Thanks to Jeff for steering me to read the book, Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. It’s a look into the stark reality of a chef’s life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. But in between the entertaining anecdotes, there’s a lot of good information for amateur cooks like myself who want to develop greater skill and come as close to being a professional without the hard labor of working the kitchen in a restaurant. These are my notes from the book, which will save you time if you don’t want to read it, although honestly I recommend that you do. I’m passing over the anecdotes, which are extremely entertaining and alone worth the price of the book. These are just my tips to help succeed in life and cooking.
First, the necessary ingredients to succeed as a cook, or an employee:
-the job requires character, and endurance. Never show up late, never call in sick, and work through pain and injury. If you cook long enough, you will burn, cut, grate, smash, and boil yourself. Being good at cooking means working through it.
-if you’re going to be late, call in.
-Never lie or steal. Being known as an asshole, a douchebag, an idiot, those things can be overlooked and forgiven (or changed). Being known as a liar or a thief is something you never get back.
-Professional-level cooking has almost nothing to do with magic recipes, creativity, or esoteric knowledge about food. It’s all about consistency – mindless, unvarying repetition. You are like a communist soldier and nobody wants to hear your opinion. This is why Mexicans proliferate through the industry; you can scream at them, kick them, not let them go to the bathroom, etc, and they’ll just keep standing there, stirring the pot and cooking the way you showed them.
-Messy station equals messy mind. You want to work clean and keep everything organized. A hitch in organization makes trouble for everyone in the kitchen.
-A good quality to have is the ability to remain clear-headed and organized during hectic times. Here the soldier analogy comes through, because you want to be able to do your job and know what’s going on when people are screaming all around you.
-You want to learn to work with others. A good kitchen is like an elaborate ballet, with everyone working hard and the product coming together in a synchronized fashion. If you’re starting your own team, you want people who won’t hold you up. Similarly, don’t be that guy and let the team down.
-If you’re an amateur, celebrate it. Making food that is simple and made with love is nicer on a daily basis than herb-infused restaurant food.
-Learn to cook. This seems obvious, but all the tools and ingredients in the world won’t help you if you can’t follow directions or understand how different proportions will taste. You need someone to teach you or follow a cookbook until you have a few recipes under your belt.
-Read! Read cookbooks, trade magazines, anything that will give you new ideas or teach you old methods. Ironically, this becomes more important as you become better at cooking.
-Don’t touch other people’s kitchenware. This isn’t an absolute rule – like the body, some parts are more sacred than others. You can grab a bowl just like you pat a shoulder, but don’t touch their breasts or their knives unless they let you.
-A typical list of ingredients for the kitchen:
kosher or sea salt
crushed black pepper
ground white pepper
extra virgin olive oil
white wine brandy
chervil tops in ice water
chopped or sliced garlic
stock (roast bones, vegetables, and water until it’s reduced to a nice taste)
demi-glace (get some stock, add red wine, toss some shallots and thyme and bay leaf and peppercorns, simmer and reduce until coats a spoon. Freeze in an ice-cube tray, and pop out a cube for reheating when you need it. Just don’t forget that sauces with demi-glace need butter)
-You want all real stuff. Fake butter and pre-chopped garlic are for people who don’t deserve the real thing. If you’re too lazy to slice fresh garlic, then you’re too lazy for cooking.
-Tools that you must have:
a decent chef’s knife, something that can cut beef and vegetables with equal ease
good knife technique: once you get a knife, learn to handle it well
a serrated knife is nice but not essential
a few plastic squeeze bottles
a metal ring if you like your food round and well shaped
a mandolin, a vegetable slicer
heavyweight pots and pans – rule of thumb is that if you hit someone in the head with it as hard as you can, you would cause serious brain damage
a thick non-stick pan, just wipe it down and for God’s sakes, only use plastic or wood so you don’t scratch it
-Never order fish on Monday unless you’re at a fancy place that gets it fresh every day. Most likely, you’re eating something that’s four or five days old. Chefs order fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning, a supply that lasts the entire weekend. Monday deliveries are similarly bad – both the fish market and the cook are trying to get rid of old supplies so they don’t go to waste.
-Never order shellfish. Cooks have them wallowing in large bins that do not inspire confidence about freshness. Also, they’re very easy to cook – just fry for two minutes, garnish, and you’re done. Do it yourself if you want to eat them.
-Any fish that is slathered with sauce, especially mayonnaise or vinaigrette, is probably not good. An old cooking trick is douse fish in sauce like that to cover up a bad smell.
-Don’t buy fish from Koreans or Chinese. They’re the last to buy fish at the market, because they hunt for rock bottom prices. Discount sushi? Indeed.
-Cooks hate brunch. A good chef deploys his best line chefs at the busiest times – dinners on Friday and Saturday. You’re getting the B-team or the punished when you order brunch. So what you want is food that has to be made to order – nothing with hollandaise sauce or seafood.
-Don’t eat at a restaurant with a dirty bathroom or dirty chefs. How they clean their facilities is a reflection on how they treat their food. Dude is too lazy to scrub a toilet but suddenly he cares about sanitation when it comes to your beef? Please.
-If you eat your meat well done or don’t eat meat at all, you are an affront to the human spirit and deserve to eat the garbage that the cook has discarded onto your plate. Or more practically, amoebas and bacteria are killed by the heat of cooking but not by washing with cold water.
-What to look for to get fine dining: Tuesday through Saturday. Busy. Turnover. Rotation. Proud names of food vendors.
Business and life tips:
-Don’t overstretch. Stick to what you’re good at or you’ll run into your own personal Stalingrad from arrogance.
-Business is not love. You do what you’re passionate about, but passion is directed into training and discipline. If you want to own a business, your eye is always on the bottom line. If you can’t find a way to make revenues greater than costs, you’re headed for disaster. Your love can’t change that.
-Be fully committed. You want to be single-minded in your determination to do anything for the job, especially if you’re in a competitive industry like food. Ready yourself to follow orders, give out orders when you climb the ladder, and live with the outcome of those orders without complaint. Or quit.
-Learn Spanish. If you intend to join an industry where you deal with a lot of blue-collar types, then sooner or later you’re going to have to learn Spanish and the differences between Latin cultures. The Ecuadorian will be pissed if you call him a Mexican, and so will the Mexicans (because they don’t want him in their group).
-Don’t make excuses or blame others. Learn from mistakes and don’t do it again. Ever.
-Lazy, sloppy, and slow are bad. Enterprising, crafty, and hyperactive are good.
-If you haven’t already, be prepared to witness every variety of human folly and injustice in the working world. You simply have to endure the contradictions and inequities of life. Stupid people get lucky, undeserving people get promoted, and nobody notices your contributions.
-Learn to see the good things about other people and accept them even with their flaws. Yes, your co-worker is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious asshole. That doesn’t meant they’re bad at their jobs or that you can’t enjoy their company.
-Don’t work for anyone who names their business after themselves or that will look funny or pathetic on your resume
Korean restaurants serve something called cheese corn, which is basically corn baked with a cheese sauce that makes it gooey, crunchy, sweet, and salty. Basically the best of all worlds for junk food. I did a little experimenting since I couldn’t find any other recipes on the internet and managed to unlock the secret. It’s a must-have in the appetizer repertoire from now on. You can throw in any other vegetables or probably most meats, if you’re looking for an unhealthy way to eat scraps.
Just a warning is that I like my corn sweet and creamy. If you prefer appetizers on the saltier side, try 2 tbsp sugar and dump a lot of salt on there. If you like a more gooey and sticky texture, then hold back on the mayo and go crazy with the cheese. Just be careful not to go too far, because burned cheese is hard to clean off your glassware. If you want extra crunch, then I recommend panko bread crumbs – this recipe is primed for variations.
16 oz can of corn, drained
6 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella or cheddar cheese
salt and pepper and herbs to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix the corn in a casserole dish with the mayo and sugar and stir until evenly coated. Smooth it out into a single layer.
3. Top with cheese, salt and pepper, and any herbs that you’d like.
4. Bake for 15 minutes. Serve piping hot.
A recipe from my super family dinner for Aki.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures so I can’t tell you what it looks like, but this was one of the better appetizers I’ve ever made. You can substitute other types of potatoes if you want, but yukon gold are much softer and give a much nicer texture.
For the mashed potatoes:
2 medium yukon gold potatoes (3/4 lb), peeled and quartered
2 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp softened butter
3 tbsp milk
2 stalks green onions, chopped
Sea salt and white pepper to taste
For the scallops:
6 colossal scallops (also known as U-10)
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp lemon juice (or squeeze from 1 lemon)
1 tbsp butter
1. Put the potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water, and add the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to medium heat, cooking until the potatoes are soft enough to be pierced through with a fork, about 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Drain the potatoes and mash them with a ricer. If you want silky smooth, drain the potatoes through a sieve and smash the potatoes through the sieve using a wooden spoon.
3. Put the pot over low heat and stir in the butter and milk. Add the green onions, salt, and pepper to taste. Keep the mixture over low heat and stir occasionally while you prepare the scallops.
4. Pat the scallops dry with a paper towel and season with salt and pepper. For best results, scallops should be dry and at room temperature when you’re ready to cook.
5. Pour the oil into a medium pan over high heat, until it is shimmering. Add the scallops to the pan and sear for 6 minutes. Turn them over and sear for another 3 minutes. Remove the scallops to a warm plate.
6. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and butter to the pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to get the brown bits. You should strain the mixture if you can see black bits.
7. Plate the potatoes in a mound to the middle of six plates. Put a scallop on top of each mound and drizzle with some of the lemon sauce on top and around.
I’ve always wanted to make this ever since I was introduced to it in the Asian ghetto of Berkeley. It’s a deliciously unhealthy snack that combines the saltiness of spam, spiciness of kimchi, and irresistible temptation of fried rice into the Voltron of quick Asian foods. It’s made much like any other fried rice dish, but just with kimchi thrown in.
The portions aren’t strict, depending on how much Spam and kimchi you like. My recipe has a pretty good amount of Spam in it, so I personally would advise against putting more in because it might be too salty. If you want to cook it like the restaurant in Berkeley, fry an egg sunny-side up while you cook the fried rice, then top at the end.
2 cups rice, cooked
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/3 block Spam, diced
1 cup kimchi (4-5 heaping spoonfuls from a container)
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp sesame seed oil
chopped green onions and sesame seeds for garnish
salt and white pepper to taste
1. Heat oil over medium-high heat and when hot, fry Spam for a minute or two until it’s a dark pink
2. Mix in egg and stir until scrambled
3. Mix in rice, soy sauce, and sesame seed oil and stir fry until well mixed
4. Reduce heat to medium-low, mix in kimchi and stir until all the rice is red, about a minute
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste
6. Plate and top with green onions and sesame seeds
Note that you can switch steps 3 and 4, if you like your kimchi to be more limp and hotter from being cooked longer. Personally, I prefer it crunchy and just warm (as a contrast to the softer spam and rice), so I put it in later.
Here is a recipe for Korean beef stew. It is wide cut short ribs that are slow cooked so that the meat is soft enough to melt off the bone. Make sure to make a little too much, because leftover stew tastes really good as the sauce continues to reduce and the flavor gets richer. But that’s pretty hard because the stew will go really fast.
3.5 lb bone-in beef short ribs (1 package from a Korean market of short ribs for stew)
tap water to fill a large pot
2 onions, chopped
4 cloves minced garlic
1 chopped pear or apple (or 2.5 tbsp corn syrup or apple/pineapple juice)
5 tbsp sugar
4.5 cups water
2/3 cup soy sauce
2.5 tbsp sesame oil
3 carrots peeled and chopped
2 potatoes peeled and chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1. Add the ribs to a large pot and fill with tap water. Let the ribs soak for an hour to remove blood. Drain ribs and discard the water.
2. Add the onion, garlic, pear, sugar, water, soy sauce and sesame oil to the pot with the ribs.
3. Bring to a low boil on medium high heat, then reduce to a simmer and heat for 2.5 hours. Stir and skim off any accumulated fat off the top every half hour.
4. Add the carrots and potatoes and simmer for another half hour, or longer if necessary to make them soft.
5. Portion out scoops of meat, vegetables, and sauce, but don’t eat the sauce alone. Add salt and pepper to taste before serving. You can also top with sesame seeds.
Keep your leftovers in the pot with a cover. The fat will congeal over everything, but if you heat it for a few minutes on medium-low heat, it will look normal again.
Here are my Thanksgiving day recipes. It has a bit of an international flavor and it has the benefit of keeping the turkey moist without brining for a day before, which in my experience tends to dry out the skin.
1 free-range turkey, 8-10 pounds, with giblets and neck, wing tips removed and reserved
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, peeled and halved
1 carrot, peeled
1 bouquet garni (2 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, 6 stems parsley and 2 sprigs chervil)
1 whole clove
1 quart chicken or turkey broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
* Remove the turkey and the butter from the refrigerator 1 hour in advance.
* Put the turkey into a large Dutch oven and add the onion, carrot, bouquet garni, clove, neck (cut in half), giblets and wing tips. Pour the broth over and cover the pot with aluminum foil. Put the lid on top (if it doesn’t fit, just make sure the foil is very snug around the rim) and cook over low heat for 35 minutes.
* Remove the turkey from the pot of broth and put it on a deep platter. With a skimmer or slotted spoon, remove the vegetables and giblets to the platter, too. Pour most of the broth into a small saucepan, leaving just a little in the large pot.
* Spread the softened butter all over the turkey, adding any extra to the pot. Season the turkey with salt and pepper. To keep them from burning, wrap the ends of the drumsticks with aluminum foil. Put the turkey back into the large pot on its side, along with the vegetables and giblets. Pour any juices that collected under the turkey into the saucepan of broth.
* Put the turkey, uncovered, into the oven. Set the oven temperature to 400 degrees (the oven should not be preheated) and cook until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees, about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Start by roasting the turkey for 40 minutes on the first side, then 40 minutes on the second side, 10 minutes on its back, and finally 10 minutes on its breast, turning the turkey with sturdy tongs. Baste the turkey with its cooking juices at least once every 30 minutes.
* When you turn the turkey on its back (after 1 hour and 20 minutes), begin to prepare the sauce: Bring the small saucepan to a boil and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the turkey comes out of the oven.
* When the turkey is cooked, remove it to a platter. Put the vegetables on the serving platter, but discard the clove and the bouquet garni. You can eat the roasted giblets if you like or save them to make broth.
* Spoon as much fat out of the turkey pot as possible. Keep the brown cooking juices. Pour the broth from the small saucepan into the large pot and boil for 10 minutes. Put this sauce through a fine strainer and serve it on top of the carved turkey or on the side in a sauceboat.
Sweet Mashed Potatoes
8 medium sweet potatoes
2 cups coconut milk, approximately
1 cinnamon stick
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
* Set the sweet potatoes in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. After 20 minutes, perforate the potatoes in several places to prevent bursting. They are done when they can be easily pierced with a fork all the way through their thickest part.
* Let cool, then peel. Cut up roughly and process two or three at a time until smooth. Transfer to a large saucepan.
* Bring the coconut milk to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes with the cinnamon stick and, if you are using it, the brown sugar. Strain and whisk into the sweet potato purée. Add the coconut milk a cup at a time until you get the consistency you like.
* Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and reheat just before serving. Brown sugar can also be added to sweeten.
Here is a quick and easy recipe that I’ve been using for sake nanban-yaki, or pan-broiled salmon. It tastes great, it doesn’t take much effort, and all of the ingredients are common. If you’re looking to get into cooking at home and making healthier dishes, I think this is a great place to start (especially compared to some of the family dinner recipes which are quite involved and expensive).
Yield: 4 servings
4 salmon fillets, about .5 lb each and 3/4 inch thick
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 cup chopped green onion
* About 45 min before cooking, salt both sides of fish and let it sit at room temperature
* In a large frying pan, heat the oil and fry both sides of the salmon at high heat for 2 min
* Discard the oil, then add the butter. Coat the fish with butter, then remove fish from the pan onto serving plates.
* Add rice vinegar, mirin, and soy sauce to the butter and glaze in the pan. Stir over high heat for 1 min. Add green onion until well mixed
* Spoon the green onion sauce over each fish and serve. Garnish with lemon if desired.
Here’s a great recipe from a sushi despot down in LA. He’s a guy that kicks out customers for violating Japanese customs like asking for miso soup before entrees, pouring soy sauce over sushi, and ordering California rolls. His justification is that you would never go to a three-star French restaurant and ask for ketchup, so you shouldn’t trample on Japanese culture and its proud culinary history either. Asking a sushi chef who has decades of training for a roll with cheese in it is the American equivalent to showing up to Thanksgiving dinner with pizza. Someone in Japan would fight you for that faux pas.
Actually, his philosophy has given me a lot of motivation to learn to pack sushi in the correct manner. Here’s a brief list of ways that you know a sushi restaurant is low class and probably not Japanese:
-rolls are offered with mayonnaise or spicy sauce (to cover up the taste of bad fish)
-the restaurant lets you pour your own soy sauce (all the food is bad, sushi despots dole out soy sauce by the drop)
-you ask for extra rice (you should be eating fish, good chefs are at the docks at 5 AM examining purchases)
-the sushi does not have wasabi in it (the chef doesn’t know what he’s doing)
-the rice falls apart when you pick up the sushi (the chef is just a monkey who copies what sushi looks like but doesn’t know how to actually pack it)
Anyways, the recipe is magnificent. This recipe makes the fish perfectly cooked and the miso sauce is heavenly. This was one of the best dishes I’ve ever cooked.
Yield: about 1 cup
1/4 cup sake
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon S&B hot-mustard powder or other mustard powder
1 cup fine white miso paste, also known as shiro miso
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
A drop of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) or lemon juice
A drop of toasted sesame oil
* Bring the sake to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Boil for 20 seconds to evaporate the alcohol. Set aside to let cool.
* Transfer about a tablespoon of the sake into a small bowl and mix in the mustard powder until dissolved; return to the pot. Add the miso, sugar, vinegar, yuzu or lemon juice, and sesame oil and whisk until smooth and well-combined.
Oven-Roasted Salmon With Miso Sauce
4 (6 ounce, 1-inch thick) skinless, boneless salmon (or other thick white fish such as halibut) fillets
6 to 8 tablespoons miso sauce
* Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil.
* Pat fish dry. Generously slather fish all over with miso sauce. Arrange fish in a single layer, skin side down, on the prepared sheet pan. Roast until fish is just slightly undercooked in the center, 6 to 7 minutes.
* Preheat broiler and broil fish 4 inches from the heating source, until the sauce on the fish is lightly golden and fish is just opaque in the center, about another 2 minutes. Transfer fish to 4 plates and serve immediately.
We’re having a potluck to have a mini-birthday party for two of our friends, Mikey and Dana. My contribution is two finger foods, bacon wrapped chestnuts and bruschetta. Both are crowd favorites, although I’m trying a new recipe for the bruschetta. It’s too much work to dice tomatoes so I’m just going to try slicing it with the cheese grater today.
Bruschetta with tomato and garlic
Yield: 15 servings
4 large ripe tomatoes
2 large garlic cloves
8 tablespoons extra -virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Coarse sea salt
2 baguettes, sliced
* Cut tomatoes in half crosswise, and, using a cheese grater, grate the pulp, discarding the skins. On the fine side of the grater, grate the garlic into the tomatoes. Whisk in the olive oil and season with salt.
* Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Coat both sides of sliced baguette with olive oil. Toast the bread until golden brown on both sides (about 5 minutes). Generously spoon the tomato-garlic mixture over the grilled bread. Serve on its own, or as a side dish with cheeses and cured meats.
Bacon Wrapped Water Chestnuts
2 lb. bacon, slices cut into 3 sections
3 cans drained water chestnuts
1 bottle barbecue sauce
*Wrap a piece of bacon around each water chestnut. Hold bacon together with a toothpick. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 45 minutes or until brown. Drain off grease.
*Dip each chestnut in barbecue sauce and cook for another 45 minutes.
*Serve warm (they won’t last long, don’t worry)
This was by far the toughest and longest Family Dinner that I’ve ever prepared. It was a lot of dishes and a lot of trouble, but I was determined to make it good because the mystery guest was Sophia, a small deity in taekwondo.
The cooking started two days early so I could start curing the fish and make the baklava. Baklava is the most troublesome dish I have ever cooked and it is truly a labor of love. The fillo dough is some of the hardest stuff to work with – it kept ripping and folding in on itself. Then there’s chopping 5.5 cups of walnuts, melting 3 sticks of butter, and spending 6 hours cooking a pastry. But in the end, it is totally worth it. The baklava was absolutely magnificent and definitely the most delicious dessert I’ve made so far.
The other troublesome part was the hummus. It’s not the actual preparation that’s a pain so much as getting all the ingredients in one place. I guess it’s hard because I’m not Arab and I had never bought half the supplies, but it hurt to see so many places where I could just buy giant jars of hummus. Your cooking lesson of the day is that baklava and hummus are not foods that are necessarily worth the effort of making it yourself compared to the convenience of simply buying it.
I aborted the rice noodle salad because it was not going to work. I bought wheat instead of rice vermicelli and realized too late that they are two totally different things. Another small disaster occurred with the spring rolls. I am not good at making dumplings as it is, and the spring rolls ended up broken. They still tasted good so it wasn’t a total wash.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures this time around. It’s kind of good, because it wasn’t my best effort. Other than the baklava, I would rate this Family Dinner as just pretty good. Which is a shame, because it was the costliest Family Dinner so far. I had to buy a lot of pretty unique foods and a food processor.
BTW, the mystery guests this week were brilliant. Sophia was one of the most thought-provoking and interesting guests we’ve had so far, as expected. Bobby and Mimi were also great guests.
Guests: Justin, Kelly, Aki
Mystery guests: Sophia, Bobby, Mimi
Materials cost: $400
Cooking time: 12 hours