Last day of Cuisines Across Cultures. And, for me, last day of culinary school. Sniff sniff.
As I’d mentioned before, in order to graduate with a Certificate in Culinary Arts, one has to take 9 months of classes followed by a 3-month externship (you continue to pay tuition during the entire 12-month period). Since I’ve decided that cheffing is not for me, it doesn’t quite make sense for me to spend 3 months externing in a kitchen, while also paying an extra nearly $10k in tuition. So I decided to finish things up here, start applying for food-related legal/business jobs, and see where it takes me.
But first, I gotta finish Cuisines Across Cultures. The final exam: Pick a food culture out of Chef L’s hat (literally) and cook one entree and one appetizer from that culture, using whatever ingredients you can find in the walk-in. (There’s never that much left in the walk-in during Finals, since the school isn’t ordering new stuff at the end of a class segment.) I drew “Mexico,” and (perhaps stupidly, in retrospect), decide to attempt Rick Bayless’ famous Red Mole with Lacquered Chicken for my entree, and his Chipotle Cream Shrimp for my appetizer. Both turned out fine, though I can promise you I will never make mole again.
In Spanish, “mole” means sauce. In English, “mole” means “you better go do some serious shopping because you’re going to need 5 million ingredients which you’ve never used before, not least of which is Mexican chocolate.” Rick Bayless’s red mole actually takes only 18 ingredients, which is on the short side, but I can promise you it was still a ridiculous pain in the ass to make. Among the many steps included (and depicted here): Charring the tomatillos until they’re completely black on the outside and soft and squishy on the inside, frying golden raisins in pork fat that you’ve first flavored with whole pasilla, ancho, and mulato chilies (I’d never seen raisins puff up like that; they looked like gumballs), and simmering your final product for some 3 hours to reduce it to about 1/10th the volume. By the end of the whole process, in which I was running around like a madman because I was given only 2 hours to do a dish that supposedly takes 4, my station was a complete disaster — frying each of the chilies in pork fat creates quite a splatter right off the bat, and by the time you’re simmering the dark red sauce at relatively high heat and purposely letting it splash all over the place, the kitchen looks like a warzone. Then again, this is exactly why I decided to attempt this dish at school; I know I’d never have the patience to cook it, much less clean it, in my own home.
In contrast, the chipotle cream shrimp was ridiculously easy. Just simmer some garlic, oregano, and chipotles in adobo sauce (the canned kind) over low heat, toss in some shrimp to cook, and ta-da. Guess which of these two dishes I’ll be making again.
After finals, the class actually gave me a pretty serious (and touching) send-off, which involved Under-achieving Asian smearing my face with chocolate cake. You know, it’s interesting. Chef L and I had chatted a few weeks ago, and he’d mentioned that he thought our class was a perfect case study of positive impact group dynamics. In the past, he said, he’d taught several classes where there were a couple serious people who really cared to learn about cooking, but their personalities were such (or were not such) that any positive impact they might have had on the class was limited; to use his words, “the clowns took over, and brought everyone down.” In contrast, he said our class went the opposite way, because the serious cooks in our class actually brought the rest of the class up. I’d like to think that had a little something to do with me. I think Under-achieving Asian (who, happily, finally lost his virginity two months ago) put it best when he paid me what will likely be one of my favorite compliments of all time: “You know, I think you’re really well-rounded. That’s what they call it, right, well rounded? Yeah, I think you’re really well-rounded, because you could totally be a huge bitch, but you’re actually a pretty good person.”
It’s been an experience. I’ve learned quite a bit on the substantive cooking side, but I’ve learned way more on the emotional side — working side-by-side with a bunch of people who, in my lawyering life, I would probably never have interacted with, much less come to depend upon and develop some meaningful friendships with.
Thanks for sharing all of it with me…
As I recently learned in class, those four words — stars, dogs, plowhorses, and puzzles — are the four most important words when it comes to running a restaurant.
We all know that alcoholic beverages are, in many cases, what keep a restaurant’s doors open. The profit margins on alcoholic beverages typically far far outweigh most of the food items on a restaurant’s menu, and it’s thus no coincidence that restaurants love to request that their patrons “wait at the bar while we make sure your table is ready.” Profitability margins in the restaurant industry, as I’ve learned, are an average of only 4-6% (including alcohol); thus, every single penny counts. And here’s where the stars, dogs, plowhorses, and puzzles come in.
In restaurant lingo, “stars” are menu items that are high-margin, high-popularity. Typical “stars” include, say, omelets, stewed mussels, pasta dishes, etc. (My recent menu-costing project revealed that even a terrific spaghetti carbonara — made with guanciale, top-quality pasta, and good grana padano — still ran me only about $2.60 a portion, and could probably easily be sold for a good $14 if not more.) “Dogs” are the precise opposite of “stars,” as they are low-margin, low-popularity menu items. These are the ones that cost a lot of money to make (relative to the amount you can charge), but are not even close to popular enough to offset the extra expense.
Most interesting to me are the “plowhorses,” which are menu items that are low-margin, but high-popularity. As the name suggests, these are the items on the menu that bring the customers through the door, and you just pray that they’ll order more than just the plowhorse item itself. A classic example is steak; the food cost is proportionately very high compared to the price you can get away with charging, but having it on the menu is valuable for other reasons because, e.g., it enhances the cache of the restaurant, draws in the 4-top family where Dad refuses to eat salmon, and prompts people like me to buy too many martinis. I recently learned that Ryan Farr’s famed 4505 Meats specialty butcher now sells what’s supposed to be the city’s most amazing hot dog, with an unheard-of food cost percentage of a whopping 65%.
Because all good posts need yummy pictures, here’s a photo of the most recent plowhorse I encountered: The fresh whole-strawberry mochi dessert from Eiji in the Castro. As described, it’s an entire plump juicy strawberry, coated in a light but not insignificant layer of azuki bean paste, and then wrapped in a freshly made glutinous rice dough. The restaurant only allows its patrons to order one of these per person, for $2, and presumably its food/labor cost percentage is quite high given the shelf life of its ingredients and the huge pain in the ass involved in making mochi by hand. Granted, all of Eiji’s food is terrific, but it’s this dessert that largely makes us choose that establishment over any other Japanese restaurant. There you go, plowhorse.
Last, you have the “puzzle,” which is high-margin, low-popularity (read: bleeds you money). I suppose it gets its name from the fact that, ordinarily, you wouldn’t bother investing in a high-margin dish unless you’d anticipate people wanting to eat it. But there are almost always those duds on a restaurant menu. And what do you do? Dress it up on your menu by making it sound delicious, bump it to either the first or last item in the category (studies show that patrons tend to order the first and last-listed entrees the most), and obviously take it off your menu as fast as possible.