Life in a Restaurant, Week 31 - One Good Dish


“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place.”

-Douglas Adams


Jan. 19 2016 - Jan. 24 2016


I’ve been working a morning prep shift on Thursdays. If there’s a hidden joy in life, it’s having an entire restaurant to yourself, something much better than any visit I’ve had to Disneyland. I hog the entire range with everything on the to do list: simultaneously simmering dashi, burning sugar for caramel, tempering 45 egg yolks into a vat of warm, vanilla speckled cream. There’s sunlight shining through the window – a rare element in any kitchen – to keep the overheads off, and it’s cold enough in the winter where the fans don’t need to be turned on. The tiny galley kitchen, half flooded by natural light becomes totally silent sans the melodic sizzle of onions sweating on the backburner and kombu merrily bubbling away; the steam combined with the warmth of the ovens makes being here cathartically cozy.

I sync my phone to the main dining room’s sound system, so every time I go through the restaurant to reach the walk in, either “Dancing in the Moonlight” or Franki Valli is blaring at an obnoxious volume. Back in the kitchen, I take up all the counters in sight just because I can, and call dibs on a particular wooden spoon because its pointed corner perfectly fits the corners of a saucepan.

If the list is short and I’m extra efficient, I clock out early and tackle a fun side project, for the most part pastry or baking related - things I normally wouldn’t have the time or space for during service. Another foie gras torchon, perhaps some kouign amann, or today a surprise for the hotline: a portly loaf of challah to use for mushroom toast.

You might wonder how restaurants charge what they do for a seemingly innocuous plate of ingredients and produce. The amount of prep it takes for a single order of mushroom toast might explain why:


After kneading the egg enriched dough, you need to let the challah proof for an hour. I resent the idea of aggressively punching down such a soft dough, so instead I press and fold the gas out of the mass of flour and eggs as if it’s a burping baby, before letting it rise for another hour. The wonder of a morning shift is you actually have the patience for excessive leavenings - the dough gets a chance to slightly ferment for more nuanced flavors, and the rises give a finer, more tender crumb. Gently sculpt the dough into a loaf, and rise for a third hour, before varnishing the top with beaten egg and baking it in the oven until the internal temperature is around 190 degrees. Out emerges the world’s most perfect loaf of challah - lovingly bronzed and shiny, with a thick, lacquered top. Once sliced open steamy, amber notes of yeast and sweet butter frolic around the kitchen. The crumb is tender but still has enough structure to be torn apart into buttery shreds, better than any loaf we’ve ordered from a bakery.

marrow butter

Take split marrow bones. Brine them with rosemary and peppercorns for a few days to draw out the blood. You’ll see the brine turn from clear water into a transparent rogue color, not unlike a glass of flat rose, while the actual marrow itself – the consistency of cold butter when raw– has turned a milky off white. Roast the bones in a hot oven until they begin sputtering in their own fat, and the marrow itself turns into an unctuous, gelatinous mess. Grab a few pounds of European butter, and mix in minced shallots, herbs, and the cooled marrow you’ve scooped out of their canoes.

demi glace

Get your veal bones in the oven. Roast them until kingdom come, so every inch is charred and browned just before the point of burning. You always know when it’s demi glace day, because roasted veal bones have an unmistakable smell - almost like a milder, gamier, beef, with a slight hint of musk. Sometimes we leave it overnight in a low oven because we seem to never have enough time to roast all the bones we need. Precariously dump your twenty pounds of bones into a stock pot three feet high and fill it to the top with water, making sure to vigorously scrape the baking pan of all the fond that has accumulated over the hours of roasting.

Simmer it on low, otherwise at a roiling boil you dislodge the impurities in the bones and your stock becomes a murky, cloudy mess reminiscent of bilge water. Meanwhile, brown your mirepoix in the oven as well, perhaps with a bit of tomato paste until they’re also well charred. Deposit the vegetables into the stock, making sure the flame is still low enough where you hardly see any bubbles puncture the surface, and are instead looking at a quiet lake, barely shimmering from the movement below. Continue reducing your stock at this annoyingly slow pace until the liquid just exposes the bones on top.  Demi isn’t the most convenient thing to make in the world - by the time the stock is reduced enough, we’re usually at the end of day two.

Strain the stock. By this time the veal bones have given up all of their gelatin and have become pale and somewhat tender due to their lengthy hot bath. It usually takes a two man job, straining a fifty pound stock pot. One person trying to accomplish the feat by himself usually ends up overshooting and dumping a few cups of precious stock on the floor.

And on the third day, after you let Jesus rise from the dead, pour the stock back into a pot, and add bottles of wine. Again, reduce slowly and languidly, until after all your veal bones, gallons of water, and patience have left you with a little over two quarts of demi glace, so loaded with gelatin that when chilled it becomes savory ballistics gel.

to fire

So you take your challah, ever so regal compared an ordinary loaf of Grandma’s white, and take a slice maybe half an inch thicker than you think it should be. Toast it so the outside makes the desirably sandpaper-esque noise when you run a knife across the top, while the inside still has a desirable squidginess.

Now get your mushrooms from the farmer's market, brush them off, clean them, prep them – a mixture of chanterelles, shiitakes, oysters, pioppinos, and maitakes.

Melt butter and let it brown, and just before it smokes saute your mushrooms. Let them cauterize in the sizzling fat; the smell of browned butter singing the spongy edges of mushrooms signals you to add a small handful of minced shallots, and maybe a sprig of thyme.

Meanwhile, start melting your demi glace, and once it has liquefied into almost a viscuous syrup, mount it with a big hunk of butter. It emulsifies, so instead of pooling into a greasy mess on top, it thickens and enriches the demi.

Whip out another pan. Start leisurely frying an egg - not so it’s frizzling around the edges and becomes a crispy lace (not that that’s a bad thing at all), but hanging out in the background, dancing quietly as the whites slowly become opaque but retain their signature silkiness, and the yolk barely comes to temperature so it’s trying everything in it’s power not to break it’s delicate barrier.

Spread a dense layer of marrow butter over your toasted challah. Place your browned, crispy mushrooms on top and enrobe the whole thing with the demi glace that took you around three days to make. Grab a handful of wild arugula – spicy, bitter, and robust, and only available on Saturdays from a man named Ozzie (who happens to be Maria’s husband), and artfully scatter it on top. Season your egg, and praying the yolk doesn’t pop it’s thick elixir everywhere, use it to coronate your toast, making sure it's done at the exact moment the risotto, hanger steaks, and cod are being plated for the ticket.  

You’ve just made one good dish on the menu.




Life in a Restaurant, Week 30 - Are We Human, or Are We Masochists?

"Nostalgia is masochism and masochism is something masochists love to share"

- Andrei Condrescu

I got my ass kicked at work tonight. It’s weird how comfortable cooks are throwing throw these kinds of phrases around: I got my ass kicked. We got wrecked. I got the shit beat out of me. Look at this burn I got! Now let me post a quote Bourdain meme online explaining why I still love back of house life anyway!

I don’t think people would openly want to admit they have somewhat masochistic tendencies, but there’s no career where it’s more prevalent than working a busy Saturday night on the line. Maybe we need to make the point that not many people can do our job, and it’s true – the average person can’t. But sometimes (and it could just be me talking), I think it’s so we can dispel the perceived judgment that comes with working an hourly job full time as a full grown adult.


Really well rounded, competent cooks, can take getting their ass kicked very well. They find it fun, and can ignore the line of receipts hanging off the printer and proceed forth with their night, plucking tickets off the board like flower petals off a deranged gerber daisy. I’ll gladly confess to you I’m not there yet. I panic. I try not to stutter and choke up on the inside. I get flustered and sweat more as my cheeks become flush with frustration as I fight the inner voice asking if I can actually pull this off.

This was all but confirmed during restaurant month, what I now view as the most dreaded time of the year. “3 courses for only $30! Pre fixe menu! Limited time only!” One just needs to throw out a specific set of words and all of a sudden people are interested in your restaurant. (I liken it to this clip from Family Guy & undecided voters). After a certain point all the restaurants sound like a chorus of Applebee’s commercials, and while restaurant month is indeed effective at bringing in new customers, for the first year line cook still finding his bearings in the world of professional cookery, it sucks. You’re stuck making the same pre fixe course over and over again and all of a sudden you feel like you’re working a corporate chain restaurant catering for the senior citizen bus that just came in for Golden Girls trivia night. And unless you’re sourcing all your food from Sodexo, it’s hard to think the profit margins are very high for a restaurant offering three dishes for only thirty dollars.

We were already having a decent Saturday: my ticket rail had a healthy number of slips, front of house was busy but not frantic, and the ticket printer was being pleasantly drowned out by blues guitar coming from the kitchen speakers. I overheard one of the waiters dropping dishes off at the pit: “My ten top all just decided to order pre fixe! My night is so easy right now”, he gleefully chuckled.

Sure enough, less than a second later it rang in: a long receipt with ten identical lines - pre fixe salads. (We’re still on the pear and endive salad phase, another compromise you deal with at a restaurant. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick of something, because if customers like it, you’re stuck with it. I’ve written exhaustively about this salad: How I’ve cut my thumb making them, how I’ve fallen behind when they all ring in because of how tedious they are.)

I was working on four other tables with pre fixe covers; after a quick read of the board it meant I had twenty two salads all day. I bite my lip in frustration, because on a good day making a decent salad takes around two minutes. Multiply that by twenty two and you’re already at forty five minutes for people waiting for their first course, which doesn’t count all the tickets that ring in within the timeframe of 7:30 and 8:15, our busiest rush.


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Life in a Restaurant, Week 29: Nothing Strikes Fear Like HACCP

"My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it."

-William Adams

The story of how Christina Tosi became the chef at Momofuku’s Milk bar is an interesting one. Actually it’s not even interesting at all - it’s stupidly boring (not because of her of course). When David Chang got in trouble for using a vacuum sealer by the Department of Health during the early stages of starting Momofuku, he hired Tosi to write the mandated health plan for him. She just also happened to make some kickass pastries, and is now the figurehead of a delicious, tooth-achingly sweet dessert empire.

We have a vacuum sealer at the restaurant. It’s a marvelous, hulking piece of machinery that reminds me of a Soviet Era super computer in how it’s presence demands equal parts respect and terror. Clamp down the pexiglass lid and it explodes into life for the next twenty seconds as it extends the shelf life of our proteins and lets us to do magical things like compress watermelon into dense, bursty bricks and seal large hunks of pork shoulder to throw into the immersion circulator so they can become tender steaks. But like David Chang, few people know that it’s one of the most regulated pieces of cooking equipment by the Department of Health, requiring a safety plan known as an HACCP, or a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Plan. (I just got fatigued re-reading that previous sentence.)

I’m not sure how I became the one stuck with writing the plan. Maybe it was the consequence of deciding to get a college degree instead of jumping into a random dish pit at age 16 and working my way up the kitchen hierarchy. No one in the restaurant had even heard of HACCP until the inspector dropped by, but before I knew it, The Chef gave her trademark twinkling gleam to the health inspector and I was then handed the manila envelope containing the documents we needed to submit to the California Department of Health along with our deadline.

HACCP loomed in my head for the next month. It took me three weeks of focused research just to figure out what it was, and what we were even required to do. If it took a recent college graduate that long just to figure it out, I wonder how most small restaurants with back of house staffs made up of non-native Hispanic and Latinos fair. The recommended prerequisites are inane: Assemble a team to write you plan - it should involve someone with a P.h.D preferably. Have someone with an advanced degree in microbiology. You mean your restaurant doesn’t have a full time biochemistry engineer? One cannot vacuum seal fish, unless the fish has been frozen beforehand. One cannot vacuum seal produce with a ph under x or a water activity level above y, which by the way you measure via a tool costing at least three thousand dollars. There were no online templates or resources to be found, except from the smart few who decided to take advantage of lost and frustrated line cooks to turn HACCP writing into a full fledged business.

After I would get home from a shift I’d sit behind my computer, telling myself tonight would be the night I would hammer it out, before admitting defeat over a bowl of soggy Cinnamon Toast Crunch whilst a Netflix marathon was going around in the background. (Again, still in my jeans and apron corrupted with the trademark smell of onions, Callebaut chocolate, and brown sugar.)

Decision trees made up of arbitrary choices looking more like random guesses than anything else plastered my word document, along with proposed procedures that, if actually implemented at any decent restaurant, would make us constantly behind on prep by hours on end. Every single piece of meat has to have its temperature taken before and after you fire it for a table. Make sure your steak is at least 145 degrees for ten seconds! (Haha yeah right.) Log your lowboy refrigerator temperatures every hour during service. Have flowcharts detailing every single process step of making every dish served at the restaurant (Does stirring the pot of risotto count as a process step?). Promising we’d keep a logbook detailing what time every produce and meat delivery came in and if it arrived at the proper temperature. Yes, we promise we’ll unnecessarily sanitize the already sanitized area each and every time we use the vacuum sealer.

I doubt our plan came anywhere close to the ones sent in by wd-50 and momofuku. As I mailed the printed report one day before the deadline, I’ll concede though there was one positive outcome of making an HACCP plan: I’m supremely glad I chose not to pursue any professional endeavours remotely related to science or math. There are moments you experience in your lifetime in which you are god awful you do what you currently do.

Now you might be curious. Did the state approve our plan?

I don’t know, it’s been over six months as I’ve been writing this and we still haven’t heard back. We don’t have a Momofuku-like cult following, and I have yet to become the face of a national pastry empire filled with birthday cake sprinkles and crack pie. I’m just sitting here behind a laptop.