Saturday, June 14, 2008

What's your poison?

Dr T: Good to see you again. Your blood results just came in this morning.
RG: Geoff, before you proceed with this conversation, just tell me one important detail - should I take up additional life insurance policies?
Dr T: Don’t worry so much!
RG: I can’t help it… I’m 25% fat and 75% cynic.
Dr T: OK, everything’s pretty much in the normal range except your cholesterol. It’s almost double the acceptable average!
RG: Damn, I just made 8 pots of duck liver pate with Grand Marnier and mandarins. What should I do?
Dr T: Start your diet tomorrow.
RG: Isn’t there something easier than dieting? I’m a chef, for God’s sake!
Dr T: Well, you could offload some of that pate to me and I’ll pop extra Lipitor tablets tonight.

Apple seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides. Although the amount found in most apples will not kill a person, one could die if enough seeds were ingested.

As every job has its occupational hazards, I might as well mention a few related to cheffing. Of course, you have the usual back problems due to carrying heavy stockpots full of bones and vegetables. The weekly cuts you get from your knife and burns from pots are a given. But there’s something more sinister than everything mentioned above – carpal tunnel sydrome! This is mainly due to repetitive knife work especially when you are using a knife too large for you or if your work bench is not at the ideal waist level. Carpal tunnel can lead to much pain and discomfort often in the form of numbness or pins and needles that resonate throughout the entire arm.

Fugu has become one of the most celebrated and notorious dishes in Japanese cuisine. The Japanese pufferfish contains lethal amounts of tetrodotoxin (a sodium channel blocker) in its internal organs and also in the skin. Therefore only specially licensed chefs are allowed to prepare and sell fugu to the public. The poison paralyses the muscles while the victims stay fully conscious, who eventually die from asphyxiation. There is currently no antidote, and the standard treatment is to try to support the respiratory and circulatory system until the effect of the poison wears off (Wikipedia).

Those of you who are aspiring male chefs be warned. As mentioned by Gordon Ramsay, you are more likely to suffer from low sperm counts because your balls are poached in front of the hot stoves the whole day.

Antoine-August Parmentier, a pharmacist-turned soldier, helped popularise the potato in 18th- century France(Stein 2008), where it had been deemed poisonous due to the presence of solanine (a glycoalkaloid poison) found in the leaves, fruit and tubers. Symptoms of solanine poisoning include nausea, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, burning of the throat, heart arrhythmia, headache and dizziness. In large quantities, solanine poisoning can be fatal.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Foie Gras and Fat Arses

Regardless of what position one may hold in the restaurant – be it a restaurant manager, waitress or kitchen ward – people tend to abuse the kitchen as if it were their own or a 24-hour free supermarket. The food is just there and the little bastards take it! It happens throughout the ranks and more than half the time the missing food is unaccounted for. The wastage book records should be double what it is.

The history of foie gras begins in ancient Egypt. Goose fat was used for medicinal purposes and geese were raised for sacrificial offerings, as well as food for both the rich and poor. The centre of the goose trade was in Chenosboscia at the edge of the Upper Nile marshes whose name is believed to mean “place where geese are fattened”. Egyptian historical records depict the earliest practice of force-feeding. (Ginor, 1999)

In one day, I have seen the general manager come in with his line caught snapper for one of the apprentices to gut and de-bone, the function manager taking home a kilo of self-raising flour, the kitchen ward making himself a prawn pizza with the works and the barman drinking on the job. Even the head chef himself takes home dinner for himself and his girlfriend every night. I am told this happens everywhere and is taken into account in the food costs that are consequently passed on to the sucker restaurant patron. I have three words for these situations – security cameras everywhere! However, this may further increase the restaurant’s running costs, I suppose.

Under the Roman Empire, foie gras emerged for the first time as a delicacy in its own right. Rome’s conquest of formerly Greek domains (Turkey, Syria and Egypt) during 186 B.C. marks the beginning of a new chapter in Roman culinary habits. The army returning from Asia brought foreign luxury to Rome. It became a lengthy and costly business to prepare a meal. Cooks, who used to be regarded as slaves, began to demand high wages. That which had been toil became art. (Ginor, 1999)

The food costs gets worse when you have fat chefs in the kitchen. Unless they have a hormonal/ metabolic problem, a fat chef is a clear indication that he is literally eating you out of your profits. Before I start hearing the sirens of the Fat Brigade With Sensitive Feelings, consider this: you work in the kitchen for 12-14 hours only to stop for 2 hours to rest and have your one staff meal of the day. There is no such thing as sitting on the job like a clerk in the office and you should be really working your butt off. When working, you should just be grazing – to taste the food that you cook, not eat mouthfuls of it. So if you are working hard and tasting minimally during service, how the hell do you still put on weight?

In throwing a banquet, a Roman host’s first objective was to display his infinite largesse. However, the waste of food and money became so extreme that Augustus Caesar feared its effect on the Roman economy and instituted sumptuary laws demanding imperial agents be present at every feast to curb flagrant excess. (Ginor, 1999)

So equipped with this information, I myself am less inclined to eat out on my own. I know for the price I pay, 30% goes to the cost of the actual food plus the cost of lining someone else’s stomach. Another 30% goes to the wages of staff which also pays for a few of them to sit on their derrières, 30% for the other costs such as the ambience (including the cost of stolen cutlery and broken plates) and 10% goes to the poor owner in terms of profit. I still go out occasionally on my days off and with friends to restaurants that are truly worth the money. But when I am at home and have that half-arsed feeling that I am too tired to cook, I will still take half an hour to whip something up. Those who eat out on a daily basis for sustenance should think about this for a minute. Eating out every day is a waste of money and it feels satisfying cooking your own meal – at least you know it was your own grubby hands handling your food and not someone else’s.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why do birds suddenly appear, every time I park here?

Is cheffing a career calling? If it is, money is obviously not the main objective because you get paid chump change. My boss receives the same sum that I used to earn for an entry-level corporate position sans the other perks. You do it because you love it and it really isn’t a job, but a lifestyle. And you really live for those occassions when a grateful patron actually makes the effort to visit you in front of the pass and personally thank you for the food. It’s just like buying that flash car for those moments when people look at your car and then tell you that you have a nice car. Although you wouldn’t want to openly admit it, but it’s times like those when you don’t regret foolishly spending your retirement fund on your midlife crisis.

In the eyes of the Australian immigration, a chef is in greater demand than an actuary or an economist, despite getting paid poorly. (click on Form 1121i)

When looking for a job, one thing to consider is parking availability especially if the restaurant is located in the city. Public transport is a nightmare because you’d be working past midnight when it ceases to exist. It takes me 5 minutes to travel to the area where I work but another hour just to find parking. Free all day parking, the urban myth, does exist and is the best-kept secret in Sydney. I surprised myself when I physically counted at least 70 free all day parking spots in Surry Hills alone but you are probably contending with 100 drivers who know these spots too. The only reason I get regular all-day parking is because I park in the postcode next door, stupidly in front of the Redfern Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre. When I walk to the car in the middle of the night, I make sure that my hand is on the handle of the largest cleaver that I have in my knife wallet. Even my six-foot head chef is worried every time he walks to my car for a lift home. I’d like to think that no one has broken into my car because of the sorry state it is in. My version of an annual carwash involves putting liquid detergent in the windshield wiper dispenser.

Cinnamon was once a commodity of great value and, together with nutmeg and clove – was the reason for much human bloodshed over time. The spice made its way to Europe over the ancient and dangerous spice route. Beginning in the ninth century, the Arabs kept their source of Ceylon cinnamon a highly guarded secret for many hundreds of years. They tried to discourage competitors from finding alternate sources by telling other traders, such as the Dutch and Portugese, stories of monsters inhabiting the countries that the Arabs suspected might contain the spice (Friberg, 2003).

Thursday, May 1, 2008

‘Free trial period’? Sounds fishy to me.

As exclusive as some restaurants are in Sydney, you’d think that they would have the proper Human Resources protocols to maintain workers’ rights – of course not. Being dumb and new into the industry, I was duped by three Hatted restaurants. Welcome to the worst stinking industry in Australia.

Buying fish: It is easier to assess the quality of whole fish than that of steaks or fillets, so always try to buy fish whole and then ask the fishmonger to prepare it for you or do this yourself (Trotter, 2005).

Before you are employed in a restaurant, you are always called in for a “trial” day that usually involves you working for 12 hours straight. The employer will usually watch you from afar throughout the day to gauge whether you are hardworking, skilled and most importantly, work well with the others in the kitchen. So when I was called for a trial day in the best restaurant in Sydney, I felt honoured that the executive chef promised me a job for the next available apprentice position. I worked for 14 ½ hours in blind faith that I would be up for a role, thinking that this was the norm in the industry. Later on, I was trialled in another lesser exclusive restaurant and was pleasantly surprised when they insisted on paying for my trial day. Apparently it is illegal to not pay a worker for a trial day! It has lately dawned on me that Top Restaurant Asshole simply got me in for a trial day to exploit me for free. Every time I think about this, my pseudo Tourette’s Syndrome kicks in.

To assess whole fish, use your sense of smell. Sniff under the gills and in the stomach cavity - fish should not smell strong or fishy. The gills should be bright red, skin should be smooth not slimy and the eyes should not be cloudy.

I suspect that the top restaurants are so cocky about their good reputations and know that they can pull in gullible chefs to work really hard during trial days at no extra cost. And as if anyone would dare lift the lid on this type of exploitation - no top restaurant in Sydney is going to hire a whistle blower.

When buying fish fillets and steaks, sniff the flesh – it should smell sweet and of the sea.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Feminine Female Chefs: A Dying Breed

Do you realise why there are so few female chefs (not including patisserie)? It boils down to the physical work and how the commercial kitchen is really designed for the average male.

To maximise the space of the kitchen, many important things are placed at least one foot taller than the average female – the heavy plates, the microwave and the Salamander (i.e. scary grill with flames from the top). Even though I go to the gym, I can only lift at the most three large dinner plates with one hand, whereas the average guy could probably grab five at a time – so I lose a few precious seconds plating my food. When I am heating food in the microwave like mash (you must be deluding yourself if you think we actually mash potatoes to order) or grilling oysters Mornay in the Salamander, I can hardly see the top of the containers when I reach for the hot stuff. As I am careful not to burn myself, I am slow at the process.

Not only am I not tall enough, my arms are also not long enough when it comes to reaching into a 240°C oven for the food cooking right at the back which involves putting my entire arm into Hell’s Mouth. I lose a few seconds rolling down my sleeves to prevent the fine hairs on my arms from singeing whereas many of the male chefs don’t even bother or aren't hesitant about it.

Male chef hands are so calloused that they function as your built-in kitchen gloves. They don’t think twice about using a single layer of kitchen towel to pick up hot frying pans or trays, whereas I would also lose a few seconds folding my dry towel at least three folds' thick to insulate my girly hands. Why don’t we have kitchen gloves? Beats me! Each chef has a single dry towel to function as your kitchen glove, wipe up smears from plated food, clear your bench space and clean your knife. No one will take you seriously with a kitchen glove.

Let’s also not forget the long and physical hours that you work every week. We are probably looking at an average of 13-hour shifts every day from 10am to 11 pm. You are so pumped with adrenalin from the night’s service that you find it hard to sleep straight away when you get home. Then you get up early to go do the same thing the next day. Like I said before, if you are a single female, you may remain that way for a long time unless you decide to sleep with another chef or a waiter but who the hell has the time of day or energy to do that?

Then there is the constant sexism in the kitchen and the male chefs who will try to bully you. The other week, some fat shit tried to take over my station a few times and I had to tell him to back off and when he gave me more attitude, I called him a Fucking High School Dropout to put him in his place. I don’t think a young 17-year-old feminine girl would have done the same because at that age, you would want everyone to like you. I am closing towards thirty now so I stick my middle finger up to any popularity contest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Those who can't cook, criticise.

Food critics come in all shapes and sizes. Those by profession usually come unannounced and are discreet to truly gauge the restaurant’s service and quality of food. The credible, uncorrupted ones always pay for their meals in full like every other regular patron and will only ask for the restaurant’s details after the bill has been paid. I remember in one of the top kitchens in Sydney, the female owner turns into a bundle of nerves during “food critic season”. She complained that a particular well-known food critic “likes to play games” with her and once in a while decides to become vegetarian just for the hell of it.
Then there are those cheapskate patrons who come and announce that they are food reviewers, hoping to score a complimentary dish from the quivering chef behind the pass. Some of them may be genuine critics but probably of a lesser-known publication who still want to receive royal treatment. Oh, go fuck yourselves.

Origins of the Michelin Guide
The Michelin Guide was originally a guidebook published by Michelin (yes, the tyre company) to help keen motorists maintain their cars, find decent lodging and eat well while touring. It included addresses of things like gasoline distributors, garages, tyre stockists and public toilets. As motoring became more widespread, a star system was developed and is probably the most recognised and influential culinary rating in Western Europe. Three Michelin Stars is seen to be the pinnacle of the gastronomy echelon.

Although most chefs have tough Type-A personalities, they do have fragile egos. We are easily offended by the tiniest remarks made by customers – when a customer wants their meat particularly well done and complains that it is still “bloody” when it isn’t (please refer to blog dated 30 March 2008), we dismiss them for their ignorance.

Bernard Loiseau was a famous French-decorated chef who was the first star restaurateur to establish the concept of having one’s restaurant incorporated and traded. But as the direction of the restaurant changed to maximise profits, standards were compromised. The Gault Millau guide downgraded it from 19/20 to 17/20 and there were rumours that he was about to lose one of his coveted three Michelin stars. The Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur shot himself in the mouth with his hunting rifle in February 2003. It later emerged that Michelin never planned to downgrade Loiseau’s rating.

What really irritates us the most about a complaint is that it slows down our service because when a complaint comes in, we have to redo the dish immediately, which means that food to the other tables gets delayed by ten minutes or more.

Francois Vatel, famous for inventing Chantilly cream for an extravagant banquet in honour of Louis XIV in April 1671, was supposedly so distraught about the lateness of the fish and other mishaps that he committed suicide by running himself through a sword. His death was treated as a national tragedy (Kladstrup).

There is also a third category of irritating food critics – your extremely fussy patron who thinks that he knows everything just because he watches the Food Channel religiously. The ones who insist on having oysters shucked in the premises but can’t even tell that the grilled scallops came into the kitchen frozen weeks before. And if they are male, more than half the time, they’re gay. Don’t get me wrong, I love gay people but there is some truth behind the bitchy stereotype and I do have an over-inflated ego.

Clemens Wilmenrod, a German television cook, was credited for introducing turkey as a typical Christmas dinner and invented “filled strawberries”. When a viewer accused him of not having invented the “filled strawberry” himself, he put a long cook’s knife against his chest and swore to kill himself if but a single viewer who had already eaten “filled strawberry” before were to call. Wilmenrod committed suicide in 1967 after being diagnosed with a terminal disease (Wikipedia, 2008).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Vermincelli, anyone?

No matter how clean your restaurant is, you can never avoid pests – especially if you are in an area infested with them. So even if your prices are exclusively exorbitant, you can’t avoid all street vermin because the non-human ones probably came from your neighbours’ kitchens.

Because of this sad truth, the health authorities cannot close restaurants down, provided that the restaurant “attempts to take precautions” such as setting rattraps and making sure that food is not exposed. However, these little bastards are smart – why on earth would you eat a pathetic piece of dried-up, month old meat, when you have daily morsels lying in the bins or nuts in the plastic containers that you could easily chew through.

Nuts are best kept in the fridge in their shells and stored in sealed containers to prevent absorbing other odours. Almonds and cashews are the most hardy, while walnuts and pecans are most prone to deterioration in storage.

We have three resident rats in the restaurant that are so brazen, they don’t even bother running away when you turn on the lights. Squiggles, Fatso and Stumpy literally hang around on the overhead pipes and chew through the hard plastic containers to eat the nuts and almond meal – as I have discovered when I was cleaning out the larder. Did we throw away the stuff? Of course not – it went straight into the delicious desserts that we serve to drunken patrons.

Dessert is the last course of the meal, offered after all the other food has been “desservi”: literally “unserved” (removed), which is where the word “dessert” comes from. Until the mid 19th century it was usual to offer an array of sweets, such as crystallized fruits and nuts, before the actual dessert, which might be a cream, compote, fancy cake, or pastry. (Norman et al., 2005)

Besides the nocturnal visitors, we also have daytime mice that probably avoid the territorial rats. Yesterday when the dishwasher came in the afternoon to start cleaning the day’s dishes, he drained the sink to find a dead mouse in the midst of noodle and rice scraps. It was stiff which meant that it must have been dead for a few hours in the sink water. When I saw this, the girly genes made me scream. I bolted into the toilets to wash my arms in scalding hot water because I realised that I was rinsing dishes in vermincelli the entire morning.