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, barber...you 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 reference...do 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.