My time at Menton

It’s amazing what real hard work can do for a persons’ soul. I’ve always looked up to people who have the truly tough jobs in life; fire fighters, service men and women, the folks from those Alaskan king crab shows and well now I can add commis to that list. What is a commis you ask? Under the french brigade system designed by Auguste Escoffier, a commis is a new chef, typically the term given once entering a restaurant after formal training, and yes smack dab at the bottom of the proverbial food chain.

Being invited to work for the best restaurant in town is a no-brainer, you say yes. Then you give yourself a few weeks to mentally prepare, say goodbye to friends, free time, sleep and any money you might have because you won’t be seeing these things or the daylight for awhile. Small price for an experience of a lifetime.

I entered Menton completely naive. If I thought my stage was an indicator of the work ahead, I was kidding myself. In retrospect the stage was the easiest 14- hour- sweaty- busy- hectic- nerve- racking- day I ever had at there.

Since leaving Menton for a completely different opportunity at America’s Test Kitchen, my friends and family have been asking “what was it like?”

Menton is a nationally known fine dining restaurant, world ranking even with its addition to the Relais & Chateaux standing of the worlds best restaurants. In Boston, we only have a few restaurants offering unique, seasonal, and well executed french technique at its best and Menton is certainly at the top of the list. It holds such a reputation because they give their diners the full experience. Not only is the food memorable, exciting, and visually different, the dining experience is top notch. I once had a friend (before I started working there) tell me that it was as if the waiter knew he had to use the restroom before he knew he had to use it. This might have been an exaggeration on his part, however, this was still the kind of impression Menton gave him. Most recently, Cat Silirie the wine director for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo just won a James Beard Award for her idea and direction of their wine program. Not only is the wine and food excellent, the staff, atmosphere and attitudes of the front of the house play just as important of a balance. Without them, the food would not matter as much, the wine wouldn’t taste as good, and the atmosphere wouldn’t play such a unique presence. This is why I came to work here.

Showing up for my first day of work was intimidating; I was nervous, excited and questioning my ability to be there, since, I had never actually worked in a restaurant before. I showed up in my own chef pants, rookie move number one. I had to remind myself that Chef Colin and Chef Wyatt saw something in me during my stage and that they knew I could do it. Setting up my station in the midst of 10 extremely well trained cooks (all men) sent nervous twists to the pit of my stomach, but I knew if I showed it, they’d eat me alive. In this business, if you are told to do something you do it, so that’s what I did. Head down, eager to learn, just.do.work. As a commis, a big part of my daily tasks was to get the list of herbs needed for each station that day, Chef de Partie (CDP) and Garde Manage, meat entremet, fish entremet, meat CDP, Fish CDP, and anything canapes needed. 7 stations ranging with a list from 5-20 herbs each x the amount of garnish per plate times the amount of covers equals thousands of individual herbs a day. It’s amazing how fast these fingers can move. The first few days I spent a lot of time finding out what each herb was. I had no idea what persulane, oxalis, or stelaria looked like! (Culinary school fail here). After 5 hours of hustle and rapidly plucking plooshes, leaves, flowers, and micro greens, roughly 40-60 plastic black to-go containers would adorn a perfectly cut (not torn) green label with the stations name on it. Out of the herb “weeds” yet again. Now for the hard part…

At 4pm each day we had family meal, which I most often dreaded, it meant I had to stop working no matter if I was finished with the herbs, that I had to sit and eat, and wait for our pre service meeting to adjourn. Between the end of this meeting and the start of service was do or die time for me. I had to finish my projects, and also sometimes those of the other cooks, peeling walnuts, turning artichokes, blanching asparagus, getting pots, pans, towels, oils, salts, stocks, more garnishes, you name it! It had to be done 10 minutes ago.

Sweating, always, and running on pure, head-spinning, adrenaline is sort of a great feeling.

From about 6pm to close I had to help the dishwashers run the clean and dirty pots and pans up and down the stairs. All Clad pots to be exact, very heavy, most often 400-500 degrees hot and spitting with oil. I cannot say this was fun, however night after night I had to make a game out of it, how much could I lift? How fast could I run down and back up again? How could I not burn myself? After awhile I treated it as my workout, this part of the job wasn’t going away anytime soon, so I had to make the best out of it.

After about 5 weeks, I was moved up to Canapes. Done with picking herbs and on to something new. This was an exciting day for me, however the work and hustle only got harder. My prep list included: making madelines, onion macaroons, cut fish of the day for tartare, fry potato chips, prep and make mushroom leek tarts, steam off clams for butter soup, make gazpacho, gather all my garnishes; fried capers, chive tips, chervil, goat cheese, creme fraiche, caviar, onion/carrot/herb powders and be set up for service at 5pm not a minute late. Afterall, my food was the first bite the diner would taste and I need to be ready on time. After slingin’ canapes for 5 hours I’d clean up my station and resume pot and pan running, although by now I’m a pro and carrying much more weight than I could during week one.

When service finally came to a close, we’d clean the molteni, polish, shine and scrub until everything sparkled again. Everyone’s remaining mise en place came downstairs again, the low boys were cleared out, the pass was turned off, and the mops hung to dry. And now for my favorite part of the day, beers. We’d spread out the dirty pass linen and throw hunks of cheese, leftover bread rolls and iced down cambros full of miller high life. Finally I stopped sweating, cold beer, even miller high life tasted like the best thing of earth. Left over cheese from the cheese cart felt like my first meal all day, and the bread rolls, oh the bread rolls. The day was over, we’d discuss prep and service, highs and lows, call outs and things to change, each cooks with visible exhaustion on their faces, relished in their soon fate, sleep.

Looking back, this experience has taught me a lot. I couldnt write about it at first, I had to let the moments sink in, settle, and rest from it. It was physically tough, demanding, mentally draining at times, but it also was extremely rewarding, fun, exciting, and hilarious. It only took a few weeks to feel part of the family, and the camaraderie in that kitchen was the most fun I’ve had since playing sports in high school. Good people with common interests. But also because I was working with some amazing talent. Each person with their own story of where they came from, how they started cooking, where they’ve worked, traveled, eaten, and where they’ll go next. On the few days when I thought I wouldn’t make it, I was in the weeds, burnt badly, or just plain exhausted these guys would keep me going, they’d always say “get your shit done, but if you need help, no one will let you fail” and they never did.

I learned so much while working there, from even better work efficiency to meat and fish butchery to doing the best you can or not all. Simple things, like chive squiggles, shelling lagoustine, peeling walnuts- (yes they individually peel walnuts!), making pea veloute chlorophyll, and all things foie gras.

As my time at Menton was coming to an end, I was actually sad to leave. A part of me was relieved it was over, but another part of me knew that if only I had started in this business 10 years ago, it’d be amazing to see where I’d be today. But that’s life, things change. Personally, I feel accomplished with my time at Menton, I was pushed hard, worked harder than I ever have in my life, and also met some of the most amazing people. I wouldn’t change one day of it. I discovered that I’m f-ing great at time management and I can hustle. I can learn and be taught quickly on the fly, that my food memory is stronger than my actual day to day memory, and that I’m so happy I decided to change careers. Food, in whatever capacity that holds going forward, is where I belong. No, I don’t think I want to be a chef in a restaurant setting, perhaps in a private home, yacht (ha! one can dream..), or for my own friends and family but the restaurant world is tough and for the right kind of person. I’d rather keep being a rolling stone in this culinary journey.

meat room shenanigans

A big thank you to Chef Colin, Chef Wyatt, Johnny, Lou, Jeff, Clarice, Matty, Aaron, Oz, Brian, Chef Ian, Chef Chris, Chef Bethany, Kelly, Katherine, Creepy, Ben, and C, it was a lot of fun to work with all of you and thank you for allowing me in your kitchen.

Comfort food, low-cal and super easy: Chicken Enchiladas

photo c/o myrecipes.com

Who doesn’t love Mexican food? Especially easy, tasty, low-calorie Mexican food.  My mom’s been making this dish for quite sometime and it’s a favorite comfort food of mine.  However I’ve taken her recipe and found a few tricks to make it even more low-cal, protein packed and full of flavor.

Here’s what you will need to get started.

  • 9×13 baking dish
  • 2 large Chicken Breasts
  • 10 oz Frozen Chopped Spinach (thaw, drain all water) + a couple handfuls of raw spinach
  • 4 Scallions, diced. (save some for the top of the dish)
  • 4 tbsp Cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 can black beans, drained (optional)
  • ½ cup Plain Fat Free Yogurt
  • 8 oz low-fat Sour Cream
  • 1/4 cup skim milk
  • ½ Tbs Salt
  • 1 tbsp Cumin
  • 1/2 cup of onion, sauteed(do not heavily brown, this will change the white sauce color)
  • 1 Garlic clove, minced and added to onion saute
  • 1 can of Green Chiles, drained (you pick your heat!)
  • 1.5 cup of Colby Jack Cheese or Queso Fresco (again, your choice)
  • 2 pkg flour tortillas (6-8 count each)

1. Pre-heat oven to 350*F

2. Season the chicken with S&P. Sauté, let rest and cool, then pull apart (shred).

3. Combine all sauce ingredients in a large bowl. Taste to season (might need more salt or cumin depending…)

4. In your 9 x 13 dish add a thin layer of sauce to the bottom.  Filling one tortilla at a time, gently add a dollop of sauce, chicken and a few pinches of cheese, roll then layer side by side in the pan. repeat, repeat, repeat.  Disperse the remainder of the sauce on top of the enchiladas cover every inch*. Sprinkle with scallions and add cheese.

Note*covering the entire dish will prevent burning, drying or, or unpleasant, rock hard, tortilla sections.

Bake at 350*F for 30 minutes

Easy, peasy!  Serve with Mexican rice and margaritas for best results.

Ole!

MODERNIST CUISINE IS FINALLY HERE!

I have never in my life been so excited to read a book!  If Mr. Booker from my 2nd, 3rd, AND 4th grade “special”  reading class could only see me now!   Last night was a version of Christmas morning and I channeled my inner 7-year-old self as I ripped through the many MANY layers and careful packaging that this beauty came in.   It sorta went something like this: 

Okay those kids are a little crazy… let’s just say I was excited.

Since I started following Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, I began to learn about a book that was being created solely in the realm of modernist food.  To learn what Modernist food is, you have to know where food, since quite literally, the beginning of time, came from. Molecular Gastronomy is defined as : A style of cooking in which scientific methods and equipments are used. This type of cooking examines, and makes use of, the physical and chemical reactions that occur during cooking. The term was coined in part by French chemist Hervé This…Examples of molecular gastronomy include cooking sous vide, flash-freezing with liquid nitrogen, and making foams and froths with lecithin and a whipped-cream canister (source).

Hearing of this book instantly intrigued me!  However the price deflated my bubble rather quickly, almost $800 for the series!  Within days the first printing was sold out, probably a blessing in disguise at the time, as I was just starting school and developing my passion for the MG field. 6 months later it is finally here!!  I’ve got about 3000 pages to get through, and I have never been so excited to learn about something in my whole life! There will be A LOT of blogging along the way.  To get my feet wet, I’ve laid out a few things I plan to try this weekend:

On deck:

  • Tomato Caviar (spherification technique)  using agar agar.
  • Bacon Powder!  using Tapioca Maltodextrine
  • Loaded baked potato gnocchi, made with ricotta, bacon powder, sour cream, flour, potato and chive.  Thinking I might try to pair it with a peppery white wine cheddar sauce.  (No MG here- just the use of the Bacon Powder!)
  • Jellied celery root and parsnip puree cubes, could be weird, or delightfully tasty.
Hopefully I don’t run into too many problems trying to find these products, but just in case I have a bountiful amazon.com cart filling up.  MG tests are sure to break the bank!
I’M SO EXCITED TO TURN CHATEAUX JOY STREET’s KITCHEN INTO A MAD SCIENTIST LAB! MUAHAH

Ferran Adria is a f***king badass

Brash of me to use such a title, I know, but there is no better way to put it.   The guy is a genius,  an innovator, a master at his craft,  and at the top of his game.   Over the weekend I had the pleasure  of viewing of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress at the Museum of Fine Art.  I’ve been fascinated with the world of molecular gastronomy for some time now, and as I plan to embark on a few experiments of my own, this documentary came to Boston at the perfect time.

It was fascinating, inspiring, and helped me realize that my true passion is… food-like-this.

Creative.

Spontaneous.

Mysterious.

Few chefs are cooking like this, and those who are; Grant Achatz, Jose Andreas, Homaro Cantu (LCB Grad!), Wylie Dufresne, and Heston Blumenthal (just to name a few)  are offering foodies a magical experience, one that envelops all the senses;  sight, smell, taste, touch, and in some cases sound.

What-a-cool-fucking-way-to-eat.

As I become more intrigued with MG, I am anxiously awaiting my copy of the Modernist Cuisine, set to arrive this Thursday.  It has been a long awaited collection and I cannot wait to spend hours reading, scanning, and bookmarking future ideas and projects.  I will first be dabbling in series of spherification techniques: tomato caviar with a deconstructed play on a classic wedge salad, and a strawberry caviar with a nod to strawberry shortcake.  Blogs to follow, so check back!

To learn more about Molecular Gastronomy, a great article can be found here:  The basics of Molecular Gastronomy