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It’s That Time of the Month

Picture of inventory sheet

Wow. Just wow.

It has been a long time since I’ve posted here, and for you dear reader, I’m sorry about the dust and the crickets.

So, where to begin? A year ago tomorrow I took on a post as the executive chef of an Auberge in Hudson, Quebec. A lot can happen in a year, and in my case it certainly has not been dull. Enough about me though, let’s get into today’s post and point:

Eww…It’s that time of the month, AGAIN!

I’m about to embark on a monthly task that most chefs hate, the dreaded “inventory.” just like other monthly visitors, this one is essential to the operation of a restaurant kitchen IF you look at it for what it is – a report card.

Yes, I know. WTF, a report card? I finished school years ago douche, why would I await that report card? Let’s look at it another way:

Let’s say that your controller or general manager is after you for high food costs.

Perhaps you are sitting at 40% for the month, and you’d like to figure out why.  (Especially if you like having a paycheck to blow on rent and stuff…)

How do you figure out where the problem is?

Sure, kicking over garbage cans is one answer, or guessing that perhaps your kitchen help is stealing. Those are all viable scenarios, but how can you be sure? How do you know it’s not over purchasing, or waste? You’ve got everything costed to a T, all are within your margins set by your establishment. So why the high food cost?

How do you really know what is going on in your kitchen? Too many scenarios to think of them all.

Inventory is the tool that allows you to ask the right question(s).

Let me give you an example from an inventory I did a few years back:

I counted everything pretty quickly, and entered in the numbers, to find that we ended up with a high food cost percentage for that week. We were out by 600$, a fair amount.

Next, we opened up the invoices and double checked what was ordered. The purchases added up, then we checked the sales. We ended up being “overused” by 550$ in chicken – meaning that we were missing 550$ in chicken from the inventory verses what was sold.

Right there, that’s the clue. What could have happened with the chicken?

Now, the fun part begins.

  • Did we receive it? Check. Invoice is checked by receiver, signed off.
  • Was the price per unit correct? Check.
  • Is there a waste sheet entry for chicken? No, so check.
  • Did we count correctly? Check. All amounts are correct.
  • Did the chicken get used for something else that it wouldn’t normally get used for? Bingo! We had run out of cubed chicken thighs for a dish, so the sub was made for the chicken breast.

The cubed chicken dish was a popular item, but we obviously needed to look at our par and ordering levels. We sold a whole weekend with the expensive product because of an error in ordering.
How would we know the impact of that if we didn’t use inventory as a tool?

To recap:

Inventory is your report card, and it leads to the right questions on how to improve your kitchen operation costs. Don’t be afraid of it, or despise it, embrace it and learn what you can about your organization from it.

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Okay, so you’ve decided to enroll in culinary school. Apart from tuition, knives will be your biggest expense. How do you know which knives are the best for you?

The knives you choose will last throughout your career. I want to help you buy the right one(s).

Oh, how I hated my first set of knives

I spent over a thousand dollars on my first set of knives. They were J. A. Henckel TWIN Four Star, and they looked beautiful.

They had black molded handles, a heavy stainless steel knife stamped with—the most important feature of all—a TWIN stamp clearly on the blade:

Link to my Amazon Store for canada

Looks pretty doesn’t it?

I quickly found out through my knife skills practice that they dulled quicker than I could steel them.

Worse, it was next to impossible to put an edge back onto the knife because the bolster and return prevented the proper sharpening of the heel.

When it came to cutting hard vegetables like carrots the knife performed beautifully. The spine added a good amount of weight to my downward rock.

Cut a tomato, that’s a different story. The blade created trench in the tomato and hunkered down, refusing to slice through. I could have used a spoon.

Another problem is how the knife felt after a good amount of prep work. I can’t tell about it, you have to experience it. Look at it this way, when you are cutting julienne carrots for eight hours, how do your wrists feel?

Questions to ask yourself when considering a knife purchase:

Knives come in variations including:

  • What material is it made from? Examples include: carbon steel, stainless steel, ceramic, or plastic.
  • How is the blade manufactured? Is it forged or stamped?
  • What edge does it have? Is it serrated? Does it have indentations? How hard is it to sharpen?
  • What handle does it have? It could be wood, plastic, composite, or metal.
  • What knife is it? For example, is it a chef knife, a butcher scimitar, or a knife for soft cheeses?
Forex Money for Exchange in Currency Bank

Before spending your hard-earned money, you need to look at your options.

What’s your budget?

How much are you willing to spend on your knife set? Your budget will decide what you settle for.

I lost my toolkit during my first semester of culinary school. I had to buy my knives piecemeal. In the end, it turned out to be the best set up because it forced me to examine what I’d use the knife for.

I had a limited budget (one knife each pay period) so buying a complete set was prohibitively expensive. Instead, I borrowed knives from coworkers and classmates to see how it was to work with them. If I found the knife worked for me, then I would save up and buy it.

Stay Tuned for my guide to buying your first kitchen knives

Over the next set of posts, I will show you how you can save yourself hundreds (perhaps thousands) of dollars buying your knives. We will go over what makes a good professional knife, and how you can select one that meets your needs.

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite brand of knife? Tell me in the comments below!

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About Me Part 4: Culinary School Take One

I had a plan – Become a chef. All I had to do was go to school.

Last post we got up to the point where I finally grew up a little and decided to follow my passion. I wanted to become a chef. I had a few options to get to there:

  1. I could go and beg someone to apprentice me.
  2. I could go to culinary school (and get the skills that I wanted to learn), then go apprentice somewhere.

Notice the second choice. I always knew that I would have to apprentice under someone.

I had been around kitchens long enough to know that I wanted to cook at a higher level. I knew there are no shortcuts to become a chef.

I knew that going to culinary school would be expensive, but I also didn’t want to apprentice somewhere only to be stuck with what the chef there would want to teach me.

goodbye student loan

I got a student loan

For me the cost of my entire student loan (with living expenses factored in) was over ten thousand dollars for the year. I got the loan in two shots. I received one in the very beginning of the class year, and the rest in the spring.

First day of classes was orientation

Over a thousand people packed the auditorium for the Hospitality Program orientation. The presentations were forgettable, except for one tidbit that I heard – we would be chefs when we finished school.

Understand this, dear readers, you will not be a chef when you leave culinary school.

You’ll have the theoretical knowledge packed up inside your brains. You’ll have a million questions and ideas about what is right and wrong in a kitchen. You could theoretically get a job with the title of chef. Will you succeed? Most times, no.

What you need is someone (a mentor, a chef) to mold your passion and direct you to your path

Kitchen Supply Shop at Chelsea Market

Ohh! Kitchen supplies and books

After rent and the tuition for my course, kitchen supplies and books were my largest expense. This was before Amazon and other online companies were the go-to suppliers they are today.

I spent more than thirteen hundred dollars on my knives alone. They were the best that the campus store had to offer. They were Henckel Four Star knives: black handles, heavy stainless steel stamped with the twin symbol that marked them as the best.

I vaguely remember the books on the list. I got everything in one shot. It was over four thousand in tools and books.

I should have kept to a budget. (What’s that?)

I had a large influx of money, so I found that I needed to have a stereo. Suddenly I was drinking Second Cup coffee, and therefore I needed the stainless steel mug to keep my coffee warm during class. I bought a car to get around.

It wasn’t long before all my student loan money was gone to all the other stuff I felt I needed.

Credit Card Payment

Beware the credit card guy

The other catch to my first days on campus was a gentleman passing out pamphlets that were credit card applications. In all, there were seven cards to choose from. You simply checked the boxes of what card you wanted, and sent them in.

Of course they were student applications, so you didn’t even need to have a job. It’s to help you out in your time of need.

I checked them all. I got all save the gas card. It would prove to make my life difficult later.

Had to go to work

Here is where I stood: enrolled in culinary school, I had a toolbox full of kitchen tools, and no money to pay the second highest expense-rent. It was time that to get a job.

A friend got me into his father’s pub again

Remember that pub that I worked in before moving out to work on the oil rigs? I reached out to my friend’s parents and found myself working in the kitchen underneath the same kitchen manager as before.

He was a real piece of work. I think he managed to apprentice to the third year, then never finished. When I worked for him before it seemed like he was a culinary god. This time he would schedule me to work a Friday night alone, from 4 PM to close (4 AM).

 

Stolemove along, nothing to see heren Tools

The single worst day of my culinary year was the day someone stole my toolbox. My toolbox was a huge container that held everything. It wouldn’t fit into my locker. I had a meeting with the Kitchen Manager, so I put it down and off I went.

When I came back, the toolbox was gone.

No one would own up to stealing my tools. No one saw what happened either. My friend’s parents, (the owners) were upset at what happened. I scrambled to get new tools. It meant that I had to work even harder to pay my way through school.

The owners fired the kitchen manager shortly after my tools disappeared because they suspected he had something to do with their disappearance. I wasn’t sorry to see the guy go. He proves what I am trying to teach you here. His reputation followed him, so no one will pay him what he needs to live off. His kitchen career is over.

Working with my friend’s brother – my first real chef

The owners hired Grant to clean up the mess the Kitchen Manager had left behind. Grant was laid-back, and he knew about being a chef. Cool.

He had worked at ski hills as a Sous chef, and knew about the topics that I was studying in school. He went to the same culinary school as an apprentice. I had designs to apprentice under Grant after school. It all fit.

In this business, it’s all about who you know

Grant took on the role of chef when I was in butchery class. I had a hard-ass chef that would follow you when you were doing the practical part of the class, look at what you were doing, and then mutter under his breath: “That’ll get you a good mark!”

Chef [Orser] changed his attitude towards me when I told him that I knew Grant. He was easier on my mistakes, and helped me by giving me tips and tricks that still help me today. (An example would be how to properly break down a chicken with next to no yield waste.)

I outgrew the pub – and needed another job fast

As I learned more about cooking, the less appealing a pub was. Worse, because my friend’s parents owned the place, by extension my friend thought that meant he could manage me. It didn’t work out. Trust me when I say this, working for family and friends never lasts long unless you all understand that it’s a business, not a free-for-all.

I got so mad one night that I left a note for Grant telling him that I couldn’t work there any longer. It was the first time I ever left a job without giving proper notice.

I still regret doing that to Grant. Lucky for me, we are still cool to this day. I contact him on Facebook him every now and again.

The point I learned was it’s never cool to just leave a job with no notice, even when you aren’t obligated to give notice. The right thing to do is to give at least a week notice, if not more.

A friend got me in to a job in a hotel

My other friend was working at a new hotel called the Greenwood Inn. It had just opened, and it looked like a promising step up from working in pubs and restaurants. It had Room Service, a dining room, and takeaway. There was a full kitchen with steam kettles, a tilt skillet, and a pizza deck oven.

Best yet, it had a real chef, and a kitchen manager. (Chef Tony and KM Doug.)

I had a good reference from Bow Manor Hotel, but a reputation for flipping out

Remember how I told you that a chef will always call? In this case it was the kitchen manager Doug. He told me that he phoned the reference from Saskatchewan, and heard that I was good in the kitchen. (Work ethic always follows you.)

He told me that he heard about how I liked to go off in the kitchen. (Your attitude always follows you as well.) He warned me that he would not tolerate that in his kitchen.

40+293 Snooze

What was like working full-time while going to school full-time?

I worked at a section of the city that was on the opposite side from where I lived. I went to school somewhere between. With commute time my hours were:

  • 8 hours of school
  • 8-10 hours of work
  • 1 ½ hours of commute

That left me with between four and a half to six and a half hours of rest per day. (That’s if I went to bed as soon as I got home.)

There were times that I would fall asleep in theory class, or forget to set my alarm. Worse, sometimes I slept through my alarm clock.

In each module, if you were absent three times, you automatically failed. I had to redo three different modules because of truancy. Of course, that added to my overall cost.

The Dean asked me whether I was serious about school, and if I would consider dropping work so I could concentrate on my studies. I responded that since the parking lot was only two dollars a day, I would consider their proposal as long as I could sleep in my car without security disturbing me.

Let me make something clear here. I’m glad I went through what I did. I ended working a lot of hours doing both school and working full time. It prepared me for the real world of working in a kitchen.

What are the lessons here?

  • Your biggest expense will be rent, and your school supplies. Budget your money!
  • You will not be a chef when you leave culinary school.
  • It’s not what you know in this industry but who you know.
  • Try not to work with friends and family, unless you all understand that it’s business and can separate personal lives from the day to day operations.
  • Keep a close eye on your tools! Don’t leave them around, someone will steal them.
  • Your work ethic will follow you.
  • Always give notice when you are leaving a job, even when you don’t have to.
  • Don’t be afraid to work long hours. Get used to them.

Tune in next time…

Find out how the rest of school went, and how I got a job in a premier hotel.

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Good morning everyone, it’s Ask the Chef! day again. Today I answer questions on the best books to learn professional cooking, why salmon burned in a pan, how to reseason a nonstick pan, and what the best vegetables are for practicing knife skills.

What books will teach me the rules of cooking?

As the proud owner of a brand new slow cooker, I'll have to review this chapter later

A great book can teach you the theory behind the cooking.

Odbrusov asks:

I am looking for an amazing book that encompasses all (being hopeful) the rules of cooking. I don’t need recipes, I have plenty of those. I need something with rules, tips and tricks. Like temperature recommendations, utensil recommendations, best cookware to use with which food etc. I have, up until 2 years ago, been a primary baker of cakes, cookies, tarts etc. but I recently got married and want to cook more. I feel like I have been a fairly good cook so far, but I have been mainly following instinct and commonsense (and recipes, of course). I want to become more intermediate/professional. (And I am aware that most of this knowledge comes from experience but I am eager to learn and love reading!)

Congratulations on wanting to learn about the profession. Here are a couple books to teach you the theory of cooking from the professional side:



New From: $80.00 USD In Stock
Used from: $33.93 USD In Stock


On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals (5th Edition) (Hardcover)

By (author): Sarah R. Labensky, Priscilla A. Martel, Alan M. Hause

List Price: $153.80 USD
New From: $109.57 USD In Stock
Used from: $60.04 USD In Stock

Why did my salmon go black?

Blackened Salmon (3)

It’s okay if you meant to blacken your salmon.

An anonymous reader asks:

I’m a complete novice at cooking (or whatever is below a novice, if anything) and I’ve just tried to make salmon for the first time, frying it in a pan. Following a recipe, this is what I did:

Poured in a medium amount of olive oil (regular)

Heated the pan to halfway between my hob’s two heat levels

Dropped in my medium sized fillet of salmon, dark side down

Flipped it after two minutes (it was pretty charred)

Dropped on some diced garlic (this quickly turned black in the pan too and smoked so I turned the heat down a little…)

Fried that side for another two minutes.

After I took it out of the pan the outside was either black or a deep orangey-brown, and slightly flakey. The inside was a medium pink colour. I ate a forkful, it tasted ok but the rest seemed very firm but not flaky. Since I’ve never made salmon before and everything seemed to go wrong, I ended up just throwing it away and going hungry :(

Where did I go wrong?

It sounds like your heat was too high. Olive oil smokes around 350°F. Garlic immediately burns at that temperature.

It is hard to control your heat on the stovetop. I know from firsthand experience.

There are two temperatures for a restaurant cook: on, and off. Whenever I had to cook something, I would turn the flame on and start cooking.

My onions would go black before they softened. My meat blackened in patches. Butter browned in a nanosecond (I swear!) then acrid smoke and burned bits floating in the pan ruined my hopes.

I had an awesome Soups and Stocks chef that finally explained to me there were degrees in the flame that I could use to cook my food. It was important to control the temperature when I cooked.

Until you learn how to control your flame, try a little trick that I picked up:

Grab a slice of bread and rip off a chunk. Heat the oil up and place the bread cube into the oil.

If the bread sits in the pan and soaks up some oil, it’s too cold.

If the bread turns brown then black quickly, it’s too hot.

When the bread sizzles and turns golden brown, it’s ready.

I hope that helps!

How do I reseason my omelette pan?

Circulon - Stickiest pan in history

Nothing worse than a sticky pan for omelettes and crepes.

Amateur Gourmet asks :

I’m really not sure what to do. The obvious answer is: “Get a new non-stick skillet” but I’ve tried that, getting a cheap one that lasted for a few months but then the non-stick wore away and it, too, is sticky.

This particular pan is a really nice one, a $150 All-Clad, a gift from my parents from when I started cooking. That’s difficult to replace.

True, I could get an omelet pan…but don’t you have to season a pan like that? And won’t it stick if it’s not seasoned properly?

I’m so tired of my omelets sticking, it’s quite dispiriting.

I would like to start off saying something about preventive maintenance. I make sure I coat my non-stick pan with a little fat after cleaning it. (I use bacon grease.) This is the first step to ensuring that your pan lasts for a long time.

You can get your non-stick pan back in shape, assuming there are no open scratches on the surface of the Teflon coating. Here’s how:

First wash it with a good detergent and a plastic scrub pad. If you find there is some food in there that won’t come off, use a sprinkle of salt and a plastic scrub pad to loosen the stuck food.

Rinse well and dry. Rub it with a generous coating of fat (I use bacon grease) and put it into a 170°F oven. (The warming function or the lowest your oven will go.)

After two hours, turn the heat off (leave the pan in the oven). When the oven is cool remove the pan and wipe it with a paper towel.

Finally, a word on storage – I like to keep a rubber mesh between my pans while storing them to ensure the Teflon coating doesn’t scratch.

Good, cheap foods to practice knife skills with?

Knife skills class!

Knife skills baby!

Runfrompms asks:

Newbie prep cook here. What are some good cheep foods I could use to practice my speed and proficiency with my cuts?

Your question brings me back to my days of cooking school.

I had just started knife skills class, and noticed that my knife skills lagged behind everyone else. I am not the type to let that stand; I need to be the best. So, I approached my chef instructor and asked for help.

I found myself in the kitchen an hour earlier than the rest of my class. The chef directed me to grab a fifty pound bag of carrots from the walk-in. The task was simple, peel carrots, then julienne them.

Did you know there is a proper way to use a vegetable peeler? I learned how to that day. From the first step, peeling carrots, it’s all about technique and practice.

After peeling carrots, it was time to julienne them. (All fifty pounds.) I had to put them into the stand up fridge for use for the next day.

The next day, it was time to brunoise them. I learned how to cut vegetables very small.

Practice with whatever vegetables you can get your hands on. Some examples include carrots, turnips, and potatoes. Take your time and learn your cuts. You will gain speed as you practice; it’s harder to relearn the skill portion.

If you wonder what to do with the vegetables that you are practicing with, fear not. Soups, stews, and salads are great meals to incorporate your hard work into.

So, approach your instructor (or chef) to express your want to fine-tune your knife skills. (If you prefer, you can do this task at home.) Get cutting, and pay attention to how you are making your cuts. Work on the knife skills today and speed will come later.

Have a question for me?

If you have a question for me, drop me a line on the Ask the Chef!” page, or you can follow the links on the sidebar to get to my Social Media contacts. I love hearing from you.

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Kitchen 101: Links for Campfire Cooking

This weekend I am going camping.

There is nothing like cooking on an open fire. Unfortunately, chefs are under pressure to perform. No steam kettles, convection ovens, timers, fryers.

cooking on a fire

A chef has to be able to cook anywhere. (Just ask Keith Famie, the chef who mucked up rice in the Survivor Australian Outback.) Otherwise he or she will be voted from the campfire.

Fear not dear readers, here are a few Kitchen 101 links to help you with some of the cooking in your campout:

Your Turn:

What do you like to cook over the campfire? Let me know in comments below.

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Culinary Toolbox: Two More Scales I Think Are Great

I am gearing up to go camping this weekend with friends and family. There looks to be a lot of fun happening out there. It’s a nice break from the kitchen.  I was looking through my latest posts for some inspiration and hit on a boneheaded thing I did.

I recently did a review on a scale from Eat Smart Pro Digital Scale . If you don’t like that scale, here are a few more that I have seen in use (or have used) in the past:



List Price: $29.95 USD
New From: $24.97 USD In Stock
Used from: $22.47 USD In Stock



List Price: $99.99 USD
New From: $34.95 USD In Stock
Used from: Out of Stock

I hope that gives you a better choice.

Your Turn

What is your favorite thing to cook over the campfire? Let me know in the comments.

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How do you know if you are passionate enough about cooking to make it a career? Today I’m going to share how I decided to go to culinary school.

I started cooking at A&W in Thunder Bay at the tender age of thirteen

AWCarhop

The last car hop

My friends always had money. Money to buy skateboards, go to the arcade, or to pick up that cool new album. I was lucky to get ten dollars allowance a week. Scrimping and saving were never my strongest points.

I had to do something, so I started looking for a job. I had a huge problem though; labor laws in Ontario stated that you had to be 15 to work in a kitchen. I managed to find a job at the local A&W, billed “the last Carhop in Ontario.”

I had to do some serious begging to get that job. My mother insisted I uphold my grades. The second they started to suffer the job would have to go. The owner was way easier; he needed a dishwasher – I was in.

Sadly, it didn’t last

It wasn’t long before the paychecks started bouncing. That’s why it was so easy to get in. That place was the underbelly of Thunder Bay. Sex in the stockrooms, kids smoking weed in the back, and the flies!

It didn’t take me long to graduate to the fryer. Fry guy quit because he didn’t get paid. The burger guy followed the next week. I was flipping burgers three weeks into the job, oblivious to the signs of trouble. Hell, a pretty serving girl even told me to get out while I could because the place was in trouble.

I arrived at work one day to a notice from the police. The restaurant’s owner decided to check himself into the psychiatric hospital. My mother came down and coerced someone into paying my final pay from the cash register. Thus my brief career with A&W ended.

I loved the freedom a job gave me. I had more money than my friends, and for the first time in my life, I could afford to buy what I wanted. Temper that with my inability to save money, and you have me blowing my entire paycheck on the arcade machines.

It was always easy for me to get a job cooking

get_a_job

It’s easy to be hired if your history is good

Again my mother continued moving around. I didn’t stay very long in any one place. That meant I needed to learn how to get a job.

Once you get some skill and experience, it’s easy to find work as a cook anywhere, as long as you have a good work history. When you see punks rage-quitting their jobs in those funny movies realize this: do that and your reputation will follow you through your career.

I have worked in a few dumps in my time, but (except for one establishment,) I’ve always made sure to leave a place in good standing.

In the culinary business it’s all about whom you know, who you’ve worked for, and how you did. I know that it’s technically illegal in most places to give a bad reference, but we all do it. It’s all about what’s not said:

“Hey Jack – what’s up brother? Still knee-deep in the shit over there? What ya doing, 400 these days?”

“Bro, you don’t even fucking know! Shit, we were fucked last night. The servers didn’t even control the flow, and we got ass-raped at 10. Fucking didn’t even get out until 2 in the morning man!”

“Damn! Listen, I gotta make this quick – I got my numbers to get in. I’m looking at this CV for Johnny-Fry-Guy and I saw your place on there. You remember him?”

“Yah, he worked here brah.”

“Would you hire him again? Did he have chops?”

“Yah, he worked here.” (The silence here is telling…)

“Thanks Jack! Listen, we’re gonna get fucked tonight, so I gotta cut this short. Let’s get together for some beers man. Catch up on old times!”

“Okay, sorry I couldn’t help you out!”

I wouldn’t hire the guy because Jack isn’t gushing on the guy. “He worked here” is code for “He always called in sick”, “I hated the guy”, “He rage-quit on me”, or “He sucked and I had to fire him.”

I made it a point to work my hardest in the kitchen. When it came time for that obligatory reference call, I’d get in.

I tried other jobs apart from cooking, honest

Installing glass

I tried to be a glass worker.

You know when they ask you in High School what you want to do for the rest of your life. I never understood that. Ask a sixteen-year-old to map out the path to the rest of his or her life?

I tried other jobs over the years. I worked those entry-level jobs like gas stations, arcade attendant. I worked as an apprentice millwright, a junior apprentice glassworker, in an upholstery shop. I even worked as a seismologist. (A person whose job it is to put down

I’d get bored of the tasks in those jobs. I always found myself back in the kitchen. There are so many tasks to complete, and with service, you never know what’s going to happen.

I worked at a restaurant that did all-you-can-eat wings, a pub my friend’s father owned, and even found a motel kitchen when I moved to Oxbow, Saskatchewan.

I had to make some money, so off to the oil service rigs

Oil Rig

This is where the big money is – or is it?

I originally moved to Oxbow so I could work on the oil rigs. It was all about the money. My sister’s boyfriend made a lot of money working, and I wanted in on the action.

I moved into my sister’s place temporarily and looked at getting hired for the job that would print me money.

I weighed around 140 pounds soaking wet, and you bet no one would hire me. My sister wasn’t going to let me bum off her, so I got a job working at the Bow Manor Motor Hotel.

I first realized I was good at cooking working at the Bow Manor Motor Hotel

BowManor

Not much to look at, but part of my journey.

The restaurant there was scary. I started at 4 AM to make soup. It only took me half an hour to make it, so I just sat around smoking cigarettes. The person training me cautioned me to slow down because otherwise there would be nothing left to do.

Servers cut salad at their salad stations with dollar knives and it surprised me that they didn’t cut their fingers off with the vegetables.

Worse, the favorite up sell for the restaurant known as “snowball.” Take a plate of anything with meat, vegetables, and starch. Now cover everything with gravy. Rachael Ray would say, “Yummers.”

I finally got a job on the rigs

I didn’t stop looking for a rig job. My sister’s boyfriend was pulling in some serious cash, so it made sense that I’d get in on the action. I got an interview with his crew manager and managed to try out.

My first day was an eye-opener. I get to the site, there is a rig there with a pile of black pipe on the ground. My job was simple; lift the pipe to the “floor.” (A deck made of steel over the hole that the pipe went into, a meter off the ground.)

The pipe didn’t look all that thick. I bent down to pick one up. I was lucky if it moved an inch. I strained with all my might. It still didn’t move. The whole crew looked at me like I was retarded. A burly man with swollen muscles came to help me. I think he weighed close to 250 pounds, all swollen muscle.

System D to the rescue!

I did redeem myself though. I got onto the “floor” because I couldn’t lift. I could quickly maneuver pipe to the “tongs,” (the huge hydraulic pipe wrench) close the safety, and operate the machinery to tighten the pipe in the stack.

I wasn’t able to use my strength to complete my task, but my wits to get it done. I learned that ability in various kitchens out there. It’s not just brawn, it’s brains.

The Epiphany

Epiphany 5-8:365

Oh, I get it! I should work in kitchens!

Believe me; working on the rigs is hard. Not all the time though. There a\re periods where you sit in the shack waiting for the testing to be complete. Worse, when you move the rig at 30 Km/h with no one in the truck but you, there is nothing to do but smoke cigarettes, and think.

Out in the middle of nowhere, you can’t escape your thoughts. I kept coming back to what I wanted to do for a living. I knew there was no future in rig work for me, it was just money. I didn’t know what my passion was. What was I supposed to do?

I remember the conversation came up one day. What to do for a living? Every single one of the guys laughed and told me I should cook. That’s all I ever talked about. I didn’t want to work in kitchens like I worked in before. Little pay, and not too fun.

You should go to school and learn how to be one of those chefs.

Holy shit. They were right.

Getting into a program despite a year-long wait

I had my epiphany, got my last pay, and flew out within two weeks. I started calling around, and found out that the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology offered a program called Professional Cooking. It was expensive, and the waiting list was a year long.

I started calling in the end of November. I called daily to see if there was a spot open. I met with the headmaster. Then I called some more.

December 12, 1998 was when I received a call to tell me that I was accepted into the program.

What are the lessons here?

You have to work with integrity in your job. It will follow you through your kitchen career because everyone knows everyone here.

If you find that something is too difficult to pull off, or seemingly impossible, search for alternative ways of getting it done. It’s called System D.

I’m not going to lie; the career of a Culinarian is not an easy one. If you find yourself always talking, thinking, reading, experimenting about cooking, then it’s time to give the career a serious look.

Tune in Next Week…

Next week I’ll get into my experience with culinary school while working a full-time job and how I became an apprentice chef.

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Chef’s Tasting Notes Episode 3: Value Wines? WhyN ot?

Since introducing Chef’s tasting notes, I’ve made a point in trying something new every week. The idea is to expose my palate to new flavors and to inspire creations. This week it is all about wines.

I live in Quebec, Canada. What sets this province apart from the other Canadian provinces is beer and wine for sale at the grocery store. (Gas stations as well.)

No, you won’t find a forty-five dollar bottle there, but many can be had for fewer than twenty dollars. That’s why we are tasting value wines. Why you ask? I say, “WhyN ot?” (Get it? Why not?)

The best advice from a Sommelier

Patrick Ryan stands at my height, with a girth that I probably match. The wispy, gray haired Sommelier taught our Serving class in culinary school. I remember he patiently explained to me how it was in our guest’s best interest to taste the Chardonnay with the ballotine dish. (I had already sold them a bold, Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon.)

The best part about service class was when we got to taste the alcohol. What better way to upsell the wine than to have an experienced drinker push the selection.

I remember one line he said above all:

There are a lot of wines out there. We don’t have a lot of time in our lifetime, so try them all!

The wines I am going to taste today is on the cheaper side. You may ask why we are going to taste them. A bottle of wine doesn’t have to cost you half of your month’s rent to be tasty. Don’t panic if the bottle has a screw top instead of a cork. You only drink what’s inside.

Wines tasted:

Woodbridge Chardonnay 2011

WoodbridgeChardonnay2011

7.5/10: This wine is a user-friendly wine that will pair well with many main dishes.

I had this at my In-law’s anniversary party. We made a pork loin, and I made a sauce using this wine to deglaze the pan.

Appearance: Clear hue, like sunshine in a bottle.
Smell: Light oak, apples, spices. Perhaps like it was sweetened with honey.
Taste: Fruity, with an apple or pear undertone. It had a hint of spice like pepper in the background.
Mouthfeel: Crisp, light but with an oak undertone that made the wine appear dry.

Overall Score: 7.5/10: This wine is a user-friendly wine that will pair well with many main dishes. The reason it didn’t score higher is because the taste is on the dry side. People who like their wines sweet will want to give this one a pass.

Serve with: This would be delicious with apples and peaches. I used it to make a sauce for roasted pork tenderloin with mangoes. It works with risotto and quiche as well.

Sand Stone Creek 2011

sanstone

9/10: This wine is a winner, especially if you are planning to have a barbecue featuring grilled meats.

A nice Shiraz from Australia. I had this with a friend that came down to visit.

Appearance: Dark, heart-blood red with deep reflections. Generous legs on the glass. (Legs are the streaks that form on the glass when it is swirled.)
Smell: Dark, musty. A fruity smell that you’d swear had cherry in it.
Taste: Bold, slap-your-face spice with a hefty background of dark fruits.
Mouthfeel: This wine was thicker than most, and left a pleasant, lingering finish.

Overall Score: 9/10: This wine is a winner, especially if you are planning to have a barbecue featuring grilled meats.

Serve with: Vegetarians. (That is, grilled meat.)

Wish For Luck

wishfor

7/10: Not for everyone. It’s dry, but will hold up well against anything that is fatty. It will compliment those bold flavors.

This was a lovely Cabernet from Chile. Sure, it’s got a screw top. It’s a wine available for a song.

Appearance: Dusty red, little legs.
Smell: Earthy, with a sharp note of spices.
Taste: Imagine you taste a freshly picked tomato and combine that with how you would normally think of red wine.
Mouthfeel: Full bodied, almost a sensation of a thin creamy flavor that sang with sharp notes on your tongue.

Overall Score: 7/10: Not for everyone. It’s dry, but will hold up well against anything that is fatty. It will compliment those bold flavors.

Serve with: Great with rib eye steak, or lamb. Goulash would be dashing. I served it with a cheese course.

Your Turn:

What cheap wines have you tried and liked (or hated?) Let me know in the comments.

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Good morning everyone, it’s Ask the Chef! day again. Today I wade through the debate on Microwaves, and answer a question on how to keep herbs fresh.

What do you think of the microwave?

Microwave of Death

Some chefs will fire you for using one. Others microwave proteins in the middle of a busy service.

John Reid asks:

I am studying Product Design and I am writing a report with the question “How has the microwave oven developed, has it had a positive or negative effect on our lifestyle and could we live without it?” I am looking for opinions from the professionals of the kitchen. Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you.

Great question John, and one that sparked debate. The best answer to your question is the microwave is a kitchen tool.

I used a microwave both at home and in high-end kitchens. Let’s put aside the debate and focus on what a microwave does when it heats an item.

You may have heard that microwaves cook food “from the inside out.” That is not the case. What happens is a microwave penetrates the surface of the food and excites the water, fat, or sugar molecule. The atoms of those molecules create heat energy from the friction of those moving molecules. (Have you ever tried making a bowl of popcorn and the center was cold when you take it out?)

A microwave is great for reheating liquids, melting fats, and steaming foods. Microwave ovens use less heat to cook vegetables, so the vegetables hold more nutrients after cooking than if they were steamed or boiled on the stove top.

Since you cook the food from within you can’t get a good caramelization by microwave ovens. When you heat water, it evaporates. You are left with a dry, rubbery texture that is not desirable with proteins.

I think it’s for this reason that most chefs do not tolerate the use of the microwave.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong about the microwave. I think it’s a tool like a knife. You just need to know how to use it.

How to keep herbs fresher for longer?

Neglected basil

Nothing is worse than wilted herbs.

Foodie 13 asks:

There is nothing more that I love than cooking dishes with fresh herbs but imp finding that I only get one use out of a small bag of them and by the time I want to use them again they have wilted :(

My dad had suggested that you can freeze herbs and we have tried that with no success. Can anyone tell me if there is a way for keeping fresh herbs for longer?

I can help you out. I wrote a post on how to save your herbs with some ideas.

Tangent: It frustrated me when my cooks wouldn’t take gentle care of herbs. I would find the herbs—still in their plastic bags—dying on the shelf. Three quarters were black. I was losing over two hundred dollars a week from tossing herbs in the garbage.

I understood that when the daily produce delivery came the cooks didn’t want to fiddle around with herbs. They had to remove the bags from the herbs, clean the bottom stems, and place them into a container with water. Worse, they must change the water daily.

The same cooks would take their time cleaning beef tenderloin to get the best yield. I saw they saved the scraps for mince. Why did they save the mince? Simple – the answer was food cost.

So I called a meeting and assembled around the whiteboard. To this we did the following: (This is what the whiteboard would look like.)

HerbWaste

Eye-opening, isn’t it?

Remember to treat your herbs well. They are worth a LOT of money. Again, look here for how to keep your herbs fresh.

If you have a question for me, drop me a line on the Ask the Chef!” page, or you can follow the links on the sidebar to get to my Social Media contacts. I love hearing from you.

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How To Calibrate An Instant Read Thermometer

What good is a thermometer that doesn’t give you the correct reading?

01_NotCalibrated

This thermometer is off. No way is it almost freezing in my kitchen!

You need to calibrate, son!

When I worked on the grill of a busy restaurant, I had to stop (at least twice a shift) to recalibrate my thermometer. When a thermometer is in constant use, it starts to read off by one or two degrees Celsius (or five to ten Fahrenheit.)

Plus, it was an excuse to down a glass of iced water. Working on a grill is hot work.

Why calibrate?

Failing to re-calibrate is like not using a thermometer. I learned this one time when cooking a pork tenderloin roast. I’d learned my lesson. The temperature on the thermometer says it’s 125°F and the carryover cooking took it to 140°F, a perfect medium for the pork roast.

When I cut into the roast to serve it, it was raw. I felt like a donkey. (A little Gordon Ramsey for you there.)

Sure, the temperature read 125°F, but my thermometer was off by ten degrees. I should have calibrated it first.

How do I calibrate my thermometer?

Today I am going to show you how you can quickly calibrate your thermometer. All you need is a good thermometer, a glass, ice, and water. It will take less than a minute.

Yesterday I wrote about the top 6 thermometers I used in my career. I chose the most common thermometer out there for demonstration:



List Price: $9.99 USD
New From: $3.19 USD In Stock
Used from: Out of Stock

Here are the steps to take when you are calibrating a thermometer:

02_FindNut

Find the wrench that conveniently comes with this thermometer. It is on the side. If you are using a digital thermometer, disregard this step.

03_PutIn

Slide the stem through the hole…

04_UseWrenchMakeSureNutSecure

Place the hex nut in the wrench of the holder. Make sure it is secure.

05_HalfGlassIce

Fill a glass half-full with ice.

06_FillWater

Fill it with cold water.

07_RestThermFor6Seconds

Stick your stem into the glass. Your holder makes a convenient handle for you to hold over the water. Wait for six seconds so the needle stops. It should be at 0°C (or 32°F). If not, go on to the next step.

08_TurnKnobInDirectionYouNeed

Grab the top and move it like a dial while holding the wrench. You want to move it to 0°C (or 32°F).

09_TurnBelowPointYouWant

I like to move it slightly past where I need to, so I can correct it to be sure it is right where it needs to be.

10_TurnTo0C-Or32F

Here is the finished calibration. 0°C (32°F).

That’s how you calibrate your thermometer. A quick note: Some thermometers out there do not allow you to calibrate them. Throw them away and buy a nice one from the list I posted yesterday. Calibration should be easy to do, and take no time at all.

Your turn

When was the last time you calibrated your thermometer? Let me know in the comments.

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