Thursday, October 29, 2009

The grass is always greener on the other side of the kitchen...

So this week, believe it or not, I am back with Monday. Because he doesn't run a primary kitchen team (meat or fish or firsts or desserts or etc.), he depends on the charity of other teams to operate. So every week goes the game of Russian roulette that decides who will be the lucky 2-4 people that get to spend quality time with Mr. Personality. It's been 5 weeks since I last had the privilege, so this week, my number was up.

The thing is, now I am having a hard time figuring out which spot I prefer. In all honesty, I would prefer neither; I would prefer any other team in the kitchen to Monday or Sany, but between the two, choosing my favored has become a conundrum. Yes, Sany is coarse, annoying, unpleasant to look at, and generally free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever; but by now I have learned how to stay off her radar, get my shit done, and make it to closing with minimal unpleasantness. Even whilst being berated I can go through the day pretty much unscathed, thanks to the Sany-shield I have built up. So when I'm on her team, I know what I have to do, I know the routines, I like the other people on my team, and the days, even the busy ones, are more or less gravy.

Monday's team, on the other hand, involves random tasks that change daily depending on what needs to get done. There's no wedding this week so we don't have to prep for that, which means there is even more time to fill. This is bad in the sense that sometimes the days streeeeeeetttttcccccchhhhh ooooooouuuuuttttt, but good in the sense that tasks change frequently enough to keep it interesting. It sucks not being part of the real kitchen, but at least I don't want for variety: in the last 48 hours I have eviscerated 2 types of bird (interesting enough), chopped half a dozen different vegetables to half a dozen different specifications (eh), hauled boxes and machinery (ugh), cooked for family meals (at least it's cooking), bagged bread (zzz), done random landscaping (that sucked), peeled a buttload of carrots & potatoes (that really sucked), and, best of all, helped finish the leftover booze in storage (that part was, obviously, fun). It sucks being the team that's the go-to for bitch work, but at least it only lasts a week. Plus, now that I'm not so new, Monday doesn't go out of his way to be an asshole (though it comes pretty naturally most of the time).

So where would I rather be? Believe it or not, I still vote Sany's team; I like being part of the machine and I like knowing the territory. But for now, I'll try to appreciate the variety, and I definitely dig the fact that we roll in at 9 and get 2+ hours for siesta every day guaranteed. And it's just over 3 days till I hop on a plane for Barcelona and see Julia... HOLLA!

For now, I'll keep grindin' on the Monday train... NOW FUCK OFF!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whirlwind weekend in Asturias

So I am sitting here outside El Bar Cazador (The Hunter´s Bar), with a glass of wine, winding down on what has been possibly my best weekend so far.

I have to admit, I was initially hesitant to accept Gabi's invitation to come to his hometown for the weekend. With the weeks being as hectic as they are, downtime and rest on the weekends are a very important part of my life. And coming to a place 4 hours away, where I knew I would be alone the majority of the time (Gabi works at the bar, owned by his family, all weekend), arriving home in the wee hours of the morning before another long work week, was daunting. But like I said in my last post, adventures abroad are not to be turned down. And HOLY SHIT, was I ever rewarded by the limb out onto which I ventured...

We arrived Sunday nite around 10:30... I spent the 4 hour drive passed out in the back seat, soooo nice to catch some much needed Z's! Our first stop was the bar, where there were 2 pizzas waiting for us!!! We each housed an entire pie to ourselves: super thin, super crispy dough and crust, not too much cheese, bacon, mushrooms, pineapple... all in all, really good! Complemented by a glass of wine (on the house of course) while we watched the Spainsh equivalent of Sportscenter for soccer; I couldn't have been happier. Then to a friend's bar for a quick beer, then back to Gabi's apartment where I slept for 12 GLORIOUS HOURS; in a real bed, where I could starfish to my heart's desire. ¡Gracias a dios!

Woke up at noon on Monday and Gabi took me to the state's capital, Oviedo. We started with a drive up the mountain outside town to scope out the standard giant stone Jesus that seems to exist in every Spanish city on the map. Snapped photos on the way down of some 2,000 year old Roman churches, and then he left me in Oviedo while he went to work. I ate a solid meal at a reccomended Sidria: this is a cider house, one of the things Asturias is famous for. Sidra (cider) is like their official state drink and you only drink it one slug at a time, first poured by extending the bottle high over your head and holding the glass as low as possible. From what I understood, this opens up the cider in the same way a decantur opens up wine... gives it oxygen, some bubbles, etc. You spill every time you do it but I was told it is the ONLY way to drink sidra, no exceptions. I actually got the hang of it pretty quickly, and it makes drinking that much more enetertaining!

After lunch I cruised to el Parque de San Francisco (really!), where you can find more than 1,000 species of trees. I read there for a while, people-watched, then made my way into the old town. Saw incredible buildings, cathedrals, wish you were here, etc. Then bought a phone and after 3 separate returns to the store, figured out how to make international calls correctly. Spoke to my mom, and Julia, who is fresh off the plane in San Miniato, and despite a few hiccups, kicking ass like I knew she would. Cruised the town a little more as dusk turned to night, found a pinche bar (tapas etc.), enjoyed some yummy bites and a glass of wine, then hopped on the train back to Gabi's town. A beer at the bar, then to his buddy's place to play with new PUPPIES! They were, of course, friggin' adorable. Then back to the apartment for another great night of sleep: another solid 12 hours! I hesitate to say this may have been one of the highlights of the trip!

Woke around 1pm, and it was off to the mountians. We entered Los Montes Cantabricos, the major mountain range in this part of the country. We ascended to the highest peak in the state by Land Rover, foot, pickup, and foot, respectively. At the top is the local ski resort (closed until the season starts, obviously) where Gabi had friends working, so we wandered around for a bit, rendered breathless by the altitude and views alike. Fotos galore! Then on our way down, we ran into his brother-in-law (yes, it seems that everywhere we went he had familiars), who was crusing on an ATV. I hopped on the back and descended the entire route at 40 mph, hanging on for dear life and loving every second of it. I have to admit, it was, in a word, badass.

After the mountians it was north across the state. Our route was through another part of the mountians, scoping out beautiful landscapes and tiny pueblos along the way, beautiful beautiful. We eventually arrived at a few different parts of the northern coast, and to my continued disbelief, every stop yielded sights more beautiful than the ones before. We ended at some starkly impressive cliffs, enjoying sunset at a point so high that looking out to the sea felt like we could see the end of the world. My jaw dropped so many times I think I left it somewhere amidst the cliffs. Finally it was back to the bar, which brings me to the present moment. Gabi is tending bar inside, providing me with on-the-house drinks before I can ask for them. The nice buzz I have accquired will be the perfect setup for spending the drive back to Lasarte in peaceful sleep. I can't remember the last time I saw and did so much in such a short amount of time, and being able to spend a few hours here blogging, catching up on emails, and just enjoying the downtime couldn't be a better cap on the weekend.

So like I said, this trip has been just way too amazing. A beautiful, off-the-tourist-beaten-path European city, more sleep than I could justifiably ask for, free drinks all weekend, mountains, landscapes galore, beautiful coasts... could I possibly ask for anything more? And best of all, I really feel vindicated in my ability to cut it in a city, state, country with a language not my own, often rolling by myself, finding train stations and bars without problem, et al. I dare say I am nearly Spanish. Well, not really, but I am far from a clueless tourist, that's for sure.

I don't have my computer here so you'll have to wait for the link to pics (of which there are MANY), but check back in a day or 2 and they will be here. Until then, thanks for reading... if you made it this far in such a torrent of bloggage. Time for some more pizza and then, salimos. Vale.

OK kids, pics are up; sorry for the delay, facebook sucks sometimes...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I asked, and I recieved.

Okay so I know I posted like 8 hours ago, but we just finished the dinner shift and I felt that within the context of today's previous post, this was necessary.

I wanted less fennel and more action, and I GOT IT. We had a table of 40 tonite; and when the plates require what ours do and the entire table is doing the tasting menu, it means that once the guests arrive and the plating begins, it doesn't stop until dessert is out the door. So things were poppin'. Plates were being passed like hot potatoes, people were hopping over tables, sauces swirled, microgreens placed lightning quick but with the utmost care, waiters flowing constantly like a stream of spawning salmon. It was fuuuuuun.

Best of all, hands were needed everywhere, so I finally got a chance to jump in. I can't say I was the cornerstone of the operation, but at least I was able to get my hands dirty, just like I wanted. Plating everything meant a closer look at all the different dishes, and really starting to learn some more. Plus, it was the first time we were really under pressure since I've been there, and I was loving it. And no fennel in sight.

I also witnessed something that gave me some food for thought. We all know that Sany is constantly berating us, degrading us, calling us useless, idiots, etc. But it's so constant that it gets easy to tune out. Well the guy who runs the pasteleria (desserts), Juan, has always seemed to me like the nicest guy ever. He's always joking with his team, very polite, helpful, sings to himself, etc. Well tonite his team was short 4 desserts when they were plating, which meant they had to take an extra 15 minutes to prep and plate them. Juan LOST IT. He started just going off on his team, screaming, turning red, all but foaming at the mouth. For like, 15 minutes. Without pause.

So it got me thinking. What's better or worse? To have the constant negativity that gets easy to tune out, even though it kinda sucks all the time? Or to have the rosier cozier everyday with that freakout meltdown just waiting to happen... because it will always at happen at some point: people mess up because they're human. I'll leave you with that as I head to bed.

Buenas noches.

Rain, rain, go away... And take the fennel with you!

It came down BUCKETS here today. Most rain I've seen in at least a year. So of course, there had to be an entire crapload of boxes to break down and walk down the block to the recycling. In the torrential downpour. And get who got asked to do it? Booya!

Then we were smack dab in the middle of the slowest lunch shift EVER, with the combination of a party of 35 coming tonite and a party of 55 coming for lunch tomorrow, which meant that to prep, we had to cut more fennel than I have ever seen in my life. I don't know if you remember my description of this fennel cutting process from one of my earlier posts, but suffice it to say it is painstaking, meticulous, tedious... not super fun. Rain like whoah, nothing to do but cut fennel, the knowledge of a crazy dinner shift looming: call it the perfect storm. Pun intended.

And I have to say, when I imagined what my externship would be, I did not expect it to involve hours of vegetable cutting, a la prep cook. I remember almost every chef at school telling us that the whole reason we were in Culinary School was so that we would have that leg up and be able to start out on the line, or at least close to it. Then again, I suppose this is what I get for choosing a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars as my externship, so I ought not complain. And despite the fact that I hate fennel right now, I know things could be far, far worse, and I do feel very blessed to have this opportunity at all. Just wanted to be clear that this isn't another venting email, just felt like sharing my semi-lame day in case anyone out there felt like commiserating.

Anyway, the clock is about to strike 6, which means siesta esta terminado, y es la hora de trabajo. I'm off to a place called Asturias this weekend; it's about 4 hours west by car, and I am tagging along with a friend from the restaurant who is going home (he lives and works there on the weekends). I have never heard of this place, but hew claims it's one of the greatest and most beautiful spots in Northern Spain slash Basque country, and it's a free ride with a free place to stay, so who am I to say no to an adventure? He has to work all weekend so I will be exploring the city by myself, which I always enjoy. Hopefully come next week I will have some amazing things to talk about. Or at the very least, some amazing meals. Till then, ADIOS!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Daytrip to Bilbao

So yesterday was a hell of a great day. Took the bus to Bilbao with Jay, a dude from SoCal who works in the kitchen with me. We intended to see the Guggenheim, but discovered to our dismay that it is closed Mondays! Bad luck, but oh well. Instead we just spent the day cruising around the city, which was, at least, rife with enough interesting architecture and art to fill the day. Plus we found a dope spot for tapas and ate well: seared foie, croquettes (w lemon! so good!), chorizo, patatas bravas, glasses of chacoli. Very happy we were able to spot a quality tapas bar despite having just arrived in the city.

We caught the bus back around 730 and took a little nap en route, but when we arrived home, my stomach was not doing so well. I don't know if it was something in the tapas or what, but I walked in the door of my apartment, took off my coat, and promptly threw up. TMI?

I felt immediately better, and was further ameliorated by the glass of champagne served to me by one of my roommates. The bubbles took care of the last bit of stomach discomfort, and due to the aforementioned expulsion of all my stomach's contents, I was now hungry... and I was in LUCK! My roommates were in the process of preparing a 4 course meal for us...

We started with seared foie gras over toasted baguette with caramelized apple and a balsamic-pear reduction. So incredible, the foie cooked perfectly by Chef Vaughn. Next came ravioli, inspired by Igor's previous stage at a restaurant in Florence. They were double stuffed, so instead of one pocket, each ravioli had two! The fillings were a mushroom duxelle with mint and a Camembert-Brie blend with apricot. All this and when he was making the pasta from scratch he had to use a wine bottle to roll it out! After ravioli was ricotta gnocchi in a Roquefort cream sauce with some of the best blood sausage I have ever tasted in my life. Incredible, and garnished with green apples that helped cut the heaviness of the sauce. Perfection. Last was simple but sensational: mussels and frites with a bernaise sauce to dip, accompanied by a bottle of Cava. The combination of the mussels and the Cava couldn't have been better, and the bernaise went really nicely with the fries. All in all, a fantastic meal!

The party then proceeded to the bar for a couple games of pool and eventually back to the apartment into the wee hours of the morning for many bottles of wine and stupid games of stacking wine glasses and beer bottles into towers on the coffee table. And at some point in the night Vaughn won 40 Euro when he bet on me in an arm wrestling match against another roommate. Who knew?!

I managed to wake up around 2pm today for a run and then a haircut, and as the weekend winds down I have another skype date with a certain beautiful, blue-eyed babe in a couple hours. 3 weeks down, 7 to go. I am actually not dreading work tomorrow forb the most part, as long as I can get a good night's sleep tonite.

By the way, here's the link to photos for anyone not on facebook:

I think I'm going to be including a link like this any time I create a new facebook album, if for no other reason than that you guys can see pics of the FOOD! That's all for now, see you guys next post; same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


So things have gone from good to better, and I have kicked some serious ass this weekend.

We had another wedding yesterday, so that meant basically no break, again. Not even enough time to go home this time, so a few of us spent it on the back steps of the restaurant. Nevertheless, dinner rush arrived, and it was one of the busiest since I've been here. At the beginning of the shift, Sany calls me over and tells me, "I'm putting you in charge of the oyster dish tonight. Do a good job, and if you make even a single mistake, I'm pulling you off and putting you back on salads." No pressure, right? This is the dish that, last week, I applied about a thimble too much of sauce, and was called and idiot and sent back to salads. Salads means I spend my time placing individual microgreens and flower petals, whereas oysters involves plating a la minute and being in charge of a dish by myself; more responsibility, less mundane minutia, etc. In short: Oysters, good; salad, bad.

So with a steady hand a heightened pulse, I took the reins of oysters. And I knocked the shit out of the PARK. Granted, we're not talking about a dish that requires much culinary skill: drop an oyster on the plate, apply some sauce, gelee, garnish. But the point is that I was able to do it so flawlessly that even Sany had to give me kudos at the end of the nite. As you may have gathered at this point, Sany's standards leave no room for error. None. So to pass in her eyes means you did it perfectly. I was even able to follow the soccer game being played on the flatscreen in the main part of the kitchen and still be on top of my game. Service went off like French butter and we were out of there before 1 am.

Today was no different: she kept me on oysters and I kept on top of my game. She even gave me a shout out during our team huddle at closing, using me as an example of someone who has come a long way and grown a lot in the last week. Gravy, right? And my Spanish has gotten good enough that I can finally be funny in the kitchen! My linguistics have caught up with my wit, so that the clever quips and one liners that have previously gotten tangled up between my head and my mouth are now actually making Sany LAUGH! Good gracious, who knew? So I think I have officially gotten my footing here at the restaurant, and while I still have plenty I can learn, I am no longer the bitch, the fish, the green-as-grass, wet-behind-the-ears new guy.

In part, this is true because there's a new New Guy. Igor arrived Thursday and he was added to our apartment. I know what you're thinking, but he's not some hunchbacked, lazy-eyed, lab coat clad halfling; he's actually Brazilian and arrived here after fresh off a stage at 3 Michelin star restaurant in Florence. Chill dude and a nice addition to the apartment and restaurant alike... and he has officially taken my position at the bottom of the ladder as far as Sany is concerned. I feel bad for the guy, because I see him going through exactly the same things I did when I arrived. Sany lays into him left and right and breaks him down the same way she did me. And being at this point now, I can look back with 20/20 hindsight and I try to make him see that it will get better, but just like I didn't believe the others, he doesn't believe me. C'est la vie; he's just gonna have to tough it out.

All in all, I am pretty pleased with myself. I was given more lemons than even the folks at Minute Maid could handle, and I think I made some pretty damn good lemonade. And if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. Wait, no, that's New York... well, you know what I mean. Now it's the weekend, my roommate is making duck tonite, and it's off to Bilabo tomorrow to see the Guggenheim and find some serious tapas. And, just 2 weeks till I see Julia in Barcelona. I dare say, life is good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Today was a good day.

So things are really movin' now at the restaurant... it's bedtime for me so I'ma keep this brief, but I felt it necessary to report on two key happenings today in the kitchen that has become my life.

First off, the gelpads I bought over the weekend are possibly the best purchase I have ever made in my life. I cannot even begin to describe the difference they have made in my day-to-day. Considering the fact that I spend roughly 16 hours on my feet every day, not being in incredible pain is something of a plus. Everything is so much more tolerable: the hours, the work, the rush... nothing is really that bad now that I am not wincing in pain with every step. Even Sany!

Which brings me to happening number 2: Sany smiled at me today! TWICE!!! I had to do a double take, I almost couldn't believe it. And she addressed me like a normal human being, which made me sure I was hearing things; cordial comments about the weather? Inquiring as to where I'm from? Good lord, I think I think the thermometer in hell just reached 32.

The most ironic part is that the first part of the day was one of the hardest I've experienced here. I left in shambles, dogged and seething... poor Julia even had to be on the receiving end of a venting rant in email form. (Sorry lamburger.) Somehow, I was able to collect myself over a cafe con leche and return refreshed, ready to be positive again. (Thanks Mom.) Well, positivity begets positivity, I'll be god damned. Sany was in a great mood for some reason and service was relatively slow, so despite being shorthanded, our team cruised all night, and I received the aforementioned cordialities!

So has it all been an act? Was she just breaking me down to mold me into her little soldier? Is it smooth sailing and rosy cozy posies from here on out? Not likely, since she was her usual pushy, anal, get-on-everyone's-ass self as soon as we started cleanup. But hey, so shines a ray of sun through the clouds. That, in itself, was enough to push me through to the weekend, which barring complications should include a trip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim with Jay from SoCal. Stay tuned...

By the way, thanks for all the encouragement on this blog from friends and family alike via email, facebook, etc. Like I mentioned before, posting here and knowing y'all are reading back home is comforting; I feel the connection and it makes everything easier. So feel free to comment here in the blog (I think I changed the settings so that you can comment without being a member), or stick to other media. Either way, keep keeping in touch.

Okay, bedtime. In the words of someone I know: "NOW FUCK OFF!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Upping the ante in SanSe

Another thankfully phenomenal weekend, to erase the previous week and recharge me for the coming one, was had in San Sebastian...

I got some recomendations for tapas places to check out (sorry, Sasha, I couldn't find yours, maybe next time don't give me directions like a pirate treasure map). My hotel was in the Old Town ("La Parte Vieja"), so I decided to try the place in that area: El Fuego Negro. What followed was one of the best meals I have ever had. For the real play-by-play, here is the link for the album that contains photos and course descriptions:

I highly recommend checking it out. 11 courses, 3 glasses of the best wine I've ever tasted (or at least, my favorite), very small place, decorated with badass art, chill vibe, high-end gourmet Basque food in a hip, relaxed atmosphere. The food aspired to the heights of gastronomy in every sense: presentation, originality, taste, flavors, textures, use of local ingredients, freshness, technique... and nowhere did it fall short.

After dinner, some more strolling around the city, a short nap, then a walk around the bay that took me from sun-high-in-the-sky to twilight. Every breath of sea air was savored, and to feel the sand beneath my feet was, in the context of my current day-to-day, perfection. Got to skype with the folks (love you guys!), then read for a little while in a bar next to my hotel with a glass of rioja and some more tapas: goat cheese on baguette w jam, baguette w roasted green pepper, iberian ham, and anchovy fillets (Yes, Julia! Anchovies! And I loved them!), savory chicken wings, all yummy. And best of all, this was just a small sample of the stuff placed out along the bar. I LOVE IT!

And then.... I got to go to sleep in a real sized bed! In my own room! With my own bathroom! King in the castle, king in the castle...

I woke around 11, ate breakfast on the terrace of a nearby cafe (slice of toast w/ marmalade & cafe con leche), then ran some errands; most notable of which included some intense gel-pads to line my shoes. Cross your fingers, if they can make my feet feel even 50% better I will be overjoyed. The rest of my day has been uneventful: some house cleaning, laundry, etc. But I have a skype date with Julia in an hour... which makes me happy happy.

3 weeks till my weekend with her in Barcelona, 8 weeks to go in all. "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Overworked, unpaid, and I asked for it all!!! : )

Lemme start this post out by apologizing in advance. I have a feeling that this is going to descend into a little venting at some point, and though I am not a negative person by nature, this blog has taken on the nature of a second journal for me (see my self-diagnoses of need for approval in the previous post), and as such, you all, whoever you are out there, are going to have to bear with me.

This has been, I can say fairly confidently, the most difficult week of my life. Granted, I have not lead a very difficult life, and previous entries into this category are somewhat pedestrian: first week of Middle School, pledging a fraternity, bad breakup with a girlfriend, etc. But this one knocks them out of the fuckin' PARK.

8am to midnite (at the earliest). Every day. 10 to 20 minutes for lunch, 10 to 20 minutes for dinner. And by this I mean, when we were given 10 minutes for dinner last nite and I was 1 minute late, I was punished with extra cleaning. We are supposed to get a 1 to 2 hour siesta, but my team is lead by Sany (ah, Sany...hold that thought), and Sany doesn't give a shit about us, so sometimes our siesta is only 45 minutes. Yesterday we had a wedding that ran late, so my 'siesta' consisted of walking back to my apartment, using the bathroom, and returning to the restaurant. And we finished at 1:30. am. YEAH.

And best of all, we are lead by the worse-than-Monday Sany. I mentioned her a little bit in my last post, but really she deserves oh so much more! Sany, I discovered, only looks like she's in her fifties. She's actually like 34, I think. She has a mousy overbite and a perma-scowl. She lives in the basement of the restaurant, no joke. I mean, there are like 8 other people who live in the basement, but they are doing so temporarily while they stage. 3 months, 6 months, etc. Sany lives there, like, thats her home. And from what I heard, she pretty much locks herself in her room on the weekends. So you do the math: looks like a mouse/rat, 16 hour days, no life outside work... on a scale of 1 to 10, how miserable would you be?

And boy, does misery ever love company! I have been doing a behavioral experiment of sorts, and I have discovered that the more miserable I (and my team) appear to be, the happier Sany acts. On the other hand, when we are jovial, when we laugh, when we converse with one another, Sany's temper is even shorter than usual, she barks orders that much more sharply, is that much less satisfied by our work. So herein lies the rub, right? Do I try to be/look miserable so that she cuts me some slack and therefore makes me a little less miserable? Or do I try to stay positive and keep myself motivated and upbeat, despite the fact that it will, in the end, bring on more potential misery? Conundrum!

I have a feeling that the latter will prevail; I have asked and observed around the restaurant and found that Sany is shitty to everybody except those above her, whose asses she kisses like they were made of chapstick. So if she's always gonna be awful, what's the point in trying to make her a little tiny bit less awful? Like I always say: if you're gonna get wet, you might as well go swimming. BRING IT ON, SANY.

That all being said (see, I knew I needed to vent), I am looking forward to the weekend! It's back to SanSe, and with a couple of recomendations for restaurants with some of the best tapas in Spain. I cannot WAIT to have a bedroom to myself, a full size bed to sleep in like a starfish, and a beautiful city to wake up to. My feet have been hurting so much that at nite they prevent me from falling asleep, so I also plan on picking up some gelpads, thank GOD. Good food, a city to explore, and no work for 2 days... hells yeah. And 3 weeks till I see Julia in Barcelona. That is what gets me through each and every day, fer sher.

I miss SF, Dtown, and all you guys. Nothin' but love from this corner of the planet, and if you get the itch to come visit, don't hesitate! If not, see you stateside...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Age & Enlightenment (and fennel)

So this morning I got chewed out, for sure. But it was a good thing... or at least, I took something good from it.

This week I am on the 'Primeros Platos' team. Sidebar: I don't know why it's called this, as the dishes that we prepare and plate do not come first in any way. They're not served first, they're not first on the menu... weird, right? No one can give me a good answer as to why they are called 'primeros.' I'd say it's closer to Garde Manger than anything else. But I digress... The team is led by a woman named Sany; five-foot-nothing, in her mid-fifties (I estimate), and a drama queen who seems to have some medical incapability of expressing joy. She's not as bad as Monday, but a close second, and is infamous as such.

Today when we were cleaning the kitchen at the end of the lunch shift, I was mopping, and Christian, another cook, asked if he could see the mop I was using. Taking him literally, I handed it over, expecting it to be returned almost immediately (I figured he had spilled something and just needed it for a hot second). To my surprise, he walked off with it and began to mop another section of the kitchen. I called after him, but amidst the kitchen din, he didn't hear me, and for about 2.4 seconds, I stood there, dumbfounded, with my proverbial thumb up my proverbial ass. In strict accordance with Murphy's law, that's when Sany happened to look over at me (I have learned that in the kitchen, Murphy's law is in decree at all times).

She flipped out at me: "Why do you just stand there while everyone else cleans?! What's wrong with you?! Are you some kind of idiot?" There was more, but the Spanish got too fast for me. I'm sure it was something nice. Anyway, as I made haste for the place we keep the mops, hoping to find another, I attempted to blurt out an explanation (blurting, when slightly panicked, in Spanish, is tough), that I was neither 'just standing there,' nor an idiot. That was a mistake. Sany thought I was giving her lip and her eyes got even wider. Moreover, one of the other kitchen bosses, Felipe, was standing nearby, heard the end of it go down, and though Sany already had her foot up my ass, he managed to cram his in there as well. All I could do was nod, eyes down, and repeat, "Oido... Oido... Oido..." ('Oido' literally means 'heard,' but it's the all-purpose word in the Spanish kitchen for 'yes sir/ma'am,' 'i understand,' 'will do,' 'the order will be ready asap,' etc.)

As much as this was a less than pleasant experience, it was quickly moved past. When we were finished cleaning, I found Sany and explained that I had meant no disrespect; she said she understood but that regardless, when she tells me to do something, I can hold the commentary and just do it. Oido.

Moreover, Felipe came and found me before I left and told me everything was cool, he just had to get Sany's back; he explained that she's the boss of me, and regardless of the circumstances, no matter what she asks, I need to do it and do it fast. Oido. He also mentioned that she's almost sixty years old, and for this, she deserves my utmost respect. And herein lies the takeaway for me. This ain't the USA; kitchen hierarchy aside (in which I presently rank somewhere between used fryer oil and mop buckets), this is a different culture than I'm used to. Age means a lot as far as respect earned. And as much as I may dislike it, there's little I can do about it. Plus, it was all just a big reinforcement of the fact that I am a lowly, temporary peon, and a green one at that, with very little experience in this industry; this is only the beginning of the licks in store for me, fer sher.

As I pondered all this on my walk home, I also came to the realization that I am wired differently than the kitchen demands. My whole life, I have always been a seeker of approval when it comes to jobs, school, work, whatever. I tend to find motivation in seeing that my superiors are pleased with my work, and lose it when I instead see disinterest. Moreover, I've been fortunate enough to have most of my superiors act in accordance with this, ingraining it even more deeply in my persona. But it's time to learn that there are gonna be plenty of people out there who simply don't give a shit. And no matter how well I do, they're not going to say 'good job,' and they're not going to grant me that approval; what's more, these people are going to be doubly pissed if I give anything less than my best. So though I am no doubt learning it later in life than most, this is a great experience for me to learn to build my ability to self-motivate, despite the reactions, or lack thereof, of my superiors. I just need to keep a poker face and get it done.

Though you are probably sick of reading by now (I'm almost sick of typing), my goal has been to mention food in every post, and I'm familiar enough now with the dishes my team is in charge of. Foodies, keep reading...

The first is a fennel 'risotto,' which I've heard is one of the best dishes on the menu. We filet the fennel bulbs (which is as hard as you might imagine) to super thin, then cut them into UNIFORM pieces roughly the size of Arborio rice. Can you say, tedious? These are parcooked in olive oil, then added to a fennel-cream sauce: this is the 'risotto.' It's topped with a nest of translucently thin fennel and a ring of fennel foam, garnished with 4 sprouts of micro-greens.

The second is a BOMB oyster dish: A bowl starts with an aspic, flavored with arugula and another similar green I'd never tasted before that has a citric aftertaste. The aspic is on the bottom, and 2 thin slices of green apple sit along the sides. The raw oyster goes on the aspic, next to it goes a dollop of cream sauce flavored with fennel & lemongrass, and the oyster itself gets a dollop of some gelee (this one is still unknown to me), and it's garnished with black pepper and a single microgreen. I like everything about this dish except the gelee on the oyster: too much similarity in slimy texture for me.

The last one is a ridiculous (I use that word as literally as possible) salad that requires, no joke, about 45 touches before it's sent out. Huge plate, starts with a tomato-water aspic; in the center go 2 slices of avocado, sliced paper thin, rolled into tubes, and stood upright. Into the tubes go a single chive each. Then a ring of frisee around this. Then leaves of arugula and lettuce, placed one at a time, like building a house around the avocado. Then a slice of little onion at either side of the plate. A sprinkling of asparagus brunoise by each onion slice. Then comes the fun part: 4 different microgreens and 6 different colored edible flower petals; there are 4 of everything, and every single green, petal, etc. is placed ONE AT A TIME. That's nearly 30 touches for something that's little more than garnish! After this the plate gets a scoop of tomato meat/seeds (which I think is weird), 2 small pieces of lobster meat, a dressing over the lettuce/avocado house, a squeeze of some green mystery puree, and a quenelle of a crab-lobster-mayo concoction. A mandolin is used to shave a few slices of wild mushroom onto the plate, then 2 asparagus tips get sauteed a la minute and placed meticulously. Finally, 2 manual twists of fresh black pepper. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!

Okay, sorry I went on so long, and to the few of you that made it this far, thanks for reading.

As I reread the paragraph of musings on my own psyche, I realize I may be getting a little deep for a 'This is my trip to Spain' blog, so I apologize if it's TMI. I also want to apologize to my mom for using all the French language, I know she doesn't like it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My new favorite European city...

So yesterday I spent the day in San Sebastian. OH. MY. GOD.

The city has everything you could possibly want. Gorgeous beaches, incredible architecture, abundant shopping, terrific food, beautiful people, culture, history... I am completely enamored; so much so that my plan for the rest of trip is to stay in the cheap hotels I found and spend the entirety of my weekends there. I think I could be there for months and still have more I'd want to do.

My day started off with a nice, long lunch at a cafe next to the Catedral de Buen Pastor (all the pics are on facebook by the way). Had some patatas bravas, a sandwich, a couple of glasses of HEAVENLY sangria. Seriously, it was like drinking nectar. Then walked along the beach, found myself in front of the aquarium, so decided to check that out. Looked at fishies for a couple hours, then walked around the mountain at the northern tip of the city, saw a couple churches, did some window shopping, had a fanta (I love European soda pop!)... made my way to the center of town and watched teenagers practice their breakdancing, had a cafe con leche and wrote in my journal for a while, then found a little spot for dinner. My good friend Megan told me, before I left, that SanSe was her fave spot in Spain. I can see why! And because it's the off-season for tourism, I found a modest hotel for 25 Euro per nite! It will henceforth be my home away from home away from home. Quite a necessary luxury, as I am often battling the challenges of living amongst 9 people...

...Not the least of which is the fact that every single human being in this country smokes cigarettes CONSTANTLY. I guess I've been spoiled by the health-conscious SF lifestyle, because my throat is constantly scratchy and I haven't been able to breathe out of both nostrils simultaneously since I landed in Madrid. However, for the challenges of my living situation, there are benefits as well... after all, I am living among 9 chefs. Last nite when I returned, one of my roommates had prepared a 5 course meal for the house! Shrimp consomme and mushroom ravioli, cod throat (think salmon belly but even better!), risotto, this incredible fish over sauteed leeks topped with thinly sliced fried potato discs (a dish he learned when he worked for Gordon Ramsey at the Savoy in London), and vanilla ice cream with a chocolate/coffee/crushed peanut sauce. No joke, right? And then I get home from a run this morning (by morning I mean 2pm) to plates of Eggs Benedict and sausage. So I guess I have to admit, I am taking the good with the bad out of this situation. That's the way it works, right?

Anyway, it's back to work tomorrow, but the weekend has left me renewed and refreshed. Moreover, the promise of weekend life in SanSe should prove to be motivation for the laborious work week. I start on Primeros Platos (appetizers) tomorrow... wish me luck!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

1 week down, 9 to go...

So I made it through the first week alive. Gravy.

I have been pushed to my limits, for sure, and interestingly enough, I have already fulfilled 1/2 of my required externship hours. Ridiculous, right? If only my feet didn't feel like they were about to fall off. Seriously, the best part of my day is the moment I take my shoes off. Even thinking about it I get giddy and light-headed.

As I sit now overlooking the plaza, sipping Rioja, I can honestly say I am satisfied with myself thus far. I'd be lying if I said there hadn't been hiccups, but the first week is the hardest for sure, and I got through it relatively unscathed. Next week I move to the 'Primeros Platos' team, which means no more Monday, thank God. And it also means less bitch work and more actual food, learning, plating, etc. So I am pretty excited. But it also means longer hours; c'est la vie, right?

Tomorrow I head to San Sebastian! I am wishing my ass off that the weather replicates today's 85 and sunny, because I am bringing my bathing suit. I plan on spending the day there, maybe even the night.

Almost forgot to mention food (as is my goal each time I post in this blog)... Today's lunch at the restaurant was actually pretty incredible: braised beef cheek, asparagus, mushrooms, baguettes, leftover crab from yesterday's wedding, and these little roasted peppers that are like jalapenos but not spicy. Really delicious, I have to admit.

Alright, time to figure out what I'm doing tonite... option A is pass the f**k out and sleep for 15 hours, option B is head out with my roommates and make tonite an even later nite than last nite. Time will tell...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everyone hates Monday...

So I'm here, I'm adjusted, I'm off and running. And I am HAPPY to be as such.

My apartment is pretty much the model of absurdity: 9 people. 3 bedrooms. And best of all: 1 BATHROOM. Uno. That being said, it is quite a fun place to live, despite the sardine-like conditions. 2 Mexicans dudes, girl from Agentina/Miami, guy from New Zealand (who was the exec chef at the Fillmore in SF, coinicidentally!), kid from Portugal who speaks 5 languages (known by most as 'The Professor'), a Spaniard, a Korean, and Kevin from Oklahoma. The partridge and the pear tree arrive next week.

The restaurant is one big ass-kicking, making me realize I really have never done a hard day's work in my life. So for the next 10 weeks I will be making up for lost time. Best of all, the guy telling me what to do as of now is a jet-black Nigerian named Monday (what?!), whose favorite sentence-ender is 'fuck off.' Seriously. King Asshole of the land of assholes. Yesterday he screams at me: "YOU ARE NEW! IF YOU DON'T KNOW SOMETHING, YOU ASK! UNDERSTAND?! NOW FUCK OFF!" Lovely, I know. Then today, I ask him a question about rolling croquetas, and he screams at me: "DON'T ASK ME ANYTHING, EVER! JUST DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO DO!" Sweet.

That being said, he's not hard to figure out. I just work as hard as I can, as fast as I can, and he ignores me. Those are his only 2 settings: Angry at you or Ignoring you. Hmm, I'm going to go with Option B. The really hard part is that he insists no one speak in the kitchen. At all. So when we want to have conversations, we have to be really quiet and then shut up whenever he walks by. Dude makes the Soup Nazi look like Mister Rogers.

Best of all, our work day starts at 9am and goes until around midnight. For reals. There's usually about 20 minutes for lunch at noon (yesterday was tripe, today was beef tongue... can't wait till tomorrow!) and two hours for siesta at 5. At least I can take comfort in the fact that any job I take back in SF can't have hours much longer than this one...

I think I'ma do some exploring in San Sebastian this weekend, stay tuned for that. I now have regular, free wireless at the cafe across the plaza from my apartment and they make a mean cafe con leche (yummy...), so I imagine most of my siestas will be spent here basking in the glow of the internet.

All in all, the adjustment is complete, and while I can't say life is easy or luxurious, it is definitely good. I am happy, albeit usually exhausted, and I can't wait to start exploring Spain, continuing to learn from those around me, and, most importantly, EATING THINGS!!!

Focker, out!