Monday, February 21, 2011

Valentine’s Day: A retrospective from a professional perspective.

Best of the best: Seared scallops with tomato tartlet and basil vinaigrette.

Obviously I would have preferred to post this sooner, perhaps at a time when it may have had some kind of relevance. But given how this past week has been, this is the best I could do. A phrase that to my ex is pretty much a catchphrase. It was a tough week in the restaurant. Last Saturday’s (12th Feb) service was an endless slog. There are evenings in a kitchen that are relentless. The first docket comes in at five minutes after opening and the printer keeps on churning them out right up to last orders, four hours later. The kind of service where it feels like someone’s holding your head underwater and just as you think you’re about to get a moment to catch your breath it’s, ‘CLICK-SCREECH, CLICK-SCREECH, CLICK-SCREECH’ three more tables of two have just come in. The next day the guys and I were talking and nearly all of us said that when we finally got to bed and closed our eyes we could almost still hear the printer churning in the background. As for Monday (the 14th), that was an interesting one.

We’re a hotel so regards to the restaurant nearly 90% of our customers are guests that are staying. So given the day the hotel was pretty quiet. On Sunday night the bookings for the next night were just eight. Around lunchtime on Monday that was up to eighteen. We laughed and joked, ‘Tough one tonight lads, haha!’ Five minutes to opening we’d gained twenty-five bookings. Hmm, we thought. So a bit busier then we expected, nothing to panic about. Then service began and about an hour in we noticed we had five-six tables in. There were main courses waiting on the pass and I had starters and deserts awaiting pick-up. This would be fine were it not that there was not a waiter to be found. On this night there were about four-five wait staff on, which to my mind would be enough if we were expecting over eighty, so where the fuck were they? ‘Anna, Sarah, Davie, you have mains for tables 21, 33 and 4.’ Would be barked when occasionally one would rush into the kitchen, and with a panicked look, grab a bottle of mineral water or some more bread for a table and rush back out again. Turns out reservations had the bright idea to clump nearly all the table into the space of an hour and half. All those people arriving at once did not fit our server’s standard protocol of total ass-kissery. Meaning they actually had to work quickly instead of listening to the entire family history of table 12 in the hope they’d be rewarded with an extra two quid with the service charge. Did we in the kitchen sympathize? Did we feck! I was working through a block of about two two’s and a four top. I had it laid out and getting ready so I was going to get it out in time. The German then entered my station, looked at the dockets and started to assist with the plating. ‘Actually dude I’m fine here, seriously.’ He shakes his head. ‘I know but vee shoot this out as quick as vee can. If they’re going to give us eight tables at once, they need to pick up eight tables at once.’ He then nodded to the lone waiter polishing a glass as the fish for table 8 overcooks under the hot lamps and lowered his voice, ‘So I vant to fuck zem.’ And if that seems a bit harsh and unnecessary all I can say is, you should see him at Christmas. Final count at the end of the night was sixty-eight covers

Location: Weedsville. Population: You!

Overall food-wise it meant putting some new things on the menu. My favorite is pictured top: Seared scallops with tomato tartlet, rocket and basil vinaigrette. Half some cherry tomatoes, marinade in thyme, oil, salt and pepper. Butter a dish and arrange five-seven halves face down. Place a disk of puff pastry over them like you would for a tart tatin and bake. The vinaigrette is just chopped basil blitzed with lemon juice and zest, garlic and oil drained from sun-dried tomatoes. Sear scallops for about one – one and a half minutes on each side. Serve as above, caviar optional. By the way that dish pictured was just a mock-up, hence why the tart’s gotta little char on it. The dish itself was light, fresh and in my opinion probably the best starter we’ve had. The tart on its own was a winner. So much so that this Saturday gone we ran it as a vegetarian special. We simply replaced the scallops and caviar with parmesan shavings and pine nuts. Despite the berating by the German sous that it didn’t look substantial enough (‘Zere is no fucking vay I vould pay nine quid for that!’) But the customers thought it was ace. So for not the first I get to say to my boss, in your face Hans! Now that the only contribution I can make at this point involving food is done. You may now leave and go about your evening. If you want to stick around however, here’s my personal summing up of Valentine’s Day:

Valentine's Day, oh how I loathe thee. And I know that sounds bitter and dejected and even somewhat juvenile. But really when you think about it there's very few holidays in the entire year, that's celebrated by any other culture, that is as contrived and alienating as this Godforsaken mush-fest is. And I'm not just saying this because this year it was dinner for one (a frozen pizza, eaten at 00:10 am, after a ten hour shift) But even if I actually had plans, that didn't involve taking a sizeable chunk out of my monthly download limit, there's still something kinda messed up about the whole concept of this holiday. Let's get hypothetical; there are other holidays that are more geared to a specific people. Paddy's day means nothing to a Korean IT student and Thanksgiving passes by unnoticed over here. I mean I'm not being rude but I honestly don't know what date it's on, its November isn't it? But should I find myself at an American family’s dining table on that date then I would like to think I would be welcomed into the traditions and values that the holiday represents. Likewise if young Hyun-Ki (didn't make it up, it means 'wise') woke up in my flat on March 17th, I would equally bring him into the fold as to how this day is to be spent as I made him breakfast. Breakfast being two cans of Guinness consumed before . Yet unless you've someone to share this day with, exactly how the fuck are you supposed to spend it? Apart from being reminded that, oh wait, you don't. I think this whole situation would be remedied if there was another holiday celebrated in and around the same time that could only be appreciated by singles. Something like, 'Knob-jokes and Beer Day' or 'Strip club Appreciation Week'. To sum up, think about it, you wouldn't have a holiday called, 'My two legs work just fine thank you.' and is spent skipping merrily past people in wheelchairs.

Last year did nothing to endear me to this day. I was in work, of course, and just as the tempo was starting to pick and up and things were beginning to get a bit tenser. The phone in the kitchen rang, it's for me. 'Alright man, how's things?' I sigh 'What is it?' it’s a commis, young lad not even 19 with a tendency to wreck the head. He has the night off and hasn't shut up the days previous about this young 'wan' he was going to be meeting up with. 'Just eh, what's the recipe for that chocolate mousse you were trying out the other day?' 'I dunno dude, I don't have the exact measurements with me and we're kinda starting to get busy here and. . . ' 'Any chance you could just give it to me just like, off the top of your head' he then lowers his voice to a secretive whisper, 'She's going to be over in an hour or so, is there any chance man?' I sigh wearily, 'Okay it's about this and that and this. You then take that and those makea a thing and add this and do that.' 'Sound man, cheers. Appreciate it man.' I hang up and return to the brewing shitstorm that’s begun to take shape. The next day he comes in and without word or reason just marches straight up to me and locks me into a sincere, almost brotherly, embrace. 'Mousse work then?' I ask. 'Aw man, wait till I tell ya.' 'You know, I really don't want to know.' 'I got the can of whipped cream and I sprayed it on her. . .' 'I SAID, I'm good with the details.' Because it's one thing to know that there are other people getting some when you aren't. But knowing that someone got their jollies on account of YOUR recipe. Well then, thank you world!

Not surprisingly when the whole deal came round I decided to forgo anything to do with it. As to post anything related, given my attitude, would be akin to requesting a dissertation on the virtues of modesty from Kanye West. So let the records show, that for the season of Valentine’s 2011, my contribution to the blogsphere was a 600 word rant and a curry recipe. Perhaps next year I’ll even it out with a flower arrangement, a recipe for chocolate fondant and in the text hide a link to a picture of a puppy wearing a red bow with the words, ‘Wuv U!’ stitched into it (the bow that is, not the puppy).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Miss me? (Chicken, Chickpea and Pea Curry)

Yes, I know, it's been awhile. But the reality that you should all be aware of by now is my job is one where, to me, free time is as precious and rare a commodity as a listenable Justin Bieber song. But with the week that it's been and the workload required for our Valentine's day menu I've been spending so much time in work, that I'm one step away from just curling up in the prep kitchen with a sleeping bag at the end of the each night. So I apologies if the veg patch that is my blog has sprouted a few weeds and started smelling faintly of cat piss.

The result of which is my kitchen at home has been receiving as much attention as the fruit bowl in the Cowen household. So while the entire blogsphere has been clambering over itself to deliver their take on what they intend to dish up on the day of Val. I’ve been solely focused on overcoming one restaurant-related headache after another. So attempting to post anything related to this holiday is akin to requesting a dissertation on the virtues of modesty from Kanye West. But now the dust has nearly settled (we’re still running our special menu this weekend) I find the only thing I’ve to offer is the one meal I’ve cooked for myself in the past eight days that wasn’t ordered in or came from a frozen box (Oh Green Isle’s Gigantic pizza, don’t ever change!)

But the one meal I made is a demonstration of a piece of advice that is integral to been a better cook. In short, I'm feeling generous this week. Perhaps the hours have resulted in a fatigue-induced lobotomy, but I feel like sharing something with you all. Some advice, that if you've any interest in feeding yourself beyond ready-meals and potato waffle sandwiches, might help actually help you. This advice could be summed up in a one word. A word that applies to and encapsulates everything involved in cookery. It is a word that whether it be students in a grubby bed-sit with a copy of 'Jamie's 30-Minute meals', or amongst the brigades of the most avant-garde, pyrotechnical three-star kitchens of Paris, New York or Tokyo, holds just as equal relevance and importance. The word; technique. My advice; that if you want to be better cook, concentrate on learning techniques, not recipes. Now, considering that on the face of it techniques are, essentially, recipes I wouldn't be surprised if the following didn't come off slightly convoluted but I'll explain as best as I can. Also bear in mind that I'm so very, very tired.

You see, nearly every action or process you undertake in a kitchen, be it cooking cheese on toast, sweating onions, making a salad dressing or preparing a 'torchon' of foie gras (don't expect a post on that anytime soon), are all the implication of a technique. Some more complex and difficult then others but the notion is the same. The difference between them and what is commonly conceived as a 'recipe' is that they are not specific to a dish. What I've always dug about Jamie Oliver, as much as it pains me to say it, is that he's one of the few mainstream cookbook writers who've grasped and applied the concept of not just teaching someone a dish, but teaching them a means to creating their own. Best example I can think of was in his book 'Cook with. . .' which was laid out in a way that the a chapter would begin with a base method, for say, pasta or gnocchi. And then the following recipes were ways in which that could be implied. That's essentially the distinction I'm trying to make. Learning the base of one thing, but using that as a starting point. An endless path of adaptation and altering to your own palate.

Let’s take one of the simplest such bases in a kitchen: a vinaigrette or dressing for salad, one part acid mixed to 3-4 parts oil. Google ‘salad dressing recipes’ and you’ll get near seven million results, and even if there are millions of dressing recipes out there I can tell you that at least most of will have the above at their core. So here I’ve made a curry. But I’ve posted a curry before and on the surface they seem pretty different but at their core in essence, is a method of making curry. Before I used just rice and peas, because it’s all it had. This time I’ve used chicken, chick peas, and mushrooms, because at the time it was all I had. So if you’re making this and you’d didn’t have any of those and instead had just a load of veg, or instead of chicken had lamb or even fish, with the method as a guide it’d still be ace.

After all, we all remember the Oxfam ad, 'Give a socially inept, World of Warcraft hooked, college student a Dominos Pizza and he'll be able to feed himself for the evening. But give him two slice pans of bread, a block of cheese, a tub of Ballymoley Relish and a George Foreman grill and you give him the means to feed himself for a week.' Although if cheese toasties are your sole meal for seven days straight, self-satisfaction aside, few could argue that this is an improvement.

Chicken, Chickpea and Pea Curry:

The method and quantities are near identical to this. But as I’ve said, that’s kinda the point. Amounts are per person:

1 onion
3 medium cloves of garlic
2-3 mushrooms
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp coriander seeds
3 whole cloves
1 tsp fennel seeds
4-6 cardamom pods
1 tsp tomato puree
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp tumeric
1 tbsp gara masala
½ tbsp chilli powder
1 diced chicken leg, de-boned. Thigh meat or even breast can be used.
1 spring onion
½ tin chickpeas
1 cup of frozen peas
1tbsp of cold butter
salt and black pepper for seasoning

  1. Lightly fry the whole spices/seeds in a pan with a little oil.
  2. Add onion, garlic and mushrooms and sweat for a few minutes.
  3. Stir in ground spices, then add tomato puree and about a cup of water.
  4. Add diced chicken; simmer for about 4-6 minutes.
  5. Drain chickpeas and stir in.
  6. When the chickpeas are warm add in peas and butter in bring back up temperature. Add spring onions and serve.