Life in a Restaurant, Week 33 - How to Make 22 Quarts of Frites on a Mild Sunday Afternoon

 
 

"French fries kill more people than guns and sharks, yet nobody's afraid of French fries."

-Robert Kiyosaki

 

On Sundays when we start serving burgers for a more family oriented crowd, and said burgers are so stinkin delicious that you don’t care you’ve had Valrhona chocolate brownies for dinner yesterday and are about to have an obscene burger (some days topped with pickled mushrooms, bacon, chive aioli, and other days with charred miso, white cheddar, and a gloopy egg) for lunch today, the fact is none of those two previous food mentions matter because you’ll also equally eat your weight in french fries.

Perhaps they’re so ingrained into the memories of our tongue that we forget how good fries should taste like salt and sweetened earth. They should obviously be crisp, otherwise you wouldn’t deal with deep fat frying, but the delicate outer skin of each frite should blister and crinkle like a paper thin cracker; the insides fluffy and soft like feathers of a pillow.

(You sometimes catch yourself calling them frites because saying you made fries today sounds like you work at a fast food joint and not a nice New American—as categorized by the much maligned Yelp—restaurant. But I’ll stop digressing, and get back to the point of how to make fries. Not substitutive baked fries, but the real addictive ones that are the breaker of every steady diet.)


Of course, all simple pleasures in life tend to be the most tedious to make. Grab your purple netted sack of kennebec potatoes. (We were once accidentally sent yukon golds, resulting in soggy chips I imagine are akin to the chips sitting under a piece of fried haddock at a 2AM street stall over in Britain.) These are the perfect fry potato.

Piercing each potato with your mandoline guard because you’ve now developed a phobia of mandolines, slice them fervently into around ¼ inch planks. When you think you’ve sliced enough, slice more, as they shrink throughout the cooking progress and you’ll be surprised how many fries both you and the dining room will consume throughout the day. Stack your planks, grab your knife, and cut into thick juliennes, and into a huge 22 quart cambro of cold water they go.

Drain them, and bring a huge pot of water to a boil, seasoned heavily with salt and spiked viciously with vinegar. (Read this to learn why, in a manner more effective than I would ever be able to explain). Blanch them for a minute or two until they no longer feel slimy.

Submerge them back in a cambro of new water to cool them down and also to rinse off anymore of the internal starch that would cause them to brown before getting crisp. Drain, and fry in small batches at 375 degrees for a quick 30-45 seconds, until blistered. Take them out and let them cool on towels to drain away all the oil, and store them in your lowboy until ready. Continue the process until you go through all 22 quarts of kennebec potatoes.

When an order for steak frites or a burger comes in, fry a charitable handful for a few minutes – they come out looking slightly bent and battered as if they’ve gone limp, but as you dump them in a bowl with an unselfish amount of salt, you’ll hear the conspicuous rattle of their crunchy outsides as they bounce and ricochet against metal and Maldon.

Snack on them relentlessly because you’re somewhat grouchy at how much effort and time they took to prepare, alongside a ramekin of aioli flavored with burnt miso, or ketchup spiked with both hoisin and sriracha. Or my personal favorite, take a bowl of recently crisped fries, and enrobe them in ladle of the infamous demi glace, add a slice of truffled gouda, and melt under the broiler, before dressing with italian salsa verde for a bourgeois variant of disco fries.

 

RELEVANT || BAKED FRIES THAT DON'T SUCK

MORE || LIFE IN A RESTAURANT, WEEK : ONE GOOD DISH

RECIPE || PAN ROASTED BABY ARTICHOKES WITH LEMON AIOLI

Life in a Restaurant, Week 32 - 15 Minutes

 
 

“She went to the market and left all the breakfast dishes there and said she'd do them later. I know what she wanted. She expected me to do them. Well, I'll fool her. I'll leave them just where they are.”

-Ayn Rand

 

Humor me for a second—if a restaurant's employees were all organs, you’d have the executive chef as the brain, maybe the line cooks as the lungs, and servers and front of house staff as the muscles that keep everything moving on a day to day basis. The heart? The owner, furiously pumping money throughout the entire body to keep it alive and breathing.

Now the above analogy for the most part is my personal take on things, but if there’s one statement I can say with a degree of certainty, it’s that the dishwasher acts as the kidneys: vitally important to our overall health, but at the same time the organ you abuse time and time and again. So what happens when the kidneys fail? The rest of the body goes into overdrive—line cooks, the executive, and even idling bussers take turns jumping into the dishpit throughout the night, and stay until at least one in the morning juggling order lists and unplugging the drain. While some people live without parts of their kidneys, man is it a shitty existence; a particularly alcohol abusive person could go through many kidneys in their lifetime.

Us? The 32 weeks I’ve been here, we’ve already gone through at least thirteen.


At first I thought he was the new wine bartender. What else would you expect from someone in charcoal gray slacks, an impeccably wrinkle free periwinkle button up shirt, and a matching gray vest with all three buttons fastened? His face was clean shaven, hair fastidiously arranged with a just-right amount of product, and he had a demeanor that would make any mom comfortable to see him on the arm of her daughter.

And then he was given a tour of the dish pit. Despite the voluminous checklist the front of house manager was rattling off, from lugging the fifteen gallon trash cans at the end of the night to scrubbing down each floor mat individually, he never batted an eye.

We all tried to offer him spare shirts or perhaps an extra pair of jeans we could run back home to grab to save him the embarrassment of having his five hundred dollar ensemble covered in an overspray of beef fat, curry powder, shallot scraps, and dirty dish water. He might as well have been a woman who showed up for a game of tackle football wearing a Dolce & Gabbana cocktail dress the morning after a November rainstorm. It was quite clear there was some sort of delusion hiding underneath his tanned skin and cobalt-tinted eyes. Every warning was met with a cheery response of, “It’s alright man, I’ll be fine.”

We continued to look at him incredulously, half in bewilderment, half in a cruel sort of smirk we tried hiding. On the inside, we were secretly very anxious to see the state he’d be in at the end of a busy Friday night. I went upstairs to print out updated dessert menus and look at the event calendar.

When I came back down, he was gone.

“Already bailed,” one of the other cooks laughed.

Fifteen minutes. That was the new record.

 

 

MORE || one year in a restaurant, week 31: ONE GOOD DISH

related || one year in a restaurant, week 7

next step || SEARED SCALLOP & WHITE MISO ARUGULA RISOTTO

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:

challah

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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