Posts Tagged ‘Life as a restaurant cook’

Yes, I know. Thanksgiving has passed. Humor me and enjoy a peek into how a chef’s mind works!

turkeynymagThe day before Thanksgiving, I found Chef at work in the kitchen, butchering a whole turkey. I watched him slice off both legs with clean, confident knife strokes. Next, he removed both breasts and saved the carcass and giblet (the edible innards, including the heart, liver, neck and gizzard).

What on Earth was Chef doing with this poor turkey? Thanksgiving turkeys are always roasted whole, right? At least, that’s the way it’s always been in my family. Oh, I’m so naive.

The answer was simple. Chef was thinking like a chef, not a home cook.

By putting in more work ahead of time, there would be more time to relax, drink and catch up with the family on Thanksgiving Day. Chef’s method was not only efficient, but it would also maximize the turkey’s flavor and texture. As he put it, “It’s the best turkey you’ll ever have.”

Chef then explained to me how he prepares a turkey on Thanksgiving. Be forewarned, things are about to get technical.

After breaking down the bird, Chef brines the breasts in water, salt, brown sugar and aromatics for eight hours (ideally, the night before Thanksgiving). Because it is fairly easy to overcook, turkey can benefit greatly from brining. How exactly does this work? Essentially, the meat absorbs the brine and stays moist while it cooks. In addition, the dissolved salts in the brine break down proteins in the muscle fibers and let moisture inside the meat.

After preparing the brine, Chef coats the legs with a mixture of sea salt and spices, sealed them in a plastic bag and cured them overnight. Practiced since ancient times, curing is a way of preserving meat. (Do you think the Greeks had refrigerators?) During the curing process, salt draws moisture out of the meat. Bacteria need water to thrive, and without it, they die. And without the ability to sustain bacteria growth, the meat cannot spoil.

The final item Chef prepares in advance is the turkey stock. First, he roasts the bones and giblet until well-browned. He places everything in a large pot and adds thyme, bay leaves, black peppercorns and a mixture of carrots, celery and onions (otherwise known as mirepoix). He fills the pot with enough water to cover the ingredients and simmers them for at least four hours. Finally, Chef strains out the liquid and refrigerates it overnight.

On Thanksgiving morning, Chef cooks the cured legs in rendered duck fat (because it’s the tastiest). He stressed cooking the legs slowly at a lower temperature, about 325 degrees. He also roasts the brined breasts for a few hours over sliced onions and thyme. It is very important to let the breasts rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing them.

To make the gravy, Chef thickens the turkey stock with flour and adds a little Dijon mustard and white wine for flavor. Finally, he reheats the legs by crisping the skin in the broiler. Finally, finally, finally – you’re ready to feast.

Chef’s method  eliminates the risk of an overcooked, dry turkey. Even better, no part of the bird goes to waste (a huge plus in a restaurant).

Although I think Chef’s way is brilliant, I’m not sure it’s entirely realistic in a home kitchen. Don’t tell him I said this, but I think roasting the turkey whole and carving it the traditional way is probably easier in the long run. Even so, I would love to give it a try. I’ll shoot for next year.

Actually, I did not cook at all this year. I worked the day before and after Thanksgiving, so I wasn’t able to go home to Charlotte, North Carolina. My family visited me, and we decided to dine out on Thanksgiving.

We chose 1789, a Georgetown institution. With my newly gained perspective on cooking turkey, I was excited to see Chef’s philosophy reflected on 1789’s Thanksgiving Day menu. Stay tuned for my review of the meal in my next post.

Image borrowed from http://nymag.com/nymetro/food/homeent/14995/




(And of course, Chef John Manolatos himself)


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Life on the line is neither easy nor glamorous, but if you stick to a few guidelines, it can be incredibly rewarding. Since working in a restaurant over the past eight months, I can say I’ve learned a few things.

Mind-blowing to me is just how different culinary school is from a restaurant. Working on a line requires you to know and understand every dish you are preparing, whereas in culinary school, there is room for error.

At Cashion’s, I’ve made just about every mistake that there is to make. I’ve been criticized and I’ve felt bad about myself many times. Despite everything, I have to thank Chef for inspiring me to try my best every day and night. So, here we go – below, I’ve listed five key lessons I’ve learned from working in a restaurant kitchen.

 1. Keep a sharp knife at all times.

I can’t even begin to say how important this is. If you have a long list of ingredients to prepare before the restaurant opens, a sharp knife is key. When your knife can slice through red peppers or onions with little effort, this will increase your prep speed significantly. And when it’s going to be a busy night, speed and efficiency is everything. Even during service, when you have to chop or chiffonade herbs to order, you need to be fast and precise. I sharpen my knife with a stone at least every other day.

2. Don’t leave the line on a Friday or Saturday night (unless you absolutely have to!).

In culinary school, the instructor told us exactly how much of each ingredient to prep for the day’s meal. In a restaurant, you are more or less on your own. The chef is far too busy to give you specifics – It is up to you to decide how much you will need for the night, based on how busy the restaurant will be. Your goal should be to prep enough so that you will never run out of anything. Leaving the line during service to grab more of an ingredient can let down the rest of the kitchen, especially the chef. Think of it like a basketball game. Say that your point guard just decided to leave the court during the middle of the game. Can your team play as well with one less man?

 3. The chef is always right.

The chef tells you to plate a salad one way, but you think that your way is better. While he may appreciate your feedback, ultimately, it is his opinion that matters the most. If you’re working in the chef’s kitchen, you should show respect to him. If you do disagree with the chef, try to understand his philosophy behind how he wants the food prepared and presented. I will often ask the chef why he prefers ingredients to be cut or cooked a certain way. He is always excited to share his thoughts and reasons behind the dish.

4. Smile, even when you don’t feel like smiling.

If you’re having a bad day, leave it outside the kitchen and focus on your work. Secondly, even when you are given the grittiest, most mundane tasks, smile and agree to do them (even if you’re cursing everyone in your head). If you’re starting at the bottom like I did, no task is below you. I have spent hours peeling garlic and shucking beans. I have scrubbed grime off of walls, floors and ceiling. You do what’s asked of you and you don’t complain. I believe that it will pay off in the future.

5. Be flexible.

Restaurant schedules are notorious for operating the opposite of the way the rest of the world does. When everyone is finishing work for the day, you’re just beginning. On the bright side, you don’t have to be up early, unless you’re working breakfast. You will probably work Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, too. Seeing your family and friends can be difficult, but if you are truly dedicated to working in this industry, then you’ll accept it.

I have one final point – Try, try, try not to make the same mistake twice. I think I avoided putting this one on the list. Whenever I run out of a key ingredient during service or burn the skin on my salmon for the third time, I feel pretty awful.

Honestly, though, it’s just cooking. It’s not life or death. And at eleven o’clock, when the last order comes in, you’re done. You clean up, have a drink, go home and relax. Unless you’ve done something horribly offensive, like insult the chef or poison a customer, you’re not going to be fired. There’s always tomorrow night to improve.

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On a Friday afternoon at Cashion’s Eat Place, I noticed something leafy and green simmering away in a large, shallow skillet. The scent of caramelized onions, butter and cream made me salivate.

“What on Earth smells so good?” I asked chef, pointing to the pan.

“Oh, that? That’s kale,” he said nonchalantly, like kale was supposed to always smell that good.

No way. Kale? While I love nearly all greens, I’ve always hated kale.

“How do you make it, Chef?”

“Cook the sh*t out of it.”

Chef smiled, sensing my reaction, and shifted his attention to something else on the stove. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.

After every tireless attempt I’d made to cook kale, the result was always the same – bitter, chewy and difficult to eat.

Even my most fool-proof recipe for sauteeing greens – olive oil, garlic, salt and crushed red pepper – failed.

I even tried blanching the kale first to mute its bitterness and soften its tough, crunchy stems. Although its chewiness was somewhat gone, it was still, well, barely edible.

I really wanted to like kale. I really did. It’s high in nearly every essential vitamin and low in calories, making it one of the best “super foods” in existence. I often forced myself to eat my disgusting plate of kale, reminding myself – just think about all of those health benefits!

I’ve been to culinary school. I know how to cook. What was I doing wrong?

Chef’s kale was unlike any kale I’d seen before. Its flavor was earthy, even slightly sweet.

To translate Chef’s words, “cooking the sh*t” out of kale means to braise it.

The key is to simmer the kale for an extended time in a small amount of liquid such as stock or wine, and then add ingredients such as caramelized onions or shallots. This way, the kale infuses the flavors and aromatics of these ingredients.

I hadn’t cooked my kale for long enough nor in anything flavorful enough for it to lose its bitterness.

My experience with Chef was the first “ah-ha!” moment I had about kale. My second moment occurred at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market just a week ago.

One of my favorite vegetable vendors, Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, was offering a variety of kale I’d previously never seen. Lacinato Kale (pictured, above), as I later discovered it was, is distinguished by its flat, wide leaves. The texture of the leaves is bumpy like scales, earning its nickname as “dinosaur” kale.

Its rich, dark green color attracted my eye. In a trance, I put down the rainbow swiss chard I was about to buy. This kale was too gorgeous to pass up.

Curly kale (pictured, left), the variety I always bought from the grocery store, was the kale with which I’d failed. Call me kale-naive (for lack of a better term), but I’d never known there to be another variety.

I had hope for this beautiful Dino kale. I would not fail to make this kale the tastiest kale I’d ever experienced.

I used Chef’s kale recipe as a guide, but made my own tweaks.

First, I separated the leaves from the stems. I wrapped the leaves up tightly and roughly chiffonaded them. You don’t have to do this, but it does look nice if you’re concerned about aesthetics. It is important, however, to separate the leaves and stems, as they cook at different rates.

Next, I lined up the stems on my cutting board and sliced them thinly.

Before I did anything else, I tried a piece of raw kale, curious about its flavor. Wow. Earthy and mild, with a hint of both sweetness and bitterness. This would be incredible in a salad, maybe with some toasted, slivered almonds, a creamy dressing of some sort…Okay, that’s another blog post.

After prepping the kale, I sauteed thinly sliced onions in olive oil over low heat. After cooking the onions down a little with salt, I started adding small amounts of chicken stock. As soon as the onions absorbed the stock, I added more. This is the same technique I learned on my first day of culinary school when we prepared French Onion Soup. (Oh, what a day that was. Slicing an onion seemed so daunting back then!)

The onions cook by absorbing the flavor of the stock. Eventually, they will begin to caramelize by turning a light brown and emitting a sweet aroma.

At this point, I added the sliced stems to the onions and let them cook briefly. I added the leaves, a good pour of chicken stock, some crushed red pepper, and then let everything simmer away.

Thirty or so minutes later, I added a touch of heavy cream. Not too much – I wanted to keep this reasonably healthy, after all. Thankfully, a little goes a long way. The cream added a richness that also tied together the flavor of the onions and the flavor of the kale.

I never thought I’d ever be this excited about kale. This was good. Really, really freaking good.

For Thanksgiving, I think this would be a perfect side dish. It’s different, and I like that. How many families can say they’re serving braised, Dino kale alongside that creepy cranberry sauce from a can? If this dish was at my Thanksgiving, I’d be going back for seconds, thirds, fourths, possibly fifths. Thank God for Turkey Trots.

(By the way, that creepy cranberry sauce is actually not half bad.)

Braised Kale with Caramelized Onions

  • 1 bunch Kale, preferably the Lacinato variety
  • 1 large onion
  • Chicken stock
  • Heavy cream
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Salt, pepper (the usual suspects)
  1.  Prep kale and onions, as I mention in my post above or however you prefer.
  2. Over medium heat, start onions in olive oil or butter. Add a little salt and cook the onions until they soften. Add a little chicken stock and turn down heat slightly. Add more stock when the pan is dry, continuing to do so until the onions have caramelized to a light brown.
  3. Add kale stems, cook for a few minutes, and then add the leaves and crushed red pepper. Toss together, then add a good splash of stock. Simmer over low heat, adding more stock if needed.
  4. Check after 20 minutes or so. The kale should be extremely tender, but not mushy. If it needs longer, let it go longer.
  5. Add a splash of cream and stir to combine. Check for seasoning, and that’s it!


Georgeanne Brennan. Great Greens: Fresh Flavorful and Innovative Recipes. http://books.google.com/books?id=fRBbX-G3XW4C&pg=PA30#v=onepage&q&f=false


http://forum.thefreedictionary.com/postst27946_cook-up-a-storm.aspx, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kale

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