Monday, April 9, 2012


Nobody understands or appreciates a meal in a restaurant quite like industry professionals. We spend all of our time doing everything in our power to ensure that guests enjoy their experiences in our establishments. We work hard. And on the rare occasion that we get to dine out we don't want to be a problem for the staff members of the restaurants we choose to dine at. We've been there, we just want simple, good food, and a few drinks, and to make things as easy as possible for the servers and the kitchen staff.

Last night I went to The Publican in Chicago with my co-worker, Toby, expecting a simple, quiet, delicious meal, some good conversation, and some excellent beer. Toby had never been before, and being a fellow pork-a-phile I wanted to bring him here. What started as a casual dinner quickly transformed into a life-changing experience, and arguably the most memorable meal of my life.

Stephanie, our amazing server, greeted us at the bar and helped us make a few beer selections to start out. The beer menu is HUGE. We asked her what she liked to drink, and she responded "I drink professionally," in a "You can't handle what I drink" tone. We told her we understood and that we were cooks, implying that we are serious drinkers as well. She immediately perked up and made some excellent selections for us.

Then came the time to order. Toby and I are not picky eaters, and as cooks, were on a pretty tight budget. Stephanie could tell that we were just kind of closing our eyes and pointing at a few dishes, due to the fact that everything seemed so good. Most of what we ordered came, and Stephanie cleverly replaced a dish or two with ones that she felt we absolutely had to have. The dishes that we didn't actually order were without a doubt the highlights of the meal. The rilletes with strawberry jam, the shrimp with nettle puree, and the absolutely killer duck breast with currants and peanuts were the stars of a meal in which everything we ate we enjoyed thoroughly.

The exact details of the meal itself are a little fuzzy because Stephanie was absolutely killing the beer pairings!

The shrimp with nettle puree, to die for. I need more shrimp heads in my life. Every time I wiped my face after that dish, the scent of shrimp brains on my napkin brought a shit-eating grin to my face.

I learned more about beer in a casual two hour dinner than I had learned in a six hour beer lecture in culinary school. Stephanie was extremely generous and poured us a taste of anything we had questions about. When she suggested a 20 dollar bottle of barrel aged JW Lees Harvest Ale, to pair with the duck breast, we figured we had to do it. We had learned already that Stephanie knew what she was doing. And she was adamant that we needed this beer. She went into depth explaining the process behind the beer, the makers, etc. The plate of duck had been sitting for several minutes between myself and Toby, but we were so intrigued by the beer and the lesson that we had completely forgotten about it. When Stephanie was finished we looked down at the duck and eagerly dug in. The peanut butter and jelly like combo of the currants and the roasted peanuts was perfect with the beer. And the duck, despite having sat for a long time at the table, still had perfectly crisp skin, was perfectly cooked and flavorful. Without a doubt the best duck I've ever had in my life. And to think we didn't even order it! My life would be incomplete without that duck breast.

A perfect waffle topped with peanut brittle, hot fudge, and maple ice cream was the ideal dessert to end the meal. I was extremely sad when it was time to leave. But walking out the door, both of us felt like kings. We felt like we were part of the Publican family for a few hours, and it was incredible.

We talked about it all the way home. We wanted to thank the whole crew for what they did for us, more-so than buying a six-pack of beer for the kitchen (which we obviously did). The only way that can happen is to repay the favor. If any member of the Publican staff is reading this, please consider it an invitation. If you ever find yourself in Madison, WI, please come to L'Etoile. Tell someone you're from the Publican, and say you know Mikey. I will do my best to properly thank you for giving me one of the most special meals of my life.

One things' for sure though, I'll be back to the Publican, hopefully sooner than later.

Monday, March 19, 2012

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

I haven't written in quite a while. But thats not because there was a shortage of material to write about. The last two months have been unquestionably the most exciting and challenging of my life.

Three months ago, I hadn't cooked fish on more than a dozen occasions. You see, Indiana isn't a hotbed for quality seafood. Tilapia crusted in asiago cheese is about as exciting as fish gets in Indianapolis. And if anyone knows anything about seafood its that tilapia tastes like shit and you never pair cheese with fish. And when I moved to New York to attend culinary school, I was completely unimpressed with the quality of fish we were given to cook with, and most of the fish I had to cook was to be poached in some way. So three months ago when the then fish cook went on paternity leave for a few weeks, and I was given a window to prove myself on entrees, I was understandably quite nervous.

I was promised a rigorous training program on fish. I would spend several days observing, and then slowly take over the station. Day 1, there's a new dish on the menu, I prep the entire station by myself, and then I work the line for a relatively slow weekday service by myself. There was no real training. I was thrown straight into the deep end. But after a few days I was nailing my sears, plates were looking prestine, and complements were coming into the kitchen. We weren't selling a ton of fish, but I was really starting to get the hang of it.

I was extremely lucky that the restaurant made a decision to switch to a new seafood purveyor the day I started on fish. We now buy exclusively from a purveyor that provides fish for some of the best restaurants in the country. Per Se, Le Bernardin, Blue Hill just to name a few. We call in an order, and whatever we order was brought in within 24 hours, and is immediately flown to us on the next available ups flight. The quality of the fish is breathtaking, and the fact that we know all of it was sustainably caught, by respectful fishermen is something that I am very proud of.

Every time I cook a piece of fish I learn a little bit more about it. Every fish behaves differently than the next once it hits the pan. Bar jack is a wonderful fish, and when handled properly, its delicious, but if its overcooked at all, you might as well be eating fishy cardboard. If treated correctly, the skin on a piece of pan seared wreckfish can become almost like a fishy-cracklin. Scallops benefit from a quick, 180 degree rotation right before popping them in the oven just to ensure an even sear. Snapper and italian sausage make an excellent combination. Breaking down a side of sturgeon is almost like cutting ribeyes off of a rib loin. When searing black bass, it will curl up the second it hits the pan. But you can't instantly try and press it, otherwise the skin won't relax and reform to the flesh of the fish. Wait a few seconds, then gently work the fish back against the surface of the hot pan. With a knob of butter and some thyme in the pan just before popping it in the oven, a perfectly cooked, well seared piece of black bass might just be one of the greatest things on Earth.

Before the old fish cook came back I had already been given the station full time. And now, Toby, my old partner on garde manger has joined me on entrees, as the new meat cook. And we're doing big things. There was definitely a learning curve, but two months into our partnership on entrees we're syncing up. We're communicating without talking. We can feel when the other is going down and always know when to jump over and crank out a few plates. I remember the days at the old L'Etoile (I am the only line cook remaining who ever worked in that kitchen) when the cooks were so good at what they did, and had been side by side in that hot, cramped kitchen for so many years, that communication was unnecessary. And the talk that did take place was endless trash talk between cooks. Ed and Ryan (two of the biggest influences on me as a cook thus far in my life) would work fish and meat respectively, bang out 120 covers seamlessly, and then show up for work the next day with blinding hangovers and do it all again. Thats what I want.

This Saturday was the highlight of my career as a cook thus far. 105 guests and the last reservation was at 8 o clock. That means we were on pace to do 140 plus. And boy did I get slammed. The black bass dish has rightfully become the star on the current menu. 40 percent of the guests ordered it. And my other dishes sold relatively well. It was the busiest night I've ever had. Over 50 percent of the entrees came off my station, and I was proud of every single plate and every single piece of fish I put out. It's as close Toby and I have ever come to emulating Ed and Ryan.

I was sitting outside enjoying a few drinks on Saturday night and I started laughing hysterically about what my life has become. It's so insane and so awesome. My arms and hands are covered in burns, the hair on my left arm has been almost entirely singed off from working over a stove all day, calluses have numbed most parts of my hands to any real feeling, I picked a fish scale out of my eye last week when my contacts were bugging me, and I practically have to scrub my hands with bleach every night to get the smell of fish out of them. Any normal person would probably be miserable doing what I'm doing. But if there's one thing that I know now its that I'm far from normal. My life is chaos. But to be honest, I think this is the happiest I've ever been.

I'm officially the most experienced cook in the kitchen. It's up to me to set an example for the rest of the guys. I feel like eyes are always on me, and the pressure has been cranked up a notch. But at the moment I'm thriving and loving it.

Summer is starting early, and whatever's on the horizon is extremely exciting and very promising. Madison feels more and more like home every day I live here. Market starts soon, and Madison will turn back into the city I fell in love with in the summer of 2010. I can't wait.

Also, today, my boss Tory Miller, the owner/executive chef of L'Etoile was named as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards for the title of "Best Chef Midwest", for the second year in a row. I am extremely honored to be a part of this kitchen, and I can honestly say that moving back to Madison was one of the best decisions I've made in my life. The amount that Tory and the rest of the crew here have helped me grow as a cook and as a person is absolutely insane. I don't just want this award for selfish reasons, I want it because Tory deserves it, and because it would be a testament to everything he has done for young cooks like myself and for the farmers and folks of Wisconsin. Go Tory!


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Special Guests

Nights like tonight are why I am in this business. I'm certain of it. For the first time, since I've been a cook at L'Etoile, I had the opportunity to cook for great friends of mine. For so long I come into work, and cook my ass off for people I don't know, can't see, will never talk to, and who don't know me or how much the kitchen crew cares about their dining experience. It's refreshing to cook for people you actually know, and will give you feed back and who are familiar with the sacrifices that are made to put food in front of them. Tonight, Mary (Friend from High School, UW Volleyball Player) and all of her family came in for her Mom's birthday. It was a very personal experience for me even though we were in different rooms and I couldn't even speak to them.

My excitement started to build on Tuesday when Mary told me she had made a reservation. Immediately I went to the reservations department at the restaurant to inform them that the 8 30 5 top were special guests of mine and informed them of the birthday celebration so that special menus could be printed saying "Happy Birthday Mama O!" Then the anticipation built over the week. I knew Saturday would be busy, but I wanted to make sure that everyone at the table had a wonderful meal, and that I was able to personally cook for all of them.

Saturday came and as I pushed through prep to get set up I was even more excited. My plates going into the window looked as good as ever, and my seasoning and speed were about as good as I can ask for. Surely, 8 30 came around, and I asked the expediter to let me know when the 8 30 5 top was seated. Around 8 45, a server came back into the kitchen and told me they were here. I immediately pulled a note out of my pocket and asked her to give it to them. It was just a little happy birthday wish, and I wanted them to know I was aware they were here. Soon enough their orders came in. I was ready. I'd spent all week getting ready for this moment. I was cooking for other tables at the same time. They ordered first courses, then it was time to cook their midcourses. They ordered two delacata squash dishes, two escargot with orechiette pasta dishes, and a risotto. I wanted to do something extra for them so I started a cranberry bean dish to send out for the table to share.

In a ten minute window, for five guests, heres the play by play. First I took the pre roasted delacata squash and warm it in the oven. Fire two orders of agnolotti. Sweat ginger in olive oil. Sautee brunois veg with garlic, olive oil and butter. Heat Lemon brown butter with a little bit of chiffonade sage. Add chicken stock and par cooked rice to the ginger for the risotto, heat up cranberry beans and chiffonade kale with pork demi and butter. Fire a sausage patty. Fire a duck egg. Add red wine to the garlic mirepoix mix... reduce. Pull the agnolotti and put into the brown butter. Gently heat and toast the agnolotti. add rock shrimp to cooking risotto. SEASON EVERYTHING TASTE EVERYTHING. Fire plates.... hot food on a cold plate becomes cold food way too fast. Fire orechiette pasta. Add chicken stock and over dried tomato to wine, garlic sauce. heat up shrimp curry broth in a sautee pan. Pull delacata squash. Pull duck egg. Mount risotto with butter and cheese and herbs. SEASON EVERYTHING TASTE EVERYTHING. Plate delacata squash. Top with agnolotti and spoon brown butter around. Top with popcorn garnish with grape must and pancetta shards. sell plates. pull the orechiette and toss with the sauce add nicoise olives, snails, herbs. Plate the risotto. Spoon risotto into the center of a bowl. Spoon curry broth around. Garnish with toasted coconut, cilantro oil, lime zest, sell. Plate snails, garnish with cheese. sell. Cut duck egg with ring mold, season with sea salt, pepper, herbs. place on top of brioche toast. Spoon beans onto plate. place sausage patty on plate. Quenelle cranberry mostarda. Place duck egg on toast, plate. Spoon pork demi sauce around plate. sell. Phew, and in this window I'm starting new dishes for new tickets. On three burners.

I got to go out into the dining room after service, and talk to the Ording family. They were finishing up dessert. I came to their table, hugged everyone and thanked them all for coming. We talked about what everyone ordered, and they gushed about the food they had. They thanked me for the wonderful meal. Then Mrs. Ording asked me when I would be done. I asked her what time it was, and she said about 11. I told her I'd be done around midnight. Then Mr O asked me what time I had come in. I told him about 12 30. They all looked shocked. Such a long day (didnt seem so to me). Such hard work (Again didn't seem so to me). They said, it must be so hard. I told them it was a labor of love. And I wasnt joking. I love the food I get to cook every day. I love the people I work with. And on a few nights when the stars align... (like tonight) I love the people I get to cook for.

Days like today make busting ass making tiny perfect kuri squash agnolotti for the delacata dish seem that much more worthwhile. It felt great, because over the past three months every single guest that I have cooked for has been at the restaurant... because they want L'Etoile's food. They want the service. And they want the experience. And thats great, I'm proud of the kitchen I work in and the food I put out. But as a faceless cook, every once in a while, to have five guests come to the restaurant who say "We want to celebrate, enjoy each other's company, eat some great food, and ... oh yeah, that kid Mikey in the kitchen, we kinda like him and we want him to cook for us" feels really great.

In a perfect world... I would open a restaurant where I only cooked for friends... then again, I don't have many of them. So business would probably suck.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Going Ham

It's weeks like this that make me extremely glad that I am a professional cook, and that I was lucky enough to be able to return to Madison and work at such a bomb restaurant with such great people. Rarely am I this upbeat at this time on a Sunday, due to the hopelessness that has developed over the last six weeks with the Colts. But I am coming off an awesome week at work, I just wokeup from a nap, am no longer hungover, and I can still feel remnants of acorn fed whey finished mangalitsa hog fat on my fingertips.

We lost an awesome cook, sous chef Mike, this weekend. He will be missed greatly, but just like the Colts would say... next man up. Good luck Mike. Come back and visit!

On Friday we were packed and there were only 4 line cooks. No middle men helping out either Garde Mo (apps) (where I work) or the Entree line. I hoped for the best but expected the worst. But honestly, everything went really freaking well. Plates were looking as good as ever, and not once did anyone but myself or my partner set foot on our stations to help us plate. We killed it.

Earlier that day we had a delivery of six massive beautiful hogs from a farm called uplands dairy. This farm raises dairy cows and makes some exceptional cheeses (Pleasant Ridge Reserve: winner of best cheese in America according to the American Dairy Association). We partnered with them, and now they raise a small amount of Mangalitsa Hogs (a heritage breed of pig known for its amazing fat content) that are raised on a natural diet of acorns (the original pig feed) and they are finished on whey from the cheese making process at the farm. The acorns give the pork a wonderful nuttiness and the whey gives it just that much more creamy unctuous fat and marbling.

The pigs came in during prep Friday and Ryan spent most of the day breaking down what he could. After service he called me over, pointed to an entire side of pork, and handed me a saw and a knife: as if to say "have at it kiddo". I cut a bunch of thick ass rib chops from the side, smiling ear to ear the entire time, and eventually made my way back over to my station to finish cleaning up. (If you ever see anyone smiling and taking as much enjoyment out of sawing through bones as I was on Friday night... RUN)

Saturday we had a full crew, and a full dining room. A sort of "hit us with your best shot" attitude towards the reservations department was definitely exhibited by all. I knocked out prep, pushing myself to not need any help from Toby (working as middle man between Hot and Cold Apps last night). I was set up on time. Before our first ticket comes in I was in the walk in grabbing limes and Mayhew walks in... "They're looking for you downstairs, they need you to make bearnaise". My heart stopped. Turns out a couple had requested an off the menu lobster dish a week ago and Chef wanted me to make the bearnaise he was going to serve with it. I haven't made bearnaise in over a year and a half. Sure techniques are simple, but I had to make a perfect bearnaise sauce at 5 o'clock right before I am about to get blitzed with tickets, have it sit for 3 hours and not break, and finish setting up my line. I was nervous. I could feel it was a test of sorts. Chef stood over my shoulder the entire time and told me stories of learning to make bearnaise from Andre Soltner, and gave me little tips as to how to ensure the emulsion wouldn't break. He was talking out loud to the rest of the kitchen trying to figure out how much to charge for the off the menu lobster dish and was running through numbers and reasons why he should charge what he did and I piped in as I was whisking clarified butter into my egg yolk emulsion, "You have to pay me, who paid 60 grand to learn how to fuck up your bearnaise chef."

The final result was a success. Chef tasted it, told me to add a touch more chopped tarragon and a bit of truffle oil and to give the sauce to Mike. But he added, "If it breaks during service, I'm gonna be pissed."

Service was a blur. Five dishes on three burners. 4 of them being multiple pan pickups. Walk-ins kept being announced during our biggest pushes... it was insanity, full blast. Rocking out dish after dish after dish. 4 top after an 8 top after a 6 top. But food was moving out faster than the front of house could keep up with. Servers would run into the kitchen, pick up plates and I'd hear ,"table 601, soup seat 1, delacata seat 2, cranberry seat 3, risotto seat 4". Ten minutes later, "compliments from 601." I swell with pride, but dont get caught up... because if I stop to blink, the entire ship goes down on a night like this.

Its after 10 o clock. I put up a risotto in the window, look over at my ticket board after selling the ticket... empty. 5 hours of constant sprint... 5 hours of back and forth banter between me and my partner. 5 hours of "I need another fucking duck egg this one broke". Without a doubt my best five hours as a line cook to this point in my short career. Oh yeah, and mid service I heard Tory call to Mike, "Check that fucking bearnaise, did it break?" I keep my head down... cook. I listen for a second... "No chef." Relief.

Thats how things are going these days. I look back at the cook I was two months ago... hell, even a month ago. I have gotten so much better its astonishing. I sucked ass a month ago. But now I can successfully work my station, keep up with tickets, put out food on time that I am proud of, and not look like a complete fucking jackass in the process. Every day my apron is a little bit cleaner after service. Every day my plates look a little bit tighter in the window. I am nowhere near where i want to be, but the strides I am making are encouraging. I might just be okay in the long run. We'll see.

The kitchen family I have developed over the last few months has really been great. I look down the line and I know that if I am going down in flames on my station... or if I need anything. There will be four sets of hands ready to rock out whatever I need. And I know that if someone needs anything from me, it is my duty to go above and beyond to help them out. There is a competitive vibe here like in all kitchens, but it only underlies the senses of trust and cooperation that are definitely more helpful in a kitchen.

Mopping the floor, I walk past Toby and Ryan who are talking something over. "Mikey," Ryan stops me "158". Toby immediately smiles and reaches over to fist bump me. Holy shit, my biggest night ever. we've done 145 maybe once or twice. 158 covers... 0 food sent back to the kitchen from any station. Its nights like last night where I know I made the right choices.

Sunday morning. 4 hours of sleep. Hungover. And I'm walking in to work... scimitar ready to go. I've got a hot date with some piggies.

The staff came in for a pig party. Pork-a-palooza. We broke down the rest of the pigs. I cured 6 bellies of bacon, three bellies of pancetta, cleaned hams for brining, cut chops, cleaned tenderloins, boned out shoulders, butterflied bellies for porchetta, and cured guanciale. FUNNNNN! We'll have pork for months and months and months. It makes me that much more pumped to come in to work... were serving one more thing that I'm absolutely in love with. I cant wait.

I'm sore. I'm tired. I'm hungover quite a bit. My arms are covered in burns and scrapes. My hands are blistered. I'm happier than I've been in a while though, god dammit. Now if only the colts could put together a win or two.


Photos from Pork-a-Palooza

About 10 percent of the pork trim accumulated from the pork. SAUSAGE!

New Restaurant concept. Pork Chops as fat as your head.

The single greatest pork chop I've ever seen.

Butterflying a belly for Porchetta!

Toby Cutting Chops.

Chops in Brine.

Trotters to be on the menu soon! Fergus Henderson doesn't even use trotters from pork this amazing!


Photo Credits to Brigitte Fouch

Monday, September 12, 2011


I'm back on the line. And I'm getting into a rhythm. I'm beginning to pick up momentum. Everyday is a push. But I'm getting better, all the time.

I just need to remember to relax, because if I get too stressed, it will show up on the plates.

One little blurb from this past Friday night puts everything in perspective. I was working cold side, we were pretty busy, but everything was going smoothly. Myself and the rest of the cooks were pushing out bomb food. Chef Tory was working the pass, so everyone was on edge. We don't want to disappoint him.

Sous Chef Mike's parents were in for dinner, and I was putting up a tomato plate for their table. The tomato plate is basically several different heirloom tomatoes sliced to order, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper, garnished with pickled red onion, sliced mousemelons (they look like grape sized watermelons, but taste like sour cucumbers), crispy bread shards, torn basil, warm olive oil poached wild cherry tomatoes, and is garnished table side with a bit of sarvecchio foam (sarvecchio is a wisconsin made parmesan cheese). Its a great dish, simple clean flavors. Tory calls me to the pass, says the plate needs a little bit more sliced mousemelon. I walk back to my station, quickly slice a few more, hand them to him and as I do, he laughs and says, "Can you believe we do this? We slice fucking mousemelons for a living!" and he handed me more tickets. I turned my back to him and faced my rail and shouted back, "Just livin' the dream chef!" with a smile on my face. Thing was, I wasn't kidding. Neither was he.

Most people who I grew up with are currently studying things like medicine, accounting, journalism, law... all things that seem very practical in the real world. I come in to work every day and get paid to do things like make fresh pasta; clean and cook lobster mushrooms (wild mushrooms that are bright orange like cooked lobster and have the texture of lobster claw meat when cooked); dice watermelon, remove all the seeds, and compress it with kim chi liquid, soy, sesame oil, korean chili, and fish sauce; I brine and confit beef tongue, then slice it and dredge it in egg whites and a mixture of rice flour and corn starch. It's not a normal profession by any means, but I'm not a normal person. Far from it.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Same Old Same Old

People in the food service industry tend to think of restaurants themselves as living, breathing creatures. Tony Bourdain said of his former restaurant, Les Halles, "One day she can be a well oiled machine, and the next she can turn into a cruel, nine headed hydra."

The majority of the faces in the L'Etoile kitchen may have changed since my departure in October, but the restaurant herself, shes pretty much the same animal. A few small things have changed, like the fact that cooks currently have an hour less prep time, and that all of the dry goods are about as far as they could possibly be from my station, but the dynamic of the restaurant is still the same. I walk in about a half an hour or thirty minutes early every day, and Ryan, still sous chef, immediately starts his playful jabs of, "Mikey hurry the fuck up you're in the fucking weeds!" I smile and return a half assed, "Yes Chef." And he comes over and says, "This isn't a fucking joke Mikey, move faster you're fucked." He smiles the whole time. I look at my prep list for the day. I'm basically completely set up except for the daily tasks of herb prep, fresh pasta making, and maybe a few more tasks like cleaning scallops, cleaning corn, making a batch of corn chowder, or confiting beef tongue. We've got 50 on the books, its a Wednesday. I'm not in the weeds, but I have to push myself like I am everyday if I'm going to survive weekends, or get moved up the line.

Then Mike, other current sous chef, (fun fact. I trained Mike on garde manger when he started at L'Etoile) will shout something at me in German along the lines of, "Mikey schneller zu bewegen!" which I think means move faster.

I'm no longer Mikey the Intern, no longer Mikey the Prep Cook, no longer Mikey the slow night cold side cook, I'm Mikey the full time hot side cook. That means instead of busting my ass prepping salads, cheese plates, and other cold appetizers, I'm working a much more manageable prep schedule and getting my ass kicked nightly on the hot line. I really have no "station" as it would be defined. I have a small cart that can hold a hotel pan of Mise en Place, but doesn't have nearly enough room for all of the prep for my four dishes. I have four burners, an oven, a salamander. I don't have a board to plate on. I can fit about 4 plates on the edge of my range, but thats it, and during a push, when tickets are coming in and I've got 5 tables fired, and 13 or fourteen plates to put out in a 5 minute window... shit gets rough. not to mention that the majority of my dishes require multiple pans and multiple burners. Of my four burners, one of them is completely occupied by a small cast iron grill pan that I use to grill scallops for the corn chowder. that means I effectively have three burners at my disposal. The beef tongue dish alone requires three small sautee pans. One to sautee ginger and garlic and then toss in the orange soy glaze that us the sauce for the beef. Another is used to heat up green beans with chicken stock and butter, and another is used to sautee a crescent of sushi rice. The Confit beef tongue gets fried on meat station and passed down the line when I call for it. Then the beef gets tossed in the glaze, add sliced scallion, plate the sushi rice, plate the beans, top them with the orange beef, then drizzle sauce... top with micros, which I have to pull from cold side because I have no room for them in my mise en place. The Chowder requires the grill for scallops; a small sautee pan to sautee fresh chorizo, sweet corn and chive in butter; and a small sauce pot to heat up a ladel of corn chowder which gets put in a small teapot and poured table side. The Gnudi dish really only needs one pan. A sautee pan to heat up sauteed lobster mushrooms with butter, lavender, chicken stock, then I drop the gnudi in a pasta pot that is located (thank god) on Fish station's range. This dish is all about perfect execution. The sauce for the Gnudies (a goat cheese dumpling) is really only an emulsion of butter and chicken stock. It will separate if it sits too long. It will separate if the quantities of stock and butter aren't perfect. It will separate if the plates are too warm or too cold. Sometimes it will just separate because God hates me. The minestrone dish is the easiest and least stressful dish... but I sold just one tonight. And I spent about an hour prepping the stuff for that dish, all of which has to be done DAILY. And I sold one. Everything else was thrown out or will be used for comida. I'm beginning to think God really does hate me.

Monday was my first day running an entire station by myself. Noone was watching my back, telling me what to do second by second. It was rough. I got my ass kicked. Tuesday I worked a shift on cold side, then today I came back to hot. It's amazing how much more confident I have become working those three godforsaken burners. We did more covers than Monday today, and in a shorter amount of time. A ten top and a nine top came into the kitchen at the same time, and I successfully put out 4 chowders and a gnudi and a beef tongue followed by four more chowders and another gnudi in about a five minute window... which is miraculous if you had seen the kind of shit I was pulling on Monday.

Thursday is my day off this week, and I am gonna spend it sharpening my knives, doing laundry, and maybe buying Madden for myself if I'm feeling like I deserve a treat.

Friday and Saturday... I'm personally terrified. I want it to go well... I really do. But there's only so much I can control. I can't control spacing of reservations, or what people order, or how busy cold side is, or how well my partner calls my tickets. All I can do is come in with a fucking plan. Bang out my prep, and get set up as well as possible. Then It's up to me to do my god damn best to roll with the punches, work with what I have, and make sure that every plate I put up is worthy to be served to a guest at L'Etoile, the best restaurant in Wisconsin, and one of the best restaurants in the Midwest. Hopefully she'll be kind to me this weekend... but you never know with L'Etoile. She's an unpredictable bitch.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Muscle Memory

Its been seven weeks since I left New York. I have eaten some bomb food, been to some awesome places, and there have been major developments in my future plans. So now, I will attempt to give somewhat of an abridged version of my summer. Because in about a week, I become a working stiff... for good, and summers will never be the same.

I visited chicago several times, on job hunting expeditions, and managed to eat at Hot Doug's (BEST RESTAURANT EVER), the Publican (THE OTHER BEST RESTAURANT EVER) and a few other awesome places. I went to Cape Cod where I ate my weight in Oysters. I played with my dog, read a few books, and enjoyed my summer thoroughly. But my time has come, it was time to go back to where it all started.

On Sunday I took a trip up to Madison. I visited with Ed, who readers of this blog would know as fish cook Ed, then he became sous chef ED. Now Ed is moving to NY to work at Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York Restaurant, arguably the best restaurant in the country. I am extremely happy for Ed, he worked his ass off at L'Etoile, and deserves this job. Plus, knowing someone at the best restaurant in New York can't be a bad thing. My visit to Madison had several intentions, to see Ed and wish him well before his journey out east, and to swing by L'Etoile, and ask if they would have me back. And I am very happy to say that I will be in the dairyland again very soon. As soon as I can find an apartment.

The one thing that I was taught in Madison last summer that has stuck with me more than anything else is the idea of muscle memory. Constant repetition of the same task will in time make it effortless. That is my goal for my future time at L'Etoile. I want to get better at everything I do. I want to peel potatoes faster, I want to be able to bang out a double batch of agnolotti in no time flat. I want to be able to case and link 80 pounds of sausage in record time while not bursting one damn sausage. Everyday I step out of that kitchen I want to be a cleaner, faster, smarter cook than I was when I walked in that morning. I want to effortlessly glide through fully booked Saturday night service, putting out plate after plate that I can be proud of. I want to be able to break down a whole pig, then set up my line, push through 140 covers, then get ridiculously drunk and do it all again the next day. I want to work so hard for so long that moving at breakneck speed becomes second nature.

I will be working a lot of hard hours for a quite a while now folks. I'm not a kid any more, at least not on paper. Forgive me if I seem distant, or if I'm hard to get a hold of, or if when we do talk I seem like I don't care. Fact of the matter is my life will be whatever kitchen I find myself in, and it will not be easy. There might not be holidays, there certainly wont be vacations, and there probably wont be a whole lot of sleep in my future. I've got a lot of shit I want to accomplish, and not a lot of time to do it. To quote the great Childish Gambino, "My work is my play time, I need you to understand and to stay fine." I am a cook now, first and foremost, and will be for the rest of my life.

I will try and keep this updated as often as possible, but I cannot make any promises. I will be working on two or three personal projects on top of my full time job at L'Etoile, and might not be able to keep up with this for extended periods of time.

I can't promise much, but what I can promise is that I am doing this because as sick as it sounds, it makes me happy. Its the only thing I could ever do. And in the long run, these next few years will turn out to be the most important in my development as a cook and as a person

I may be done with school, ladies and gents, but my education is just about to begin. And personally, I'm fucking stoked.