Sunday, October 26, 2008

Leftovers or...

I see potential or...
The Importance of Iron Chef

I can't say that I'm impressed by every episode of Iron Chef that I see. Often, I'm left with the feeling that the dishes created are surreal, perhaps a little silly or simply unusable. The chefs involved are certainly capable of the dishes they create, not to mention creating them in the allotted time frame. It's just that things like offal truffles or however many random sorts of savory ice cream have been created could only sell in a handful of restaurants in the world, if even in those. Then again, that's the point. The dishes are only served to a handful of onlookers, some trained food professionals, others food enthusiasts lucky enough to be invited to judge. Either way, the dishes will most likely never make it beyond the collapsible walls of kitchen stadium, leaving us to imagine what they might taste like, however random they may be.

Coincidentally, it's that randomness displayed on Iron Chef that keeps me watching, if only the finale, week after week, just to see how many ways and with what types of cuisine something like a green bell pepper or even a beer could be used. It is the celebration of random, often exotic and even forgotten ingredients that pushes the participating chefs to the limits of their knowledge and, for someone like me, still learning and developing within the craft of cooking, forces me to think outside the box.

For the painter, there is the canvas. For the photographer, the landscape or the silhouette of a turned head against the sunlight. For a cook, a chef, there is a refrigerator and a pantry, chock full of food, ready to be emptied. In each, there is potential. Failure or success. A new exhibit or a nightly special you just can't plate quickly enough.

For myself, it's the leftovers that excite me as much as a fresh delivery of produce, a new product I've not had the privilege of using or the basic menu items I produce on a daily basis. Leftovers can be the difference between going out to eat or having a truly exciting meal right at home. At work, they can mean the difference between losing money or making a profit on specials alone. They can be the dish you might not have otherwise considered but, given this random set of five or so ingredients, come together as something better than you might have hoped for.

The Iron Chef. The home cook. The food enthusiast. For each, there are ingredients. For each, there are inevitably leftovers. For each, there is potential.

For everyone else, here's a recipe:

Frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed and rolled out to fit a large cookie sheet / sheet pan
Leftover Bolognese sauce
Shredded cheese

Top the pastry with the sauce and cheese. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Cool breezes and dim lights. An Italian red, a little to eat, dessert a little later. Aromas waft from the kitchen and the sizzle of a hot saute pan means the food is on its way. Night has settled in and, for cooks around the nation, it's time to work. It's been different for me as of late, though, with my new found lunch shift, early morning awakenings and back home by six. For once, I'm missing the stress, the sweat, the allure that cooking by night has to offer.

By no means am I lamenting the working hours of the public majority. When I officially joined the ranks of professional cooks almost two years ago, I just accepted that my work day would begin at 1:00. Wake up, run errands, nurse your hangover, back to work. It became the norm, and I was fine with it. But then came New York, and now Austin, working by day, rediscovering life outside of a kitchen by night. It was odd, but by no means uncomfortable--like putting on a forgotten pair of shoes. Great food in a popular setting was, and is, actually possible. Incredible.

Food doesn't gain recognition, doesn't earn stars or an award-winning reputation by day, though. Not normally, anyway. It's the proper backlight and cars passing that make the evening dining experience truly unique. It's dressing up for a night out that makes the food better, less of a lunch-time function, more of a special occasion. It's cooking for a full house and exceeding expectations, consistently delivering perfect food even in the face of countless reservations that make cooking by night that much more rewarding. However, going home at 5:00 has its rewards, too.

Perhaps it was feeding a Gourmet magazine function in addition to a packed house that made last night seem so intriguing, or perhaps it was simply that I hadn't worked a night like that in some time that made me long again for those whirlwind shifts to which I'd grown so accustomed. Who knows--it just felt right. And undoubtedly, they'll be back, those long, at times agonizing shifts, when the tickets simply won't stop coming, when experience is invaluable and speed, even through exhaustion is necessary. Without a doubt in my mind, they'll be back, and I'll be ready. Accustomed to a five-day, Monday through Friday work week, relaxed and most likely looking forward to a beer, I'll be ready.


Thursday, October 16, 2008


For those of you that missed last night's premiere of Anthony Bourdain's new talk show, At the Table, don't worry--not only did you not miss anything of importance, but you are perhaps better off for having not sat through one of the worst hours of television in recent memory. At his best, Anthony Bourdain is the celebration of what all cooks could and perhaps should dream of one day becoming--a semi-distinguished, retired chef traipsing the world over for a great meal, all the while sharing the ambience of a great meal with friends both new and old. In the Spain and Japan episodes of No Reservations, it felt like he had finally let go of his sordid past, the need for shots of him and his obligatory beer and iconic cigarette. We saw a man that had done his time as a cook, who had studied and learned a great deal of what makes a good cook a great chef, someone who had taken this knowledge and moved on to something more promising and less exhausting. In these episodes, it really seemed like there is life after cooking. Apparently, that wasn't good enough.

Whether or not Bourdain himself or the Travel Channel is responsible for this new (or perhaps simply more intimate) look at the life of a retired chef and one-time bad boy is uncertain, but regardless, someone seriously needs to stand up and reconsider this course of action that's been taken. I should clarify that I wasn't at all surprised to see a new evolution in Travel Channel's love for Anthony Bourdain, simply disappointed. That he could open the show with a question of whether or not supposedly spending $1800 on dinner for two was shameful, while sitting with Ted Allen and Bill Bryson at WD-50 over a multi-course, high-ticket dinner, was just plain tacky. It's not as if people watch his other shows and think him anything less than a celebrity--who else would spend $2000 on a Hawaiian shirt before going to eat papaya-filled hot dogs? So, why the act?

Given that he has been treated to chef's table meals at Morimoto in Japan, Arzak in Spain, Bouchon in Las Vegas and so on, I find stories of the most disgusting things someone has done in a restaurant (discussed on the talk show last night) to be rather inappropriate. Why? Because it makes the rest of us cooks, chefs, restaurant professionals, those of us who go to work everyday, sober and ready for action, seem like the bad guys. Would he do those things today, in any of the restaurants to which the doors are so kindly opened? Then why bring it up in the first place. It's not like people don't already feel threatened by making a special request for fear that one of the cooks will spit in their food, so don't perpetuate the myth even further. Don't create a subculture of restaurant-goers that revel in making a mockery of a restaurant or other establishment's reputation simply for the sake of shock value. You're 50 years old Tony--let it go!

Perhaps I'm being a bit overzealous, but the show frustrated me. As a cook at this point, I can barely afford to go out to the local taco stands here in Austin, let alone a private tasting menu at WD-50 with four of my close friends. At a time when restaurants and their chefs, farmers, purveyors and televison alike are doing everything possible to make food a legitimate, sustainable, desirable medium for expression, highlighting the negative just seems pointless.

In his most recent post, blogger line cook 415 waxes on the question of why we the cooks do what we do day after day while enduring harsh working conditions, exhaustion and an overall lack of praise. Amongst his list of answers that cannot be simplified to just one, he says that we cook to make others happy, that we're hospitable--and this is coming from a line cook! Even crazier is that it's true. We cook because we're good at it, because we love it, because it's our job. What we don't need is a retired celebrity drunk who's upset that the good old days of the Ramones and blowing lines in the kitchen are over making our job any harder. It's already hard enough.

Pilot Light

At this point, I realize that no one is keeping up with my writing, least of all myself. Six months is a long time to be away from something that was only in it's early stages to begin with. However, things are a little calmer now that I've found myself living in Austin, Texas, working, living, sleeping roughly eight hours a night. Since last I posted, way back in February, I've finished my stage with Gramercy Tavern in New York (an exhausting, at times frustrating, enlightening and ultimately rewarding experience), travelled to Ireland, moved back to Florida, gotten engaged, purchased my first bicycle in over three years, and finally moved to Texas where I now share a one bedroom apartment with my fiance, our couch and my first set of real kitchen utensils that I use nearly everyday. Missing, however, has been the presence of written words, both my own and those of others, owing mostly to the fact that amidst moving, working, choosing a ring and lamenting my ever-expanding mid-section, mental stimulation has been more easily attained by drinking a beer than sitting down to read or write. With my 14th and final move in the past six years behind me, though, it's time to get back to the important things, like food, and eating, and restaurants, and gadgets, and so on.

Thanks, in large part, to my new coworkers Andrew and Jason at Austin's Fino (, where I've managed to land a lead line cook position, my interest in most everything food-related has been reinvigorated. While we do revel in the innane banter and compulsory use of sailor-speak that is life in the kitchen, we spend most time talking about food. It's nice when you realize you're in the right place.

So, before I become any more sentimentally cliche, I'll welcome myself back as I look forward to what's good