Friday, December 21, 2012

401 K

The majority of my staff has some issues. It is well known that people that cook or serve for that matter lead a different life then those that work in offices. The job is hard, hot, fast paced, has weird hours, is loud, and technical. In this environment it is easy to see those that cant hack it. In no way am I saying that you have to be smart though- but it helps, we have a server who is a crack up and has an approach with his customers that I have never seen before and no one else could get away with who has a PHD in mental health (honestly I think he bought it online somewhere). It just takes a certain type of person. I couldn't wait tables. Not a chance. It would take me only a few seconds to absolutely lose it with a customer, and that would be the end of me. The questions, the complaints (I had a woman so mad a few weeks ago because her soup was served too HOT) the assumption of some customers that you are far inferior as a human then themselves, etc would all push me over the edge. For the most part I try to stay out of the dining room. My cooking staff has issues as well though, most of them work two jobs all summer long, some work three. I have one guy who is a fantastic cook that I bet works 90 hours a week through the summer, and if he is late to work I walk out to the parking lot to wake him up as he fell asleep in his car during the ten minute break he gives himself between punching out on job 1 and punching in for job 2. As the summer creeps on, and even as a single grueling day creeps on the fuses can get short.

For the most part they all consume energy drinks, and I absolutely hate it when they walk across the street to the nearest convenience store and load up. Guys disappear for 10 minutes, and I hate it when people are in uniform outside of the restaurant. They are a reflection still of our restaurant, and therefore what they are doing is still my prerogative, but technically they are still on their own time. Whether they are taking a break, having a cigarette (we have far fewer smokers then we used to), talking loudly on their cell phone, or whatever it can reflect poorly on the restaurant. I totally respect their time..... but. Telling a guy who is doing you a favor by pulling a double that he can take ten minutes and then telling him what he can and cant do during that ten minutes is not the best for our employee relations. Since they were closely linked, and I was in awe at the amount of energy drinks a total staff of about 50 people could consume on a daily basis, Will and I acquired a small fridge, got a money bag, and bought $150 dollars worth (personal money) of stuff we have seem them drink. While it started as a bit of a joke and I was convinced our HR people would kill us, it was actually well received. When it was brought under question it was sold to our top brass as a cheaper, more convenient, colder, option for our staff, who never had to leave the building to get it. They ate it up, and our staff bit. We named it 401K enterprises and while we wont retire anytime soon it has been very successful, and fun for our entire staff. Waiting to watch the service staff stress until the perfect moment and then laying on a nice "ice cold red bull", or "man you are dragging, you might need a pick me up" will work almost every time. A server who was treated especially well by a customer may come back to the kitchen and drop $30 bucks on a "round for the cooks". We expanded slightly to even match the needs of our staff, tracking down a few purveyors to get the highly desired Starbucks "double shots" and Monster absolute zero. There is also red bull, sugar free red bull, original monster, rock star, and even orange soda. If we had more room I would love to add a few more items, but space is tight, and the restaurant hasn't exactly billed us for the electricity to keep this stuff cold, or mentioned that Will or I will drop just about any task at any time to make a sale. We wait as the 4pm shift change starts to happen, and hit the leaving people headed to another job, and then capitalize on the people coming in the door as well. It is fun and while the price never changes for anyone, we still love to come up with ways to make it sound like a deal. "two drinks for 5 and a fanta is free for the next hour" is actually 2 bucks a piece for the drinks and a dollar for the fanta, which is the price we charge but I have tricked more then one person on it. "five for ten" is another great one, as is "buy two for six...get one free". The staff enjoys the banter, and the production is up for sure. We are able to talk franchising as well.....just sayin. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CCA- take 3

The CCA is the Clatsop Community Action food bank. It is our counties Oregon food bank subsidiary, and it feeds the Astoria, Seaside, and Cannon Beach food banks. It also does "meal on wheels" and loaves and fishes. Last year they provided 959,000 meals in Clastop County. Of the people that need there help 41% are children, and 20% are elderly and on a limited income. In recent years they have built a new location and are capable of processing fish, and meats and even have some land and are slowly but surely working towards being able to grow products that they can distribute. I have been to the warehouse a few times and seen first hand the amazing things they can do. Their process is streamlined and there is only a few people that are actual on staff there. Almost all of the work is done on volunteer basis, and for those reasons they are able to really put money into food and get it on the plates of those in need. I am disgusted at some of the bigger non profit groups and the amounts of hands in the pot when it comes to putting donated money to good use. The CCA has no such problem. Couple that with the knowledge that so many in my community are in need of help especially this time of year, when these guys ask me to jump I usually reply "how high".

Honestly I had some reserve about doing this event again. In the past we have invited some other chefs from around the community to each take a course of food, they would show up and we would all plate it together. We have had a lot of success though and it has become the largest fundraiser of the year for the CCA. The dinner is held at our hotel so regardless I am knee deep before we even leave the gate. This year one other chef and I decided against involving other chefs. We have had a tough time with a clean flow throughout the courses, and on a personal level I haven't been very excited about some of the courses in the past. So we wrote a four course menu together and then put together shopping lists and asked purveyors in the area to pony up for the ingredients. They all ended up coming through in a big way. The things that we couldn't get donated were sold at cost and of all the ingredients needed to do a dinner on this scale I think that total for the invoices that needed to be paid for food were about $1200. We easily were gifted over $4000 in food for the event.

Balancing what we want to cook vs what we can get donated vs what we can serve in the time frame allotted vs what the customers will find to have value is a really tough task, perhaps harder then the execution of the event. The dinner was an invite only event and we ended with 155 people at $150 a person. My very first employer, my insurance agent, senators, the governors wife, local doctors, local business owners, and family friends were all present, and it made me grateful to live in this small tight knit community and have the opportunity to support these businesses with my own dollars when they in return are supporting good causes with their dollars.

Due to the way we constructed the event the effort required on my part was daunting. I worked on almost nothing but the organization of this meal for at least 2 weeks, and the two big prep days leading up to it were absolute warfare. I leaned on Will for a lot of it, at one time he and I out prepping 15 volunteers and the other chef that were all at work at his restaurant. To add even a bit more value the guests were able to take home a recipe book of all the items we cooked which meant when it came time to execute the food I had to read recipes and actual do some math and cook from them, and I hate doing that. I like to cook by feel and taste and common sense, and recipes really throw a wrench in my style.

When it came down to it the event went almost flawlessly. I was happy with the menu, it was very well received, and while we had a small hiccup in the execution (still kicking myself a bit) all in all it was a great showing. The crowd was sold out and at the end of the evening $59,920 (after expenses)was raised to help support the CCA. I am almost speechless about that and so grateful I could be involved. Grateful that my company still sent me home with a paycheck knowing full well that I hadn't done much of anything for the restaurant in the days leading up to the event, and that we could do this for the people in need in our community, people that sometimes are friends, employees, and family.

While of course my intent was to take pictures of everything as it left the kitchen, that was slapped down in no time. The kitchen was an absolute whirlwind of action and one of the most stressful nights of my life. Their was however a photographer in the kitchen everytime I turned around so I am sure there are some pictures that will circulate in the coming days. Should I get my hands on them I will post them. The menu, at least, follows as much for my sake as yours. Thanks for reading.... and Happy Holidays.

Smoked salmon with pickled veggies and fried capers
Willamette cheese company cheeses, grissini bread sticks, sourdough bread
Shucked local oysters- preserved lemon mignonette
Beef Tartar- egg garni
Butternut squash beignets- brown butter and maple crema

1st- Andalucian risotto cake, confit of squid, marinated pork loin, tomato jam, cilantro garnish
2nd- Napolean of halibut stuffed with a dungeness crab and scallop mousse over julienne vegetables, pesto, rouge cream
3rd- winter salad of radicchio and escarole, goat cheese crotin, toasted walnuts, roasted black grapes, Saba
4th-spiced apple cake, pecan praline, whipped cream, raspberries, mint.
5th- assorted chocolates, Sleepy Monk coffee

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Iron Chef Goes Coastal

Annually we compete in a local Iron Chef challenge that incorporates restaurants from all over the NW Oregon coast and the SW Washington coasts. It is a fundraiser for the Clatsop County United Way and has been a successful event for them for 4 yrs. The way it is set-up can be a little hard to comprehend so I am going to attempt to simplify that. 8-10 restaurants from around the area show up with a bite of food for about 400 people. Ticket buyers have the chance to try all of the different samples and interact with the chefs from the various restaurants. Chefs answer the same questions about 388 times, and describe the dish that they have composed what seems like a trillion times. While it may be easy to assume that a chef can make anything he wants to wow these ticket buying guests it isn't the case. On paper, yes, but in all actuality the food any given restaurant shows up with has to be able to be held (or the extremely risky attempt at cooking table side), easily presented, easily eaten, and because the restaurants themselves are picking up the bill for the ingredients there are many factors that can dock your creativity. In this particular event the paying ticket customers are also given a form and able to cast a vote for the table they deem has the best tasting offering of the evening. From a cooks perspective working events like this can be tough, but for me they are always a nice break from normal kitchen life. Putting on your best chef coat, seeing peers, and friends from the community and really having the chance to promote you and/or your restaurant is always great, and there are always networking connections to be made. A new oyster guy, produce guy, or chef in town all deserve face time, and the opportunity to eat bites from all these different restaurants doesn't happen very often.

At the same time, or even surprisingly before, there is another competition going on in the same format for desserts. Cakes, panna cottas, cookies, and tarts are the norm. Obviously a few less restaurants have the ability to do that so the field is usually around 5 qualified restaurants. The same customers have a chance to rate the dessert offerings and cast there vote for top treat.

As the customers make their rounds of the room trying up bites of things, sipping wine, and catching up with friends the main stage activity is where the whole show comes together. 4 chefs from around the area are staging to do a "Iron Chef" style battle. They will draw knives to find a team mate, then be presented with a secret ingredient, then have a few minutes to talk with each other and formulate a plan, then one hour to cook a 3 course meal, with 3 plates of each course using the secret ingredient cooking on only a few sucky portable butane burners. There is a pantry with all the basic flavorants, stocks, produce, as well as minimal kitchen equipment. Chefs are welcome to bring things they may want, but if you bring ingredients you must bring enough for the other team to use if they desire. As they cook things are auctioned off, people are interviewed, and thanks are given to all who attended. There food is judged by local "celebrities" in the past who have included the mayor, senator, business tycoon, football coach, out of town guest chefs, etc. Votes are tallied and a winning team is selected. The award for the best dessert bite is given, and then the award to the top 2 restaurants in the savory category are handed out. Those two winning chefs will compete in the "Iron Chef" portion of the program the following year against the two winning chef's from this years actual cookoff- although the teams may be a bit different as they aren't decided until moments before the event. A good time is had by all, and it is a huge fundraiser for the local United Way, which directly feeds money into many other worthwhile causes in the area.

Will Leroux has owned this event for the last three years and last nights was no different. Partly to alleviate the stress of actually competing, and also because they are already included in the event, the four chefs who are cooking do not also bring a dish for people to try. The first year we took a dish, it was long ago and I have no idea what it was anymore, and we won the peoples choice part of the competition. Then Will kept winning, even as I was promoted to Executive chef it was decided that since he never left the company he would continue to compete....and apparently win. We haven't had to bring savory food to this event since that first year. Then a few years ago we were asked to man the newly formatted dessert booth and since I am fortunate to have a pastry chef that is a genius that seemed like a no brainer. She would develop and execute all the food, and I would transport it and talk to every one at the event as she is not very interested in that end of it. We were out for blood, and last year we won the dessert category by a landslide. It was repeated again this year with a taste of "smore" a mini graham cracker crumb, then a milk chocolate and marscapone mousse, then an espresso ganache, finished with a meringue which we toasted table side with a small butane torch. It was an attempt to transport people to a campfire on the beach, and when we toasted the meringue it really worked, and worked really well.

One of the other chef's who was competing either with or against Will is another chef from the company (Aaron) whom I have the upmost respect for. We are both around the same age and both have been trying to cut it in the kitchen for a very long time. He is the only guy in the entire company that works more hours then I do, and has a wealth of knowledge that I telephone him and tap into whenever I am in need of another opinion. On top of that The MC of the event was yet another chef from the company, along with a news reporter from Portland, and he is in charge of organizing the event, getting the food donations, and giving the audience an idea of what the chef's are doing during the hour of cooking.

So to recap. My restaurant wins the dessert competition for the second year running. Will gets paired with Aaron instead of against him and they proceeded to bring the pain to the other team. The 4th member of our Executive chef team as a company is there announcing the whole event. We didn't just have a good night, we absolutely dominated the entire night. Our three restaurants weren't beat. Winning everything we had attempted for the evening. If ever there was a moment to be proud of our team this was it. As a team we are an amazingly well rounded group of cooks, all of whom bring their own talents to the table, working together lending ingredients, encouragement, and opinions whenever needed. I have never been so proud of an achievement professionally. Four hundred people to see that we mean business, and on that night we all brought our A game. Showing the rest of our restaurant community that we are setting the bar and pushing it higher, and fortunately have the resources to make it happen.

Then in perhaps the biggest news.... after Will (the corporate chef/my mentor) is awarded Iron Chef champ for the fourth year in a row, I am unknowingly called to the front, and since it has been deemed by the organizers that he can't be beat, he is retiring on top and it is announced that he is passing the torch to me, who will cook in his spot next year in the Iron Chef portion of the competition. A nice idea from someone that I wish I was a touch better prepared to hear. Perhaps with Aaron, or against him, with a few other very well qualified chefs from around the area. I have about 363 days to train. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Endless Summer

On a busy night in the end of July we did it. The computer at the restaurant counts entrees rang in from the dining room then printed as tickets for the kitchen to execute. Not all restaurants are the same. Some count total butts in seats, plates fabricated by the kitchen (apps, salads, entrees, desserts, split orders, etc) total revenue, and more. Our computer counts entrees. There is some issue there, in that it may not be totally accurate. It may not count a salad with a fillet of salmon as a entree, because it isn't on the menu, but is ordered fairly often. When I first started there we had a cook who swore up and down that it didn't count a whole list of things, so he would say things like "I did 60 covers by myself in an hour and that didn't even count- then name off thirty other items". Long after his departure it is still a joke around the restaurant. Now when I said it isn't accurate, that is true, but it is also totally accurate. It may not count everything, but it does count it the same way it has since the dawn of time. We had a manager who wanted to fix it not too long ago and I pled with him not to. If we fixed it we lose years of past info, because the counts would be different, and different is rarely good in my line of work. So as argumentative as the system is, it is still the system and is perfectly accurate for what it is. It is uber-important to keep track of these things for past years for staffing and ordering purposes. As I sit to pen a schedule I look at the last two years worth of cover counts for the week in question as well as notes about past weather and groups that were in house, available to me in the cabinet is 10 more years worth of history should I be so inclined to check. In June we finally finished up our staffing push and really had a great group of cooks put together. With the addition of a few in particular and the added skills of a winter of "craft honing" with some of our others, as well as a few weeds pulled and discarded I felt like we were ready to tackle the challenges that awaited us. Maybe the argument that the economy is coming back carries some weight, or that that same rough economy knocked out at least one restaurant in town down, and another was horribly consumed by a fire in the beginning of the season. I would like to hope that it was mainly due to us making a effort on all levels to be better at service and better at food everyday, whatever the reason we were busy. As early as late May we were rocking past year numbers for covers and revenue. That led us to June on the same trail and through the summer. Even as we entered October the weather has held and when it stays good the business levels do as well.

In my 6 plus years we have never done 300 dinner covers in a single nights dinner service. We have been so close, so many times. It is rumored to have happened in the past a few times, but never recently. Dinner service count begins at 4:30 and to do 300, we need a full deck all night, and a customer in every seat of the restaurant and bar until we close at 10pm. Those stars don't line up often. The weather has to be great, and after sunset the temperature has to hold warm enough to enjoy outside dining, the reservation systems needs to capitalize on the not only perfect timing but perfect party size. Anything over 10 people will usually slow down a service enough to not get there. A dining room full of 2/4/ and 6 person tables is required. The service staff has to be on their game as well. Courses have to be timed out perfectly to minimize the amount of time a customers spends in any given seat before it can be sold again. The kitchen has to prepped for war, and cooks have to be focused and communicating constantly. Refires and botched table service will slow us down just enough to make the difference of 290 and 310. So on that day in late July we got it. 306. Then a few weeks later it was 320, and a day after that it was close to 340. Couple those numbers with a absurd breakfast service, then a punishing lunch and happy hour service, adding a few 150 person banquets to the work load and you are looking at a customer count of near 1000 ppl a day. Not once but multiple days through the summer. We did a 317 on a Tuesday in the middle of August. Revenue numbers broke records for the entire history of the restaurant, and budgets were crushed. There was a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday where we did more revenue then we did in all of January of the same year.

While it presented a massive work load for our staff they all fought like champions. Double shifts became the norm for anyone that was available, and we even pulled (my absolute favorite) "No One Goes Home Until We Are Caught Up On The Prep Load" on more then one night. Everyone stays, and sometimes it takes us hours to just get us to the point of being ready for the breakfast service that begins in just a few hours. Fighting into the wee hours of the morning in an attempt to just get the basics caught up. Dressings made, soups prepped, greens washed, etc. It became the norm to process 80#'s of halibut as it came off of the truck, and hope it rode until the truck showed up again. Instead of breaking 1 case of chickens, lets do 4 cases, then we probably wont have to prep chicken again until the day after tomorrow. Purveyors came through in a better way then they ever have, delivering better products, with better consistency then ever before. It all came together and for that I am grateful. With the investment of time and effort into the restaurant the validation comes in a 10 minute financial meeting with our CFO, who simply says "Everything looks great", which doesn't happen very often. Those conversations are better then a pat on the back, and as our management team walks away we all seem to relish in those success for just a brief second before we head back into the fire. Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 5, 2012

I'm Skinny Now

I remember as a kid that when my Mom and I went school clothes shopping we always needed to find clothes in the "husky" section of the department store. Being big has always been an issue of mine. While I have a gigantic frame "from the factory" and that is a blessing in itself, I like so many other people have always had an excessive amount of weight on that frame. Maybe due to my body size or my age it has never really bothered me.....I thought. As a chef exercise outside of the restaurant is hard to do. Late nights, early mornings, and long shifts made it almost impossible to cram in any sort of regular exercise routine. Not to mention the consumption of food is totally different for me then it is for most. I never ate on any sort of schedule, sometimes putting a huge dinner away at 10pm on my way out the door. Tasting as I work, build flavors, and season different things can easily be a consumption of 1000 calories a day depending on what I am working on. As I get older the days got harder, and while I wasn't scaling myself in the bathroom every morning, I knew I was slowly growing. Regardless of my career choice, I am still a father to two amazing young boys, and a husband to what I am convinced is the most perfect woman in the world, and suddenly I started feeling much more responsible for my own health, not only for me but for them. Cooking professionally had been an excuse for my weight (which is the ONLY reason I feel confident about my ability to talk about it here) for too long and I needed to fix it.

On January 6th Melissa and I, along with a few others joined in the local parks and rec "Biggest Loser" as a team. The competition was fairly new, and required a few dollars payment, then a weekly weigh in at your choice of five to seven different locations around the area. The winners would be the person, or in our case, team that lost the highest percentage of body weight over the course of 8 weeks. Weekly prizes would also be awarded, as well as updates of the leaders and their loss. From January to the end of March I hit it hard. We easily won the team side of the competition and while in hindsight my eating plan may not have been doctor approved, I was doing well. Stationary bike workouts, walks, etc, were done 5-6 days a week for at least a half an hour. I even dabbled in lap swims at our local pool. Melissa found us a ever so slightly used high end elliptical for about a third of what we would've paid for it, and I hit that hard too. While I had lost a pretty good amount of weight and people had began to notice I stayed on it fairly hard and continued to lose through the spring and into the summer. And while the pounds quit flying off, I felt better, looked better, and was seeing some overall positive results. Another biggest loser event for the parks and rec, coupled with one for our company that I was asked to help put together got many of my coworkers involved as well. While I knew with what I had lost my chances at winning were slim to none when I went up against some very driven guys that were just beginning a weight loss routine, it was nice to have the help from other people. Making each other lunch and trash talking became the norm, and it helped take some of the pressure off of a grueling summer push. I did pull down an individual win for single week weight loss, but stayed right about where I thought I would've in the standings. In the meantime I hit the mountain bike hard, doing rides almost daily of up to 20 miles or so through the beginning of the summer. Still on the elliptical as well, I tried some hikes, walk with the boys on their bikes and just about anything else you can think of that would get me moving. While the stationary bicycle and the elliptical are great workouts, they are exactly that. When I could do it I was very happy on the bicycle, less of a workout- more fun.

I am down a total of 90 pounds since the beginning of the year. Now still trying to keep it coming down, but really working towards keeping it off. I have as regular an exercise routine as my job allows, and even bought a new road bike and have been riding to work at least a few times a week. I am doing a KM century ride in Ellinsberg WA next week for a grueling 61.6 miles, and while the training for that has left me consuming more calories then I normally would have been, I still am losing belt notches and feel like I am building muscle mass faster then I have since I began. After the club ride next week I guess I will return focus to loss, as I ideally want to lose another 30 pounds. While that puts me far from skinny, I think it is a good goal for now. I am back to cooking at home, which is what I missed more then anything. Even on days off rather then waking and cooking, I woke and worked out, and that changed the way I approached food for the entire day. Meals became quick go to salads, and turkey sandwiches, rather then the long drawn out processes I loved of before. Now in an attempt to balance the amounts I eat and what I eat with still making fun foods for the family to sit down together and enjoy, I am pushing to be more healthy, which is new to me and is going to take some getting used to. The bicycle riding gives me a bit of an excuse to indulge once in a while as I can easily burn 1k calories an hour and I am doing 2-3 hr rides on a fairly regular basis and having a blast while I do it.

Part of the reason that I haven't published here for so long is that I have been working so hard on this, that I haven't really been cooking at home so much. I needed to focus on the weight loss, and when you are trying your damnedest to not think about food, I had a really hard time coming home and writing about it, or even talking about it. In the down time where I used to read food books, I work out now, and given that I cant change how many hours are in a day, that is the way it has to be for now. In an effort to be more healthy, I had to give up on one of the things I love the most, and am really still adjusting to the changes that are necessary to make both work. Since you hear people talk about their weight struggle and their desire to eat good food constantly, for me it was twice that hard. Cooking, learning, and talking about food is in the foundation of who I am as a person. My whole life revolves around it, my ability to do it is my best personal trait. That balance and the decisions to put them on the back burner were way harder then passing on dessert. I knew if any one could understand that  it would be my loyal followers. Thanks for your patience and for reading.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Private Chef Gig

Cindy is a local real estate agent, she also was the agent that helped us buy our home (a gross understatement), she also is a server at the restaurant, and she also employees my wonderful wife to do some of the maintenance of her listings on various websites, she also is the newly elected president of the realtor's association in our fine county. She is a busy lady and is one of those people that gets more done by 10am then most of us do all day. A few months back she mentioned wanting to auction off the private chef services of Will and I at a benefit dinner for the realtor association. To say the least we were hesitant. While I have wanted to wade into the realm of this, and have even begun to gather the service ware things I would need to do this sort of thing on a regular basis I have been very, very precarious as it can cause the absolute largest headache you can possibly fathom. Crappy ovens, horrid tools, no work space, drunk guests, dietary restrictions, and more can all wreck havoc on a meal like this. It is also almost impossible to understand the expectation of the guest. The appealing part of it for me is that it would give me the opportunity to really push the boundaries of new and different things. Things much different then what I can get away with in the restaurant, or with small children even my own home for that matter. Not knowing the expectation of a guest, or fully understand what they are willing to eat makes me double hesitate as it means potentially that they will not be totally blown away by the whole experience, a risk that you cant afford to take. In a perfect world I would invite 12 strangers over to my home, and serve them whatever I wanted and try to make enough money to cover the food and beverages, and maybe a new piece of equipment now and then. The meal wouldn't need to be overtly formal or fussy, and I could take a ton of liberty with not just the food, but the way it was plated and served.

We couldn't tell Cindy no. Clatsop county 300 time Iron chef winner Will took the main billing and I much less real estate on the flyer. I didn't mind a bit. It was then decided that the item would go to the verbal auction rather then the silent one as a bit of buzz could be created about it. Cindy asked me a few times what the value was and we assumed it was easily worth $400. The dinner was supposed to be for a total of 4 people at their home. If they desired we would cook the food at their house and even do some dishes that we could talk and teach them about, or we could show up with already prepped food and be silent. Either way we refused to commit to an actual menu. While Melissa and I were invited to the auction dinner we had a few obstacles that prevented us from attending. The item went up for auction and was sold for $650, which surprised me. In the back of my head I still thought that we would never actually have to cook it. The purchaser made contact with Will and invited us over to check out the kitchen and chat. Oddly enough a week or two before I had the opportunity to cook a all vegan three course meal for an author who was a guest speaker at the local elementary schools and serve him lunch at the restaurant., this purchaser who was accompanying him, and I had that chance to meet as I talked about the food I had done for them.  As a combination mothers day, birthday present her and her husband bought the dinner, and happily they had a very nice kitchen and lived only a block or so from the restaurant. She wanted a total of 6 people to attend and for the price she paid we weren't about to say no. We started throwing out dates that worked for us that were a month or so away and she says "what about next Thursday?" After checking our phones we couldn't think of a reason that wouldn't work so we agreed to it. It immediately put us in cram mode. They assured us there would be absolutely no dietary restrictions, and they would eat anything we deemed fit for consumption. They also were not that interested in our interaction with them. They were more worried about making this easy on us. There was also two ovens, and we didn't want her to stress anything we told her we would even supply all of the service ware, so we didn't leave her with a sink full of dishes.

As the days flipped by Will and I went back and forth on conception ideas, because of the money involved we decided it needed to be at least semi-formal and decided to go with a multi course offerings. An app and at least five courses was the goal. Wine/cocktail pairings seemed almost required for that amount of money as well. We also, thankfully, were able to enlist the help of Cindy to serve the dinner and our fantastically talented pasty chef to handle dessert, and even the horrid task of cleaning up after Will and I during the actual event. We have learned that it is always nice to have a woman's perspective for setting and table design. She is much better at it then Will and I combined then multiplied by 5. We streamlined our thoughts and split the work load, the preceding days I was off so Will took most of the load upon himself.

On the day of, we went back and forth on flatware, glassware, and plate ware, pulling from the restaurant, and both of our own personal stashes. Product was pulled from personal stash as well, things that we grew, eggs, etc came from our own homes. Pairings were formatted, prep was done, and the trucks were loaded. These people had no idea what was going to hit them. We set up, and I think if anything made the purchaser uncomfortable it was three chefs and a professional server in her kitchen while she chatted with her husband and had a glass of wine. Glassware polished and her guests began to arrive.

App- Salt block cooked gulf prawn tacos
Taking our block of Himalayan sea salt we heated the whole block in her oven at 500 for an hour or so before service, we had made some 4 inch tortillas, and we paired it with avocado, black beans, onions and cilantro. The block was pulled from the oven and set on the island in the kitchen and then the raw prawns were set on top of it to cook to the desired doneness and release all of those aromas into the air, then they made their own. With that we served a Gruet sparkling wine, and they mingled, introduced themselves to each other and met us. Then they sat. It was at this point we were instructed that one of our guests didn't eat meat. Fish yes, meat no. We were able to make it work through the problem courses.

1- Velvet Corn Bisque with seared lobster
A super classic nod to the old school New England chef that Will is. An absolute velvety textured soup, with a lobster tail garnish. for the pairing we stuck with the sparkling.

2- Candied bacon brussel sprouts, pecan cake-
Maple syrup lacquered bacon (cooked and basted on low heat for hours) sauteed brussel sprouts, and a cake made from pecans, eggs, fresh herbs and some cheese that we seared and placed on top.

3- Apple brined wild boar chops, soubise potatoes, green apple demi glace-
The wild boar is helicopter shot out of Texas and was brined with apple juice and apple puree. the racks were roasted in a really hot oven and then cut into chops for service. The potatoes were local fingerlings that were cooked and then crushed and topped with a caramelized onion sauce. the demi was a  veal stock reduction mounted with butter and had a green apple puree cut into it at the last minute.  Brickhouse gamay noir (the first and only certified biodynamic Oregon wine I have seen)

4- Asparagus salad, poached egg, Columbia River sea salt, effervescent vinaigrette-
Grilled asparagus tips and greens tossed with a lemon vinaigrette that we passed through my soda siphon, with my poached eggs, finished with Columbia River slough sea salt that one of my cooks makes in his spare time- more brickhouse

5- Cheese course-
Served on a cedar plank with some raspberries, Beachers flagship Reserve white cheddar, Rogue Creamery Echo Mountain bleu, marcona almonds, Will's honey.

6- Black Forest Cake- toshino cherries- Moonshine toshino cherry cocktail

7- Caramel sea salt truffles, sleepy monk coffee

It was a crazy flurry of activity in the kitchen, but in the end they were extremely satisfied. It is hard to explain how many different plates, sauces, garnishes, etc that we needed to get to the house to pull this off. For a while I had a oven warming plates, the other oven at 500 degrees, and all five burners on the ceramic cook top on full whack. We packed up as quietly as we could, wiped and swept, and left the kitchen, allowing them to enjoy the rest of their evening without us. We returned the next morning to pick up the last of our stuff and they assured us that a good time was had by all, and they already wanted to do it again at some point.

It was a great experience and while we were a few minor hiccups from flawless, I think that is to be expected. It was fun to write a menu that had no sort of underlying theme, and bounced around all over the place. That was an idea that Will and I came up with as it is the anti-menu that we are always working towards in our restaurants. This was relief from the constant push te be more streamlined, more local, more focused. Thanks for reading.

A note- I have been slacking on this lately. This post was originally penned a few months ago, but not finished or edited until now. Sorry for the delay. An attempt to justify with be with you shortly.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Parental Discretion Advised

On a balmy late winter night off early from work and on my way home the call came. "Let's do this, come over in a half hour" the voice explained. The call was Will, and the doing it referred to the slaughter of 4 of his chickens that had been raised for consuption (different then the egg chickens he has as well) that he had been harrasing me about for some time. It is hard for the two of us to hook up outside the restaurant sometimes as if I am not there, most likely he is. The chickens were to be slaughtered at 6 weeks and we were in week 8 almost. He had promised me a few, but I was required to do the harvest myself. I didnt grow up in a household that went hunting. I have only been fishing once or twice in my life and have never caught anything. As I thought about it in the preceeding days I couldn't think of one thing I have ever killed, other then a few small rodents. Since that makes me a touch hypocritical, in that I often argue that if you cant stand the sight/smell/or feel of raw meat/blood/inards then you shouldn't eat meat. I take serious issue to faceless meat. Am I anti-killing animals for food? Definately not. I love the idea, I just had never done it. This is especially important in our home as it is something that we have tried to teach the boys from a very early age. Of all the food things we could push on them this is the one we really have tried to hone in on. They understand that our food is animal, that it had a mom and dad, and that by being a consumer of it on any given night meant that we asked for that animal to be harvested. By buying it at a certain price we even promoted the quality of life and death or lack thereof that it had. Often they say things like "dad- we should get a pig so we can make bacon" and it cracks me up. I arrived at Will's house around dusk and we went over the plan. I am fortunate that he had done this a few times in the precceding days and many times as a child so he had a plan. We went over it, then went over it again. We wore overalls. I was nervous. We picked out the larger two of the birds (1 each) and went around the corner of the coop to the edge of the workshop. Out of site. Will went first, the tool of choice being a huge and extremely sharp 12" chef's knife that was long ago named Thurman at the restaurant.

Chickens are amazing animals, and I have so enjoyed watching my Rhode Islands here at the house. They are social, relaxed, and have an amazing natural (no pun intended) pecking order. We are getting an egg a day from each of our birds now and we have a large enough surplus that we are able to give them away to family, friends, and neighbors on a fairly regular basis. Maybe it is because of the relationship, with them as providers for our family, that I have with the chickens now makes me respect them more, or maybe because I don't think on any level the life of an animal is something to mess around with. Point blank I reiterate that animals die because we buy them. It is simple supply and demand. If you didnt buy that chicken breast at the megamart, it would still be alive. It would be one less that was harvested on any given day anywhere in our fine country. If ever there was something to be reverant and respectful about this was it.

The chicken while laid on his side (or upside down for that matter) becomes hypnotized. the body goes relaxed and with a strong, well placed blow by Thurman while perched on a wood bench the head was removed with one stroke. Without getting into to gory of details all that you have a heard a chicken will do with out its head is true. Will had been having trouble with a problem I have seen before where the bird will actually break a wing joint due to the excess flapping after this step. I held my hand on the bird gently to keep him in place for a few minutes. We set them aside and returned to the coop for the other half of our harvest. We repeated the same steps but both birds were a touch more on edge this time. While we tried to work as clean and quickly as possible this wasn"t a clean job, and I am positive the second round of birds knew from the silence involved, or the smells involved what was going on. We set the second set on the ground near the first, and quickly grabbed the feet of the first and dunked them in warm water. The water temperature has to be warm enough to penetrate the feather layer, but too hot will put heat into the meat and for obvious reasons that is to be avoided as much as possible. If I had to guess I would say the water temp was near the perfect poaching temperature of about 160-170 degrees. A quick blanch, then remove, then again, remove, and then again, each time swirling the bird around in the water a bit. There was much blood involved.

We set the blanched birds on a makeshift table and begining at the bottom began to pull the wet feathers. I grossely underestimated the time it would take to do this part and it seemed like even a true veteran like Will took about 15 mintues per bird or so. Removing as much as possible we discarded the feathers. It may have been that one of my killshots was a touch misplaced or maybe not as clean as I wouldve liked, but I had a bird that was making an almost wheezing sound as I pluked, and I will be honest it was more then a bit unnerving.

With the birds in tow we went inside to the kitchen and under the assistance of the back of a paring knife, some running water, and the aide of some artificial light we removed all of the remaining feathers. This again took some time and Will was insitent that this was how to do this correctly. I buy and process hundreds of chickens every month and I see firsthand how this job is done in even small facilities. As basic discipline we took the time to do the job to the best of our abilities. Every joint, crack, and crevice was cleaned. The feet were removed at the knee joint and frozen for what will be a stock packed with gelatin at my house at some point in the very near future. Probably close to a half hour for each bird leaned over the sink, while we quitely shot the breeze.

This is were it gets a bit tougher. While I cant remember the exact steps involved, incisions were made on both the top and bottom, then the process of removing the tube that went from the head into the cavity of the animal. While I had surprisingly less issues with the whole process until this point then I was expecting to have, the smells and feeling involved at this point were rough. The smell of the inside of the bird is impossible to put into words, and it lingers on your skin. As is the feeling of putting your hand into the cavity of the still warm animal to remove the gizzards, lungs, testicles, intestines, everything. Things were lossened and then removed gently as a break in the intestines could easily cause seepage of waste onto the skin or meat, a step that is extremely important not to do. At the tail end a small oil gland is also removed, it is somehow inovled in how the bird keeps its feathers from falling out. The empty cavities were packed with ice and the birds were placed in five gallon buckets packed with ice and water to drop the temperature as quickly as possible. The inards were sorted and while I toyed with the idea of using the livers at my own house I knew that would go over very well with my family so we added them to Will's growing collection that he sears and purees for one of his dogs that has some dietary restictions. After about another hour the birds were properly chilled, patted dry, and bagged. Not until after they were weighed and tagged with a date. The weight of the final product is recorded and then the math of what the bird consumed in feed, and scratch can easily be figured and subsequentially costed accurately.

I thank Will and left and still concerened a tad about the temperature of the bird I placed them i my freezer at the house. My gardening clogs were covered in blood, my overalls were dirty and I still smelled like the inside of a chicken. I showered and tried to sleep but was so enamored with the whole process I played it over and over again in my head. While their are hundreds of wives tales about the harvest of poulty this was the way we did it. I know a few people that have an approach that is much different then this one. In all the whole process probably took just under an hour for each bird. Much harder then driving them to a small slaughter house and picking them up a few hours later when they were cool, clean, and dry. Again though it was a great thing for me to experience and I am undoubtely a better cook for doing it. In a pinch I could easily do it again, or do it here at the house. A thought that I have been playing over and over as my chickens while not edible at that point, won't lay forever, which makes you make the tough decision of continuing to feed them without production, or replacing them. It isnt like their is a farm in the country that takes used up old hens.

I went back and forth on cooking techniques for the bird and even more then usual, out of repect for the animal wanted total utilization. I went with a whole roasted approach. While I have talked aobut how the whole roasted chicken from a technical standpoint makes absolutely no sense to me here before I still thought it was a nice way to showcase the bird. Since the idea doesnt seem to be getting any less popular (have you seen the amount of chickens on the rotiessirie at Costco in the late afternoon/evening) I have been working the technique a bit more often around here. The boys love drumsticks and thighs and it seems to be the perfect meal for a family of our size. Like turkeys chickens have white and dark meat and when you get to raw technique they require two different temperatures and even cooking applications to be cooked to their optimal doneness. their are some tricks that can be used to help you to not overcook the breast while getting the thighs to get the temperature you need. The chicken was brined on the day before, then allowed to totally dry. It was brought to room temperature for at least an hour, then trussed, then seasoned liberally inside and out at the last minute and started in a hot oven. It tasted as amazing as you are imagining right now, but I am a bit spoiled. I have cooked chickens raised in this manner before, I have cooked these same chickens before, just a different batch, and even a few turkeys raised in the exact same manner. The breast to dark ratio is much different then a factory farmed animal, thighs are larger, breasts smaller, and the hue or tint of the meat is different, also these were obviously expertley cleaned, and didnt have a trace of feather folicle (I tried, but need some practice). After dinner any remaining meat and the bones were to make a quick stock, again something I wouldnt normally do (their are many chefs who argue that once the bones have been roasted for that long they lose the ability to give up flavor, nutrients, and gelatin into water) but the stock turned out great. The feet are still in Will's freezer as I continually forget to get them from him. It was interesting to explain, in much less detail, the process to the boys, and while they made a few jokes about it, they still ate (I wasnt sure that they would) and enjoyed it. the next batch of one day old chicks should be on the way here in just a few days, in time to harvest so that turkeys can be started in time for a pre Thanksgiving harvest. I am curious to know how many have you done this yourselves before. So many people in the generation older then I seem to have grown up doing this with their uncle, grandpa, or parents and it is just the norm for them. Others my generation and younger seem absurdly detached from the whole process. While it may be the natural transfer of the way we live in this nation, I find it fascinating. All of the effort, skill (lack of on my part), time, and money, it took to do this was paid for more then ten fold when I pulled this bad boy out of the oven, and again when we ate. I know this was a bit grafic, and I apologize for that, but I felt obligated to get it recorded for referance in an accurate way. Thanks for reading.