Thursday, March 31, 2011

Testing products

Done, done, on to the next!

So far for the Boerne Stage Bakery we have a pretty complete menu. There are a couple items we are doing from ready-made products (more on that soon), some items we are doing from recipe (aka from scratch), and some things that are a combination of the two. This is really the best strategy for a small bakery with a limited kitchen and a very limited number of employees--if we tried to make everything from scratch, we would have to charge $10 a cupcake to make a profit on the small volume we could produce. But the combination of the two ensures that we can have a steady stream of fresh baked goods in the proofer/oven/on the shelves at any point in time. It will just take careful mise en place to make sure we have it all timed right.

Those of you who know me are aware that I can be somewhat of a culinary snoot. This isn't to say that I don't like food; I really love food. But I have preconceived notions about terms like "fresh, local, organic, made from scratch" and terms like "ready-made, pre-packaged, convenience." To me, it's a black and white difference. One category is made with love, the other is made with preservatives. "I'm selling out," I glumly told myself at the thought of abandoning my three years of culinary training in favor of a frozen bread product.

I'm happy to be proven wrong.

True, not everything--not most of the things--that we've tasted from Sysco have been as good or better than homemade. Some things were as unpleasant as I'd expected. But other things are really, astonishingly palatable. I would put my name on them without cringing. And boy is it hard to turn down a flaky little puff pastry danish that you pull out of the bag onto a sheet pan, pop in the oven, ice and serve. It simply defied the hours of labor that went into my hand-made puff pastry. Hours and space that we don't have. So much butter. So much time and pampering. Versus frozen puff pastry that any of us would have been happy to claim on our final exam in Laminated Doughs.

So we're going with those, as well as dough bases (sourdough and wheat) that are incredibly easy to personalize, proof and bake. We have excellent recipes for banana streusel muffins, apple granola muffins, blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies and ranger cookies. We have cake pops that are an entire universe better than Starbucks'. We are finalizing quiches and kolaches (YUM!). We still want a good sugar cookie, pecan bar, and to revise our carrot cake muffin.

That's the food side of things. Just delighted with our progress. My job right now is to get these recipes to a science and make a recipe book with precise measurements of amounts, procedure, and time rested/proofed/baked. It needs to be all spelled out. Fortunately Sysco is very accommodating to new businesses starting up and they gave us a bunch of the product to play with. It should be enough.

In other news, we had a bit of a setback with staffing and need two more bakers to work evenings. No idea on front of house. I am officially on the full-time payroll in four days.

Yep, moving, shaking and baking!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Olives Ole

Finally, Olives Ole. This week was extremely long and taxing physically and mentally, but I got to learn many new things and apply them. What kept me going was not sweating it when things didn’t go right—because inevitably they didn’t. And it all still worked out okay. I might consider that one of the most important lessons I learned doing this event.

Monday was devoted to collecting all the lists of volunteers that had been posted in the St. Philip’s hallways and emailing all the volunteers with information regarding the event. Tuesday we had a last-minute meeting with about 20 Dames, most of whom had not been at any of the other meetings. It was apparent that there were gaps in the communication; one Dame had been collecting volunteers for the non-concessions and had no idea that St. Philip’s was providing the volunteers for the concessions despite the fact that we’d been here all along. There were some changes made to the menu; Sysco contacted me and informed me that they were unable to procure lamb chops, so the decision was made to go with ribeye instead and keep the side dish and sauce.

Thursday, all the food product was delivered to St. Philip’s and I was the one to receive it. This was significant for me because even though I have taken Purchasing and understand the general idea of how receiving inventory works, this was the first time I had put my learning into practice. It was really difficult! We were speaking different languages, so to speak, and I had to translate on the spot. I had my checklists and the delivery order from River City Produce and another from Ben E Keith. Di-Anna had received the dry goods and paper goods from Sysco at the Botanical Gardens, but I wasn’t initially aware of this and did not know from which source we were supposed to be receiving the food. So this took a bit of adjustment for me. Even more of an adjustment was the way large quantities of food is packaged and shipped; it was not at all like how I had written it in the ingredient requisition, because I just didn’t know. I would say “60 each butternut squash” and I ended up getting 3 cartons of some butternut squash by the pound. So I’d have to look at them and calculate/guess if the amount they sent was indeed the same as the amount I requested. Sometimes it was. Sometimes it was not, and sometimes not even close. There were items they were unable to procure for us (pomegranate juice). There were things they procured some of, not all of (24 heads of collard greens instead of 40). There were things on the list that we didn’t see in person (but they ended up being there after all, oops). The best I could do was go down the list, try to translate it as best I could, and check the quality of the items (that at least I could do well). Ultimately another couple of shopping trips were made to supplement the missing items and we continued onward.

(Since the food was donated, it wasn’t hard for me to keep from getting out of sorts about the missing things…something about not looking a gift horse in the mouth.)

Friday was prep day. I was one of five chefs in command, and ultimately was the kitchen manager of all three classes prepping ingredients and making 10 dishes, most of which for 600 portions. This involved assigning recipes to groups of students; gathering fresh ingredients from the food truck outside, dry ingredients from wherever we squirreled them inside St. Philip’s; and following and/or changing the recipes. Some changes were forced because ingredients weren’t available in the desired amount, and some were adjustments we made a la minute to the recipes (e.g. not adding a pound of black pepper to the chicken salad). In some cases we made great use of our time and cranked things out faster than I expected, such as the mashed sweet potatoes, zinfandel pomegranate reduction, and chocolate chipotle brownies. Other things took far longer than they should have, such as the hummus (thanks to not getting enough cans of chickpeas which forced us to cook our own, a time-consuming process that ended up not being necessary as I will discuss in a bit), the peachwood smoked chicken salad (in one part due to the laborious job of smoking chicken and finishing it in the oven, and in another part due to the decision to chop 60 red bell peppers by hand rather than running them through the buffalo chopper which is what should have been utilized for all mass production of vegetables). Overall, the classes were very receptive, hard-working and focused. At the end of the day, all the prep work was completed and everything tasted delicious.

Finally, Saturday was the event. I felt completely in my element all day as I collected volunteers when they arrived, ordered them to set up, grab food off the truck, man a booth and plate food, or run errands for all the Dames. We had an astonishingly good turnout of volunteers (out of 49 that signed up, only about 6 were no-shows), and a handful of those scheduled until 2pm stayed with us until 4pm which was wonderful. Once again, nothing went totally right. But we rolled with it all the way through. I kept morale up, checked in with the volunteers to make sure they understood how we wanted things and ensured they got breaks and a chance to eat and drink, and overall the concessions were a success.

Was there room for improvement? Absolutely. I had to send people back to school to pick up the zinfandel pomegranate sauce that I had forgotten to load onto the truck, and to Central Market because foolishly we had neglected to bring salt, pepper and chicken base to the event. Some ingredients were not in sufficient supply for the paella station (thanks to the missing red bell peppers). We had far too much of everything else, especially the stupid labor-intensive hummus. We returned what we could, donated what we could, and gave as much away to the volunteers as they wanted, and still threw away probably 15 trays of food. The biggest financial calamity was that the ribeye, which was prepared at another location by one of the Dames’ caterers, was not held at a food safe temperature. The health inspectors came, checked it, and ordered it destroyed. The Dame in charge of that station made the decision to go purchase racks of lamb at astonishingly awful prices at Sam’s Club just to have something to serve. (Incidentally, Tavis said it was some of the best lamb he’s ever eaten, so it was not a complete waste.)

As far as labor goes, St. Philip’s made this possible. I don’t know how they could have done it without us. Setup did not take as long as expected; breaking it down at the end of the day took longer. The Dames, as often as they had complained that breaking it down was the part that they were least-prepared-for in the past two years, had still not devoted sufficient time and planning to ensure that they would be better prepared this year! Our volunteers were done by this point, physically and mentally. Many of them had cooked the night before or been there since 7am. We were culinary students, we had prepared and served food, and asking more of them was ridiculous. So this is definitely an area for improvement in future years.

Throughout this week, I learned so much about my ability to thrive under the pressure of long hours, a huge amount of multi-tasking, and being diplomatic to every stressed person under trying conditions. I am hugely proud of myself and I know that I came out of this event knowing once again that when I’m put to the test, I can and will do a great job.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ramping up

I've been scouting for talent this past week. I will settle for warm bodies if we get close to the start date and I have to, but I'm trying for talent. The only people I know are at St. Philip's, which is just all sorts of pros and cons in itself. A pro: they wouldn't be in culinary school if cooking/baking didn't light up their eyes. A con: our school is not remotely close to the bakery, and generally that holds true for the students attending this school as well. A pro and a con: they are learning cooking/baking techniques. In other words, yay we have some food knowledge. But boo we are all basically students still, entering into a completely new business with owners who do not have a professional culinary background either. A giant con: they're all going to have to be part-time because they are currently students. That means a huge juggle of schedules and more employees needed to fill in the gaps.

Other pros and cons outside the student factor: they are all friends of mine. And every one of the three bakers I have found are people I have worked with in close quarters, in high pressure situations, and for long hours. I have seen them during slow times and stressful times. I have seen how often they skip class (rarely to never) and for what reasons. I have seen AND TASTED the products made by their own hands. I can't think of a better recommendation, a more objective and thorough evaluation, than that of the experience I have shared with these three people.

I know the theory behind why it is difficult to go from being peers to being boss/subordinate. I understand that it's harder to discipline, fire, or give negative feedback to a person that is also a friend. That there may be complaints of favoritism, especially when I have to hire other people that I don't know yet. That I may struggle making the schedule fit around each employee's needs because I want them to have time to spend with their family even though we don't have anyone else to cover that shift. And I know that in the couple of years that I was a manager, my biggest weakness was making my team a family first, a business second. I was lacking the "tough" in "tough love." This is something I absolutely must improve, and now, and always.

For what it's worth, I have weighed all of this carefully and I still wouldn't do it any other way. These people are just too good.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

You can stop holding your breath

I got the job! Anticipated start date is April 4, with a list of tasks to complete on a very nice hourly basis until then. Excitement abounds! We are waiting for Marnie's official acceptance letter but they alluded to her directly in my "list of tasks" so we know she got it, just not if they agreed to her hourly wage.

Times are happy.

Olives Ole is doing well. The ingredients and supplies list can't stay completed no matter how hard I try; as soon as I send it off, I get two emails letting me know things have changed again. I need to take a 5 Hour Energy and crank this sucker out while I still have time.

And yesterday I finally got into the swing of writing out all my notes for the Original Mexican Restaurant into quiz form. It's a lot of fun and it will be very helpful for new hires to have the menu knowledge really drilled into their head before they begin.

This past week I got to be the student rep for the San Antonio Culinary & Restaurant Committee luncheon again (two semesters in a row! Lucky me!) which meant eating great food made by one of the Management & Food Production classes--the best gazpacho I've ever had, plus lamb chops (mine was killed) and a really interesting baklava cheesecake. (See below.) I was also treated to the best breakfast tacos in San Antonio at Mitman's (sorry, Tink a Tako, you've been replaced), fed chipotle chocolate brownies that we'll be selling at Olives Ole, and more free fried pickles, bison burgers and sweet potato fries at Earl Abels during last Sunday's Olives Ole meeting. For as much work as I'm putting into this semester, I sure can't complain about the food.

It's the little perks, really.

Overall, I am feeling great and really delighted in everything that is being accomplished. My ducks are all in a row. This week.