Want to do a Cooking Internship?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A few people have been emailing me about my experience doing my pastry internship (also known as an externship, stage, stagiere, or apprenticeship). How did I decide to do it? How did I ask? How did I find what places were accepting internship applicants? These are all good questions and I am going to do my best to address them through my own experiences and opinions on the subject. I hope that, regardless if you are a cooking student or not, this will help you in your quest of finding an internship that best suits you.

How did you decide to do an internship?

For a long time the only thing I knew how to bake were chocolate chip cookies. It was only after I graduated college that I suddenly, and quite unintentionally, had any interest in baking anything else. Once I started, I began to read up more on the subject and poring through cookbooks. I started at simply making cupcakes, but I soon moved up to ice creams, custards, layer cakes. After a year or two I was throwing together puff pastry, breads, and laminate doughs. At my day job I spent my down time reading baking blogs, cookbooks, and jotting down ratios and recipes on scraps of papers and in numerous little notebooks. I was like a student cramming for exams, attempting to memorize every fact and understand each equation.

I would take the occasional cooking class to boost my knowledge, and various writing assignments allowed me to work alongside talented pastry cooks who would teach me what I wanted to know. From here I was able to understand and practice advanced skills in a more conducive environment. I knew that I didn’t want to go to pastry school as I was (and still am) currently enrolled for my Master’s degree. The thought of being the opening victim in a Saw film seemed more appealing than spending more time in class and, god almighty, accumulating more student loan debt. Furthermore, conversations with many chefs and caterers had convinced me that the best way to learn was to be in a kitchen working.

I became determined to find a kitchen that would take me in for a while and let me work and learn under a master who knew the craft. I felt that, for me, this was the most logical way to get a lot of hands-on experience in a number of aspects of the field. At the same time I would get the chance to better understand a subject and career field that, as a food writer and outsider, I had often written about but never fully understood. I felt that this experience would not only make me a better baker, but a better writer as well. Lastly, I still wanted to be a college writing professor in the future. In my opinion, the best teachers were the ones who had left academia to have adventures. These teachers usually had a broader, more comprehensive worldview that seemed to grant them more sagely understanding of their subject and students.

For me, it seemed that an internship was necessary in all aspects of my life.

What did you have to consider beforehand?

The decision to do an internship wasn’t an idea I just decided on a whim, like shooting an arrow blindfolded and assuming it would find its target. I held onto the idea tightly, sitting down and figuring out a lot of problems and questions that I knew were bound to come up. How would I get the time off from work? How much time would I need? How much time could I get? What kind of supplies would I need? What goals and skills did I desperately want to master in my time there? Who did I want to work with? What is my financial situation and how will it be affected?

This was the hardest part of figuring out my internship.

To begin, I had to find someone who would take me on (a topic I will discuss in detail shortly). Next, I sycophantically approached the Human Resources coordinator at my work and questioned what the policy on taking extended leaves and vacation might be. While I had a considerable amount of vacation time built up at my job – about three months worth – I didn’t want to cash it all in as 1) there might be the chance that my employers wouldn’t be too keen on my taking such a leave, 2) the amount or work I would return to after that long would likely drive me insane, and 3) I wanted to have some vacation time for other plans such as visiting family.

Luckily, working for a non-profit, my employer was more than happy to give me permission to encourage personal growth and recharge my batteries. We worked out that I would be permitted to take five weeks off; three of them as vacation and two of them as leave. The two weeks of leave would be unpaid.

Money is a serious aspect of the internship you need to take into consideration. As an intern you will not be paid. If you’re already a student then this might not be a change from your current situation. If you’re working a normal 40-hour work week then understand that either you’ll be cashing out your vacation or possibly going without a paycheck for a while. If this is the case then you need to be sure to budget ahead.

All of this took place in May, and the internship was planned for September. This gave me enough time to get all financial matters in order. I ensured that I had saved enough money to not have to worry during those two weeks. Afterwards, I called the restaurant I planned to work at and set the date I would work. I then conferred that to the Human Resources coordinator at my job and confirmed everything.

Money-wise, you also have to take into consideration other costs. Think about extraneous, though necessary, purchases. As an intern you may be provided with some chef’s whites, though at some places you may not. If you aren’t in cooking school and don’t already have equipment then you will need to purchase it. This can include non-slip shoes, pants, knives, a knife roll, and many other pieces of equipment. If you’re planning to bake then the number of tools you will be expected to have can be staggering. In fact, you will probably need to buy a tool box to carry them all. Though you may have some of these tools already you should expect to spend anywhere from $100-$350 on equipment for your internship. I made sure in the months beforehand to search and purchase quality tools that would serve me well not only during the internship, but afterwards as well. (I bought a lot of it through the Amazon stores of fellow bloggers so as to throw some cash their way.) Try not to be cheap on these external costs as your tools are your trade. Shitty tools result in shitty results.

Aside from money, I had to consider the actual workload. For me this would be a shift from a sedentary job in an office to standing for six to ten hours at a time working with my hands, at times doing repetitive tasks for hours on end. Are you not okay cutting and de-seeding grapes for three hours? Chopping up an entire flat of figs? Peeling, buffing, coring, poaching, and slicing a sheer rock slide of Seckel pears? You better be. Expect your feet to get sore and your body to hurt. Expect burns and cuts far worse than what you have experienced at home. It will take a while for your body to adjust to the physical demands of the job. I knew to expect this but once you are actually there the fatigue that sets in is much worse than you expect it to be. You need to be prepared to tough it out.

If you have any particular physical ailments then you need to take a step back and critically analyze how it will affect your performance. If you suffer from chronic fatigue, back pain, or don’t have the ability to stand for more than an hour at a time, then you shouldn’t be looking for an internship. You will simply act as a determent in the kitchen, slow down service, and impede your co-workers from getting their own work done. This may sound harsh, but it is the truth.

Lastly, as I previously noted, I only worked five weeks. That was the longest amount of time I could get from work, which for me was the deciding factor. Some restaurants only offer one or two week internships, and others will let you work for three or more months. I wish I could have done three months but it wasn't a feasible option when I considered my position. To make up for it I made sure to work a ridiculous number of hours each week. Though this was exhausting, I revelled in it. The notebook I brought with me everyday to record events of the day, techniques, numbers, names, recipes, and other important info proves it as I nearly filled the entire thing in the space of a month. Remember that the more time you can spend in the kitchen the better.

How did you find a chef to work under?

I was really lucky finding Elaine, my mentor and the pastry chef at Grange. She happily took me on and was more than willing to teach me. She demonstrated the commitment and drive needed to live in the business, often working sixteen hour days and constantly striving to create diverse and engaging recipes that would entice clients. She functioned with an ethos that I wanted to emulate: she created high-end desserts using solid techniques (both classic and modern) and utilizing seasonal ingredients. I knew this because I spent months looking at her menus and going to the restaurant and trying her desserts, seeing what I liked and didn’t like and if this was what I wanted to learn.

If you are serious about doing an internship you first need to know what it is you want to learn. I jotted down on a list various ideas, goals, techniques and concepts I wanted to be sure I could observe in a kitchen. Next, I began to profile the best possible restaurants that had pastry chefs that embodied my list and started researching both the pastry chefs and the restaurants. For me, I was able to do this second-hand via a magazine article I was working on. In it I profiled all the chefs I was interested in while at the same time observing and listening to their theories on what constitutes good pastry. After collecting a lot of information, visiting the restaurants, trying the food, and some heavy deliberation there was only one obvious choice.

Lucky for me, Elaine said yes; partially because we had developed a relationship while I was writing the article and had become friends since then. If you already have a good relationship with a chef then that might be the best advantage you have to landing a truly great interning experience.

Elaine vetted me when I also asked the head chef, the restaurant manager, and the restaurant owner for permission as well and who all had to give their approval. I had to explain to each why I wanted to intern and what my goals were. After a few e-mails they all agreed to let me on, but in return I would work with their Public Relations person as well as write some blog posts and magazine articles chronicling my experiences. I was happy to do this because I got to do more writing in other publications that I had not yet been able to access, and the restaurant was happy for the publicity.

Right from the start I was up-front about what my goals and qualifications were. I explained that, while I hadn’t gone to cooking school, I was well-experienced and had a lot of skills for a self-taught baker. I told them that I was smart and learned fast. I provided a resume along with recipes and writings that best sampled my work. I wanted to be sure they knew exactly what they were getting.

Similarly, I was sure to ask what their expectations of me were. Honesty and straightforwardness was the most important part of this exchange. Unlike other job interviews where you might be able to flub how many words a minute you can type, in a kitchen you either know how to make caramel or you don't. However, don't fret about what you don't know. The chef in charge who has taken you on realizes that the main reason you are there is to learn.

I was also a special case for Grange in that I was their first non-cooking school intern. Normally, cooking schools have a special insurance policy that covers students in case of injuries on the job. I had to ensure that I had health insurance and that, yes, I acknowledged that I could seriously injure myself while on the job. Keep in mind that some restaurants may not be to keen on accepting a non-student applicant for this reason as they could be liable.

Remember in your conversations with the chef/owner/whoever you’re talking to that they do not owe you anything. They see plenty of chefs who are more trained than you asking for internships, and who are also willing to work for free in the eventual hopes of a job. Be humble, truthful, and sincere in your approach and demonstrate why that chef or that restaurant is the only one in the world that you can see yourself learning at. That statement isn’t simply exaggeration. It should be the truth.

Lastly, do not think that any place is too far out of your reach. Just ask. The worst thing any place can do is say no. If they do then ask next week, the week after that, and so on. Don't give up! If they consistently say no and assure you that they really are not interested in an intern thank them for their time and begin your search again. (Don't burn bridges. The situation could always change in the future!)

What was your experience like?

My experience was pretty much all I wanted it to be and a lot more I didn't expect it to be. More, actually, is a great way to describe it. The people were way more fun than I anticipated. The work was more fun and much harder that I thought it would be.

I also learned more than I expected; in the first week I experienced everything I was hoping to and many things I didn't think I would, like working the line on one of the busiest days the restaurant had ever encountered that year (I was there to plate dessert, but ended up learning how to move fluidly on the line while learning how to cook everything on the appetizer and small plate menu).

Chefs and cooks from both the banquet and kitchen side of things were happy to share with me, the pastry newbie, their knowledge about whatever they were working on. I learned all manner of skills such as how to fillet a sturgeon to how to easily plate for a 300 person event. All of this I've taken home and learned to incorporate in my everyday cooking.

I learned more about dedication, hard work, and people. Not just who they are, but what motivates them. Most importantly, I realized what motivated me.

One of the best aspects of my internship was the visceral experience of really working with my hands. I never knew that they could do some of the things I was doing. I didn't know they would learn how to really wield a knife. I didn't know they could become so immune to small burns and cuts. Coming from an office world my work usually went into the ether without me really seeing results. Here there was a physical product. Tangible proof of my labor. Even better, I could see on people's faces when they ate what I had made their joy and satisfaction.

I loved my experience. It's what happens when you surround yourself with great teachers.

What happened after?

Afterwards, I went back to my office job. It was a very hard transition, just as it had been when I first arrived at the kitchen, but I had trouble really getting back into the swing of things. I actually found myself getting somewhat depressed. It was only after sitting with some other food blogging friends that I realized that after my taste of cooking I wanted more.

When someone asked me about how my job was going, I didn't expect what I said to come out: "I don't like it anymore. I'm not happy. I want to go back to cooking. I want more time to work on my writing."

So, there it was.

The next day I started looking for baking jobs. (Grange, sadly, had no openings.) I decided I would try to bake part time and use the rest of the time to see if I could make a real go at food writing as well. I realized this meant a loss of some benefits and a pay cut, but then again I saw my options as being comfortable and unhappy, or stable and happy. I chose the latter.

Recently, I found a baking job that has a lot of opportunity for creativity, growth, and the chance to work with an amazing chef and an enthusiastic manager and owner. In addition, I've lined up a lot of writing jobs in my queue and can't wait to start on them.

My experience taught me to simply go after what makes you happy.

I encourage you to give it a shot. I went into my internship with no intention of becoming a professional baker of any kind. I simply wanted to better my pastry skills and take a vacation from my everyday life. Yet, in it I found a work I truly love doing.

Other Posts About Cooking School and Internships
Should I Go To Culinary School? - Shuna Lydon
Should You Go To Cooking School? - David Lebovitz
Want to Go to Pastry School? - Anita Chu
So You Wanna Be a Chef? - Anthony Bourdain, via Michael Ruhlman

Special thanks to Ashlee Gadd and Jackie Phongsavath who took some of these photos.

Saying Yes to German Chocolate Cake

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

-Contrary to the name this cake is mysterious in origin.-

I often say yes without thinking about what it is I'm saying yes to. It's something that's gotten me into trouble more often than I care to admit.

For example, there was that time in college when the housing department put on a Tunnel of Oppression event and I had agreed to preform as a Nazi. They asked me because I had a stereotypical German look due to my blue eyes, pale skin, and at the time my hair was still Children of the Corn white-blonde as opposed to the dirty-blonde it's shifted to in the past few years. I said yes because I had to ingratiate myself to housing so I could get a job the following year as a Resident Advisor; a job I really wanted. I would have said yes had they asked me to run naked through the Student Union.

I spent the entire night screeching horrible things to people in German. What I screamed was not only horrible because of the content of what I was saying, but also because I didn't speak German. Each stomach-turning phrase I knew I had only learned an hour earlier so every word I said sounded like I had beaten it to death with an old chain. (Years later, I still know those phrases. When I visited Austria, I had no idea how to ask for directions to the bathroom, but once there those phrases yelled out loud would clear a line for the toilet in no time.)

Between all of this I would screech a well placed "Schnell!" (mainly because I could say that word without it sounding like I jammed it through a meat grinder) and push around people in the tour groups. This played brutality was actually a welcomed respite from the room itself, which had been fashioned to look like a death camp. What made it so bad was that multiple televisions around the room that were playing the most horrifying scenes from movies like Boys Don't Cry and American History X, and clips from a graphic documentary on WWII extermination camps in continuous loops. They were meant to traumatize and demonstrate to the audience the kind of violence that minority groups face.

By the end of the night I was so traumatized by these images that I ended up spending the entire night alone in my dorm room sucking on lozenges for my sore throat, and terrified that if I left the room a gang armed with aluminum bats would bash me into a coma.

Then there was the time in high school I told a bunch of friends that I knew how to do the choreography from Michael Jackson's Thriller. A total lie said only to up my cool points in high school. The next day they asked me to teach it to them at a party the following night. Unable to come up with a decent excuse (for the record, I've never actually been a good liar) I left for the video store and rented a collection of Jackson's music videos. At home I played and replayed the music video - which I had never actually seen until that night - memorizing every single dance move so I could make good on my fibbing and make it truth.

Though, given, I did pull it off. That leaves me to question of whether I actually, in fact, did lie.

-Filling and ganache. Please, readers, if you make this cake don't start just eating these with a spoon like I did.-

Knowing all this it shouldn't be a surprise that when Roommate asked if I knew how to make a German chocolate cake and, if so, would I make him one for his birthday that I replied with an emphatic "Yes!" The moment he was out the door I ran to my cookbook shelf. Sadly, all of them were German chocolate cake-less, so I hopped online and Googled the hell out of it.

For the most part I knew it had something to do with coconut in some pecan-colored mash. (Were there pecans in this cake? I think so...) I recalled that this kind of cake was supposed to be a few layers high and I gathered there was chocolate frosting involved. Second guessing myself as I waited for the results to load I realized that the only vague picture I had of a German chocolate cake probably came from the dessert menu of a Denny's when I was twelve.

Wikipedia popped up with a simple explanation of the recipe, noting "German chocolate cake is a layered chocolate cake filled and topped with a coconut-pecan frosting. Sweet baking chocolate is traditionally used for the chocolate flavor in the actual cake, but few recipes call for it today. The filling and/or topping is a caramel made with egg yolks and evaporated milk; once the caramel is cooked, coconut and pecans are stirred in. Occasionally, a chocolate frosting is spread on the sides of the cake and piped around the circumference of the layers to hold in the filling."

Simple enough.

-Normally, I wouldn't suggest chocolate cake be served on white linen. But, damn, if it isn't pretty.-

However, the first thing I realized upon reading this was that German chocolate cake could in no way be German due to the pecans, which are nuts native to North America. My friends in Europe tell me that pecans are all the rage in France and Austria right now as the countries only just started importing them. My friend, Nikita, an Austrian citizen and mercurial girl who frequently travels to Germany told me that it's a dessert she's only seen stateside.

Another possibility is that the cake might be named for German chocolate. Before WWII, German chocolate was considered peerless. Only during and after the war did many countries stop using it. Attitudes shifted and people and began to see the Swiss as the most talented chocolatiers. Maybe its original, creator was German in decent and, after using some new world ingredients with and some decidedly European techniques, decided to christen it after the family homeland? Is that what made it German? Who knows?

But, no, German chocolate cake couldn't be, and isn't, German.

A bit more research brought up other information to light. The first recorded reference to the recipe was supposedly in 1957 and it was created by a Texan housewife. Thus, it seems German chocolate cake is most likely Texan in origin. Surprise, surprise. Apparently, you're more likely to have it with barbecue than schnitzel. However, recorded buttermilk chocolate cake recipes have existed since the early 1920s, so there may very well have been some earlier versions of this cake in the United States.

So I wondered, was I really making a German chocolate cake? Could it simply be telling a hopeful fib? This cake was claiming something in it's identity that it couldn't seem to back up. It seemed that we would be colluding together, this cake and me. The cake, its name; and me, my claim.

Now, the reason I said yes was due to my being all ego'd up after my externship. After pounding out 200 blue cheesecakes I figured that one simple chocolate cake wouldn't be a problem. I'll be the first to admit that I can be a bit egotistic, not to mention narcissistic and attention hungry. You see, without constant reassurance and praise I wither and die. It's a fact. This all results in me possessing a mouth that often bites off more than it can chew leading to my self-inflicted suffering and possible humiliation. All well worth the risk to garner praise and appreciation.

-Chocolate, coconut, pecans, and a hint of bourbon. Yes.-

Still, it's a cake. It couldn't be that hard. A quick drive to the store and back and I took to my task. Though the cake consisted of many different parts (e.g. frosting, filling, cake, and syrup) it was all relatively easy. After an hour or so the cake was completed. Four layers high, packed with coconut-pecan filling, and a hearty ganache poured over it, it made for a stylish and rustic-chic cake.

Looking at it in its completed form brought up many questions: Did I lie? Did I simply fib? Is there a difference?

I had said that I could make this cake without being fully sure if I could. Given, it wasn't like this was an artsy wedding cake for the princess of Monaco. I possessed the skills required and knew how to put this cake together without having ever actually done it before. The failure rate was significantly low. Either way, I had said yes being only 99% sure I could do it. Yet, isn't that how sure we usually are in life? I can only think of a few times that I really felt 100% about anything and truly believed it.

And then there was the cake. German. A misnomer. The cake was a lie. A tasty lie, but a lie none the less.

Lie or not, misnomer or otherwise, it's a delicious cake. One that can be served after sauerbraten or ribs and still please all at the table. It brings to light the questionable nature of truth or lies, the confusion of history, and the grey areas both in our lives and our food. A perfect cake for such a curious topic. Though, once you begin to eat it, I doubt you'll care one way or the other.

So, in the end, aying yes with haste may get you in trouble. But other times, especially when those times include cake, it can be worth the risk.

Update: It seems, that I missed a clear piece of research that many of my commenters do know. German chocolate cake was based on a recipe using chocolate made by a guy named Samuel German in 1852, hence the name. His method and factory were bought by Bakers™ Chocolate later on. It seems afterwards that the history of the cake got a little lost. At least, it seems, to my generation of bakers. (Probably, just me though.) Seems I just don't have the right history books on my shelves.

So, maybe the cake isn't a lie. Still, the name is probably one that will confuse and confound many generations of bakers (and, as my friend Nikita points out, many German people). Regardless, the cake still stands as a shining example of chocolate decadence and the twisting turns of history.

-Cake. Post-Party. In the end, does it matter what we call it?-

-Decicious layers of pecans, coconut, and chocolate.-

The List

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just a heads up everyone. Vanilla Garlic is going to go to only being updated every Tuesday. Between work, my grad thesis, and all the extra food writing and recipe developing work I have taken on I feel that the posts here have lost some of their soul and character. Rather than bamming out a bunch of decent posts a few times a week I want to provide you with great ones that will give you more to read and, hopefully, more to laugh and reflect on.

Still, every so often there might be a special non-Tuesday post should something truly awesome occur. Sign up on the blog feed, google reader, twitter, or the Vanilla Garlic Facebook fan page to keep updated (all buttons are located at the top right of the page). Thanks, everyone, for your support!

-This is a slow day.-

Within the pastry department the to-do list is our lord and master. (I and the other assistants sometimes allow the chefs to think they are, but we all know what holds the real power here.) Each day the list, often 20+ items long, dictates what has to be prepped, frozen, baked, ordered, or signed for.

On my first day, the list noted that we had to prepare cookies for the cookie plate, develop a new recipe for those Concord grapes that should be rolling in (assuming the order was made), bake up flatbread for dinner service, whip up components for the brulée; OH! and by the way, there’s a last minute, thirty-person special event going on today so we’ll need to bam out some individual cheesecakes for that as well.

Just another day.

The list is formed by any number of things: the occupancy of the adjoining Citizen Hotel, the number of reservations on the book that night, what fruits need to be used up in the fridge, what produce is in season, what desserts on the menu are selling or not selling (the mission fig-añejo is epic, so why aren’t the servers pushing it harder?), and so on.

This list is varied and fickle, often changing without warning and we're constantly adding, removing and bumping things in order to meet the sweet tooth demands of staff and customers. This may sound like a complaint, but it’s not. The list’s shape-shifting tendencies are what keep the days so interesting and varied.

We wouldn’t want pastry to become predictable now, would we?

The Pain of Cooking

Sunday, October 10, 2010

-Seriously, she just laughs this off.-

“Oh my god!” I gasp and cover my mouth with my ov-gloved hand. Jackie, the assistant pastry chef, and I both freak out at the sight. One of the other cooks, Chuy, a hulking culinary genius, is rapidly transferring boiling hot stock from one pot to another. We watch as he misses the bowl he's holding and pours an entire ladleful over his hand. The stock runs down his forearm and on to the floor. The only sound he make is a slight “Tsst” sound out of annoyance rather than pain.

“Doesn’t that hurt?! Are you OK?” I say, stunned. I would have lost my nerve due to my intense allergy to pain.

“No, it’s not that bad.” He laughs and pours another ladle of stock. More blazing hot liquid washes over his fist. Chuy doesn’t seem to notice.

Working in a kitchen requires an almost super-powered level of pain tolerance. I’ve gotten by so far with only minor nicks and burns, nothing major, which is surprising considering my knack for hurting myself on a regular basis in life. Yet, the worst I’ve suffered so far is accidentally picking up a red-hot spoon that had just come out of the oven (it was being used to pin down a piece of parchment paper). Lucky for me, I came out of it with a minor first-degree burn, nothing I couldn’t work right through.

“It’s not pain until you get home and have time to think about it,” notes Hillary, a cook in the banquet department easily identified by her punk aesthetic. Her arms are a Smithsonian of pain, covered in scars of every color, size, shape and texture. These are proud medals of life in a place where one must exist in a sharp, slippery, and molten-hot world.

Everyone told me that before the internship was over I would have my own scar. I was able to escape body intact though the kitchen was very vocal on the movement to brand me on my last day.

Struggles and Simplicity

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

-Simple syrup made a bit more complex.-

No one ever said that life is simple. It's supposed to be a struggle. A fight to the top of the mountain. Once at the top, you barely have a chance to savor the victory before realizing there's another mountain there that doesn't give two shits about the climb you just finished. It's a never ending trial, that life of yours.

Still, that's not to say it's all bad. There's a certain pleasure to be found in these challenges that life throws our way. After all, for some, pleasure is pain. We're all a bit masochistic in our own ways and, so, time and again, we submit ourselves to these tribulations, whether they be our education, family, friends, frenemies, or hobbies. Then there's work, which is probably the one we submit ourselves to more than any other. Our high-heeled mistress whom we're all more than happy to have step on us in four-inch heels.

It may seem a bit of a high comparison, but think about it: at various times in your work life you put yourself through torture that you know will be somewhat enjoyable because the eventual payoff is worth it. Once you come to your conclusion, the prize at the end, it's all immensely satisfying and you revel in the challenge you undertook. Furthermore, you usually ensure there's some way out just in case you realize you've bitten off more then you can chew. (The safety word is "run.")

-Perfect after a hard day.-

Of course, not all challenges are quite so. My recent internship was a challenge. I cut my fingers and suffered a few small burns. I had to master skills after viewing them only once. I screwed up a few times and I had to make it work. I took this challenge knowing that there wasn't a way out and that I would happily take whatever the kitchen could dish out. And once or twice I wished I wasn't there; there's nothing fun about peeling, coring, and slicing a flat of baby-fist sized Seckel pears and nicking yourself with the peeler every few minutes. Making the entire kitchen smell due to burning a gallon of caramel turned oil slick black certainly isn't a keen experience either. Hazing is something you should expect and embrace in a kitchen each time you get it wrong.

Then you deal with it and do it once more. I marched back to the burners with a new pot and fresh ingredients knowing that I might fuck it up again, but realizing there was less chance I would. I learned from previous experiences and knew that sooner or later got the results I wanted. Success is an ego-boost to be sure, and while it was physically and mentally exhausting there are benefits to that hard work. For example, I'm quite proud of the muscles in my arm that I strengthened from whipping up so much sabayon; a task that requires a good thirty minutes of whisking at the speed of a bullet train. My bicep is now built like a butcher's dog. It's a fantastic feeling.

Still, that isn't to say the simple acts in life don't have their advantages. Simple is quick, easy, relaxed, and less likely to explode in your face or burn your wrists with a hot pan. It's tossing some spices into a pot of sugar and water and blending up a simple (See? Right there in the name.) syrup for cocktails of vodka and soda water.

So, sometimes, life isn't a cliff to scale but a hill to meander. A mistress wearing flats. You can enjoy those easy victories too, laid back joys that help push you through the tougher trials.

Sometimes, just keep it simple.

Hibiscus Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 strips of orange peel

Place over high heat and stir until mixture becomes clear and the sugar has dissolved. Allow to steep for thirty minutes. Pour through a sieve to remove solids. Cool to room temperature and use in ice creams, sorbets, poaching liquids, and cocktails.

-Of course, after this, I have a wedding cake for you to make. Ready?-

Cheese Profile: Fresh, Soft Parmesan

Monday, October 4, 2010

-Hard to find, but worth the search.-

I couldn't help but perk my ears up when I overheard Jackie, the pastry assistant at Grange, talking to one of the restaurants purveyors. Our egg guy was going on about some of the dairy cows they had at his farm in Yolo county. While Grange didn't purchase any of his dairy products many other high-end restaurants in Sacramento did; most often, his amazingly grassy tasting butter. However, this conversation was more about his cheeses.

He regularly sent some of his milk to local cheesemakers who processed in into a variety of cheeses. Nothing for commercial purposes, but rather small batches for himself and his family and friends. He most often commissioned mozzarella, ricotta, and even a few cheddar-like cheeses to be made. However, what he had brought today for us to try was his soft Parmesan.

I use the term Parmesan loosely, and only because it was the reference term used by the farmer. However, it's more than accurate. The dairy is treated exactly like a traditional batch of Parmesan up to a certain point. It's never poured into a ring mold or graded, but rather after a short press and a tiny bit of aging it's served right away as a misshapen, butter-colored glob of cheese.

-A cheese with various properties from Parmesan, Gouda, and Cheddar. Truly delightful.-

It has flavors similar to a very mellow cheddar cheese that at first made me question why he wouldn't call it that. However, the slight, nutty resemblance of Parmesan begins to slowly roll across your tongue like a morning fog. And, just like fog, you can't pin the flavors down. It's a phantasm Parmesan, there for just a moment at the corner of your tongue and just when you think you caught it, it vanishes. The texture is somewhat Gouda-esque, which sounds like a term from a philosophy class, but accurately describes its slightly firm body.

Sadly, there's no way to actually buy this at the store. You have to know a guy, though maybe a chatting with your local cheesemonger or visiting a dairy farm will result in your procuring some. However, doing so will score you some truly unique and delectable cheese.

-It melts deliciously, too.-

How I Will Leave

Saturday, October 2, 2010

-Elaine, working me to the bone.-

After an entire month, four and a half weeks, of working in the pastry department at Grange I feel like I'm in some odd in-between state. I am abandoning my chef's whites and dressing back into my civies. Wardrobe aside I'll have to completely readjust myself. I have to adapt to a more sedentary job once again as opposed to running around and working with my hands. No more swearing, god-fucking-dammit, as I work around families, children, and more vernacular conservative types. The worst injury I can suffer at the office is a paper cut, as opposed to the hot, sharp, slippery world I'm leaving behind.

Out of the frying pan and into the cubicle.

I look forward to seeing my co-workers and going back to my job. To be honest, I'm anxious about the 700+ e-mails in my inbox. And, though I set up everything to operate just fine in my absence, I secretly hope that the place burned down so that my presence is seen as necessary (in the sake of job security during this economy).

Still, I will miss Grange. I will miss my pastry peeps. I will miss the banquets for 120 people and having to make and roll espresso-chocolate roulades for them in under two hours. I will no longer scoff at the challenges on Top Chef because I understand how difficult they really are now. I understand that even the most skilled bakers burn butter and caramel from time to time. I will miss the delicious family meals and chatting with the other cooks. I will not miss the smell of the meat fridge and having to play Tetris with the buffet towers in there in order to get to the freezer. I will miss the little nuggets about savory cooking from the Kitchen and Banquet departments. I will miss the sore feet. I will miss burning my hands on pans and cutting myself with knives. I will miss Kara, Dennis, Hilary, Chef and all the other who were so very welcoming to me and were eager to teach me everything from the grace of the line to pairing cocktails. I will miss Melissa and Ashlee who cheered me on and helped this little dream of mine flourish into reality. I will miss the pastry assistants, Jackie and Ashley, and the daily banter we got to share. I will truly, sorely miss Elaine Baker, who took me in and taught me everything she could. Who put up with my sass and shot it right back. Who taught me how to keep calm and carry on, and that dessert may be last, but that it should never be least.

I got everything I wanted to out of my externship. I learned more in a month than I ever could in a year at cooking school. My skills are honed, and my confidence in the kitchen a thousand times stronger. I can plate for two or two-hundred now. I can make sugar sing.

I entered as Garrett but left as Gianduja, Randy's Twin, and F.I. (aka: Fucking Intern). I leave as a baker with experience; a more confident cook and food writer.

-A collective calm in a sea of crazy.-

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