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.