Saturday, May 12, 2007

Oven Jockey

According to Chef Tom Beckman, a medium-bald, bespectacled bread-maker in Chicago, there are two kinds of chefs in this world – those that have a secret affinity for the baking and pastry arts and those who want nothing to do with it at all. The former enjoys the world of the savory – the smell of caramelizing mirepoix, the sizzle of the salmon as it lies prostrate in the pan – but quietly shivers with anticipation as he watches the chocolate soufflé rise or smells the rosemary as it browns on top of the focaccia. The latter, however, replaces that quiet shiver with a gag reflex and a cold sweat.

I am happy to be a part of the first group. Since Cypress Restaurant has eliminated the lunch service, my usual station as sauté cook has been relinquished. I will never again make a Monte Cristo sandwich, I will never again cream rice into mushy, mushroomy bliss, and I will never pour two-hundred degree Cream of Artichoke soup on my hand ever again. Actually, I probably will. But in the meantime, I will be over at the pastry station. I will be rolling dough into perfect circles for flaky biscuits. I will be whipping chocolate and butter into devilishly rich flourless chocolate cakes. I will be covered in flour, and, when I itch my nose (which, inevitably, will itch), I will look conspicuously like a cocaine addict.

It has only been a week since I started my new, sweeter life at the much cooler end of the kitchen. And yet, I have already gained new pastry awareness. I can put a tray of pecans in the oven and not set a timer. 13 minutes later, I will smell their toasted doneness wafting out of the steely convection oven, and my clothed hand will reach in and deftly pull them out. I can smell the cornbread croutons crisp and brown. I know the amber color of the caramel when it is ready to be made into brittle. I know the slam-slam-flip sound of the pizza dough banging against the side of the mixer when it is set to be slid into a cold, oiled bowl, covered with film, and placed on top of the oven to rise.

The greatest thing, to me, about being a pastry chef – and also probably my downfall – is the ability that the mind has to wander. When working a culinary station like grill or sauté, it’s BAM BAM BAM. Your mind never has time to slow down. While your body is sweating and shaking, your mind is also sweating. You must remember what’s on the stove, whether that salmon was medium or medium-well, whether it’s going on a salad or as an entrée, what the side dishes are, what needs to be fired next, whether it gets blackening spice or not, how long it’s been – HOLY SHIT – HOW LONG HAS THE FUCKER BEEN IN THE OVEN!?

That’s what your mind sounds like. Culinary stations are an uphill battle. And all the while, the ticket machine goes chik chik chik onto the next table’s order.

But while you’re working your forearms rolling 144 tiny biscuits, which are affectionately known at Cypress as “flat nasties” because they’re, well, flat, and “nasty good,” you can think about so many other things. What you have to do that day, your plans for the future, whether or not to break up with your boyfriend, and so many other random thoughts. Singing along with the Eagles “Tequila Sunrise” is also acceptable while cracking and separating 40 eggs for four measly quarts of crème brulee custard that will be gone the next day.

There is a science behind the cracking and separating of the eggs. Gloves, of course, are essential – no one likes an eggy hand. Crack the egg on a hard surface and pull it apart (over the trashcan) into two separate but equal hemispheres. Catch the yolk gently in your left hand as the mucus-esque white dribbles through the slivers between your fingers. I love how heavy the yolk feels by itself and how delicate it is in my palm. Don’t make this too automatic though – I often find myself cracking the egg into the trashcan – white and yellow – and then cursing at myself and thinking about how much that single egg cost and how much money we could have made from it. That’s what restaurants do. Everything – every last raspberry – is a lesson in food costs.

I am quite surprised that I am so enamored of the baking arts. My first exposure to real baking was right before Christmas in my Intro to Baking class at culinary school. Getting the basics right – creaming butter and sugar to the right consistency, whipping meringues until they are shiny and stiff, and thwapping the back of a baguette to make sure it’s hollow inside – were not such a problem. The problem was the oven.

I don’t want to seem too self-deprecating, but I’m not the most graceful woman in the world. As my boyfriend Gordon puts it, gravity doesn’t look good on me. Nor does it like me very much. Gravity, coupled with heavy objects and several hundred degrees of heat, on the other hand, is a shoe-in for complete disaster. I’ve had several unfortunate experiences with ovens, not the least of which includes grabbing a 500 degree plate with my bare hand, feeling it stick to the flesh on my fingers, and then throwing it eight feet across the kitchen. I had three beautiful blisters develop directly after the five minutes I spent crying in the walk-in freezer. But the first time I ever became truly afraid of the 8-foot-tall convection oven monster was in that first baking class.

Becoming too comfortable with heat was my first mistake. Underestimating the weight of a full sheet tray laden with white chocolate and cranberry biscotti was the other. The rack that the sheet tray was on was about five feet high, and grabbing it with my right hand, covered with a cloth, was proving to be difficult. I am also about five feet high. The tray slipped off the rack and hit me square on the side of my chin, scorching the skin and giving me a nice looking scar that remained for months – turning from red, to blistered, to dried-up skin, to scab over several weeks. My boyfriend at the time, Cory, started calling me the “oven jockey” and made fun of my battle scar for weeks. He didn’t last much longer than that.

It’s a sweet life, I have to admit. Working from eight until two, smelling the chocolate in the oven and knowing the exact moment when the finished cake cracks, pouring cream over butter and chopped chocolate to make a satiny ganache, and discovering the endless combinations and cooking methods that make the coupling of cream, eggs, and sugar into thousands of different things – lemon curd, pastry creams, crème brulees, ice cream – is enchanting. But while I try to tame the oven, and while I learn the hard way not to overcook custards (so they don’t end up as Grand Marnier cottage cheese), I’ll be thinking about where this will take me, how much more desirable I will be as a chef with pastry experience, and what color I should paint my toenails.

1 comment:

Food and Brew Love said...

This (add bits from others) is my favorite post -- brings back memories of my 5 Seasons (Atlanta) days. You had me simultaneously convulsing with laughter and and sweating from flashbacks of initiation-by-fire.

Your hot tray of biscotti was my hot tray of chickens. My eggs went into the trash, too! I tallied up the costs as I cursed. My creme brulee didn't curdle, but they often ended up mingling with water when I fumbled getting them into the oven or turning them around.

My first time making bourbon sauce, I couldn't get the flames to go down (even removed from heat and covered with the closest lid), and my delighted peers crossed their arms and watched the ansul system with glee and anticipation, hoping for the most dramatic show possible.

Your account of your plate burning and pitching experience was vivid and hilarious, even though it really wasn't funny!

My Spanish 101 happened at the restaurant -- one day I paraded around the kitchen announcing "neccessito vergas", thinking that I really was asking for sausages.

Thanks again for your blog, and the memories.