One Year and Counting

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It’s official I have been out and about in the culinary real world for ONE whole year. Time has flown by (seriously, what day is it?!) But exactly one year ago I took my final cook tech exam at the Natural Gourmet Institute before being sent on my way into this insane, intense, passionate, terrifying yet rewarding industry. ‘Post-grad’ life has been one for the books as I go through waves of inspiration and self-doubt trying to establish myself as a cook.    

 

Can’t Take the Heat

Working in a kitchen is nothing yet everything I expected. Through popular media the life of a professional cook is glorified as a passion driven career where you do what you love every day and take pride in your final product. Sprinkled with the horrific examples of the angry chefs and injuries that cooks subject themselves too every day.

Now, I was a culinary school graduate with no idea what to do next. Keep cooking? Find a ‘normal job’ in marketing? I was lost. I convinced myself I could make it as a cook. I knew how to poach an egg, braise vegetables, make bread and break down a chicken. I could do anything, right?

Wrong.

My first externship after school was 3 weeks of realizing I was not cut out for the job. I worked Garde Manger (salad and cold appetizer station) at Cookshop, a farmers-market driven restaurant serving amazing American fare. I had never worked in a restaurant and had no clue what I was doing. I was lucky the chef even let me on his line! Day one, I learned how to read tickets… yes, I really knew NOTHING. I was there to assist the cook who ran the station. I helped prepare ingredients, pick herbs and watch and learn the rhythm of making hundreds of salads while plating beef tartar, shuck oysters and pipe filling for deviled eggs. Needless to say, the first week was an overwhelming disaster. Luckily the team at Cookshop was so helpful and supportive. I am sure I caused more trouble than help but they always smiled and moved on to the next order. By the end of my three weeks I was shucking oysters (with minimal injury) and making salads without being ‘sent back’ by chef.

To be completely honest I thought my time in a kitchen was going to be over after my externship. I thought there was no way I could run my own station. I just wasn’t good enough. But with a little advice and a huge push I decided to give it another go and work at Cookshop’s sister restaurant Vic’s.

Fast forward, I have now been at Vic’s for just under one year! To say there was a learning curve would be a massive understatement. I showed up with a nervous and bruised ego, to run the garde manger station on my own (luckily, no oysters). The beginning was rough, riddled with tears, burns and a little yelling every now and then. Everyday was a blow to the ego, a “what the F*** am I doing here kind of a day.” But yet again, the team had my back. Everyone was eager to help and encouraged me to keep going.

Then it started to fall into place. Shifts became less hectic, I could set up my station in time without running out of prep, I could plate desserts and salads at the same time. I was feeling confident, until BAM I was promoted to the next station… hot appetizers. Stuck in the middle of the open kitchen so every diner could watch me under pressure. There was a lot of, ‘the vegetables are under salted,’ ‘the carrots aren’t hot,’ ‘there’s no shine,’ ‘the vegetables look dry,’ ‘Emily, I missing 6 corns, 3 carrots and a farinata!’… aka a flash back to my first month. But if there is one thing I have learned through this processes is that if you keep your head down, try your hardest and build a sense of confidence you can get through the push.

Now, I have moved onto my 3rd station… I can’t believe it. I still stumble over tickets and cause a mess of the kitchen but I am learning. Every day I put in my best effort, try to understand the ins and outs of the kitchen, soaking up any information given to me. That is a part of the rewarding side of the job that leaves you yearning for more, if you push yourself hard enough you can achieve radical results.

Long story short, popular media hasn’t quite nailed it. They forget to portray the crazy hours, never seeing your friends that live outside of the restaurant, holidays in the kitchen and constant self-doubt. They leave out the family you build when everyone is pushed to their limits, the power of a team and the intoxicating feeling of getting through a rough night. And they forget the strength of the people you work with, who work 21 hours in a day to make ends meet without ever complaining. It’s not easy, not always fun but there is something that makes it worth it.

 

In Other News

Through the ups and downs of my year in the kitchen I have considered quitting, looked for completely different jobs and thrown myself into new hobbies in order to alleviate the pain of everyday kitchen life. Which has left my posts and inspiration for The Fresh Slice non-existent the past few months. (Oops.)

In my social media absence, I did add a few new exciting projects to the books. I completed the second level of sommelier classes at the International Wine Center. Wine has always been a place of interest for me, especially in its connection with food. I was thirsty to know more, expand my understanding and verbiage of international wines and how to accurately pair them with food. Knowing next to nothing walking through the door, except that I love Savion Blanc, the next 9 weeks were whirlwind of information and tastings of amazing wines. The class was incredible. It provided a broad spectrum into the wine world, explored new grape varieties, trends in the market and of course food pairings. Now, I am not on the path of Master Sommelier (yet) but I am excited to share some of my findings with you in future posts.

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Lastly, I have taken on a new side hustle with This Pie is Nuts. A local gluten free, vegan and paleo company making individual pies and granola. The company was created by the amazing Diana Pappas who has single handedly grown the business for the past 2 years. All of our products are entirely out of the nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Basically, the most nutritious pie out there. With new and exciting plans in the future we are working to build This Pie is Nuts into something big. Keep an eye out, or take a bite and order online.

So woop there it is, the whole crazy, exciting, intimidating and wild year is over but one thing has remained the same… food is still the passion of my life. From cookbook lined shelves to restaurant hopping through NYC I am still hungry and I can’t wait to see what I can bring to you this year.

As the great once said, “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interest in it.”- Julia Child.

 

  

slice + dice like a pro

Like a painter without a brush or a surgeon without a scalpel, a chef is nothing without their knives. A knife is the most effective tool to express a chef’s vision on a plate. Until going to culinary school I never understood the importance and detail that goes into making, using and cleaning a chef’s knife.

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It’s true, a sharp knife is more than a sharp knife. There are two basic styles of knives that differ in their shape and blade angle, a French Knife and a Japanese Knife. Don’t worry I won’t quiz you on the angle degrees, but what you need to know is that a French knife is the most commonly used in the West because it allows for the most versatile cuts for everyday cooking needs. (Also, chef’s have to work their way up to using a Japanese knife. One day!)

NOW you’re in the knife aisle and … SURPRISE there are way more than just two options! How are you supposed to choose?! Here’s the breakdown. Chef knives can be made of carbon, stainless steel or high carbon stainless steel. There are pros and cons to each material but for cooking, carbon and high carbon stainless steel are the way to go. To choose between the two carbon knives can be more affordable option upfront, but requires more maintenance over time. The cutting edge is sharp but loses its edge quickly requiring you to sharpen more frequently. The metal is also prone to discoloration, so proper cleaning after each use is extremely important. 

High carbon stainless steel is a hybrid material that was designed to hold a sharp edge and reduce any discoloration. These knives can be more expensive, however, will require slightly less maintenance. High carbon stainless steel maintains a sharp edge for a long time and will not rust easily. Personally, I am a fan of high carbon stainless steel… mostly because I am a low maintenance kind of girl and the thought of sharpening my knife every other week or so is terrifying. [Make sure you knife has a “full tang,” that ensures it was made properly and the blade will not separate from the handle over time.]

Dropping over a hundred dollars on a few knives seems like an unnecessary expense. Trust me if I was writing this pre-culinary school I’d probably being smiling down the Ikea aisles high five-ing the cashier because I got a knife set for $15. BUT I would be fooled!

A proper chef's knife is necessary for safety and product quality. It may be counter intuitive but a sharp knife is a safe knife. With a sharp knife you are able to cut through awkward shaped items or tough vegetables with ease. No more wiggling and shifting your blade to cut through a squash and accidentally slipping the blade across your fingers. With that being said, it is EXTREMELY important to use proper technique when cutting anything...

“Chef’s claw”: Curl your fingers on the surface of the food like a bear claw. The blade of the knife should rest against your middle finger as a guide. Looking down at the top of the knife slice downwards in a slight rocking motion (tip down first, then follow through to the back of the knife).

 

 

 

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So now that your fingers are safe we can explore different cuts that are crucial to the culinary world. Mastering knife skills may not be essential for home cooking, but if you’re wondering why some of your sweet potato fries take twice as long to bake as others it may help to focus on how you are slicin’ and dicin’. The diagram below depicts the dimensions and names of the cuts necessary for basic knife skills. My advice, don’t worry if you can’t get the correct dimensions for each cut (it takes time!), focus on making all of your cuts about the same size, to ensure even cooking. 

Your chef knives are an investment, treat them that way. Proper cleaning and maintenance of your knife will make sure you can continue cook your best. To wash, NEVER put your knives in the dishwasher. The high heat and rattling against other equipment will dull the knife quickly. It is best to go old school with a soft sponge, soap and water. Then dry the knife immediately with a dry towel. If water droplets are left on the surface (especially a carbon knife) it will begin to erode the material and cause discoloration.

Long story short, don’t over think it. A knife is like a long-term relationship... chose one that is right for you, treat it well, if things need to be sharpened work it out with a stone “massage” and trust each slice will be better than the one before.