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.
Last weekend was A’s business school 5-year reunion in Philly. As with any b-school reunion, there was fun stuff (galas, picnics, drinking under tents) and boring stuff (“Now, 5 years out, let’s talk about how to grow your leadership even further”). So I skipped the boring stuff and hopped a train to New York, where I met up with a friend to eat at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar on the lower east side. Depicted here: the roasted pig tails with pickled daikon, the famous pork belly buns that started it all, and the classic ramen. Most notable was, as expected, the pork belly buns; as you’ll see, there are not one but two super fatty slices of the glorious stuff tucked away in each bun, and when you picked it up, it literally dripped delicious fat onto your plate. It’s one of those dishes where the first bite was genuinely life-altering, but then each subsequent bite starts making you feel ickier and ickier because it is just so terribly, horrifyingly rich. Once I finished, I had to sit there for 30 seconds to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack.
So, as part of Cuisines Across Cultures, we’ve had the pleasure of covering Italy, France, Germany and Austria, Africa, South America, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. As our second-to-last class, we covered America. “Regional American,” specifically. Split into 4 groups (Northeast/Midwest, South, Southwest, and Pacific), we were tasked with researching and then cooking at least one app, one entree, and one dessert.
My team drew Northeast/Midwest, so we did Poutine (French Canadian in origin, but has apparently since been heavily adopted by New Hampshire), Vichyssoise (French in inspiration, but in fact invented by the exec chef at the Ritz Carlton New York), Cranberry, Apple, and Walnut Salad (classic New England), Codfish Cakes with Red Pepper Rouille (again, classic New England), and Swedish Pancakes with Lingonberry Buttercream (a modern take on the Midwestern classic of Scandinavian origin). [In case anyone wants to know, Poutine is basically french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds; Vichyssoise is cold leek and potato cream soup.] After time was called, we set our dishes on the front table as a buffet for the class. Also depicted here is the best dish of the day, in my opinion — Group 1’s Southern-style shrimp and grits (courtesy of Yoga Girl).
Last week we had yet another mini-lecture from our Career Services rep on interviewing for jobs. (This is the time when my fellow classmates are hunting seriously for the mandatory 3-month kitchen externship that they have to do in order to graduate in September.) We got the usual sage advice: Show up on time, have your knives ready if they want to test you, don’t ask about vacation.
And then we got four words of advice that I truly and deeply hope is mostly specific to the chef industry in San Francisco (though I know it isn’t):
“Don’t show up high.”
Back to the food. It was South America week last week, which involved such goodies as flank steak with chimichurri sauce and South American-style ceviche. On the latter item, we were given an extra lecture on plating. To wit, there IS such a thing as making something too beautiful to the point where no one wants to eat it. Case in point, Sculptor’s final plate:
Certainly pretty to look at. But not only is it difficult to eat, what with the shells and all, but part of ceviche’s appeal (which is missing here), is the melding of the various types of seafood and flavorings in one single bite. When you’ve got fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops, clams, tomato, onion, cilantro, parsley, serrano chile, and lime all sitting in a bowl “getting all happy” together (wow, that Emeril quote came out of nowhere and I think I just died a little inside writing it), you want your customer to experience that. Just something to keep in mind. And, for those occasions (bouillebaise comes to mind) where you want to leave the shells in, make sure that you run your paring knife underneath the meat so as to cut the little tendon that’s holding mussel/clam to the shell. Just a bit easier. As we’re reminded constantly, “American eaters are dumb. They will eat anything, and I mean anything — bones, shells, whatever — that you put in front of them.”
(Sidenote on ceviche: This was the first ceviche recipe I’d used where the shellfish was actually pre-cooked (as opposed to relying solely on the acid to half-cook the stuff), and it was really quite good, so it’s useful for those of you who are antsy, pregnant, or both. Bring some fish stock with a few scallions to a simmer, then dunk your shrimp (shell-on) in for 40 seconds til cooked. Remove the shrimp, and take the pot off the heat. Throw in your scallops and let them hang out for a couple minutes until cooked through, i.e., opaque in the middle. In a separate pan, place your in-shell stuff (mussels, clams) with a little white wine and cook over med heat until the shells open up. Cool all shellfish immediately (preferably in an ice bath), chop up your veg/herbs, then mix the two together and let everything chill out in your fridge for 2-3 hours before service.)
Those of you from New York are probably, like me, enamored with the Dosa Man (repeated winner of the Vendy Awards) on W. 4th near NYU’s campus. Every day, this guy stands behind his sizzling giant grill, carefully pouring out dosa batter (usually made of chickpea flour — which gives you gas) and then filling it with all sorts of deliciousness like stewed potatoes in a masala spice mixture. The South Indian paper-thin pancake is crispy on the outside, with just the right chew on the inside, and the perfect blend of flavor, heat, and texture variation — and also an appropriate level of greasiness which I personally feel is key to any properly-made street food, particularly of the hangover varietal. Big plus: All wrapped up like a crepe that’s way awesomer than crepes, you can eat it by hand.
I got to re-experience that last weekend at a friend’s baby’s pooja (traditional prayer session for the baby). This was in the SF suburb of Pleasanton, which boasts a not insignificant Indian population, and apparently THIS guy (not the in-home spa lady, the cocktail dude, or any of those other fancy shmancy people) is all the rage at parties. For any of my engaged female friends who are reading this — be prepared that this dude will be making his next appearance at your bachelorette party (and he won’t be strippin). Stylish!