Sunday, April 24, 2011

Brigade System

The brigade system is the classic French approach to organize the hierarchy of the kitchen. Often you will hear titles like Executive chef, Chef de Cuisine, Dinner chef, Banquet chef, Pastry chef, Sous chef, etc. My roll in the kitchen is as the Sous chef, sous being the French word for "under".  In a perfect brigade the executive chef is the boss, bar none. As the sous chef I run the kitchen in the absence of the executive chef, but I run the kitchen in his way. We never argue, and I offer advice as needed but always in a closed door situation, then the decisions are up to him and I back him up on them. Always. It is not odd for me to answer questions in a meeting with- I will see what (blank) wants to do. It is all kitchen discipline really. We cannot afford to come at things with a different approach, and I am there to see his vision through. He dreams big, and I focus more on the execution of things. In return for all of this work a sous chef gets one on one time with a chef that is more experienced or older, on a mentoring basis. When I am struggling to break a sturgeon down on the prep table I know I can count on a good chef to help me through it. Even long after that relationship is over good Executive chefs offer support and advice to past sous chefs. Often chef teams leave and arrive at different restaurants together, when that relationship is formed, especially if it works well, all have strengths and weaknesses that the other understands and can capitalize on.

In almost any kitchen the Executive chef is boss, sometimes a corporate chef is involved and there is always someone else to answer to, but as far as fundamental execution of the food he rules.  Young cooks are taught to answer only with the term "yes chef". Really there is no other reason for anything else. There is no maybe, if i get to it, or no. In a really big kitchen operation there may be an Executive chef, a chef de cuisine (usually means that the executive chef sits in an office all day doing administrative stuff) and he is the boss regarding the actual execution of food, he may also have multiple sous chefs, or maybe especially in a hotel a banquet chef to execute banquets, and then a dinner chef (also sometimes called a lead dinner cook). A corporate chef usually oversees the purchasing of and pricing negotiations with different purveyors, and sometimes spends time at the different locations on a daily basis. In the fast food, and chain restaurant settings there is always research and development chefs who do much more number crunching then cooking. I watched something on the Discovery channel once about ice cream and there was a chef for Dryers (about 60 yrs old, wearing a huge gold Rolex) who had the really rough task of taking quarts of ice cream off of the production line and then splitting them in half to check for equal swirling and placement of the flavors, and then testing the ice creams with (not joking) a gold spoon (something about how anything but gold would add off flavors to his work). A gig like that I can only dream of having one day. If you are ever in a situation with a chef one on one it is always good to call them "chef" until you have been instructed not to. It is a term of respect that they have worked hard to earn, and never hurts either in or out of the kitchen.

Hopefully that answers some of the questions that arise when we get technical about the "chef" title, because this last week I was offered the Executive chef job at the restaurant I work at. While I haven't officially accepted it yet, we hopefully will hash out some details tomorrow and then attempt to get it all in motion with various press releases, articles, announcements, etc. My feelings are hard to put into words about all of it, but understand please that this hasn't been easy for me. I have been working in restaurants since I was very young, and especially in the last 7 years have tried to put my head down to work for this title. While you could argue it is not much more than a different name on my jacket, I know that i have literally poured blood, sweat, and tears into this. When I think, or talk of its repercussions I cant help but get emotional. The year I spent at culinary school was the hardest of my life. It took a huge toll on my family and I. The commute, the birth of our second son, the homework, and the horrible financial situation it put us in were at times unbearable. The hours and the work load I assume in the restaurant is enough to break most people. The stress is relentless, the relationships strained, and the environment is at times the most intense you can imagine. While there are other 30 yr old chefs running kitchens in our area (a fact I have been very jealous of) they are all running relatively small operations. This puts me at the helm of a 3.4 million dollar a year enterprise, that feeds 800 ppl some days, there is not a better or even bigger restaurant anywhere around. In the long community history of the restaurant it has never been trusted to chef my age. This will wear with pride and respect on my resume for as long as I continue to cook, and ideally my title will never return to sous chef. It is a huge opportunity, one I have no doubt in my mind have earned. I have not only fulfilled but surpassed any expectation set in front of me for the five years I have been with them, and this pays for all of that work ten fold. I am on cloud nine with the chance to prove my strength, and leadership abilities to the company, and my staff. We will strive to be better, and I am committed to pushing harder then ever before. We wont tell customers "no", we wont bring bad attitudes or complacency in any of its cancerous forms into my kitchen or my dining room. As a vital part of a well qualified group of people that run that restaurant I will push them to be better, and expect them to push me harder then ever before. More than anything I am so ecstatic that my work and efforts haven't gone unnoticed. I cook because I can't see myself doing anything else, and I work hard at it because I have to go home every night knowing I did everything I could. I am fortunate those morals were instilled into me from an early age, and I have a wife, and family who understand that, and respect it. All of them deserve this as much as I do.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Chinook

I know I have posted about this before but it was quite some time ago and I feel like it is such a great product it is worth focusing on again. Most salmon runs on the west coast begin in early to mid June and wrap up in mid October. During the peak months of July and August I can buy salmon from my fish purveyors that comes from all over the NW and Alaska. All of them are different, some inlets in Alaska will yield different and more vivid colors then anything else available, while some of the Northern Washington fish can get astronomical in size. It is important to remember, and my staff has to remind customers that even though you can see the ocean from the dining room it doesn't mean I can always buy fresh salmon. Like all seafood there is a fishing season, there are months that there is not a fresh WILD salmon for sale anywhere in the world. Sure you could buy farmed salmon, but between growth hormones and dyes, and the horrible things they are fed, and the fact that I can support my local fisheries by not buying it we have decided it won't be in our restaurant or in my home ever. A definite argumentative point as some people consider farmed salmon more sustainable.

The spring run of salmon come to the Columbia River and it's bay beginning sometime in late January to mid February. They are Chinook (King) salmon that are headed long journey into the Snake River, and even further for spawning and death. While a salmon is at sea they swim and eat for a few years, and then return to spawn at the exact same place they were born. Once they hit fresh water they will hang out sometimes to make sure water temps and currents are right and usually will stop eating, living off of the fat they have stored up while at sea to get them to their destination. Then they spawn, then die. Some species even begin to take on a different shape in fresh water to make themselves both a bit longer, and more streamlined. It is a journey that is one of natures most amazing. Once a fish has been in the fresh water for more than a few days it's flesh begins to deteriorate, taking it from one of the best things you could put in your mouth to one of the worst.  The best time to catch a salmon is in shallow/open sea at the inlet of a large river, or in the river or inlet itself right at the points it reaches the ocean.  The Chinooks that hit the Columbia River (15 miles North of my house) have stored fat for two years at sea, they have developed muscle in open swimming that same time. They hit the Columbia really early as they have some distance to go before fall. They are at the absolute peak of their life. There are not many of them, and they are very hard to catch. Their speed, motivation, and ability to run makes them one of the best bets for sport fishing. and even commercial fisherman enjoy the amount of skill and patience involved.

Columbia River Spring Run Chinook salmon are the first fresh salmon to be had anywhere in the world. After a winter of frozen salmon I am always excited to get the first ones into our hands. Sometimes paying as much as $30/# for them once you factor in head/bone/innards loss, total fish price can push close to $400 for a larger fish. We then of course pass that price on to customers in a hail mary of hope that they can understand/or we can educate them on why it is so expensive, and for the most part they do. I can sell it in the $40-$50 range all night. We cook it as simple as possible usually searing and finishing in the oven over a cedar plank to medium rare, paired with a simple butter sauce. While filleting them I will sear a piece of trim and it never fails to blow my mind with a depth of flavor that is unmatched anywhere. We are nearing the end of the run, heading towards salmon season up and down the coast of which I will attempt to keep you all posted on what is available and why we are buying it. For now the best way as usual to get your hands on a huge King spring salmon is to catch one. If that isn't an option for you then you can get it at some local fish markets.....sometimes. A few weeks back the fisherman pulled only three fish from the water commercially, and we bought two of them for the restaurant. It pays to have these relationships with my purveyors, relationships we have crafted for years now so that when the cool stuff shows up, they know I will always buy it. If you are a salmon fan, the side of fish in the picture is the best tasting, and most expensive anywhere the world over, and one of the nicest I have ever seen. We received the fish still in rigor, and if you look close you see no damage from nets (this one, like most springers are line caught)and some beautiful color exchanges.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


A quick thanks to all of my readers as today celebrates exactly one year since my first post. I appreciate your support, feedback, and well wishes. The blog is getting more and more hits everyday, and my Twitter following seems to increase almost everyday. I have struggled with what I wanted to accomplish here so again if you are interested in seeing something in particular please just ask. Until then I will try to keep things unexpected and a tad different. I just really want this to be more than just a blog full of piss-poor recipes, and have always believed that if we can teach and learn technique we don't need to rely on recipes, instead learning what things should look like, smell like, and taste like. Nothing erks me more than a recipe that someone has cooked multiple times and still has no idea why they do what they do, when they do it. There is a lot of food information out there and more and more I am seeing info that I don't think is accurate, or helpful, or sometimes just plain wrong.  Feel confident that the topics I choose here are a true passion of mine, and that the writing of even a simple post takes me about two hours, and while I cant always guarantee that everyone on earth would agree, they are always the most accurate information I can gather through hands on work. As a chef I spend hours and hours in a kitchen everyday and on the days I am not in the work kitchen I am usually in my own kitchen at home. This is an absolute passion of mine, and more than just a job or a phase. The support I get from you as readers, and the encouragement, help to make that more enjoyable and encourages me to continue to strive for excellence. Thank you all for reading.


Got to get this off of my chest. I have a bit of a fascination with McDonald's, and while I haven't eaten at the golden arches for some time, and very rarely do, I still find their business model to be absolutely fascinating. A while back I received and email from an acquaintance explaining that I should boycott McDonald's as they were beginning to purchase beef from South American countries that didn't have the equivalent inspection process that we have here in the USA. Nothing will get me more fired up then an uninformed person sending out bulk chain emails. As consumers we have demanded certain things from McDonald's for years- eg- dollar menu, burger promotions, super sizing, etc. and these things make it tough for them to spin a profit. McDonald's is a business, and like all business they are in it to make a profit. As consumers we have forced them to do this sort of purchasing, because if we went through the drive through on a road trip and the dollar menu didn't exist there would be an uproar. They aren't at fault for buying beef from other countries, we are at fault as consumers for not opening our wallets wide enough to pay for better beef or chicken or whatever. As a corporation they found a niche, and have done extremely well in promoting it. Now whether you eat there often, or you don't is up to you. I personally have decided that it shouldn't happen in our family as it is pretty far from what I think food should be, but that doesn't make me want to trash their business ethics in the least bit. I think they are a fantastic company, and while I struggle daily to execute a menu in a relatively small restaurant every day, they execute menus in over 100 countries, at the rate of 62 million people a day. The logistics of buying, shipping, storing, prepping, and selling that much food is one of the greatest feats in the culinary world.

Some other cool facts-
     McDonald's is the largest toy distributor in the world, thanks to the Happy Meal
     When they decided to sell apples with the Happy Meal they overnight became the worlds number one consumer of apples
     They will open a restaurant in China everyday for the next three years
    They sell an estimated 75 hamburgers every second
    According to their own industry stats they have employed one out of every eight people in the American workforce
    There is a McDonald's within 100 miles of every person in the USA, except in a small part of South Dakota

I have often wondered if I should just go get a job there. It would be amazing to me to see how things work, how the fries taste the same everywhere, and the cheese is always melted just so, on every burger anywhere in the world. Not to mention, while I couldn't find it published they must have some sort of agreement with Coke, because the fountain Coke that you buy there tastes better than it will taste anywhere else. Is it a mixing thing, or a special McDonald's formula syrup? Whatever it is I crave it every so often. I wonder how fast you could be up for a promotion, or how high up the ladder a person could get in 3 or 5 or 10 years. Personally I know a few people that have worked there for many years and seem happy doing it (they higher over 1 million people in the USA every year) and are rather notorious for promoting with-in. And while I run food costing sheets to the nearest penny, think of how many digits on the right of the decimal point they have to run to ensure their profitability.  So while you are driving by one of them feel free to drive on by, cause food can be better and better for you. But that doesn't mean that they deserve any less respect then any other restaurant chain. A meal at McDonald's is the consistency Gold standard, as well as the consumer service Gold Standard, all of those customers everyday, and I guarantee they wont hesitate to make that burger again if you were disappointed with the first one, or refund your money, when really we all know it wouldn't hurt them in the least bit if you never walked in to one again. So many people, in so many countries working under the arches, maybe just for a few months, or a year depending on that job to feed their families. For the bosses it must be one of the most stressful jobs ever, the training alone for every employee has to be one of the most rigorous system in play anywhere, and the marketing effort is an example of what to do when you try to market a business. So while I strive to feed people new things, better for them, cooked as well as possible, they strive to feed people the same things they have been eating for years, at the same price they have been paying for years. Food costs and labor costs more everyday, and they somehow have built a system to where they can hide those costs better then anyone else. If you don't want them to buy South American beef that is great, but educate yourself and your family as to why that is important. Don't blame them, because they feed more people everyday then we can fathom, and are hell-bent on doing it in a consistent and inexpensive manner. Somewhere there are people that are sustained on mostly fast food, and while that is horrible, eating there is a much better option then starving. If anything, we need to look at the way we feed people in general. If we all demanded higher product quality from McDonald's they would change their purchasing, and price structure to match. That would mean that some would go hungry, and that is not a solution.