I'd like to make him up an amuse bouche.

I put it together and while I was walking over I heard the chef de partie describing in great detail the dish he was putting together. I realized I couldn't just drop off my plate without a word. I started off with "I'm not very good at explaining this kind of thing..." and explained every single thing in perfect detail. WOO! So I'm absorbing things after all. I guess you'd have to be brain dead working with this stuff week after week without putting it all together in the end. I felt a ridiculous swell of triumph and victory. Some part of my brain is accepting these new inputs. A mind shift.

Near the end of the night, the garde manger asked me, "so are you learning anything?" Yes, I replied, yes I am.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Eight

Things are picking up speed at Lumiere. Lots of diners this week. I guess closing on Mondays and Tuesdays has brought out the diners. Whew. And just when I thought I had brought some bad CBC layoff karma into the kitchen.

This week's lesson: consomme.

I remember in my last year of high school talking to a guy going into culinary school. We somehow got on the topic of consomme and he was like, "do you know what that is?" And I was all like, "yeah...duh...soup cleared with egg whites". He seemed impressed but if he had actually asked me how HOW the egg whites were used I probably wouldn't have given him a great answer.

I know now because the ever helpful meat cook showed me how he clears his pheasant consomme. You mix egg whites with a combination of mire poix (carrots, celery, onion) and pheasant meat. At this point the mixture is apparently called a "clean meat". The proper way to clear your stock is to let it cool down, mix in the clean meat and bring it back up to the boil. However, there is a very effective cheat method where you keep the stock boiling, stir it up ("like egg drop soup") and pour in the clean meat. The egg white boils, and the meat and veg flavours the stock further because the cleaning process takes some of the flavour out. What floats on top (the egg white, meat, scum, etc) is called a "raft". I'm specifically to note that a clean meat and a raft are NOT the same thing. They use this stock in their pheasant, foie gras and prune terrine by dissolving some gelatin in it and putting it between the layers. This is why the cheat method is allowed. Believe me, this terrine is amazing.

**Correction: the meat cook tells me that it's a "clear meat" NOT a "clean meat" as I have written above. Thanks Brad!

Over the weeks, however, I have developed an adversarial relationship. With a vegetable nemesis known as the turnip.

Here's how turnips come into this. Part of the aforementioned terrine dish is a carpaccio of turnip. You peel them, thinly slice them using a mandolin, stack them and cut them into small circles with a ring mold. These get vacuum packed, frozen and then defrosted and put into a pickling liquid.

Here's the thing. Turnips are out of season now, so a lot of them are mealy on the inside and therefore unsuitable. But you don't know how much of it is usable until you have peeled and sliced them and are staring at a useless pile of holey, frustration inducing turnip slices. I can go through a whole pan of these things and come out with just a couple handfuls of useable pieces. I have never felt enraged towards any vegetable, but these turnips can push me right to the edge.

Think about that the next time you eat out and notice a garnish on your plate. Believe me, somebody worked on that thing. Possibly a lot. Please enjoy it.

Being in the kitchen means you're on the receiving end of a diner's comments. I have sent back a dish only once because it tasted rancid. I think that's a pretty legitimate reason. When you're working in a kitchen where quality control is so important, you don't get those kinds of returns.

What you WILL get, however, are people who a) want to seem like they know a lot about food by sending food back unnecessarily or b) are just super uber picky and don't like your food no matter what it tastes like. This was evinced when a diner sent back a half a lamb dish. They had eaten one piece of lamb, took a bite out of the other and sent it back saying it was too tough. In reality, it was perfectly cooked. The kitchen recooked and plated half a lamb dish for the diner (who did finish it to the best of my knowledge). But really...behaviour like this doesn't make you seem cultured. It makes you seem like an ass.

Here's the thing. If there is something legitimately wrong with a dish (too cold, unseasoned, overseasoned, incomplete, etc) believe you me, the kitchen WILL take it very, very seriously. They will hop to it and get you your food ASAP. There's no need to resort to unncessary nitpicking.

Most of all: eat those garnishes. I assure you someone took the time to make sure none of your carpaccio is whole and unsullied.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Seven

It happened. People at Lumiere finally read my blog. So from now on every week's entry will feel like a book report. Oh well. I knew this was going to happen. Now my neurosis about, well, everything, is out in the open.

But that's not why I write.

My six day work week is starting to wear me down. In fact, I went in on Saturday last week because I had to work six days at CBC, so technically it was my seventh day of work.

I don't know what it is but I'm constantly exhausted now. So now I struggle to pay attention to anything. I hate it. Sadly I don't drink coffee (traumatic childhood event where I realized that it doesn't taste NEARLY as delicious as it smells) or do cocaine so all I can do is silently scream at myself in my head. Dammit, there's a job to be done!

Like peeling fava beans and almonds. I spent a great deal of time peeling both of those last week. It's for the new char dish. The old char dish required me to cut perfect squares out of blanched leek slices. This new one has morels, fava beans, almonds and these beautiful little potato croquettes that are apparently shaped, frozen, reshaped and refrozen no less than three times each. But damn, is it ever a gorgeous dish.

Things have picked up. There are more people booking for dinner every night. In fact, the day before I got there it was apparently a madhouse with just over twenty booked at the beginning of the day and ending with fifty people coming in for dinner. Apparently nobody expected it and things were...well...less than calm. I silently thanked god I hadn't been there.

The highlight of this week had to be breaking down lamb racks, or "frenching" them. You know that quintessential lamb shank look, with the teardrop of meat and a bone sticking upwards? That's frenching apparently. I finally did some work on the meat station, something I have never really done because it requires a lot of precision and knowledge and skill, things I do not possess in terms of meat. It was great because a) I had never done this before, b) I got to work at a new station and c) the meat cook is one of these people who is almost overly encouraging because everything I did he remarked by saying "perfect" despite the fact that nothing I did was so.

Who doesn't love a compliment?

Frenching lamb is a series of cuts, tears and scrapings that I think I remember but not enough to articulate into words. I felt like a miserable failure trying to make the same clean strokes that the meat cook was. But, as he says, do it sixty times and you figure it out. It's amazing to me how you can take a thick rectangular piece of meat and turn it into dainty presentable morsels of flesh. It's very, very cool.

After getting closer instruction from the cook working garde manger, I was supposed to go home and practice making quenelles. I've watched many people do it and it still boggles my mind. You take your spoon, get it very hot in some boiling water, scoop whatever heavy cream it is you're trying to get shaped and curl it up along the edge of the container it's in until you get a nicely uniform egg shape. Then slide it onto whatever it is you want to slide it onto. It's one of those things that, once you've mastered, it looks effortless. I have a feeling it's hell to pick up though. I was supposed to go home and get some Cool Whip and practice. I really meant to. Then my work week started and I forgot. Dammit. Will do that next week, I swear.

Meanwhile I'm continuing to watch and learn. Not just about how the kitchen runs but this little microcosm known as the food industry. The people, their personalities and idiosyncrasies. The kind of people who are drawn to this life and why they stay in it. These are the stories that I'd love to get at. Let's see how far I get.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Confessions of A Stagiere -- Addendum to Week Six

I can't believe I forgot to add this to my last post. So I'm standing there, working away doing I can't remember what. I hear the sous chef yell out, "Joan!"

I turn around and there's a hotel pan full of live spot prawns. Beautiful, red with white spots, crawling around, jumping out of the pan. I burst out into a huge smile. They're the most gorgeous things ever.

"These are the first delivery of live spot prawns this season," I'm told.

"They're here for two weeks a year."

This is why I'm a stage.

Then they all get their heads pulled off during prep. The life cycle of the spot prawn.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Six

Normally I head into Lumiere at noon. This week I got in a bit early -- 10 am. The purpose was to learn to set up the amuse bouche station from start to finish.

By noon everyone's there, absorbed in completing their mise en place. Music's blaring, it's warm to very hot depending on where you're standing.

At 10 am, the kitchen was almost totally quiet. It was cold. Only three other people were there, working away in relative silence. Most noticeably missing was the delicious scent of food. That would come later. It was nice to come in and start the day with everyone else, rather than catching up to them.

The first thing I was supposed to learn was how to make the pea soup. Key to this, besides the actual taste, is keeping the peas as vibrantly green as possible. You achieve this by cooking them as little as possible. When it came time to cook them, I noticed the pot we were using was impossibly tiny for the massive amount of snap peas I just had to prepare.

"Is that pot going to be big enough?" I ask.
"Yeah, probably not," is the response.

Which leads to us having to use a bigger pot, with additional water being put in. That is not boiling. Meaning the peas will have to be cooking much longer than necessary. Which means they will turn an unappealing brown colour. Which leads to another cook getting a look on his face like he's just seen a particularly repulsive sexual act being performed on one of his relatives.

This is a very valuable lesson for me to absorb. Learning from other people's mistakes is just as valuable as learning from my own. And less humiliating on my part.

Luckily for everyone there is a bit of a culinary cheat, involving spinach puree. Spinach puree is the colour of Romulan/Vulcan blood. It's a beautiful, deep bright green. And it virtually has no taste. So you can put it into food you want to be greener and no one's the wiser. Well, until now anyway.

After a while the sous chef pulls me aside to make pea ravioli filling. It's a pretty simple set of ingredients: snap peas, leeks, spinach (read above), mint, shallots and fennel. Cook them (not too much) and then puree them. Then pass them through a sieve. Smooth and delicious.

I did learn how to make bacon foam for the pea soup that's part of the amuse bouche. You have to saute bacon with other delicious ingredients, boil it with milk until it splits. Then you strain and blend the milk until it comes together, then add soya lecithin, which makes it foam better.

I've noticed some of the cooks keep notebooks to write down recipes. This is a great idea that I haven't put into practice yet. I really should do that.

Slowly...I'm becoming more assertive. It's funny because in my "normal" life I have absolutely no problem with this. In fact, I'm pretty damn bossy. But when I'm in a situation where I have no authority and no knowledge I keep my mouth shut. When it came time to plating the beef dish, however, I spoke up. I pretty much told the entremetier to give me the garnish I needed, much to the amusement of everyone who was seeing me act authoritatively for the first time. When the expediter tried to take it away before I'd added it, I all but grabbed him and said, "Stop". Finished the dish. "Go".

The sous chef said to me afterwards, "Be like that all the time".

Ha. Just give it time.

On another note, I finally told my boss at CBC about what I've been up to on Fridays after she kept trying to rearrange my work schedules to work Fridays (I currently work Sunday to Thursday). She agreed to try and keep my Fridays clear. It's been very weird trying to explain to my other co-workers what I'm doing. Either they think it's great or they look at me like I'm an alien. I don't really blame them. But hey, when you can't afford to go to culinary school and you want to follow a do what you have to do.

I already can't wait for next Friday.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Five

From May 1

Business is slowing down quite a bit. After Daniel Boulud's hectic visit, weekdays have been slow. Very slow. One night only six people came in for dinner. Today there are only fifteen. They've now opened up a patio for people to dine outdoors. So far no one's actually done it but at least it's getting people's attention. Slowly.

I get an update on Daniel's visit. Apparently he gets filmed just about everywhere he goes, and this trip was no exception. At least one cook was startled when Daniel Boulud appeared out of nowhere and shook his hand in front of a camera. "It was really weird". Having been on both sides, I agree. It IS really weird. This is why I love radio. No lenses.

After the visit also comes an announcement: they're closing the restaurant on Tuesdays from now on -- in addition to the usual Mondays. The recession rears its ugly head yet again. No workplace I'm at seems to be immune.

On the upside, I'm getting to learn how different elements are put together every week. This week: potato lyonnaise. They are delicious coin sized rolls of thinly sliced potato. It's part of the sous vide char dish. I never knew just HOW much was involved in making them until now.

First, you use a hand-cranked machine to spin out very thin strips of potato. Spread them out on a counter. Season with salt and pepper. Layer very thinly with a garlic puree and then a shallot mixture. Then you roll them up nice and tight and wrap them in cling film. Then poke a bunch of holes in the rolls and gently cook them in duck fat for about twenty minutes. Then unroll and rewrap. Saute the ones you'll use for service, then rewrap AGAIN. If you ever wondered where the "fine dining" line lies, it's somewhere in the midst of all that rolling.

Some cooks are hesitant to give me tasks I've already learned, whereas I welcome it. As much as I love learning new things, I at least feel comfortable doing things repeatedly. Seeing as my skill set is very limited, it gives me a feeling of great accomplishment to be able to take something on without a lengthy explanation. I can prepare the micro radishes for the terrine dish. I feel satisfied being able to write that.

Especially because my biggest challenge -- which I have yet to overcome -- is learning where everything is. Here is the typical scenario:

Cook: Joan, get me a pot about *measures with hands* this big, fill it with water and bring it to the boil
Me: Ok. *Goes to where pots are, search frantically, realize there is no pot there of that kind or if it's there I can't see it* Uh...I can't find the one you're talking about.
Cook: Ok. *Goes off, finds the exact pot they need and do the really simple thing I could'nt manage to do*
Me: *feels stupid*

Here's another one

Cook 1: Go get a bowl of ice from the other kitchen (at db Bistro).
Me: Ok. *goes off with bowl* Uhh...where's the ice?
Cook 2: Over there.
Me: OK. *goes off to corner.* do you get the ice out of this thing?
Cook 3: *opens lid*
Me: Oh. *feels stupid*

You get the picture. The next time I do something when I DON'T have to ask feels fantastic.

Because there are fifteen people for dinner, the chef asks several of the staff to take a night off once their prep is finished. He will work the garde manger station. And I'll be working next to him. Gulp. At this point I haven't spent any prolonged time working with the chef and frankly it's a bit daunting. It's like having to produce Peter Mansbridge. Intimidating.

In reality, I actually got to learn more because there was more time to teach me. Like how to plate the crab dish. You have to shape the circlet of crab with your hands so that it's just the same height as the pieces of mango you have to wrap around it. Then you have to oh-so-carefully insert two pieces of tuille in a sort of v-shape to give it some height. Then you take a triangular piece of pickled papaya and arrange it against the tuille. Then you add fingerfuls of herbs, a celery leaf and a parsley leaf. Then you squirt some mango puree onto the plate and smack the bottom a few times to even it out. I haven't mastered this yet, having visions of the plate flying through the air into the nearby induction burner. Then you place the crab on top of that. Arrange two ricepaper rolls (that were conveniently precut for me), each facing a different direction. Then take a squeeze bottle of piquillo pepper puree and randomly dot the plate. You can do this all fairly far in advance. Just before it gets taken out you dot the plate with a green herb oil.

And this is just one dish. There's a lot to remember.

I was also reminded of how it's all a matter of practice. Watching everyone doing stations they're not familiar with was revealing. It also gives me hope that I CAN eventually figure some of this out.

I can now identify which actual plate goes with which dish for the items that are the most popular, like the beef and the duck and the char. I can anticipate which garnishes the chef is going to need from the garde manger station so I have them ready when I see the plates come out. I know which elements are going to come off which station. I'm no longer shy about (politely) calling for what I need. I'm learning the system. So I'm going to push myself even more. Next Friday I'm going in a couple hours earlier to learn how to set up the amuse bouche station from start to finish. One tiny step in the culinary giant leap for me.

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Weeks Three and Four

I've combined two entries into one...from April 17th and 24th

This week I felt a nervous excited energy in the kitchen. Daniel Boulud was coming in a couple days. I mean, you'd be nervous if he was coming to visit in any case but if he's actually your boss...well...that's a whole other story. Apparently he's coming from Sunday to Thursday. I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing would make me more anxious than having to do anything around him in a kitchen setting. As amazing as it would be to watch him in action, I'm just not ready for that kind of scrutiny.

Because they all spend so much time together, the cooks know just about everything about each excrutiatingly minute and descriptive detail. I, however, remain monolithic enigma. So they've taken to asking me questions like, "what do you like to eat?" "where do you go to eat?" "what do you make at home?" etc. etc.

I keep giving these cryptic answers, stuff like, "oh, nothing really..." only because I don't know how to tell a room full of talented chefs that my favourite meal is a giant bowl of mashed potatoes, sitting on the couch, preferably with no pants on (the waistline gets in the way). My brain freezes up as I try to think of something more intelligent to say than "fried rice". It's these rare times I find myself at a loss for words. And it pains me because I feel like I come off as an incoherent moron. Which I'm not. I'm just a glutton who'll eat anything. I cook simple food because I usually eat alone anyway.

It doesn't help that their conversations about home cooking centre around their sour dough starters and litres and litres of stock that they apparently keep stashed away. Of course, this is all par for the course for them and they work on average about 14 to 16 hours a day.

I don't know a single non-chef who does these things. It could also be a Chinese thing where we don't tend to use stock in a ton of dishes. Whatever. The point is: no homemade stock or sour dough starter at my house. Which makes the whole mashed-potatoes-with-no-pants-on thing even more shameful on my part.

I'm also starting to get asked a lot of questions that I don't have answers for...but they are answers I'd like to have. "What's the best thing you learned today?" I spend so much of my time just trying to focus and learn the next task that I don't fully process anything until I go home and write it down. But if I had thought of it, here's what I would've said:

-how to avoid cutting yourself while peeling shrimp
-which way a piece of leek should be facing when you're trying to scrape off the membrane
-that you can control how you split a snap pea in half, but you can't control how many peas there are inside (damn you, nature)
-men gossip just as much as women do and they're just as bitchy about it too
-hazelnuts can burn really fast in butter

I'm also discovering some of my own talents. Apparently I'm pretty handy when it comes to forming ravioli. I guess a lifetime spent helping my mom make dumplings and folding origami shapes was useful after all.

Every cook has this rolled up arsenal of knives at their disposal. I do not. I used to be really concerned that I don't have any knives to bring in with me. I still kind of am. But I never realized how important it was going to be to have a spoon with me at all times. They look just like your regular spoons at home but ideally it's fairly flat, wide enough and a bit shallow. You use it to taste, plate, mix, etc. After a few weeks of never having one, the sous chef finally assigned me one of his spoons. There's actually an "x" on it. I now bring it in every week. It stays in my pocket. I just love the idea that the utensil I use the most when eating is also one of the best tools I can have for cooking as well.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Two

From April 10th 2009

After first day jitters, second days are always easier. I wasn't worried about explaining myself to anyone. I could focus on observing and learning and doing my tasks. After an unsure beginning, my mind was starting to pick up on things.

I noticed that I was starting to see things differently. My fingers for instance. During the week, my fingers are just appendages attached to my palms that are at the ends of my arms. I use them for typing. That's pretty much their main function.

In the kitchen, my fingers are the best tools I have. I use every one to manipulate, wipe, adjust, tear, pinch. Even the oft overlooked ring fingers have functions beyond the decorative. I've started to value them infinitely more. Suddenly they all matter because without them, I'm pretty useless.

The way I look at what I'm doing has changed too. I spent the better part of an hour peeling and dicing butternut squash for quiche that's part of the amuse bouche. After a while I started looking at the pieces in the bowl in front of me. Each piece started out a bright orange at the top and got progressively more yellow at the bottom. It was kind of like candy corn. They were just lovely, all piled up in a mound. It was delightful to look at.

I'm starting to see each different art form within the overall culinary picture. It has to be said that there are no unattractive or unappetizing looking dishes. But for some reason one particular dish took my breath away.

It was a beet salad. Doesn't sound like anything special when you put it that way.

Here's what it looks like though: dark purple, candy striped and yellow beets, quartered and artfully arranged on a long white plate that's been painted with concentrated beet juice, careful attention paid to the angles. Then quenelles of white horseradish cream placed on top with sprigs of microgreens. I couldn't stop staring at it. I remember not wanting to breath while I was watching this. This, I thought, really IS an art form.

My hands are starting to take on new characteristics. Cooks are known for their asbestos fingers. They can withstand temperatures most of us would cringe at. Scars and calluses illustrate a lifetime of labour. Mine are a blank slate in comparison. But they're starting to take a different shape. I can feel the tips of my fingers hardening from heat and more frequent use. I think I'm also on my way to developing a knife callus at the base of my index finger. However, calluses generally start as blisters and my soon-to-be callus is currently a painfully burst one. I discovered it in the middle of my butternut squash chopping. Luckily I wasn't asked to cut anything else for the rest of the day. I'm looking forward to when that part hardens up. I just hope it heals in a hurry because I have a feeling I'll need to use it come next Friday.

With any job comes getting to know your coworkers. I'm the new girl -- girl being the operative word -- and discovered that apparently everyone was under strict orders not to say anything remotely crude around me, possibly for fear I'd run off screaming or sue for harrassment. I learned of this the previous week when I was asked what I thought of the kitchen culture in respect to how, well, crude it can be. I said I hadn't noticed much of anything.

"Well, to be honest, it's really toned down."
"Is it because I'm here?"

The funny thing is that anyone who knows me knows I'm usually the first one to say something profane or outrageous or generally something that has guaranteed me a spot in hell. They don't yet know this about me but they probably will soon. They seem to be getting over it. I won't reveal the general topics of conversation but if you imagine a room full of twenty-something men who are crammed in a small room for the better part of 16 hours a day, you can imagine what those would be.

Everyone has and continues to be very kind and helpful, remembering to call me over to show me things they're doing. The meat cook showed me how to make a hollandaise sauce. More or less it's like a cooked mayonnaise. It was a highlight of my day, because it was a valuable lesson and also because of another hollandaise story I remember.

Months ago I was talking to another chef about working with our head chef, Dale. They were coworkers years ago, before either of them had become the superstars they are now. He said that he had taught Dale how to make hollandaise all those years ago, but that he didn't remember this until Dale had reminded him of it.

Now it seems that I, too, will have a hollandaise memory of my own.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week One

From my first week at Lumiere...April 3/09.

There's nothing like the first day at a new job. You can practically taste the anxiety bubbling up like bile. It crawls up into your throat and chokes you just as you ask the question, "What would you like me to do?"

Once I get in the kitchen there is some surprise at my return but there's always something to do. I learn to start getting into a rhythm of every task: whether it's cutting up the tips of romaine lettuce into "fronds" or picking the tips of chervil.

I've always cooked and helped to prepare food since I was a kid. My mother was always big into making her own food. Whenever we would go out she would inevitably say, "I could make that myself". Money was always tight. But good food was always paramount.

I remember many days sitting in front of the television with a big bowl of snow peas to prepare. It was theraputic, snapping off the ends and taking off the fibrous edges. I always made sure to check them all over once I was finished because there's nothing more unpleasant than eating a snow pea that hasn't been cleaned properly.
There's also a lot of camaraderie while you're preparing food. You're working towards a common goal whose end result (if you did it properly) would only be a good one.

All these "mom" food moments came back as I was helping to make ravioli. Their ravioli consists of a butternut squash filling and shaping the pasta squares into pyramids with square bases...that are also slightly rounded out. I was told to take my time with them.

My mother and I never made ravioli. We made gyoza, a water and flour dough rolled out into circles and filled with a meat mixture. I was never given the responsibility of handling the dough because I was never able to do it to my mother's satisfaction. Whenever I would fill them it was never the right amount of mixture. I was also never able to successfully replicate one of my mother's gyoza. A proper gyoza should be folded in half and crimped by hand so it looks like an elaborately edged purse. Try as I might, I just couldn't get the hang of it and it would always look primitive next to hers. So my sister and I would turn them into barnyard animals and whatever else we wanted, defiantly deformed.

The restaurant had taken a hit since I'd been there last. The number of customers willing to pay top dollar for a world class meal had fallen dramatically due to the recession. It pained me to see the reservation numbers (about half of what the dining room could accomodate). But this also allowed more time for experimentation and invention.

We all got to try the latest invention -- foie gras ice cream. I could see how foie gras would lend itself to ice cream, being pretty much all fat anyway. You could just blend it in. But what would a meat flavoured ice cream taste like? We all found out. The taste was very creamy, and then the foie gras flavour hit you hard and pretty much stayed put. It was cold, sweet foie gras. I didn't really know what to make of it. It was a culinary noodle scratcher. Others seemed thrilled and thought it could've been more savoury. It was definetely one of the more unique food experiences I've ever had.

Another new item being tested was a pheasant and pear terrine. "This terrine is going to be off the hook", one cook commented. I'd never heard a terrine described this way.

I had to ask: what draws people into this very specialized, exhausting, exhilirating road to food?

One was a pre med student in Victoria before he realized he wanted to work in food. He quit school, travelled, then came back and got a job as a dishwasher. I asked him what his parents had thought. "They were horrified." He went off to culinary school and is three years into a promising career. But to this day his family isn't completely convinced. His stories about 16 hour work days has not helped.

Another was studying math and training to be a bioengineer. How does an engineer wannabe go into cooking? "I was always thinking about what I was going to have for dinner." His mother's horrified reaction did nothing to stop his plans. His response is: "I can be an engineer when I'm forty, but I can't cook when I'm forty".

I'm feeling particularly self-conscious because I'm very aware of my position as outsider/interloper. I'm a radio producer who's in the kitchen...performing small tasks...following and observing...for what? People whose curiosity has finally gotten the better of them will ask me, "what are you doing here?" Good question, I think to myself. I'll get back to you when I have an answer. For now, I just reply, "I'm here to learn". It's cryptic but most are not curious enough to inquire further.

Last time during service I stood against one corner of the kitchen trying desperately to stay out of the way and stop my hair from catching fire on the incredibly hot salamander oven above my head. This time the chef looked at me and said "you're going to take care of the amuse bouche so you'll be involved with the service". Great, I thought.

One of the garde manger cooks showed me how to plate the amuse bouche. It consisted of three parts: a crab roll cut into thick coins and placed on top a small pinch ("just what you can hold in your fingers") of spaghetti squash, a squash soup with parmesan foam and a squash quiche cut into a square with yogurt and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. It all had to be assembled at the right time. It was easy enough to organize: you could prepare the bed of spaghetti squash and arrange the quiche ahead of time because they could be served at room temperature. But you had to time the soup just right. The foam came off another station so you had to yell out, "parm foam down" so the person with the foam would know when to pass it to you. The first time I had to do this I couldn't bring myself to yell out the order. "I'll do it next time," I said. And I did. Preparing the foam is fun: you buzz it first and then scoop it off, then drop it vertically from your spoon.

It feels great to be part of this team. All of them work together seamlessly, anticipating, communicating, and watching this culinary ballet up close is a thing of beauty.

At the end of the night, I head over to the office to talk to Dale. I thank him for letting me come in and ask if I can make this a weekly arrangement for the foreseeable future. He has no problems with this, doesn't ask any questions. I leave feeling great, with more skills and revelations and promises of more to come.

Confessions of a Stagiere

It hasn't exactly been a secret -- but not something I've written about either. I think it's time.

You can tell by scanning through my blog that I love food. Well, a few months back, through a series of food related incidents, I figured I should put my love of food and my love of writing together and do food journalism. This after I would tell people about stories on food I was working on. Finally someone asked me, "why don't you do this for a living?" Good question. Because I'd never considered it as a career possibility? Plus there really isn't any training to be a food writer. Everybody eats. But that's not enough to make you an "expert".

So what does make you a food "expert"?

Some people go to culinary school and become chefs. Some just go straight to work in a kitchen. Some travel the world, eating their way through the timezones. Some grow up on farms. Sometimes you're just a loudmouth that gets picked up by the Food Network (you'd like me to name some names wouldn't you? Pick one). In other words, nothing and everything can qualify you as an authority on the edible.

Having expertise to draw on is important to me. So I set about finding ways to do that.

I had originally thought about going to culinary school. In fact, I had applied and been accepted at the Art Institute in downtown Vancouver. It's a long story, but turns out due to recession related money matters and other things, this wasn't going to be an option after all.

After my day long stint at Lumiere back in January, I talked to the chef about my failed culinary school plans. He suggested I work as a stagiere (working for free) in his kitchen and learn that way.

Well, I took him up on it. Every Friday for the past few weeks I've been heading over to Lumiere, putting on whites and spending anywhere between 10 and 12 hours in the kitchen. What am I doing there? I help with prep for the first part of the day and assist with service during dinner, mostly plating the amuse bouche.

I've been dying to blog about this but there are reasons why I haven't. I don't want to make the chef and the staff uncomfortable in any way by making them feel overly scrutinized, especially when I have to work with them every week. Initially I wasn't sure what to do with the whole experience, but I've come to take it for what it is: insight into one of Vancouver's top kitchens, working with some incredibly talented people and doing one of my favourite things: working with food.

I figure if I want to be a food writer, what better time to start? At the very least I'm an expert on my own journey.

My fridays as a stagiere have become the highlight of my week. Whether or not this will eventually put me into any kind of field of expertise is debatable. But for now, I'm thrilled to go along for the ride -- and blog about it all the way. Postings to follow.