“You live and learn. At any rate, you live.”
“What did you learn today?”
"What do you mean?"
"Well what did you learn today? Anything new that you haven't done before?"
I mean sure, he was probably one of the many drunk, homeless men who wandered San Luis Obispo at night, but for some reason he seemed quite coherent - this sagely, white bearded Gandalf in a Hawaiian shirt and wrinkled military cap.
“I filleted my first side of salmon.”
“Fantastic! What a thing to learn... Well then, have a good night!” Gandalf slurred off into the distance. After a very shitty week at work, my walk home that night became much, much better.
When you’re growing up, all of the adults around you try their best to impart words of wisdom and life advice: don’t leave the toilet seat up, drive at least eighty on the freeway when there are no cops around, and maybe some more conventionally appropriate ones, like “Learn from your mistakes.”
I don’t think there’s an area where that overused aphorism applies to more than the restaurant industry, where in a matter of minutes you have the opportunity to make damn sure you have learned from last ticket’s blunder. If you overcooked a $60 ribeye, you have a chance to try it again for the two top that rang in. You pay more attention to how it sounds when you place it in the cast iron pan, knowing this time if it hisses too violently you should turn the heat down lest the steak bronze on the outside before hitting medium rare. Your internal clock is more confident in knowing when it has rested properly, and you’ve learned how to coordinate the rest of the order so that by the time you’ve sliced said ribeye, fingerling potatoes are already on the plate, pan of demi glace mounted with butter, and the roasted bone marrow is ready to be perched precariously on top of everything.
Sometimes learning can be exhausting and demotivating though, when there’s so many opportunities to royally fuck up. Your product of failure is literally sitting in front of you, taunting you with your ineptitude, especially if you’re the A-type, nit-picking fusspot who struggles at even the slightest imperfection in your food (which turns out to be everyone in the kitchen it seems like). Some of your mistakes may even just haunt you for the rest of service.
the failures OF WEEK 8 (AUG. 10, 2015 - AUG. 16, 2015)
FAILURE #1 : CURDLED CUSTARD
You’ve probably made some sort of a custard at home before - you take eggs, whip them with sugar, and temper them into hot cream. I’m not saying that making it at a restaurant is an impetus for failure, but when you make a batch five times larger than you’re used to, all of a sudden the line between thin and milky and lumpy and separated becomes exponentially smaller.
Lesson 1: Use a pot with wider surface area to disperse the heat more evenly, keep stirring, and for god’s sake if the custard is approaching 176 degrees lower the heat a bit from full blast.
Failure #2 : crystallized caramel
Again, caramel shouldn't be hard to make, should it?
But you keep staring at it, hoping that tiny lump you’ve spotted in the fluid amber sea won’t decide to form a massive iceberg. Despite all of this, you still choose to dump in your toasted hazelnuts (not the cheapest nut in the world), and discover that as you’re coating them in hot sugar, all of a sudden the amber glass suddenly becomes cloudy, chalky, and crumbly, instead of clear and shatteringly crisp. To the two pounds of hazelnuts I wasted: I'm sorry.
- Never, ever, stir the caramel (just swirl).
- Blast it on high heat, and the violent bubbling will naturally help dissolve any crystallized bits.
- Pray to the caramel gods and hope you didn't do anything to piss them off today.
failure #3 : burnt budino
Determined to make up for my earlier custard failure of the week, I set out to make a batch of coffee and butterscotch budino. Everything was going perfect - the eggs were properly tempered, milk and cream were thickening beautifully, and I had not crystallized the caramel base. I asked the chef to see if it was to her liking.
By the time she got a chance to look back, the custard was boiling violently, causing an “Oh shit!” scramble where she furiously began stirring the large pot of overheated pudding while angrily demanding ice to prevent the emulsion from breaking, as I sat there red in the face from both embarrassment and shame.
- Don't be an idiot.
- (But on a more serious note, use your intuition… If your gut says to take it off the heat, just take it off the heat before asking for approval.)
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll actually make it through the year at this rate; that perhaps I’m not cut out for it, and am not the type of person who was meant for the industry, versus being a cubicle drone. Some days a cubicle job sounds pretty appealing! I could put my eight hours in and go home and recklessly cook with abandon, and still have money in the bank at the end of the day!
I shared my thoughts with Cheyenne over an after work drink. “You just need to have a raw love for it,” she concluded. I nodded in agreement, taking a moment to relish the sip of Pinot Gris I just took (I’m slowly starting to get a basic understanding and appreciation of wine). “But I’ve also had a cold upbringing, which made me ready for this career.” I’m sure that last statement was referring to the long hours and the tough skin people think we all need to survive in the face of our cooking failures, and while I would hope the idiot who chooses to cook professionally has a raw love for what he does, I don’t think you need to pretend you're an emotionless badass. Cooking has always been, and will always be, an emotional experience for me, whether I'm on top of the world or reeling from a horrible day of broken custards and failed caramel.
An application to become a full time food editor at Food52 came out this week, my dream job. The window where you fill out every detail of your life, past work experiences, along with the little boxes where you write down answers to tediously annoying questions has been left open on my computer, waiting to be filled. But even if I did get the position (as highly doubtful as it is), morally, I sort of feel this sense of obligation to stay in San Luis Obispo, and to pay back the restaurant and its people that dramatically changed my worldview on cooking and eating, including showing me how to butcher a leg of lamb. I still remember holding a boning knife for the first time, as I picked it up once more after the chef asked if I wanted to take a shot at skinning fish. Gripping the narrow end of the side of salmon, I slid the knife in between the coral flesh and slate gray skin, trying my best to angle it at the perfect pitch while making long, elegant strokes. It was by no means perfect: the cut side of the flesh was somewhat raggedy, and the limp piece of salmon skin dangling in my left hand had sizable pieces of flesh in some areas. But it wasn’t bad; I still had something that was clearly a salmon fillet sitting on my cutting board.
You really do learn something new everyday.