Week Two (and Three and Four): This is what your life is like now.

So I said that I would be better.  I am not a notorious breaker of promises—at least I think I’m not—but it’s been a longer lapse again than I would like.  It’s hard to believe we’re already through two of our five stations for the first quarter, but the good news is, what started as a weary blur has now tempered into a reliable hum.  This is what your life is like now.  I will tell you, after nearly a year of being on my own, and unemployed, and setting my own schedule, this has truly taken some getting used to.  I get up in the dark, I drive to school in the dark, I eat lunch at 9:45am, I spend the day in a windowless kitchen.  My time is no longer my own.  I miss that a lot, truth be told, and looking back on it, I can hardly imagine it was a full year.  Trust me, it goes a lot faster than you think.  

But here we are, a month into school.  It’s starting to smell like winter outside, a heady mixture of cold, damp air and rotting leaves.  No matter how fast this first month has gone, I have come to realize that this is a long haul—slightly longer than the time I’ve had at home—and that has its own brand of expectation to manage.  This is what your life is like now.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me a variation on the same question in the last week:  What’s the best thing you’ve learned so far in school?  I wish I had some fabulously culinarian answer to wow you with—like the professional secret to a fabulous beurre noisette sauce, or the technique for an amazing French onion soup.  Truth is, I haven’t done much cooking in the last few weeks.  Week Two was the second week of Prep 1.  (Sorry for all of the numbers, but it’s the way the school uses to keep track of all of us, and it becomes second nature after a while.)  It pretty much takes two weeks in a station to get your act together—to figure out where everything is, to figure out who wants to learn and who is just taking up real estate in the kitchen, to figure out who has something to teach you and who can’t be bothered—and then you’re booted somewhere new.  By second quarter, when you start repeating some stations as a “Two” (we newbies are referred to as “Ones,” and so on—your quarter is your shorthand), I’m sure it all starts to sing.  But for now, it’s a little jarring. This is what your life is like now.

For Weeks Three and Four, I was sent to the Inventory station, along with six other Ones.  Hear that? That is the collective moaning and groaning from most of the culinary student body upon hearing they’ve been sentenced to two weeks in Inventory.  Stuck in “The Cage”—the meshed-in storeroom where all of the kitchen’s stocked items and walk-in coolers and freezer reside before they get shipped out to the kitchen for active duty—you’d think they were a bunch of depressed zoo creatures, noses pressed to the glass, just begging to be let out.  Oh no, you’re in Inventory?  That sucks. Sorry, man.

Wanna know this week’s dirty little secret, the one that will earn me scorn and hateful looks from the rest of the student body?  I love Inventory.  Partly because it’s the first thing I’ve done here that I have truly never, ever done before, and can’t really learn on my own from a cookbook.  But mostly because what I really love, aside from the stocks and the sauces and the gratins and the terrines, is learning what makes a particular business tick, and how to make it better.  Though I’ve been working as a designer for the past fifteen years, the business parts of it compared with the restaurant industry aren’t all that different:  Both are service professions, albeit with different end products and a different client base.  But the principles are the same, and it’s in my comfort zone, which is the first time I’ve said that in over a month. This is what your life is like now.

All of the whining and moaning, of course, comes from the people who just want to cook.  This station sucks, man, I should be in the kitchen.  I don’t care about this—I’m here to learn how to cook. The rude awakening for these kids—and they are kids, most of them between eighteen and twenty-five—is that working on a kitchen line for twenty years will break you.  It will kill your back, your knees, your feet.  And if the constant adrenaline rush of service doesn’t drain you—because the low always follows the high—then the hard-playing, drink-til-dawn-and-show-up-hungover lifestyle will.  One day it stops being a badge of honor and just starts being what wears you down.

It’s amazing to me how many of these guys (and they are mostly guys—most of the girls are making bread and chocolate across the way in the brand-new pastry building) idolize Anthony Bourdain and his tales of heroin and attitude.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Tony—I read Kitchen Confidential and get all wanderlusty watching No Reservations.  I even paid good money to see him sit on a stage a few months ago with Mario Batali and do nothing but chat about food.  But the part that gets me is what he’s been able to do with his life after getting off the line.  Hell, if I could travel and eat and make TV for a living, I’d be a cocky dude in cowboy boots too.  But most likely he didn’t give up cooking on the line because he could make more money writing books. (Who makes more money writing books?  Not so many people.)

 He gave it up because cooking is a young person’s game, and at some point you have to move on—to be kitchen manager, executive chef, business owner, author, TV star.  And part of what makes him so charming as a celebrity is that he’s got humility in spades—he knows how stupid he was, how headstrong and rude, how close he came to fucking up his own life for the last time.  He is beyond grateful for where he is now—the fifty-three-year-old Tony who’s clean of heroin and has a new wife and a beautiful baby girl—compared to where he could have been.  But these kids, right now, they’re all young Tony, all attitude and swagger.  All they wanna do is cook, and you can’t cook in Inventory.  Thus the mopey faces and dragging feet and black hole of motivation.  They want to be Tony Fucking Bourdain.  But to do that, you have to know your business, and some of that business happens outside the kitchen.  Some of that business happens in The Cage.

So yes, I liked Inventory.  Monday is shipment day, so that means when you walk in at 8am, your drivers from Charlie’s Produce or Food Services of America (aka FSA, fyi) or Pacific Seafood or Interbay Meats or Coca-Cola are lined up on the dock outside, ready to wheel in cart after cart of whatever will go into the kitchens that week.  It’s fascinating really, with its own language and code and procedure—you can buy fennel individually, say, but you have to buy butternut squash by the case—and it’s about rectifying what the chefs requisitioned with what was actually ordered with what they tried to pack on your cart and get away with before you noticed.  Thumb on the scale?  Who, me?

Once everything is checked in, it all goes back out again:  Requisitions get filled and produce and meat and dairy and dry goods get divvied up and rolled out to stations so the rest of the lucky bastards who don’t have to be in Inventory, where it sucks and I am clearly being punished, can actually cook something with it.  Following that, what’s left in the storeroom—items needed later in the week, or for a special event menu, or simply as backup—gets priced, by the pound, by the individual item, by the case.  Menu costing, something we didn’t get to do very much of but which totally and completely fascinates the project manager nerd in me, is quite literally a game of pennies, down to how much edible product a given item yields (for example, a strawberry yields a higher percentage of edible product than an orange) and how that affects costs.  Makes you appreciate even more the “stock buckets” that collect vegetable scraps in every prep station, so that thirty percent waste on a butternut squash actually goes to good use.

And once all that is done, the deliveries on Mondays and the actual counting of inventory on Thursdays, the dreadfully boring part of Inventory starts.  The part where you have to be self-directed and actually find something to do with your time.  Given than there are student computer terminals in the back, this generally involves lots of Facebooking and playing of video games under the auspices of “research,” when not sleeping with one’s eyes open.  Instead, those of us who wanted something to do (all of us over 35 and corporate-world refugees) found it ourselves:  I used those fifteen years of commercial interior design experience to sketch up a new space plan and we reorganized the entire storeroom, down to printing new shelf tags and setting up product to—gasp!—actually match the order on the Inventory sheets. David, an ex-computer guy, cleaned up spreadsheets and created new ones.  Diane, who has run two of her own businesses, cleaned out files and put whippersnappers to work folding about a thousand kitchen towels.  It took us half a day to do what hadn’t gotten done with another group of students in almost three years.  It was all in a (half) day’s work, but everyone else couldn’t understand why we were doing so much–after all, it’s just Inventory. But those of us who’ve been out in the “real world,” who’ve had jobs and careers and likely lost both, we know what works for us.  As Diane said, “I didn’t come here to sit on my ass.”  Somehow this is a shocking sentiment to these kids, who just want to know, Is this on the test?  Will there be a quiz? Do I have to memorize this? 

This is what your life is like now.

Ms. K, the fabulous woman who has run this part of the business at SSCC for close to thirty years, gets a lot of unnecessary grief for being the harbinger of storeroom doom.  Even though she is effectively managing the kitchens of three independent businesses, and half a dozen more revenue centers, she is simply looked on as the woman who keeps me from cooking while I’m trapped in The Cage.  It’s a bum rap.  She’s whip smart, with decades of experience and a wicked sense of humor, and she has managed multi-million dollar budgets and staffs of 200-plus people.  Plus if you feed her peanut M&Ms and the occasional venti caramel macchiato, she will be your biggest ally–and let you out of station to go get a coffee or send you down to the Garden Center to harvest fresh herbs while everyone else stays in The Cage.  When we finished the storeroom project and walked her through what we had done, I thought she might literally levitate with joy.  It was a little thing to us, but clearly meant the world to her that someone cared about her station, about what she had to teach. This is what your life is like now.

Have I mentioned that I loved Inventory?

So, what’s the best thing I’ve learned in this first month of culinary school?  It’s not a recipe, or a technique, or a secret ingredient.  It’s what I’m sure I’ve known all along, only now from the other side:

That age and experience will still outwit youth and treachery.  (And indeed, there has been treachery. Another post for another time.  Or buy me a stiff drink and I’ll tell you in person.)

That if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

That people sometimes can’t hack it when you don’t go willingly into the box they want you in.

That at age twenty-five (or eighteen), you cannot possibly know as much about the world as you think you do.

That if you want to be Tony Bourdain, work on the humility, not the attitude.

That this world owes you nothing, and it will kick your ass and not look back. 

This is what my life is like now.  Next week, back to the kitchen.


Week One: Welcome to the jungle.

Okay, so I fell into a bit of a black hole.  Apologies there.  First I thought I would let all of the first week’s experiences sort of marinate (witty food humor there) and then I would write something pithy (ha, more humor), beyond “First we did this, then we did that.”  And then I was too damn tired in the afternoons to do anything more than microwave some leftovers, wave goodnight at my husband, and pour myself into bed.  

For ten days straight.

So I apologize for the radio silence.  I will try to be better, I will. I will.

My experience with school did have a bit of a rough beginning.  As I mentioned earlier, I had originally registered for the winter quarter (to begin in January 2010), and with about three weeks’ notice I was given the opportunity to start in the fall instead.  Given my general state of unemployed-ness and general lack of productivity, I clearly jumped at that chance.  Which also left me at a bit of a loss when it came to knowing, clearly, what the hell was going on. 

Now, given that this is the community college, I expected it to be perhaps a step lower than, say, the CIA or Cordon Bleu.  But what I really needed to know was:  What the hell happens the first day?  What do I wear? Where should I be?  Do I need all of my sharpened pencils and fresh new notebooks, or would they simply be covered in carrot peels within the first two hours? 

First step, I emailed the program administrator.  Hi there, starting on Tuesday, very excited!  What do I wear?  Where should I be? Do I need books?  Knives?  A hairnet?

<crickets chirping>

Three emails and no useful answers, other than telling me I was to be there an hour later than the actual start time.  (I quickly corrected her on that one.  Trust me, anything that requires me to be dressed and across town before 9am and clearly not involving the personal consumption of bacon and coffee, I make sure of the time.)  I finally picked up the phone, the day before classes were to start. Hi there, starting on Tuesday, very excited!  What do I wear?  Where should I be? Do I need books?  Knives?  A hairnet?

“Didn’t you go to orientation?”

Somehow, I knew this was coming.  “Um no, if I had been to orientation, I would probably not be asking all these questions.”

“Well, you should have been at orientation.”

“And when was that?”

“August 16th.”

“You mean, before I even registered for winter quarter?  That would have been tough.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right.  Just wear your uniform and be here at 7:50.  I’ll walk everyone over then.”

So I will spare you the faux suspense–anyone who knows me knows I didn’t make it at 7:50, though damn if I didn’t try.  I left the house 40 minutes early—that’s like a whole day in Carrie-morning-time.  And then I sat in traffic (who goes the damn speed limit, anyway?) on the West Seattle Bridge.  And then I sat behind an entire line of cars (including a school bus, a city bus, and a garbage truck), all waiting patiently—as you damn polite Seattle drivers are wont to do—to make the one left turn onto the one damn street that leads to the one remote neighborhood where the school sits pleasantly nestled.  I have never, ever in my life so fervently wished that people here would drive like even the most timid of Boston drivers.  (Or Chicago drivers, or New York/New Jersey drivers—cities where I cut my teeth on many a 70-mph freeway merge and can make a left turn between two speeding tractor-trailers with one eye closed.)  I end up speeding past it all, pulling an illegal U-turn, and coming back around to make a right turn instead.  The convoy is still waiting, blinkers blinking.  Five minutes later, I pull into the student parking lot.  It’s 7:50am.

I run—run– to the culinary office.  Locked.  Walked to the only door of the culinary building I knew—locked.  Total panic sets in. First day and I can’t even get in the damn building! I decide I will find someone else dressed in these same silly checkered pants and ask them where to go—success!  I’m inside.  I find the admin, looking slightly puzzled that I’m again asking her all these silly questions like, Where the hell should I be?  I’m told to find my name on the station list on the wall. 

Not on the list.  Holy crap, did I make up all of this about starting in the fall?

The entire kitchen is bustling already.  Dozens of people who look like they know where they’re going, what they’re doing.  I’m feeling lost and I haven’t even been here five minutes.  Whose bright idea was this culinary school thing anyway?

Oh, right.

I’m told to take a seat in Chef’s office with The Others.  (There are others!)  I find a chair and sit around a small, fake-walnut plastic-laminate round conferencing table and take a look around.  Two guys, four girls, including me.  Stranded in the faculty office.  We make small talk, get-to-know-you stuff.  The aforementioned Chef comes in and says, “It’s a little crazy out there, so give me some time, okay, guys?  I promise you, you’re not missing anything.”

He says some variation on that theme another three times in the next hour and a half.  Sitting and waiting—not an auspicious start to my culinary career.

Though the sitting and waiting did bring one pleasant surprise.  I spent most of the time talking with Diane, another layoff refugee, after we realized we had connected in our online class forum and we had both moved here from Boston.  (Reason enough for an instant bond, as if we needed a reason.)  We talk Boston food, Red Sox, neighborhoods, Julia Child, and of course restaurants.  I mention that I was an interior designer there, working mostly on restaurants.  She owned an event-planning business and worked with lots of restaurateurs around town.  She asks what I had designed.  I rattle off a small list, but say my favorite restaurant was for a client in Arlington who wanted to open his first restaurant for himself, a teeny little jewel of a place called Scutra.

“Scutra!  Wait, you know Didier?!  I worked with Didier while he was still chef at Marino’s!”

Damn freaky small world, ain’t it?  We were probably within ten feet of each other in Boston a couple dozen times, but it took moving 3,000 miles to the other coast, our respective job layoffs, and culinary school for us to connect.  They say you make quick friends in a foxhole—I would say the same goes for a kitchen too.

Chef eventually has a moment to breathe and works on assigning us to stations.  Diane and I, along with Eric, one of our other officemates, are all assigned to Prep 1 for our first two weeks.  Since I’ve neglected to tell you, well, anything about school since it started, I will clarify a little: 

Each quarter, culinary students are registered for between six and eight classes, and we are in school from 8am until 1:30pm, with a half hour “lunch” break between 9:45 and 10:15am. (As you can imagine, lunch consists mostly of breakfast.) Rather than changing classes or tasks every two hours—which would be utter chaos—we are assigned to two-week “stations,” or little mini-classes that we are in all day, every day, for ten class days, and then we rotate.  (Sort of like volleyball, only with knives.)  Diane and I compared notes, and it seemed we would spend the entire quarter together– starting in Prep 1, then move to Inventory, Pantry 1, Food Server, and Short Order.  It’s good to have a friend in the trenches.

We were finally released to our stations—which was a relief and a moment of utter panic.  We quickly find out that, because it’s the first day of a new quarter, there is quite literally no food, except for some old, slightly moldy garlic and shallots, ostensibly left over from the previous quarter.  (Hence Chef’s statements about not missing anything.  The man tells the truth. ) Which meant, quite literally, nothing to do—for all of the stations, but especially when your name is Prep.  Let me tell you, this makes for a long first day.

Diane, Eric, and I find our station lead, who gives us the tour of the kitchens that we clearly missed while trapped in the faculty lounge.  I promise soon a quick sketch for you—done from memory, as close to scale as I can get.  I’m obviously missing a few things, but it will give you a general lay of the land.  It’s a veritable rabbit warren, though somehow we manage to make a loop around and find ourselves back at Prep.  Just don’t ask me to do that again and we’ll be fine.

For the sake of clarity, a little more background for you.  The school operates three fully functioning restaurants—a high-end French service and staffed by students in Saute 3; a midlevel casual restaurant, affiliated with Saute 2; and the school’s main cafeteria, including a hot line, short order (burgers and fries), and deli (panini, salads, sandwiches) which is staffed by the rest of us.  Each day Prep serves a menu that has three main dishes (“proteins,” we like to say), three starches (rice, potatoes, couscous, etc.), and a whole mess of vegetables—basically, whatever we can make out of whatever produce Inventory brings us.  Our station is staffed with students from all five quarters—from we lowly newbies up through Q5s, who function as our leads (and as sous-chefs to the executive chefs who teach all of us). 

For anyone who’s read Michael Ruhlman’s great book The Making of a Chef about his time at the Culinary Institute of America, or Seattle author Kathleen Flinn’s equally fabulous The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, about her experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, our whole setup will come as a bit of a shock.  We are, after all, at a community college, and the primary benefit of having a culinary program is that we feed the student body.  Thus we are not set up in pretty pretty demonstration kitchens, with each of us making the same dish for Chef to try.  Some days I really do wish that were the case, but we are at heart a production operation.  We have customers to feed, first and foremost.  I wish we were getting a little more formal instruction, but we are more often than not thrown in the deep end and expected to swim.  In the end, I probably prefer learning that way—it’s clearly more akin to working in a “real” kitchen than a rarified teaching environment– but when I’m in the middle of peeling thirty pounds of potatoes, I sort of wish I were getting to roast my own lovely French chicken.

And then I remind myself that my tuition is paid for by the state and I am still collecting unemployment, which shuts me up pretty quick. 

And in case you were wondering, our day looks like this:

8am:  Chef and the leads tell us what we’re making that day.  Leads start assigning dishes.

8:15am until 9:45:  We do any necessary prep for whatever dish we’ve been given, or whatever larger team we’ve been put on for the day.  (This is mostly chopping produce.  No proteins for us in the main kitchen until  Q4.)

9:45 to 10:15:  Students break for lunch.  Except Short Order, who get to serve all of us breakfast.  Or a cheeseburger.  (Who can eat a cheeseburger that early?  Eesh.)

10:15 to 11am:  Back to the kitchen. This is the controlled chaos that gets everything in steamers, ovens, on the sauté line, etc., and ready for service when the cafeteria opens for lunch at 11am. 

11am to 1pm:  A small team of people works the front-of-house line, serving customers.  (As I said to someone the other day, it’s like having fifty one-minute client meetings each hour for two hours.  It is more exhausting than I ever imagined. )  The rest of Prep is in the back, getting anything ready for tomorrow that can be done ahead of time.  And Chef gives the day’s demonstration on technique or a particular dish—pate a choux, tarte tatin, how to tourne a potato, etc. 

1 to 1:30pm:  Everyone cleans everything.  And I mean everything.  And then we go home so we can come back and do it again tomorrow.

We’ve now been at this almost two weeks, and the gears are starting to purr.  We know where everything is, we know who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t (more on that later), we know what the whole thing is supposed to look like at the end of the day.

I’ve gone from feeling pretty pleased with myself for chopping mushrooms and broccoli on the first day (without the slightest clue why or what for), to being shoved on the sauté line the second, to being given a solo flight on a potato gratin a la Dauphinoise.  (Word to the wise, don’t fake it when Chef asks if you know what a gratin is, because he will ask you to explain in front of everybody.  And then ask you to make it. Lucky for me, I have excellent gratin skills.) Today, I knocked out a Spanish-influenced rice dish pretty much on my own.  I’ve learned to pipe pretty potatoes through a pastry bag (say that five times fast), deep-fried some crispy pommes frites with garlic and parsley, and prepped more produce than I ever imagined, most of that today (for a catering offsite tomorrow that Chef is running with the help of fifteen of us students).  After barely more than a week, I can flip pretty much anything in a sauté pan with one hand (and keep most of it in the actual pan and off the cooktop).  Utensils are for rookies.

Today as we were prepping a metric ton of vegetables for tomorrow’s event, the Prep crew—now that we’ve gotten to know each other—played a little word game called ABC Rock and Roll.  Start with “A” and name a band, then next person goes with “B,” and so on.  The letter “G” gave us Guns ‘n Roses,  which inspired a little kitchen singalong:

Welcome to the jungle
We got fun ‘n’ games
We got everything you want
Honey we know the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need

In the jungle
Welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your knees, knees
I wanna watch you bleed

Kinda perfect, isn’t it?  Right down to the bleeding part.

The great irony is that by the time your station knows what the hell it’s collectively doing (and feels comfortable enough to have a little fun together), we all pack up and move somewhere else and start all over again, which is what will happen on Monday. 

Rough way to run a restaurant—or three–but as they say, every day’s a school day.

woman in uniform

Can I tell you something?  I’m not sure how I feel about this whole uniform thing.

I’ve had more than my share of oddball jobs in my life—raspberry picker, front-desk jockey, proofreader—but aside from a little blue square nametag during my tenure at The Gap in college (“Would you like socks to match?”—yes, it was the heyday of the sock-pushing madness), I’ve never had to wear a uniform.

Well, that’s not exactly true, I suppose.  Gym class in high school had a uniform—one that people doomed to some lower level of hell are now wearing, I promise you.  Blue and gold are not good colors on anyone, especially teenage girls who experimented a bit too much over the summer with Sun-In (orange hair, anyone?).  Blue polyester jogging shorts with white trim, a double-sided, poorly ventilated t-shirt with a big swath across the front to print your name in black smelly magic marker.  Knee-high tube socks.  (Think about that look for a moment.) The whole getup—unisex, of course—would make Kate Moss look like she’d spent a few extra days grazing at the free buffet. I will spare you the details of the circa-1960s wool (WTF?) swimwear.  There is still therapy needed for that getup. God, the eighties were cruel years. 

Now, of course, not all uniforms are bad.  My dad, a retired police officer, wore a very authoritarian uniform for the entirety of my childhood, and now that he goes to work in a suit jacket and tie, I can’t quite picture it.  For decades, it was blue pants, blue shirt, clip-on tie (classy, yes, but you don’t want a perp dragging you to the ground by your neckwear), big romper-stomper boots, shiny badge.  I’m sure the sense of authority had more to do with the big Velcro’d on belt full of guns and billyclub and handcuffs, but still, you can’t doubt the appeal of a Man in Blue. 

s-FLEET-WEEK-largeAnd, of course, any young woman (or gay man) who has ever lived in New York City can tell you the swoony appeal of Fleet Week.  Suddenly, out of nowhere—like little spit-shined, dress-white rays of sunshine in a black, gritty, urban-dark sea of grouchy hipster city boys—the streets are full of clean-shaven men (and women, of course) set loose on a defenseless island.  Many a young lass has been swept off her feet by the “yes ma’am, no ma’am” charm of a sailor on leave.  Try that crap with a savvy New York girl without the uniform and you’d probably get a drink tossed in your face, or at the very least earn some scornful, mocking derision.  In truth, most of those outfits aren’t even all that flattering—what grown man wants to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy in a little hat and jaunty tie?—but then, it really doesn’t matter, does it?

 Don’t even get me started on the whole fireman thing.  A uniform—and you can save me from a burning building?  Yes, please.  (Sorry, honey.)

So, last week, after the avalanche of knives arrived via UPS, I received the box I was both anticipating and dreading:  The Uniform.

In addition to The List provided by the school enumerating all the swank knives and manly tools we needed to buy, there was The Other List, courtesy of ChefWorks.  It had been maybe a decade since I had rifled through the ChefWorks catalog (in the—gasp!—pre-internet shopping days), selecting uniform components for front-of-house staff on whatever restaurant we were concepting at the time.  (For anyone whom I may have sentenced with a really shitty uniform, I belatedly apologize, since I clearly had no idea what I was doing, other than matching colors to the interior.)  The Other List contained the following:

  • Chef jacket, white   (Okay, standard enough.)
  • Black/white checked pants, chef style or baggy   (Checked pants?  This sounds like trouble.)
  • Cool-Vent beanie, black   (A beanie, really? Ugh.)
  • Long four-way apron   (Right on. No trouble there.)
  • French blue banded-color shirt    (For when we learn table service. Boring, but whatever.)
  • Black bistro apron   (Finally, something black!  My natural habitat.)


9-25-09 007UPS guy arrived (look, another uniform!) and brought this.  After the fun toys last week, it was like opening that present under the Christmas tree that you knew was full of nothing but socks and underwear.  Sigh.  This was not going to be good.

For those of you reading who don’t know me, a little backstory.  I’m a big girl—in heels, I’m way over six feet tall, and I’m always in heels.  And no wafer thin model type either, mind you.  Hearty northern european farm stock, I always say. (To wit, I was walking through Pioneer Square here in Seattle yesterday, and an admiring man stopped as I passed and broke into song: “She’s a brick house…”  I am indeed mighty mighty, thank you very much.)  I love, love, love clothes, but let’s just say that the fashion industry does not design things for women built like me.   

Apparently, neither does ChefWorks. 


First out of the box, the four-way apron.  Nothing to see here, move along.

9-25-09 011

Next up, the vented beanie.  While an improvement over the big paper toque of yore, let me just say, unequivocally, that this is highly unflattering. I usually have a great head for hats, but they need a brim. This one is very, very bad.  In fact, I look a little like this:


Moving on, the dreaded chef pants.  Now, I have a confession to make.  ChefWorks does sell “women’s” clothing, but apparently not in the student program.  And, of course, if you want a pair of pants actually cut to fit a body that has hips, they will cost you three times as much.  But lucky for me, they come in the same hideous black and white check as the pants on The Other List.  So I snuck over to the other side and ordered the unofficial women’s version.  Vanity will be stopped by no mere list, I tell you.  Just for fun, I order a pair of men’s chef pants too, for comparison’s sake– in case they actually fit, I could save some money (I am unemployed, you know).  Foolish, foolish girl.  Let’s just say this about those men’s pants:


I will bow down and kiss the feet of the fashion gods–the women’s pants actually fit!  And they don’t look so bad, though maybe that’s just the blowback from Hammer Time.  They are resolutely not part of the official uniform, but I will sneak them in, and no one will be the wiser.  Shhhhhh.  If you tell on me, I will cut you with one of my many knives.

Next, French-blue banded color shirt.  Meh.  Let me tell you, no self-respecting Frenchman would be caught dead wearing this color.  And it is HUGE.  Like when you had to bring one of your dad’s old shirts to art class in grade school to wear as a smock.  I start to suspect something is very wrong with the sizing chart…

On to, black bistro apron.  Oddly enough, this looks just fine, maybe even a little swank.  Probably because it’s black, which is my fashion safety zone.  Though it’s nearly to my ankles—what do shorter students do?  Tie it under their armpits like a sundress?

And last, the chef coat.  Holy crap!  I really never thought I’d wear one of these.  The Top Chef theme music starts to play in my head as I rip open the plastic.

Left side, school logo:

9-25-09 014

Right side—hey, that’s me!

9-25-09 012

I unbutton the eight million knotted cotton buttons down the front and hold it up.  Uh oh. 

too big braids

Size chart FAIL.  I apparently bought a chef coat for a Macy’s parade balloon.  Or Mario Batali.  Seriously, I could belt this and wear it as a dress.  I can’t find my hands in here.  If it came with tension poles, I could use it as emergency shelter. And there is no time to order a new one before Tuesday.  I will walk into my first day of culinary school with a coat down to my knees. 

Call the Fashion Police.  This is not gonna be pretty. 

At least they’ll be in a proper uniform.

one blade shy of a sharp edge (a knife story, part 2)

File this under:  Things I Didn’t Know About Being a Cook/Chef.  (It’s a long and growing list, trust me.) 
On the first season, first episode of Top Chef, I was oddly shocked to find out that chefs wander around with a satchel full of brutally sharp steel slung over their shoulder.  “Please pack your knives and go” clearly made sense in that context, and gave Padma a reason for being on the TV.  Of course you want your own knives.  Does Tiger Woods rent golf clubs?  Does Springsteen borrow a guitar backstage?  Well now, let’s not be silly. 
When you sign up for culinary school, they give you a big list of things you need before you set foot in that professional kitchen–the right shoes, the right clothes, the right equipment.  Which, of course,  means knives.  Some schools put together a prefab kit–convenient, one-stop shopping, but what feels right in my hand might not work for you, and vice versa, though it would have saved me a lot of head-scratching and web surfing in those first few days.  Others present The List and let you do your own shopping.  I will say, The List they handed me at SSCC is unnecessarily obtuse, and would be well-served by some weblinks or even a damn photo or two, but here for your amusement (and because a few of you asked) is the list of what I need on Day One:
  1. 8 and/or 10 inch Chef Knife, forged product is recommended
  2. 3 inch vegetable/ paring knife
  3. vegetable peeler – knee action swivel
  4. serrated butter spreader
  5. 12 inch sharpening steel
  6. square end flexible griddle spatula
  7. 2 inch and/or 3 inch hook nose/parrot beak vegetable knife
  8. instant reading thermometer
  9. 2×2 metal spatula
  10. 7/8 round bowl vegetable corer/parisienne cutter
  11. 12 inch granton edge meat slicer
  12. 10 inch serrated bread knife, rounded end only
  13. 5 inch metal bench scraper with plastic hand grip
  14. kitchen shears, long blade, 3 inch minimum
  15. 6 inch stiff, straight blade boning knife
  16. 10 inch scimitar knife
  17. 9 inch narrow, flexible fish fillet knife
  18. stainless steel fish bone puller
  19. straight tine saute fork
  20. tomato shark
  21. small pastry brush
  22. professional tool bag or case


My first thought:  Holy crap, that’s a lot of knives. 

Second thought:  Hey, I get to buy something called a tomato shark! 

Third thought:  What the hell is a tomato shark? 

I started poking around online and was instantly and completely overwhelmed.  Where to even start? (Amazon?  Sur la Table?  Bob’s Knife and Ammo?)  How much should this stuff cost?  What is a full tang? (And have I been living all this time with only half a tang?)  Is it worth it to spend more money for good stuff up front, or am I going to look like The Tool with The Tools on the first day of classes?

The List threw around a handful of names–Forschner, Henckels, Messermeister, Dexter/Russell, Victorinox, Wusthof–all of which sounded less like cutlery companies and more like generals in the Deutches Heer.  (That’s the Germany Army, for those of you without wikipedia.)  So I called on my culinary secret weapon.

cappy This is Cappy, aforementioned resource on all things culinaire.  Cappy and his fabulous wife, Kristie (no slouch in the kitchen herself, mind you), live on the East Coast, which is where we lived prior to Seattle–and which, no matter way you slice it, is too damn far away to live from fun people you adore.  Cappy is a multi-talented guy who now makes his living running a company, doing software development and social media consulting, and writing books about Facebook. (No seriously, he and his business partner John just finished a book about Facebook.  All you software cats out there, run right out and buy a copy.  I’ll wait.)
In Cappy’s pre-software superhero life, he worked as a professional chef, including running his own kitchen at a restaurant in Gloucester, MA, and doing time at Olives in Boston, under celebuchef and restaurant mogul Todd English.  If anyone would tell me what I needed to know about knives in no uncertain terms, it was Cappy. (I once asked him for some advice about brining poultry, and I got a veritable chapter from the funniest, most useful cookbook yet to be written.)  I shot off an email plea for some culinary brain-picking and gentle guidance down the path of my full-forged future. 
And this is what came back:


Well, there’s 2 schools of thought here. One is what “gets the job done” and the other is “what gets the job done and makes you look cool.”

You know, the Prius vs. Ferrari thing.

Personally I freaking LOVE Victorinox knives. Dirt cheap (really don’t know how they do it) and nearly indestructable. Can even go in dishwasher. (GASP!) Hold a great edge. And at < 30 bucks for a chef’s knife, you can’t beat it. They always score tops in comparison tests. I use their 8″ chef and bread/slicer every day and I own probably 8 chef knives alone, including both henckels and wusthof. I always reach for my Vic.

But they are not pretty. Plastic handles – albeit rough ones so they never slip out of your hand. But oh so comfy. Only knife I ever use without looking at what I’m doing and have never cut myself with one…

Wusthof and Henckels are other big names. Knives are pretty and built like tanks ( their good ones– they make cheap-ass lower priced crap that’s not worth the metal they’re stamped out of).  Get forged full-tang blades if you get these. Full-tang means metal goes all the way through handle. You’ll see the metal on the handle where the blade is bolted to it in some of their cheaper (but not cheap) knives.

These guys have extremely hard blades; however, they are a BITCH to sharpen but keep their edges *extremely* well if you take care of them. Forged blades instead of stamped is reason why. They tend to have some “weight” to them so can take some burden off chopping. Chop 50# of onions (you will) and you’ll see what I mean.

My other favorite is a $9 cleaver made for vegetables I bought at Uwajimaya in Seattle. RAZOR-sharp but needs often sharpening but is easy as hell to sharpen. For over 3 years it was the ONLY knife I used. Seriously.

Bottom line. If you are the type that really takes care of things, like cleaning your knives meticulously after service, rarely lending them to coworkers (who WILL steal them and never treat them as good as you do…), and sharpening them regularly (I used to make mine razor razor sharp every day), go with a henckels or wusthof or other premium brand.

I am not one of these people — and usually ended up using the knives the restaurant had since we rotated them in and out regularly via a sharpening service. And 98% of time you use a chef’s knife. Unless you are paring vegetables — and VERY VERY few use a knife instead of a peeler; real kitchens get shit done as fast as possible– or butchering you rarely use anything else. So if you’re gonna spend, spend on it and screw the rest of them. For other knives, 90+% of chefs I worked with bought these cheap henckels three-packs of paring, tourne, and sheeps’  foot knives and tossed them when they broke, including me.  And I’ve never used a better serrated slicer than the cheap victorinox one.

Whichever you choose, try them out first. I think Williams Sonoma lets you. I once spent $175.00 on a top-of- line Henckels super-premium blade that ended up not really fitting my hand. But since it was cool and expensive, I used it. Cost me the worst tendinitis of my life (DeQuervain’s wrist it’s called) and 8 (!) weeks of lost work. Make damn sure you use before buying!

If it were me, I’d go Vic all the way. That way you don’t spend a ton up front and can try all your classmates’ out to find what you like.  But you’ll definitely be the uncool kid. Cschool is notorious for people with fancy knives and not an ounce of culinary skill. You’re not one of them. =)

Oh forgot about Japanese knives. Fucking beautiful ( some cost well over 1k – per blade…) and fucking amazing. If I had the cake I’d go all in for them. But I’d never want them in a commercial kitchen. They’d be stolen in a week!

On that note: watch out for theft. Knife bags are a prime target. Every restaurant I’ve worked in I’ve lost at least one or two knives to theft. And at least one entire, full knife bag. That usually is what drives chefs to say, fuck it, and use the restaurant knives.

…which,btw, are invariably Vics. =)

 If I were going to school I would probably go with either Henckels, Global, Shun, or Wusthofs if that’s what you can get reasonably. They are great knives and built well. Anyway, your teachers will probably be bitches to the people with the cheap shit, maybe not, dunno. Just would never take the pretties to my journeyman or co-op assignments (where they send you as part of your training – avoid the ‘real’ restaurants – usually a factory like Ivar’s or something where you’ll peel fucking mountains of onions and potatoes…) They will just get stolen. Some prep cook will say, ‘hey dude, can I borrow your slicer? I can’t find mine…’ and then you get busy and at the end of the shift, same guy says, ‘duuude, I put it back in your bag! Seriously!’

Um, yeah.

Go with whatever kicks ass for you. Thought of you tonight, made Mahi-mahi with chourico, pilaf, kale-beet greens-chard from farm down street, and fried garlic. What did I use? Only my Vic. =) See? But would probably use something nicer if guests were over, or if I were going to school.

That 10″ Henckels probably rocks. Try it out. Sharpen it (or better yet, get it sharpened at a real place like most chefs do, even if they say they don’t) and cut a bunch of different things with it: onions, because they are the canonical hybrid task (slicing, paring, chopping all in one), tomatoes, b/c the skin sucks to cut through, peppers, for same reason, and meat of some kind. If it works, you’re done with the chef knife.

Straight-tine saute fork? Seriously?

This is one of those times where thinkers and doers meet. You know, the thinkers say ‘everyone should treat their kids/biz/finances THIS WAY and we’d all retire at 12 and there’d be no war and we’d all make love all day long…’ and the doers say, ‘fucker, [1] you don’t have kids, [2] you work for a non-profit and have never worked a hard day in your life, and [3] w/o your trust fund you’re fucking POOR, so STFU!’


That fork is this stupidity which you’ll only use if you carve the overcooked piss-poor hunk of death called ‘Steamship Round’ at the local Marriott out by the airport.  The only ppl you EVER see using it don’t speak English and wear those gay-ass paper hats in inverse proportion to their penis sizes. Just sayin’. You use it to turn shit over when sauteeing. Which everyone with more than 6 brain cells does in a real kitchen with spring-loaded stainless tongs or their bare fucking hands (insert cave man grunting noises and angry screaming lesbians…).

But I digress.

 As for steels, there’s two (maybe more) schools of thought. The diamond flat-blade steel or the round one. I have both. I like the flat one. Seems to work better for me b/c it feels like it ‘sticks’ to the blade better. But I use both – whichever is closer – every time I use a knife or put it away. Yep, *both* times. When I use it to start cutting and when I put it away.

For the odd knives – the granton slicer, scimitar, birds beak, get cheaper ones if you can. YOU WILL NEVER USE THEM in the real world, most likely. You will do the following:

– use slicer for gravlax, big-ass roasts, braciole, roulades, etc. Slicer makes great presentation b/c it cuts in ONE motion – no sawing involved – so it makes perfectly flat cuts. Very important for pretty.

– scimitar: for hacking up big carcasses of flesh. I cut the pinky of my left hand off 2/3 of the way to the wrist–all the way through the hand on both sides– with one while trying to break down a beef primal to get at the ribeye during a busy service one night when a bunch of cruise ship dudes from Chicago came to Gloucester and wiped out my prepped beef by 6PM on a summer Saturday eve. Raced to hospital, sewed it back on, back on line in 2 hours to finish service. Scotch dulled the pain. Good scotch. Wait, why the fuck was I a chef again? =) Anyway, get a Dexter Russel or some workhorse knife here. You will most likely never be the one in the restaurant to use it unless the chef (or if you are the chef, you…) trusts you to break down their most expensive proteins like whole beef primals, swordfish, big slabs of tuna, etc. I’ve never owned one, even though one owned me. There is usually one in an entire place and is wielded by the guy (usually who speaks no English or Spanish) who’s done the proteins every day for the last 20+ years. FUN knife to have though!

– birds beak – sent you the link to the 12 dollar 3-pack of paring knives. Buy. that. You are going to be subjected to cutting the damn 7-sided tourne cut (those annoying potato or carrot football things.) This is the only thing you will ever use that knife for unless they also have you make fluted mushroom caps which I have never seen in the wild. We made them one night at Olives after doing piles of “totally legal and safe for all ages” substances that made us want to COMPETE RIGHT NOW LET’S GO RIGHT NNNNOOOOW, Gordon Ramsey-style competition-like. Only time in my career. Don’t remember who won… I guess if you do corporate buffets or something you might need to make fluted mushrooms. But I know you, and you’d sooner carve your own eye out with that knife than make fluted mushroom caps.

– bread knife – Vic has kicked the ass of every other bread knife I’ve owned or used. We use it every day. But, it has the Fibrox black handle and looks cheap, even though it skoolz all the cool kids. Go with whatevs you like. Just buy the Vic for your house.

– boning knife – I like my Wusthof Culinar but it cost a mint. It’s awesome to flourish at guests since it looks like one solid piece of steel and makes this cool singing noise when you whack it against the board. But, I always used Dexter Russels. Why? Because the #1 use of filet/boning knives is for cleaning fish, well, at least here. And gutting fish is *nasty.* And Gloucester is capital of it. And the old Portuguese women that gut cod all day, every day, use them. So I did, too. Ganky? you bet. But it will filet 1,000 lbs of fish in no time. And you can throw its stinky ass in the dishwasher and not worry about it. Remember, too: you’ll be filleting before your guests arrive. But for school prolly go high-end.

I typed that entire message using one finger on my iphone. I think you win for longest single text entry on iphone for cappy… Anyway, hope that helped.


And that, my friends, is what should have been on The List.  And heartfelt thanks to Cappy for such great (and damn funny) advice.  Knives are ordered and on their way!  Mostly Vics, the rest Henckels. 

T-minus twelve days and counting.

do you…enjoy knives?

 My very first “real” knife was a gift to me, mostly borne out of pity.
I was 21-years-old, living in New York City (okay, well, living in Hoboken, New Jersey, but working in New York City), and somehow getting by on the astronomical salary of $19,000 per year.  I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up railroad apartment on the same block where Frank Sinatra used to live in his boyhood days, which was pretty much Hoboken’s claim to fame at that time (and probably still is).  I had a crazy roommate with an even crazier cat, and we shared a vintage 1940s-era kitchen that, while larger than some of our friends’ entire studio apartments, didn’t offer much in the way of, say, counter space, or functional appliances.  But we were young, and living in The City, and that meant trying to throw the occasional dinner party.
Having had a magazine internship the summer prior to graduation in NYC (where I met said crazy roommate), we were lucky enough to have a group of other newbie residents in our midst, and we did our best to feed and amuse each other on our paltry urban budgets.  I also had a college friend, Joe, who had just moved from lovely Union City to Hoboken with roommate Mike, and we managed to suck him in to our little parties as well.  Joe and I were on our way to becoming fast friends, out of a shared love of music, cheap CD stores on St. Mark’s Place, and a sardonic sense of humor.  That, plus he always seemed willing to eat whatever we were cooking.
The details are fuzzy, but if I had to recreate the scene, it would go like this:  We were having one of these little potluck dinners in our apartment, and I was probably trying to chop onions with some sad, woefully unsharpened excuse for a chef knife, on a warped and cracked wood cutting board.  In addition to likely mocking me for my sad kitchenware, Joe picks up said implement and says, in his best Bud Cort, “Do you…enjoy knives?”
5407To which I had no response, because I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.  (Though I probably laughed anyway.  I did that a lot in those days.  God forbid I not know someone’s obscure reference and be called out for my shocking uncoolness, which would become immediately apparent.) 
If you also don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, then you haven’t seen Harold and Maude, a Hal Ashby dark comedy (very dark, very very dark) that came out in 1971.  The story in a nutshell is this, according to IMDB: “Young, rich, and obsessed with death, Harold finds himself changed forever when he meets lively septuagenarian Maude at a funeral.”  That hardly covers it, but you should see it for yourself.  Ultimately, it’s a story about finding joy in life, and that’s never a bad thing to learn. (Plus it has a fabulous soundtrack by Cat Stevens, when he was still Cat Stevens. Good stuff.)
Anyway, moving forward to May 10, 1992, which would have been my first birthday in New York.  I had been there most of a year, with varying degrees of success in love and life.  I had a boyfriend at the time  (the brother of a friend/coworker), which was a rare occurrence for me, and even moreso on my birthday.  Again, don’t quote me on the facts here, but I can tell you this, whatever gift I got from the boyfriend that year, I certainly don’t remember it.  (In fact, there may not have been one–he was that kind of boyfriend.) 
But I do remember this:   I got an oddly shaped package from Joe, completely unexpected.  I opened the card, and inside it read, in his giant loopy printing, “Do you ENJOY knives?” And in the package was a gleaming Henckels 10″ chef’s knife, and a decidedly nonwarped, noncracked cutting board.  It was the first of many gifts from Joe that would leave me speechless.
I probably still have that birthday card.  And I know I still have that knife.
joe's knife
 (And in case you were wondering, the boyfriend was gone shortly thereafter.  And Joe was one of my bridesmaids when I got married a few years ago.  So I guess I kept the right guy.)
One of my favorite quotes from Harold and Maude is from that wise young septugenarian, who reminds her young beau, “Try something new each day.  After all, we’re given life to find out.  It doesn’t last forever, you know.”

That knife is going with me on the first day of culinary school.  It may not be the fanciest, or the most expensive, but it will be like having an old friend there with me.  Thanks, Joe.


and so it begins

here’s a story to get us started.

this time last year,  i was the senior lead of an interior design studio at a small architecture firm here in seattle.  i had joined almost two years prior, at the height of the boom times, to help them grow a business.  and grow we did! from the days of just myself in a room full of too-quiet architects, we topped out at almost thirty people, a 33 percent increase from my date of hire, and i was able to bring on some of the most fabulous, talented, genuine, funny, smart young designers to work with me.

we had it all.  small office.  boss in another state.  autonomy.  company-paid happy hours.  flexible schedules.  coworkers who acted like grown-ups.  (well, most of them.)

and then it all came crashing down.

first, clients stopped paying their bills.  and then new clients stopped showing up.  we ran out of things to clean up, archive, file, put away, and toss.  we played on facebook.  we joked about looking for other jobs.  at one point, managment sent us home for lack of work–and lack of pay.  and then an email on october 9, 2008, that said simply, “are you going to be in the office on friday?  we should talk about a few things.”

you can pretty much guess what that meant. 

so on october 11, 2008, amid a lot of tears and way too many boxes of design magazines, i packed up my working life and moved it home to my garage.  we packed up one of my favorite designers too, and two weeks later, he was on the road back to san antonio to live with his parents.  (don’t feel too bad for him though.  his mom cooks for him, he spends time by the pool, and he has a fabulous new boyfriend in austin.  some things just have a way of working out.)

i have spent the last eleven months trying to start my own business.  i went to entrepreneur class, designed business cards, bought a multifunction scanner/printer/copier that probably also does my laundry and brings me coffee if i could just figure out which button to push.  i’ve had a few opportunities–a remodel of an apartment building, designing a child-care facility, a couple of office remodels–but mostly, everyone’s hands are tied. we are all in the same little leaky, underfinanced boat, and frankly, it’s getting crowded in here.

back in february, i decided on a whim to check out the “worker retraining” program at the local community college.  it was good for a laugh, i figured–“worker retraining” sounds like something out of communist china, or “the manchurian candidate.”  the room was full of good, hardworking people who just didn’t know where to go next.  a few architects, some engineers, bankers (thanks to the wamu buyout), journalists let go from the seattle p-i that had just shut down its presses.  the community college folks are good souls, i’m sure, but let me tell you, they were not prepared for the tsunami of unemployed people looking for what to do next.  especially those of us with college degrees and careers we actually liked, even though job prospects were slim to none for the forseeable future.

flashback to my last career crisis, in 1995.  i was working in publishing in nyc as a book editor, a bit far from my college dream of writing for a magazine somewhere.  (graduating in a recession will do that to you.  just ask any 22-year-old these days.) i wanted to do something more creative, engaging, social.  i couldn’t see myself as one of the midlife women who were in offices all around me, copyediting book manuscripts with their omnipresent red pencils and newfangled post-it notes.  so i decided i would go back to school.  though i’ve always had the desire to work in the restaurant industry, i headed toward interior design instead–and ended up with a career in restaurant design.  again, things have a funny way of working themselves out, don’t they?

flash forward to seattle, 2004.  restaurant design is not the same animal here as it was in chicago or even boston.  small firms do some of the work, but mostly it seems to be done by restaurant owners themselves (?!), so instead i jumped headlong into the housing boom and spent almost five years designing condos, apartments, senior housing, etc.  and if you have so much as glanced at a newspaper or turned on a tv in the last year, you know how that story turned out, too.  no banks lending money = no developers to hire architects and designers. hence the whole unemployment thing.

i spent my summer of “sabbatical” by the pool, trying to figure out what to do next.  the culinary school inklings from fifteen years ago came tip-toeing back, and they’ve been tapping me on the shoulder for about six months now.  i have toured every culinary school in the area, and settled on the program at south seattle community college.  (one, for their classical french training.  two, because i could get in, and they pay for a quarter’s worth of tuition if you’re unemployed. thank you, state government.  my tax dollars at work. )

the registration process was a story in itself, so tune in for that.  my new best friend, darnell, in the worker retraining office, was like a guardian angel of government-induced paperwork.  he is a good man, and when he found out i got moved from the winter 2010 quarter to starting in september 2009, he jumped up from his desk and slapped me five.  i love darnell.

so here i am.  thirty-nine years old.  fifteen years of design and management experience in three major cities.  international design projects on several continents.  two dozen restaurant design projects.  and i am three weeks away from donning chef whites and dansko clogs for my first day of culinary school.

what do i hope to get out of this experience?  frankly, i don’t have the answer to that yet.  it may be a fork in the road (ha! punny…) to some new career.  it may be a detour to ride out the recession.  it may be so i have something to do besides sit at the computer and read blogs all day before my husband gets home.  i really have no idea what’s coming next.

but as padma says, i will pack my knives and go.  wish me luck.