Cooking notes from Anthony Bourdain

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.

Kitchen necessities:

-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
fresh breadcrumbs
extra virgin olive oil
white wine brandy
chervil tops in ice water
chopped chives
chopped or sliced garlic
chopped shallots
softened butter
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

Restaurant tips:

-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

Lessons Learned 2009-9-27

One more week, one more set of lessons learned. Let’s review:

1) To be good at any sport, you need a strong running base

This week has made me realize quite starkly that I am not in good running shape, and that is hurting my performance badly. From taekwondo to tennis to jabroni hour, I’m gassing out because my running base is not strong. I need a lot more training in all kinds of running, both long distance and sprinting. If you want to perform at better than n00b level, you need to be able to perform the activity for the minimum amount of time without being too tired. For TKD, that means being able to bounce and move around for 3 three-minute rounds. For tennis, that means being able to run and swing for at least a couple hours. For jabroni hour, it means being able to sweat and bust ass for as long as necessary to finish the workout without wishing you could lay down and die. I will take much more consideration of my running base.

2) Wedding planning will drain you white, both literally and financially

If you ever have to plan a wedding, be sure to keep your coffers full and your other life stress less than normal. Two weeks out, the wedding planning has become an extreme burden. I miscalculated badly on my own reserves and I’ve been basically wiped out by extraneous costs. There isn’t any one thing that got to me, it’s just the collective of spending a few hundred here, a grand there. We’re making things a lot nicer than necessary and being a lot more generous than normal (for instance, doing the English tradition of paying for the dresses and tuxes of our wedding party), hoping that the end product is a lot more sophisticated than people are used to. Also, don’t listen to wedding planners – everyone told us 80 is a small number, because it is in comparison to Indian people who regularly have 300+ person weddings. But Miller told me that his brother’s wedding had 80 people and felt good-sized, while the reception was 150 and felt overwhelming.

3) Best jobs out of college are whatever you’re really passionate about

Going to the reunion, I had a few observations about my classmates. First and foremost, the doctors look BEAT. About ten of my closer friends became doctors – four radiologists, an orthopedic surgeon, a neurosurgeon, an otolaryngologist, an ophthalmologist, a urologist, and an obstetrician. The common feature in all of them is that they had been pushed incredibly hard in their training and were heavily overworked – bags under the eyes and grim smiles were the norm. But what drove them was their passion for medicine and how much they loved what they did. Even though the work is tough and the hours are long, they were not unhappy with their career choice. The lawyers and financial people were more sharply dressed but seemed a lot more ambivalent about how happy they were – most were pleased with their lives but some seemed to be swallowing a bitter life as the price of success. For ultimate happiness, nobody seemed happier as a group than the people who started their own businesses. There’s something about being in control of your life, nurturing your own growth, and fostering success on your own that makes life seem pretty good. Don’t get me wrong, they also had the biggest struggles and probably the hardest lives (both in long hours and worry about future success), but they seemed the most satisfied with what they’ve done.

Goals from the week:
1) Done, if you reduce the goal to 70% of what I said because of my trip to LA
2) Got the exercise but didn’t get the running
3) Done – wedding stuff is very much on track, the only thing in my life that’s working out right now
4) Done and done
Verdict: Not bad – the trip to LA was healthy but shut progress down. It was worth it.

Restaurant Review: House of Prime Rib

I enjoyed a dinner at House of Prime Rib with Jeff. It is on Van Ness and Washington in San Francisco, but be warned, this place is one of the most popular in the City. We couldn’t get dinner reservations until 930P.

Decor: 9

The decor is exceptional, very Old World feeling. The bar is well stocked and comfortable, and booths are numerous enough to accommodate a lot of guests but far enough away that conversations can be lively without interrupting neighbors. The furniture and decorations perfectly match the feel of that the restaurant is going for and enhance the experience. This place would have gotten a 10 if it had a cell phone jammer.

Service: 8

The service was brilliant, everything had the personal touch. We were introduced by name to our waiter and the chef, who cut and served our meat at the table. Don’t bother looking at the menu because it is ultra simple – your choices are how thick you want the cut of your rib, and mashed or baked potato. One thing that detracted was that our server had a thick Russian accent, which I felt was inappropriate. If he had a thick New England or British accent, this would have brought them up to a 10. The dinner check also came out a bit early, a bad habit in California.

Food: 8

The food here is great. The rib was melt in your mouth soft, which is not easy since they cook entire racks at a time. The salad was refreshing and crunchy while still being saucy, another huge plus. The bread was hot and crusty and the cornbread was among the best I’ve ever had. If there is a minus, it would be the side dishes, which were disappointingly mediocre. The mashed potatoes were a bit gooey and the corn was nothing special. Also, the dessert we ordered had a LOT of rum on the bottom. That’s not the best way to end a meal, but maybe that’s the restaurant’s way of saying you should be so stuffed with meat that the dessert can be awful and get away with it.

Ambience: 9

The feel of the place is perfect. Conversations are lively, everyone seems very happy to be there, and the restaurant pulls no punches and isn’t apologetic about being anything other than the House of Prime Rib. This is where you go if you’re a baller and want to drop $40 on a slab of prime rib.

Total: 34/40
Price: $50 per person (drinks, meal, dessert)
Verdict: Easy to see why it’s a San Francisco institution. A well deserved reputation.

Lessons Learned 2009-9-20

Time to cover what has been an eventful week.

1) Blogging every night sucks

This week I started blogging at night before I sleep, a new shift compared to before when I blog in the morning. As a consequence, I tend to blog crankier and with a need for more prescience. It sucks because when I blog in the morning, I have a few hours to think of ways to pad and hedge my predictions about stuff. So expect me to be wrong about a lot more stuff, especially since I’ve been in a bit of a funk. But it’s good for me because it adds a lot of pressure to think harder about stuff.

2) I’ve hit the wall

I suppose this is something that happens to people coming out of high school, but I’ve hit a wall in a lot of my aspirations. My fight record in taekwondo against black belts is not good, less than .500 in fact. My record in these professional exams has also dipped to a highly unsatisfactory level. The job search is not going particularly well and my training doesn’t feel as exciting or fun as it once did. I’m not quite sure what to do about it, although the answer probably just lies with good old fashioned discipline. All of life is not supposed to be fun. Hopefully there’s just a hump to cross. Or I’m sacrificing all my other luck for the wedding, which isn’t a bad bargain if it turns out well.

3) I’m intrigued by excellence, not by mystery

Going to the Asian Art Museum showed me that I’m not dazzled by the common perception of the samurai or by specific cultures. What dazzles me is that definition of virtuosity: doing the common uncommonly well. Everyone makes pots and they all hold water, but some people care about making beautiful pots. The samurai didn’t fight or arm themselves better than anyone else, but they organized society and adapted to a changing world better, and that’s what I admire about them.

Goals from the week:
1) Did not pass
2) Fell short
3) Fell short
4) Maintained weight
5) Sorted out wedding stuff
Verdict: Wall indeed. Mada mada dane.

Korean Cheese Corn recipe

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.

Korean cheese corn

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.

Lessons Learned 2009-9-13

I’m not going to recap Sunday because it was a rest day. Instead, I’ll go straight to the lessons learned because I omitted a lot of smaller events from the week. Here we go!:

1) Real > Fake, always

Aki and I went to a pawn shop to try and sell some of Aki’s old jewelry from her ex in London. Unbeknownst to me, she was holding on to two Cartier watches and a platinum ring with a large diamond, supposedly. Well, it turned out the watches were fakes and the ring was silver with a piece of glass in it, which means its potential value fell from a collective $12,000 to about $80. A couple notables: the jeweler looked at the stuff through his looking glass thing, and it was easily the coolest thing I saw this week. I definitely have to get one for myself. But the lesson is that real jewelry is always better than fake stuff, even if it’s much smaller. The disappointment and contempt on both the jeweler and Aki’s faces made me realize why people are so afraid when they lie. It is something to lie awake for, nervous that someone is onto you or will discover your con. Take your truth, no matter how tiny, and sleep like a baby knowing that if nothing else, at least you’re authentic. That’s worth more than nothing, which is what fakes are.

2) Put yourself through the crucible

We live in a society that is largely bereft of crucibles, that struggle separating the wheat from the chaff. By the time people get sorted, it’s often so late that people are able to delude themselves into thinking they’re worthy when they’re not. Maybe it’s that we want a society where everyone is super nice to each other, too polite to point out each other’s flaws yet too blind and sensitive to accept criticism for what it is. Or maybe we’ve forgotten that it is the pain of hell that gives us the strength to create heaven, which is why immigrants who come here desperate and hungry are often more successful in social mobility than their children. My life tips from those rants? Put yourself through a little hardship – put yourself out there, take a little criticism and a few losses, and move forward. Also, learn to take advice from others, separating mean-hearted comments from comments that hurt but are in your best interest.

3) Be honest to yourself

This week I’ve realized that I know a hell of a lot of people that want to go to med school, but simultaneously they don’t want to live a hard life or they’re not willing to give up everything for that career. It’s made me realize that I don’t like deception but I absolutely loathe self-deception. Of all the people to lie to, the last person should be yourself. After all, you can see the falsity of your own lies. When you claim to be an angel to the outside world, you know what an awful person you are because you have memories of your own faults. I’m astonished at how a person with poor grades thinks they can be a doctor – getting a C in biology means you’re either not very good at the subject or you didn’t care enough to learn about it. And that’s fine. I was getting a C in computer science when I dropped it, realizing that I suck at programming and don’t even really care that I suck. But I don’t dream of making a start-up and selling it to Google for a billion dollars. Seeing my friends’ careers is a stark realization that medicine is a hard and brutal life, one where you have to be smart and tough. And the life never gets easier – med school is much harder than undergrad, residency is much harder than med school, and a career is much harder than residency. You have to want it bad, to have that drive that pushes you when nothing else will. In short, I have no idea why anybody would choose that life when they should know better. I can see why someone would think law or business school isn’t so bad from the outset because it’s years before the vise starts squeezing out the weak, but grad or med school? Please!

4) My low self-esteem and all Russians are ex-KGB

I got another reminder of the fact that I have tremendously low self-esteem from a photo session I had with the wedding photographer. We did it semi-formal so that the photographer could get some idea of how Aki and I interact and find out what angles we look best. He told me that I have good bone structure and that we’re photogenic together. I know I have low self-esteem because my immediate reaction is that he is either lying to me or he says that to everyone. I don’t really mind either, because I’ve convinced myself that he’s a good photographer by sheer virtue of the fact that he’s Russian. Not just that he’s Russian, but that he must have been a photographic agent for the KGB, sneaking around to US military installations and taking pictures of them and their employees. If he can get sneak photos of the Stealth bomber and America’s front-line nuclear missiles, then surely he can capture my moment of happiness with Aki. In fact, the main selling point is that he keeps saying that he’ll be so invisible during the wedding that nobody will notice he’s even there. Also, his assistant is a very attractive Russian beauty (ahem Money), which only convinced me further that he’s a former Russian agent. Finally, he’s the only person in the entire wedding process to have brought out astronomical charts to find out when the sunset is on Oct 10 and how much moonlight there will be. Brilliant.

Goals from the week:
1) Didn’t get to 500 but got the 75%
2) Nailed the extra workouts
3) Didn’t practice daily
4) Practiced the foreign language
5) Weight is at 158 lbs
6) Reduced computer use adequately
7) Did not meditate, too busy
Verdict: Pretty good!

Seared Scallops with Mashed Potatoes recipe

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.

Scallops 2009-9-9

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.

Quote of the Day 2009-9-12

I wanna live like you again, Charlie. I wanna be pathetic and desperate and ugly and hopeless.

-Danny DeVito as Frank Reynolds, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia