Sunday, January 30, 2011

Day one at the Original

Yesterday I switched gears from Olives Ole to focus on my other major project: writing employee handbooks for the waitstaff, hosts, and cooks at the Original Mexican Restaurant on the Riverwalk. From 6pm-11pm I immersed myself in the restaurant, which meant shadowing all the stations, walking around the place, and talking with as many employees to get their perspective on what new hires need to know when being trained. Apart from a few months of low-key waitressing, I have no restaurant experience so this is a whole new set of job skills for me. It was intense.

Fortunately it was a "slow" night by Riverwalk standards, so I had plenty of opportunities to talk shop. The waitstaff is the only group of employees with any sort of training manual already created, although one waitress I talked to stared at it blankly and said she'd never seen it before. It's not a bad foundation and actually does test on most of the important things...but according to the managers, the waitstaff is just not absorbing it. I'm going to rewrite the tests so that the same questions are asked 2-3 times in order to help reinforce the knowledge, and I want to create a more hands-on, visual test for things such as the bar menu (one of the largest knowledge gaps identified....with 38 margaritas, I'm not surprised!).

Part of the problem is the extremely transient nature of the employees here. One manager estimated that they go through 200 waiters a year. They come and go so quickly that a significant portion of the staff is still learning the restaurant at any given time. That makes it hard to achieve consistent service. Such is the nature of Riverwalk restaurants and waitstaff in most places.

(I have to say that at least as far as last night, I thought the waitstaff was pretty good. They had a decent hustle, I didn't see too many congregating or wandering aimlessly, and their tables seemed taken care of fairly well. That was my initial impression anyway.)

The hosts don't even have a manual. They are not trained according to any standardized program, and more often than not, their training consists of "okay, these are the table numbers, go seat people." The elements that the senior host last night found lacking were menu knowledge and sales skills, although he doubted that the latter could be taught. I disagree--I am a pretty reserved, shy, occasionally insecure person but I have been taught how to sell by engaging the customer and making them feel that connection. Too many times last night, I would see a group of three hosts at the front all facing inward at each other, while potential customers passed by the entrance. That was the moment the hosts needed to make eye contact, smile, extend the offer--"immediate seating available!" Even if they aren't saying it verbally, they can say it with their body language. I saw enough people pause, look in, give these visual clues that they were right on the edge of getting pulled in--and nobody engaged them. They were ignored. I know this is a teachable skill.

For comparison, when Chef Will is at the Original, he said that he spends about half his time at the front doing just what I described: converting potential customers to actual customers. The cutesy philosophy: read 'em, greet 'em, seat 'em, bleed 'em, and repeat 'em. He's terrific at it and business soared when he was at the helm. I understand that there's more to it than "pulling in as many customers as possible--" after all, if we fill more tables than we have staff to wait, then there will be a problem. But we had plenty of staffing. It shouldn't have been an issue to keep pulling in customers until the place was full, pause briefly to turn over some tables, and repeat the process.

Maybe I'm just an overachiever. I dunno.

Anyway, room for improvement with the host training. I'm excited about that part.

And finally the cooks. I spent enough time in the kitchen to see that they were a calm, capable bunch of men who really don't require training for what they're doing. It's color by numbers--the prep work is done by one group, the cooking/assembly by another, and for as basic and familiar as the dishes are, their system works just fine. I'm a bit intimidated to try and create a manual for this position. I'll talk to Chef about it.

I felt fortunate that Chef had enough free time to sit with me and explain the inner workings of the Original. It was a terrific learning experience, start to finish. At one point I was fretting over whether I was doing myself a disservice by wanting to enter the teaching profession without putting in years of work in this restaurant atmosphere.

Chef's awesome response: "You don't have to have your ass kicked to know that it hurts."

So that was the Original.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Nutshell of current tasks

(For those like me who can barely encompass everything regarding an event.)

Chef says:

I want to start writing out the following:

1. the schematic drawing for placement of booths
2. a vendor /presenter enrollment sheet detailing electrical needs tables etc.
3. a vendor ‘presenter sheet detailing health parameters for hair .hand washing etc.
4. gather information form the ladies on the hand washing plan they have in place.
5. verify this is in keeping with health code
6. starting time line for things like health permits, and associated costs
7. a written timeline plan for dates and times for booth assembly and complete ready setup on day of event( ie where we get wagon and where it goes, when rosemary’s stuff should be delivered etc.

More later

A dilemma, resolved

Betcha didn't even know there was a dilemma, did you? That's right, because I hadn't told you about it yet.

This week was momentous. I finally met a segment of Les Dames d'Escoffier, the network of culinary ladies who among many other things are the ones running Olives Ole. Among them, we have Rosemary of the RK Group (that's Rosemary Kowalski, as in yes, that Rosemary) which rules the world in San Antonio catering; Jenny of Incarnate Word and Susan of Trinity Universities, respectively; Dianna whose husband owns Earl Abel's, a staple of San Antonian old skool restaurants. (Perks: during the meeting, she had us served awesome fried chicken, fried pickles and pie. I love my life!)

During the meeting, I took copious notes on Olives Ole, where we stood right now, the general shape of the event, what still needed to be done, etc. I am in possession of nowhere near enough information to compile an operations manual for this event in years to come, but it's a start! The ladies were lovely, very friendly and warm and encouraging. And I contributed to a dish that was missing a certain something by suggesting pepitas. It's my claim to fame!

After that, I was able to take the recipes that we will be preparing at St Philip's and scale them for the number of portions we needed (generally 600). Then I made a shopping list with the total amounts of ingredients. Very fortunately, Les Dames are having all the food donated! That helps when we're working with 300 chicken breasts and 15 pounds of unsweetened chocolate and 7 gallons of olive oil (it IS an olive oil festival).

The dilemma came later in the week. Last year around Thanksgiving, Chef Will informed me that the Cooking School which is run out of HEB Central Market (aka the GucciB) had some turnover and was needing applicants. Mary Martini, also ones of Les Dames and a friend of Chef Will's, asked if he had any good candidates. He named me. I was ecstatic at the thought of interning in the Cooking School, which would help me learn not just a constant variety of techniques as various chefs passed through San Antonio and shared their specialties with anyone from the community who wanted to pay to learn; but also their teaching techniques. It's really quite a perfect fit for a culinary student who aspires to do everything and teach in particular.

However, she had to fill the position before my internship began.

So Tuesday, I received an email from her informing me that one of her employees wants to go part-time, which means she again has availability and wanted to know if I were otherwise committed. Oh boy am I committed. I'm a one-gal committee. But there's conflict! I ask Chef for guidance.

Chef's first response is the same as mine: argh! But she's missed her window of opportunity. I write an appreciative but apologetic reply to Mary expressing my hopes that we will find ourselves available at the same time in the future.

(I was actually very glad to get this response from him because I really believe in what I'm doing right now! I've put in about 25 hours of work on these projects which isn't a ton in the grand scheme of things but it feels colossal. And I've planned out the rest of my semester around these events, and I know how much I'm helping Chef, and I just didn't want to abandon everything I have going already! Plus it felt nice to be appreciated as part of the team.)

Chef's second response, later that night: Cancel that. I need to email her back and see if there's still a chance, because ultimately interning at the Cooking School ---> a job offer at the Cooking School, and as my mentor he has to think not just of me in terms of this semester but my long-term success as well.

And I understand. I do. He wants what's best for me in the long run. But all I can picture is the person who finds a wild animal and cares for it, raising it in his home. And then one day there comes the moment when the person realizes he's doing a disservice to the wild animal and he takes it out to the edge of the forest and tells it, "GO! Go on!" and the animal just looks back at him with a confused, hurt expression as if to say "But we're friends! I want to go with you!" and the human is trying not to cry and eventually throws sticks to make the animal go back to the wild where it belongs. And that was how I felt.

After tossing and turning all night, I decided my fate was set and I was not going to fight it. I was sticking by Chef's side whether he wanted me to or not! Fortunately he didn't fight me on it, having come to much the same conclusion himself. And life has resolved back into its regular patterns.

(During one of my melodramatic fits this week, I had to pause mid-angst and say to Tavis, "Man, my life is SO hard. Woe is me, I have too many job offers, everyone wants me. Good grief, my problems are so white collar." A much needed laugh at self was had.)

In other good news: I did not in fact have to wake up to do Cowboy Breakfast this morning. And the Rodeo Luncheon in February is canceled; I compiled the shopping list for that event and emailed it to the guy in charge and he couldn't afford it this year. So my workload has opened up and I have more time to focus on Olives Ole and the Original Mexican handbooks. Huzzah!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Skills USA - or, Why I Am Not Tony Bourdain

Judging is easy! thought I. It's a high school culinary competition in the morning and a baking competition in the afternoon. I'll waltz in, schmooz, look official and say foodie code words, and eat 17 dishes for lunch and 17 desserts for dinner. Oh and thank you very much for paying me for 12 hours of internship.

Such was not my day. The judging actually entailed work, of the laborious, mentally-taxing kind. Our score sheet had actual criteria--so much so that we three judges had to divide it into thirds to tackle in a somewhat timely manner. One judge had to evaluate the students' mise en place (the general orderliness of their stations) and professional attire; one judge evaluated their knife skills, including mincing, dicing, julienning (long thin strips), and the ever-so-ridiculous tourne, aka "why do I want a carrot that looks like a 7 sided football?"

I got to evaluate all 17 students on food sanitation and safety practices.

This means running around the entire room at once to make sure every cutting board is put on a wet towel so it doesn't slip and fall off the table; every knife cut is deliberate and non-frantic-hacking; every meat product is removed and thoroughly scrubbed and sanitized from the prep area before the next product is prepped so there is no danger of cross-contamination; and everything is cooked to the minimum safe internal cooking temperature within a safe amount of time.

It was a LOT of work and I was not even slightly prepared. I was expected not only to observe each of these kids at every moment and spot any sanitation discrepancy, but be able to quiz the kids on these standards at the same time. I resorted to the same three questions: "what's the temperature danger zone?" (41-135 degrees, give or take. This is constantly revised and changes based on who you're asking, but I was looking for the ballpark.) "how long can you leave food in the temperature danger zone before you must throw it out?" (4 hours, aka GRANDMA DON'T EAT MEAT THAT WAS LEFT OUT OVERNIGHT!) "what is the minimum internal temperature for cooking chicken?" (165 degrees)

(I got some very interesting responses... Temperature danger zone went from "40 to 410 degrees." You can leave food in the temperature danger zone for "two days." The chicken was pretty easy to everyone to remember, which was fortunate because they were cooking chicken.)

It was actually a very thorough meal, wasting little while demonstrating a multitude of techniques in addition to requiring the students to utilize good time management and planning ahead. They were given a whole chicken to break down. The thighs and wings were put away to be used by the Food Bank where this competition was held. The breasts were held to make the main course. And the carcass was put in a pot to make stock, which when completed was used to make a rice pilaf and a veloute sauce (like white gravy). In addition, veggies were chopped for the stock and julienned for a sauteed vegetable side dish along with the rice and chicken breast, which was pounded thin, stuffed with sauteed spinach and pepper jack cheese, wrapped in bacon and roasted in the oven. So a very impressive demonstration of ability in 2.5 hours! Every single person was late getting their plate to judging, but nobody turned in undercooked chicken (which would have been instant disqualification).

Here are some of the plates presented!

Some were remarkably unsuccessful.

What is this I don't even

Some were considerably more balanced, although every single plate suffered from what I call "Olive Garden" syndrome, where it apparently can't be sent out until it has three times the amount of food that should be consumed by any one person at a given time.

As seen here, in one of the better plates.

Overall I have to say the scores were pretty middle-to-low...the food tended to be underseasoned and either over or underdone, and the plates were as mentioned always really crowded. But considering these were high school kids, it really did impress me.

Next came the baking competition! While not as nerve-wracking in some respects (they had 5 hours to the 2.5 of the morning's challenge, and fewer sanitation concerns since it was baking and not poultry), these kids had even more on their plate (no pun intended). Each student was responsible for producing all of the following: a loaf of bread, yeast rolls, sugar cookies, cinnamon rolls, puff pastry desserts, pie, and a decorated cake. They were able to bring their starter dough for the bread, the cakes (the important thing was demonstrating icing and decorating techniques for that one), and the puff pastry and filling were both store-bought. So while not 100% start-to-finish original, it is still a FREAKING TON OF WORK. Few students finished everything--I am absolutely astonished that anybody at all did! They are set for a terrific future in the pastry program at St Philip's or wherever they decide to take their mad skillz.

Observe these mise en place skills.

These particular tables got behind as the event went on. I noticed that almost without exception, the tables that were the most orderly and neat were the tables where the student completed all the products. The students whose tables started overpiled with bowls and ingredients did not finish everything. I am positive there is a direct correlation. Some students were able to visualize what they needed to accomplish and in what order, and they prepared for it well. Some could not.

I got to judge three different types of products: cinnamon rolls, puff pastry products (they could do a variety of shapes; the only rule was that fruit filling be baked into the puff pastry dough) and pies (not so much for flavor since it was the same canned fruit product, but I was to judge for the flakiness, thinness, and doneness of the crust as well as how sufficiently filled with fruit the pie was). Again, some of the products turned out surprisingly fantastic, at least on par with what my school would produce.

This was the ONLY person who remembered to egg wash their puff pastry before baking it. That's what gives it that lovely golden brown color as well as the shine. Everyone else lost points for color. If it looks as pasty as me, it ain't done cooking!

While cute, I had to dock this person and a couple more like them because they baked the puff pastry sheets on their own and then put the fruit on after removing from the oven. It was against the rules. I could see why they tried going in this direction and it was pretty....sorry that wasn't enough.

But check out this pie!

That's a nice pie.

Even the chefs learned a trick or two from the students! One girl demonstrated making an icing rose on a dowel by forming petals into a long skinny flower, and then pulling a piece of paper underneath the flower so that all the petals smooshed upward and suddenly it became a perfect rose.


And Judy got a whole bunch of birthday cakes. That's an interesting default name!

The scores were either pretty decent (if they completed all their products) or pretty low (if they were among the many students who did not complete everything). I was highly impressed with most of these students--they put in a long day to complete tasks that would challenge my peers.

Overall, I enjoyed interacting with the kids, evangelizing St Philip's to interested students, networking with the other judges, and developing improved skills of mass observation. But I could not feel less like a celebrity chef--I didn't saunter in, try the cuisine, make some pithy, snarky comments and head out into the sunset. I am thoroughly tired of sweets for the near future and my feet hurt. But if not a culinary rockstar, I am still left feeling very fortunate and very pleased to have participated in this event.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What else will I be doing this semester?

Yesterday I met with Chef to discuss the timeline of the major two events I would be covering this semester and planning the rest of my free time around creating the employee handbook for the Original Mexican Restaurant. This turned into a spree of adding even more events onto the pile. For my peace of mind's sake, I am going to transfer my notes into here. The more lists, the better, right?

This Saturday I am going to be representing St P as a judge of a high school culinary competition, Skills USA. Yes, a couple of the high schools in San Antonio have culinary programs. It's kind of awesome, and I remember feeling very intimidated when I had a couple kids who graduated from this program in my Basic Food Skills class because I assumed they knew a bajillion more things than me and I was going to be behind. They really do learn quite a bit and this should be a fun competition. Plus, hey, judging = eating food! I'll take pics for sure.

Cowboy Breakfast is the next big event. I have never participated in it before, mostly because I can think of much better ways to spend my 2am than working outside in freezing conditions cooking food. Buuuuut looks like I don't have the option anymore! That's January 28.

February 4 and 5 will be the Rodeo luncheon for 300 people, for which I am to design the menu and egads I need to be doing that NOW! But I need more specs on it. I'll talk to Chef today.

On February 19, there will be a cooking demo of some sort at the Rodeo.

Olives Ole is the next biggie. We are hoping to meet with the director of the event and get the details this week. We will prep for it on 3/25 with his intermediate cooking class and it happens in the Botanical Gardens on 4/1.

And finally, Fiesta. Another event I have lucked out of working every year, alas, no longer. Chef warned me that I will be working long, long hours Tuesday through Friday at their booth. Hey, if I find myself needing to make up hours, this will be a good place to grind 'em out!

There are two "blank" spots in the semester where I can theoretically focus on combining/creating the employee handbooks for waiters, hosts and cooks: between February 19 - March 25, and from April 15 - the end of the semester. I also told Chef that he really needs a website. I of course have no idea how to build a website beyond the joys of blogspot, so I'm not sure what masochistic impulse led me to offer its construction. I was probably riding high on endorphins after hearing all of ^^^^ so I figured hey, what's a little more? Silly me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A teensy tiny change of plans

So, last we heard, I was proceeding full speed ahead to begin interning at Auden's Kitchen this week. Well, about that. I got a call from Chef Will Thornton last Thursday, and everything got flipped upside down. The little thing about doors closing and windows opening? Yeah, that.

Backstory on Chef Will. He is the program director for the Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management programs at St Philip's and has been for a couple of decades. He is American Culinary Federation (ACF)-certified CEC (Certified Executive Chef) and CCE (Certified Culinary Educator) and was named ACF Texas Chef of the Year in 2006. So he is a Pretty Big Deal.

He is also my personal mentor and biggest fan at St Philip's. All the really neat opportunities beyond the basic classwork have been given to me because of him. When I got tagged to teach a 2 hour class to the San Antonio Rampage players last semester, it was because of his support and his intuition that I was deep down inside just ACHING to be given the spotlight in front of a class. I didn't even know that about myself yet, but he sure was spot on. It was the most fun I have ever had and has led me to focus my culinary dreams on instruction! He also owns the Original Mexican Restaurant on the Riverwalk, which while not a bastion of authentic Mexican cuisine (it was planned from the get-go to be touristy), it is consistently rolling in cash from happy visitors to the Riverwalk.

So. The phone call. "Hey Megan! Have I told you recently how much I adore you and think you are the bestest?" (That's never a good sign. It means he has a big project and is about to pawn it off on me, knowing that I am completely incapable of saying no. Okay, yes, all the projects have turned out to be wildly successful, fun and informative, so maybe it IS a good sign. But still, I felt a certain trepidation.)

"So, you're starting your Practicum next week, yeah? Well, how would YOU like to come work for this little restaurant consulting company called the Will Thornton Group as an associate culinary consultant?"

Yes, I dropped everything. Yes, I made my apologies to Auden's Kitchen. And yes, I am positive it is about to be the most fun semester ever. I mean, CHECK OUT these new objectives! This is what I will be doing this semester!

1. Design and implement operations manual for the Olives Ole event at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens as the Associate Director of Operations
2. Develop menu and manage service execution for the Rodeo Competitor Luncheon
3. Develop and integrate training manuals for both front-of-house and back-of-house at the Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, TX

Looks like the kitchen will wait! I'm off to do great things. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Objectives and outline

In my Practicum at Auden’s Kitchen, my objectives are to:
• Execute all savory items on the menu, including proteins, pasta, sauces, pizzas and sides by learning and demonstrating a variety of cooking techniques
• Apply excellent organization, time management and sanitation skills to produce food that is consistently safe to eat and served in a prompt manner to meet the needs of the operation
• Develop skill fabricating various cuts of meat and utilizing preparation techniques including mousses, rillettes, confit, etc.
• Learn operation standards for purchasing, receiving, storing and issuing products and understand par stock requirements for the operation

I like Chef Patricia very much. She seems to be very level-headed, passionate without being either abrasive or flighty, and willing to trust that I will prove myself. Unfortunately she doesn't work during my shift, which is....8am to 2pm, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Egads I didn't think chefs knew how to wake up before noon! But I did ask to be morning/early afternoon (so that I have time in the evenings to transcribe shows and actually make a bit of money, this being an unpaid internship and all), and she said the lunch cooks come in at 8am, so there you go.

(Honestly I don't really mind. I love the early shift at any job. The relative quiet and stillness is a great environment for preparing for the day, and it leaves me feeling in control of myself and my surroundings, much more so than arriving in the middle of the rush.)

I will be bringing my knives, tongs and scrapers. No dress code (AK shirts provided there) except hair must be restrained (but not with a hair net and paper toque! Hurray!). I will likely be starting out on prep work and then moving to the line, which is all stuff I need to know to do. I will also probably be getting a daily to-do list to help me meet my objectives. I'm very excited that I thought of the meat fabrication objective. AK works with several types of fish, so I'll finally get practice dressing them, as well as breaking down some pork and ribeyes.

Oh, and Chef Patricia doesn't like the recipe books going home with anyone. She's justifiably protective of her recipes. Shucks, I can't practice making that duck confit pizza.

One week from tomorrow, I start!

A new year, a new mission

And conveniently abandoning the old mission! Nothing against restaurant reviews--it was a fun resolution and I learned as much as I ate, which is to say, a lot. But whew, did it catch up with me by the end of the year! Sorry for leaving it in a state of shambles, everyone.

And now for something completely different!

This semester I begin the internship requirement of my culinary school. I have secured unpaid-grunt-work-employment at Auden's Kitchen, which you may remember from this very blog! Since that fateful meal, I've returned twice (high praise from an ADD diner!) and on one of those meetings, I figuratively stumbled into Chef Auden himself and, long story short, he offered me a spot in AK this spring. Cha-ching!

In an hour I meet with his sous chef, Patricia Wenckus, to discuss the schedule, objectives, and other Need To Know info. I have never worked in a professional kitchen before so I am equal parts frenetically excited and apprehensive about making a fool of myself, holding the entire kitchen back during a rush, and/or burning down the building. At least I am not going in with a cocky, "lookit me, I been edumacated!" attitude. Heyyyy, silver lining!

Every week I need to send an update to my advising Chef, Patrick Costello, summarizing what I have learned and done that past week. Since I'll be doing the writing anyway, I thought, why not post it here too? It's not the kaleidoscope of culinary glory that I focused on last year, but it's probably interesting to people not currently working in a restaurant. Anyway, even if this turns into my quietly-updated diary, it will still focus on food--and that's always interesting.

More updates to come after my meeting.