Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The End of a Day in the Life of a Professional Cook

...Continued from Previous Post.

Not all Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City open their doors for dinner at 5 pm. What this means however is that on a busy Saturday night, I'll be constantly on the move for seven hours straight--chopping, sautéing, seasoning, tasting, and getting hundreds of plates in and out of the oven. On a busy Saturday night like tonight, that is.

That inner voice of mine speaks to me again. "Pace yourself Thomas, and keep your cool." That's critical to stay energized throughout the night.

As the orders start pouring in, the kitchen turns into an anthill of organized chaos, vividly resembling the inner workings of a well-oiled machine. Any loose ends or worn out pieces in this elaborate jigsaw puzzle will only render the finished product noticeably incomplete.

"Order, fire, pick up two market salad, one gazpacho, two salmon tartar, two beef carpaccio. On hold, three filet, two white tuna, one duck, one red snapper. Let's go!" "OUI, CHEF!" "New order. Pick up one bouillabaisse, two salmon, one lobster, two pappardelle. That's a direct order. I want that on the fly!" "OUI, CHEF!" "Order, fire, pick up one beet salad, one market salad! On hold, one roasted pumpkin ravioli, one spaghetti aglio olio. Busy now!" "OUI, CHEF" "Order, fire, pick up two lobster bisque, one veg. terrine, one smoked salmon..."

Chef's scruffy voice swallows the entire room; his commands are strong, clear, and efficient in discharge. His jargon is tailored to minimize chances of miscommunication and wrongly executed orders which could throw the entire kitchen into turmoil. The cooks always respond in amazingly coordinated unison and the energy in the room gets upped tenfold with every spontaneous "Oui, Chef!”

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Professional Cook Continues...

...Continued from previous post.

First things first. I quickly whip up a timeline. Like any good cook who has worked long enough in restaurant kitchens, I know that spending a few minutes getting organized and planning out the work will save me an eternity of chaos and disarray. Besides, knowing that I know what needs to be done and when also puts me at ease. The last thing I want to do is run around the kitchen like a headless chicken at crunch time.

A prep list is also quickly conjured up. Although it seems incredibly long, that feeling of being able to tick tasks off as they are completed is almost therapeutic.

Now onto the work itself. I start with the things that take the longest to get done. This seems obvious enough but if I pay no heed to this simple principle, it will bite me in the ass later.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Professional Line Cook


Shit! It's 9:30 a.m. and I have just about half an hour to make it to work. Mustering up the little energy I have left after last night's rush, I convince myself to get out of bed. However, the task of waking up is only half complete; my mind is still predominantly asleep. A hot cup of coffee can do wonders for a sleepy soul and I quickly brew myself one. Off into the loo I go, grabbing the morning paper on the way.

This has become something of a ritual over the years as it must be for millions of people all over the world, I presume. Any deviation to this plan--say, if I run out of milk or the newspaper isn't delivered on time--and my day suddenly feels like it's been turned upside down.

It's winter in New York City and painfully cold at that. I slip into my only piece of warm clothing, a thick black leather jacket, and step outside. The restaurant is only six blocks away, a brisk ten minute walk, but I have only 12 minutes to get my butt inside the kitchen in full uniform. So I haul a cab and go the expensive route, which has lately become something of a habit that I'm not very proud of.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ten Ingredients I Couldn't Live Without

Picture Tom Hanks in the movie 'Castaway' except I, Tom Zac, play the lead, and it's real life.

It is highly unlikely that I'd be stranded on a deserted island in my short lifetime. Considering the irratic climatic changes and economic hurdles that plague the world today, the chances of drastic food shortage in the near future appear to be much greater. But let's imagine that I do get marooned somehow.

I'm a lot fatter than Tom was at the start of the movie but I hopefully will go through the same weight loss program he did. I wake up not remembering how I got washed ashore this rather strange looking land. All I know is that I'm alone, I see no signs of civilization anywhere around, and my iPhone doesn't work. Uh oh.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Here's a Tip

You're dining at that fancy restaurant you've been dying to visit for months. The meal is fabulous and that time at the end of the meal is upon you, that dreaded time when your waiter places the black folder where your plate once sat.

Inside lies the bill for everything you've consumed so abashedly. The total is higher than you expected it to be (strangely enough, it almost always is) and you instantly scan it for monetary errors, or the thieving work of a cunning, money-hungry waiter; you fail to find either. Instead you notice, in fine print at the bottom, the 10 % service charge levied to you as restaurant policy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Restaurant Review: Justice to Italian Cuisine Unserved

Memorable dining experiences, whether good or bad, are what trigger fervent reactions that become fodder for restaurant reviews that are worth a read. 

Unfortunately, the meal I set out to critique at Via Milano, touted to be one of Bangalore's best restaurants, was mediocre at best. I've been moping over it ever since I dined there two months ago. Nevertheless, a considerably sized hole burnt in my wallet and my idealistic virtues as an aspiring professional food writer have led me to finish writing this piece anyhow.

Bread and accompaniments served at the start of the meal
The restaurant opened its doors in April 2007 with Chef Paolo Nonino at the helm. It has been at the receiving end of a lot of praise, most notably and recently that of the Times Food Award for the best standalone Italian restaurant in the city. (The award itself is a little deceiving considering the fact that there are only a few restaurants in the same category and of comparable caliber.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rice and Shine

Practically every culture has a quintessential rice dish staple to the area, one that is a complete meal in itself satiating every aspect of the palate and offering a certain sense of roundedness that perhaps few other starch-based dishes provide.

There's paella from Spain, risotto from Italy, nasi goreng  from Indonesia, bibimbaap from Korea, and jambalaya from Louisiana in the United States to name a few. But most of these are quite region specific. Perhaps the most widely consumed rice preparation in the world with maybe a few subtle variations across borders is the biriyani (pronounced be-ree-a-nee) - a dish made with rice and a kurma (mixture of meat, seafood, or vegetables cooked with spices and yogurt in a thick sauce) arranged in layers, mixed together, or sometimes even cooked together.

The exact origins of biriyani in Persia several centuries ago are shrouded in myths and masala. Perhaps the nomads dug  pits in the ground and placed covered pots with rice, meat, and spices in the morning only to find delicious aromas seeping out by evening. The dish was later brought to other parts of south Asia by travelling Iranian merchants. It found its way to Northern India via Afghanistan  and has since spread all over the country and evolved into distinct recipes in every nook and cranny. As one could expect, each region swears by the superiority of their version. But seriously, mine's pretty darn good!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Critiquing the Food Critic

Now that I've resolved to writing restaurant reviews during the little time I have away from working in the kitchen, it is quite fitting that I dedicate a post explaining how professional food critics formulate them.  I've also outlined my own reviewing style here so that readers can decide how to judge my own assessments of restaurants I decide to write about.

First Time's a Charm

Most professional critics visit restaurants several times before compiling their reviews, and they are able to do so because the publication they work for takes care of the bill. Unfortunately for me, I work solo. So I literally cannot afford multiple visits especially when it's an expensive restaurant I decide to review. This may work for or against the restaurant's favor based on which dishes I choose to order. 

Me Me Me

Reviews are written so that readers can make better choices in selecting which restaurants to spend their hard earned money at. Yet, the irony in this is that the articles will always be rooted in the reviewer’s own opinion and based on his specific experiences only. It is impossible to separate the element of subjectivity from a review or the critic from the critique. You have to simply trust him based on his authority and the quality of his previous work.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Salty Paradox

If you're someone who actively endeavors to scope out the best of eats wherever you go like I do, you would often come across near perfect plates of food that transform your existing notions of gastronomic grandeur. Whether it’s an amazing burger or a slurpy good bowl of Ramen, what makes a dish great is usually a delicate balance of flavors, textures, and tastes that work in synergy to produce a wonderful end result.

Every once in a while, there also happens to be a certain secret ingredient that makes a noticeable difference in the way a dish tastes--one that is hard to identify unless revealed.

Whether it is jaggery in a wholesome sambar, nutmeg in creamed spinach, or even cayenne pepper in a smoky delicious brownie, secret ingredients offer completeness to dishes that would otherwise be mediocre in comparison. Most such ingredients today are in fact not very obscured in secrecy. I believe the internet, mass media, and globalization are to blame.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Restaurant Review: Nando's

How many ways can you cook, flavor, and serve chicken? It seems that at Nando's, there might be just one: flame-grilled (or so they claim) in various forms and doused in subtle variations of their signature Peri-Peri sauce.

Armed with an intent to try out new restaurants in Bangalore, a friend and I ventured to the newly opened Nando's restaurant on Church street.

Anyone  who has spent more than a few days in Bangalore would agree that Church Street and the adjacent Brigade Road are probably the hardest places in the city to get space to park your car. Thanks to my excellent American-style reverse parallel parking skills, I managed to squeeze into a tight spot quite a distance from Nando's.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My Food Resolutions for 2011

Mostly everyone thinks and talks about the food they are or are not eating but as a professional cook, food pretty much rules most of my life. So I've decided to make some food resolutions for the new year.

1. Save Money
I've been spending way too much money on irrelevant things like cell phone bills, toileteries, clothes, and gadgets. I should really save a significant amount of money from my little paycheck every month and spend it on eating out at good restaurants and pampering myself with new kitchen tools. I must.

2. Quit Smoking
I know I've been saying this for quite some time but I swear I'm going to quit smoking all my foods this year. Of course, if there's an occasional barbecue party, I will passively have to oblige. It is only natural.