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.