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