Friday, July 04, 2014

Transitioning to a new chapter in my career, an Independant School Reflection...

Just about three years ago, as few of you may know, I moved back to New Hampshire from a long visit to North Carolina. The people, places and things I saw and had the privilege to take part in were life-changing. I met some amazing people and ate some even more amazing food. I saw a lot of great things culinarily and learned how I want to be as a chef. The passion for food that I didn't know I had blossomed and grew into this enormous entity that I would never have imagined possible. It's amazing how ones core beliefs change as they progress in life. When I first moved down there, I was lost and heading in a bad direction. Making food was more of a means to an end than a calling in life. With a little faith and courage and a lot of help, I made it to a place I am proud to be. If you had told me all those years ago that I'd be where I am today, I would have told you that you were crazy!
A little more than two and a half years ago, I started on an amazing journey with the food service company I am currently employed with today. Having been in between jobs for a few months at the time, I was so grateful to have been given the chance by my then hiring manager to take on the challenges of a small private day-high school in the North Shore of Massachusetts. The client was not pleased with the way things were going back then and had even considered looking elsewhere for someone to fill their dining services needs. There were a couple employee-related issues that needed to be resolved and the place was filthy from top to bottom. HACCP was an after-thought and, to be honest, I wondered how anyone did not contract a foodborne illness. To make matters worse, the staff and student moral was in the trenches. The people who made the food weren't excited to make it and the diners weren't excited to eat it.
After a lot of changes and even more hard work and determination, we left that place better than it was when I arrived. I am proud of where we took this place in the relatively short time I was there. Of course, you can't accomplish much without a team and my team helped make it possible to fill everyone's high expectations. The people who create the food do so now in a passionate and excited manner and, as a result, the diners give rave reviews. We introduced all sorts of awesome stuff; from Matzo ball soup made with real chicken stock to whole grains and mind-blowing interactive dessert bars to mile-high burger days. Staying relevant and non-complacent as a chef is the key to happy diners. Listen to the complaints and do something about them. Of course, we all know some people are impossible to please and that's a sad existence indeed, but we just have to smother them with kindness and hope they will wake up one day without the need to feel slighted.
Check out some of the photos below; sort of like a review of these past 2 years and 8 months.
Matzo balls floating in rich house-made chicken stock. Smelled like heaven.
Buffalo chicken wings and brown rice (of course, roasted vegetables were offered, just not pictured).

Scratch-made signature desserts (this one was called the "Brookie" brownie and cookie baked together and topped with out own butter cream icing).

Mile-high burger days! Local buns, local beef and lots of laughs.

Little logo flags on top of chocolate cupcakes brought a smile to even the most grouchy of grouches!

"Breakfast for lunch" complete with over a dozen toppers!

Gingerbread house for Christmas. One week to make and one hour to break!

The faculty and staff ate like kings during special events. Pictured here is a local artisanal cheese and anti-pasta display complete with house-made breads and spreads.

We composted all of our non-meat food scraps.

Once in a while, we'd fire up the grill for some amazing grilled meats!

I'm a condiment guy, that's half the fun of eating! Sriracha was one of those things I just had to bring in (I'm a huge fan) and now the students are huge fans!

Signage is great for communication and education. People just want to know what they are eating!

Local, seasonal food is important to me and yummy too! This handy chalk box was nice to show off the local apple offerings.

Nothing like local!

Local carrot/ radish salad was a hit, who knew?

Thanking the parents with great food. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have this amazing job!

When introducing infused water, I had no idea it would be so popular! We started off with one and moved up to three options within just a few weeks. Pictured here are melon water, basil infused sweet tea and orange water.

5' sub day! Filled with Italian meats and cheeses as well as a vegetarian option for those who care to indulge.

A salad like this was just not happening a few short months ago. This sort of thing became a regular occurrence as the students became aware of the importance of eating healthy. Of course, having over 30 items to choose from every day helped too!

With the good there comes the bad! Local frozen yogurt over scratch-made cakes with plenty of whipped cream on top will keep anyone smiling. You know those football players have big appetites!

We stuffed our napkin holders with food educational signs to keep everyone on top of what was going on. Neat and tidy is the way I like it!

"International Day" and other such specialty days were a huge hit and kept everyone happy and excited about their dining hall.
Easter chocolate fountain anyone? Complete with "Bunny on a death wish".
(after, no more bunny!)

Pie eating contest for the last day of school, surprised no one puked! (that girl on the left almost did, I was worried!)
Wokka wokka wokka :) Dressing up for Halloween/ costume day kept many up for the challenge.

Fresh-made mozzarella cheese with local tomatoes and basil, caprese goodness! We went though 40 pounds of cheese and 30 pounds of tomatoes that day. Not too bad for 350 eaters!

So, I told you all that to tell you this; I started off an even BIGGER adventure and list of challenges at a college about 30 minutes north of this school. I accepted the Executive Chef position and I started this past Monday. I have no idea what I got myself into but have already met some amazing people and the management team are all crazy foodies like me so I'm sure I'll fit in just fine. I always said I love a challenge, didn't I!? I accept the challenge and will keep you all posted as the days and months progress. I'll either learn more and become a better chef or die trying! Thank you to everyone that has supported me over these past few months and those who will support me in my new venture.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Went to the airport and a 500 person wedding broke out!?

     In this insane world of chef-dom (is that a word?), we offer ourselves up whenever we can to those in need of our assistance. Cooking, for me, is more than just showing up and feeding the beast and going home. Cooking, in my mind, is more than just applying heat to food, it's... a lifestyle. Cooking is more like a place or a thing where someone, like myself, can create. I guess it could be thought of as an artists canvas except my canvas is fire, platters, plates, tables; basically, anything that causes a person to pause, look, and salivate. 

     I wear many hats, for those of you that don't know, and one of those hats is catering chef. My buddy over at Celebrations Catering has me attend all sorts of awesome events. We get to show people our art on our many canvas' in all sorts of cool places. For example, we just did a wedding on the tarmac at the Nashua Airport. The bride and groom, Sandy Adams and Len Cushing, both met at the airport and both have been pilots for many years so it was a fitting setting. 

     The menu consisted of the use of three huge 8 foot char-grills with nothing but the best natural wood charcoal used. Grilled skirt steak, barbecue chicken breast and their famous St. Louis style ribs were fired, marked and glazed with this amazing house-made barbecue sauce. I can't seem to crack the code of this amazing sauce matrix, but I guess I'll just have to ask for a "sample" next time I'm there! 

This wedding reception was for 500 people, this is what 250 seats looks like (well, as many as I could squeeze into my cell-phone-camera).

The other 250!?

Smoky, marked and glazed with that SAUCE!

Yup, you know you want some of these!?

The bride arrived in a private jet, the groom in a hot rod, how romantic!

After a tearful toast, a few loving speeches full of great wishes, and salutes to five World War 2 Veterans (yes 5!!), the noshing began. Two buffets with all the picnic grub you could ever want. Of course, the smell of charcoal in the air will make anyone hungry!

The rest of the menu included the necessary sides to make this event complete; southwestern pasta salad, rolls and a million mini desserts just to name a few.

2014 Epicurean Dinner for my Local ACF Chapter, this stuff never gets old!!

     OK, many of you already know I'm crazy about food and this industry I've devoted my life to. I've seen and done so many amazing things throughout the years; from washing dishes at the local diner to opening cans of pudding for a temp-service and breaking down an entire pig for my dinner menu to feeding the rich and famous at chef galas. You'd think that, after a while, one would get sick and tired of doing so many things?! You think, after a while, that I'd be ready to settle down and stop running around so much? Not me, I'm far from tired of seeing or doing so much great stuff. As a matter of fact, I always look forward to doing more, seeing more and learning more every day. Every chance I get I sign up for this or that, meet great people that share my passion and become a better chef as a result.

     Just the other day I volunteered with my local American Culinary Federation chapter to take part in this years Epicurean Dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua, New Hampshire. There were all sorts of amazing things going on, multiple courses and even more multiples of chefs, culinary students and pros getting involved! There were about 250 guests that attended. From foodies and home cooks to ACF chapter presidents and awards winning chefs. There were dozens of us chefs plating, cooking, tasting and drinking. Lots of laughs were had and the level of camaraderie was second to none. We basically raised money to help up and coming culinary students get into culinary school and other charity organizations. 

The menu below was a collaboration of area chefs that each took charge of a course. 

We had some amazing charcuterie for people to snack on. This amazing pate campagne was divine. Being wrapped in bacon helped too. ;) 

My buddies from SNHU and I were in charge of the inter-mezzo. Fresno Chili Mango Sorbet, Strawberry Mint Sorbet and a "Mardi-Gras Cookie" that I threw together. Adorable and yet very therapeutic. Cutting over 300 of those little buggers with a cutter the size of a silver-dollar will keep you focused for sure!

Amazing ice carvings by Ice Breakers

An amazing plated salad. 250 multi-component salads laid out all over the hotels kitchen, was a sight to see!

Gumbo garnished with mud bugs? YUM!!

Yes, more salads...

Our awesome inter-mezzo! Thank you Baldor Boston for donating the chilies and the Peruvian mangoes!

Beads baby!

More salads?

Braised beef short ribs :) 

Our guest speaker was Nicole Barrierra from Great NH Restaurants who discussed making healthy choices. Oddly enough, while she was discussing this, we were stuffing our faces with the above braised short ribs, yum.  

This amazing carving talent was awesome!

We raised tons of money for great causes and I, personally, had a blast!!! I'm very much looking forward to doing this again next year.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

You have to give it away to keep it!?

I really love teaching. As far as the things that get me out of bed in the morning is concerned, it's third only to cooking and eating. I'm not sure where this love came from originally. Maybe it's just that I feel sharing how our food is made is really important. Maybe it's that I believe showing someone how easy it is to create something delicious from great ingredients is our right as humans. Or, perhaps, how nourishing ourselves though food WE CREATE shouldn't be a chore, but something we should look forward to.  Or, maybe, I just like being the center of attention, who knows. Whatever it is or wherever it stems from, I was always told that, when it comes to gifts we've been blessed with, we have to give it away to keep it. 

Throughout the almost thirty years I've been in the culinary industry, I've noticed a scary trend; we seem to be becoming a generation of simple, fast, salty, sweet, and soulless food. Greasy bags of mass-production and plastic wrappers. It concerns me that we are getting away from dinners together as a family, people-watching at the coffee shop and grilling burgers with our folks in the summer. When I teach someone how to cook, it's important that I remember to focus on, not only, the ingredients and where they come from, but WHY we make this instead of buy it from the dusty box stores. Once you've had, for instance, fresh hand-made pasta with marinara sauce made with local heirloom tomatoes, you will always create a new higher standard that everything else will be held against. Can you really tell me that dried linguine and jarred sauce can beat it? If you claim, "Yes", then you hadn't tried it yet or, sadly, you've been eating crap for so long that your pallet just doesn't know any better. 

We chefs have tons of passion. Passion for eating, cooking and sharing this passion with others. For some reason kids ,specifically, love to see how their favorite foods are made. For example, during a recent summer program at an area private day school, I was asked to offer a cooking class for some 3rd graders. It was a five day class and the theme was to create our kid-friendly favorites from scratch.

Don't get me wrong, most of the adults I've taught get a kick out of learning how to cook their favorite foods too! There just needs to be wine and baby-sitters involved first. Adults have filters that kids don't have. Their grandmother is the only one that knows how to make pie crust, for instance. Most of them are convinced that the red-sauce they buy with a picture of some retired famous actors face on it is the best thing you could ever pour over spaghetti! Kids, you see, have no such filter and they are amazed by everything. Fortunately, they hadn't been jaded by years of trial and error yet and their minds are open. 

Check out these pictures below. The photographer took some amazing candid shots.

We are discussing kneading and how awesome my trusty stand-mixer has been over the years. I was amazed that most of these kids parents have one of these but they've never seen it used! I guess this just proves my point; why make it when you can buy it, right? WRONG! It takes the average person about 10 minutes and two ingredients to make scratch made pasta with that mixer, give it a try! (Thanks Mario for your awesome recipe! I use it all the time!)

Cutting the dough into manageable shapes.

The pasta attachment on a table-top stand mixer is worth its weight in gold!

The face!!!

One of the other days, we discussed yeast and made scratch-made pizza dough and my favorite recipe for it. Each student made their own and we ate like kings. Pepperoni and cheese, oddly enough, was most popular. :-) 

Cupcakes with this butter cream icing recipe from Gale Gand (nice woman, I met her at a a food festival), local butter, sugar and vanilla, that's it. Yum indeed. 

Pretzels; (ode to Alton Brown, perfect recipe!!!) boiled and baked with kosher salt, little mustard and that's all you need! 

There are jokers in every bunch!