Friday, 23 September 2011

Won't you please, please help me?

This post is more a note to self than anything else, but highlights an important fact of life for anyone embarking on a change of career - there will come times when you need to ask for help, and you should feel comfortable doing so.

Two and a half months in to working in a restaurant, I am beginning to master running the counter by myself. Although not a kitchen, I do have my own mise-en-place of sorts; I set things up as I like them, and know where to find dressings, which fridge holds components for which starter, and strive to keep surfaces free of debris and always ready for an order. Whilst reading 'Kitchen Confidential' I was pleased to note that I had pre-empted a vital survival strategy just by instinct. Anthony Bourdain recalls a head chef who used to press his palm to the workboard of a line cook who was falling behind the incoming orders, show him the varied debris that stuck to it and tell him that the mess represented his mind. Work clean, work effectively.

Sometimes, however, this is not enough. Sunshine on a Saturday means a lot of customers hungry for salads or ice-creams, and, naturally, all will descend at once and order in unison. Within moments there are orders for at least five tables to contend with. Some will be a mixture of hot and cold dishes, and this is a blessing as it buys you a little time to deal with the four salads and two sticky toffee puddings that were ordered by neighbouring tables at the same time. However, just when you feel like you could handle the situation, in walks a wandering shopper, feeling peckish. They need to be talked through the different takeaway options before they stand and ponder - and this is not time to use for prepping one of those four salads, as this customer needs your undivided attention. If you go back to those salads, they will decide what they want just as you spoon the first component on to a plate, and this is not a good strategy. So you wait, and you hear the seconds ticking in your head as you realise that those hot starters will be ready quicker now, and you've not started on the rest of that table's orders as you'd decided to get on with the salads and sticky toffee pudding instead. Naturally they will order a ham baguette as this requires fresh carving (mind you, who wouldn't? That's just what makes it the best option), and then you not only need more time but more space and will need to clean down the board afterwards. In addition, all waiting staff will magically disappear just as the customer needs to pay, and there will probably be problems with their card to contend with. None of this is anyone's fault, of course, just difficult circumstance. But before you know it, you are swimming upstream trying to get orders out before they are asked for by a waitress holding the hot half of that table's order.

It's on busy days like this that having spare salads prepared, and extra quiches and salads brought up from the kitchen chiller in readiness for a deluge of orders is just common sense. It's also on days like this that you need to accept that no amount of politeness is going to get those clean plates brought up by the kitchen porter before your stack runs out. If the counter is becoming demanding, that is what I also need to be.

What you don't want to happen is what happened to me two weeks ago. Our first sunny day in weeks and the end of the school holidays meant a lot of customers, and a lot of salads. I felt prepared, having backed up all of the deli options, and had even overpowered the schizophrenic toaster through a busy breakfast, with a distinct absence of the burnt toast haze that had plagued Nick Clegg's visit the week before. What I didn't reckon on was all the orders being for the counter, more awkwardly-timed baguettes than was fair, and running out of absolutely all of my prepped salads just in time for one of the directors to walk in. And all while starving and parched as I had neither had breakfast before I started my shift nor taken the opportunity to stop for ten minutes before the rush, and now couldn't seem to track down the goat's cheese, let alone a glass of water.

Should this happen again, I will do what happened next a lot earlier. If the orders were all for the counter, that therefore means that the kitchen is quiet, and two staff there against one here is not doing anyone any favours. So the manager asked one of them to come up, and this was a revelation. Suddenly salads started to reappear and surfaces became visible again, and I could even find and grab a gulp of that water.

I wasn't alone in my struggle, at least. On lovely days like this the bar also gets slammed with cold drink orders, and it's at its busiest when a customer like this walks in:

As I left work that day I told the manager that I don't know what I could have done differently that day to counteract the mania of all of those orders at once, but I do know now. Asking for help is not an admission of defeat, it's acknowledgement of a situation that needs additional control to stop it from causing damage. Next time there are more orders than I can handle, I'll know to order help.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Catch it, cook it, eat it!*

A trip to Cornwall gives me the opportunity to deviate from my musings on life in a proper eating establishment (not for long, fear not!) and to spend some time exploring regional foods. For what else is there to do on a late Summer holiday in Britain other than to shelter from the persistent rain and eat?

Holidaying near Padstow (or as N, and, it appears, many others, affectionately refer to it, Padstein) means fish is on the menu, lovingly snuggled between opportunities for a good Cornish pasty and a proper cream tea.

Firstly, those pasties. According to the lovely mother and daughter working at Polzeath Bee shop, a proper cornish pasty was a game of two halves, with a savoury filling on one side of beef, (NOT mince, shun proprieters who try to pass off anything other than big hearty chunks of tender steak with its accompanying peppery and rich gravy in your pasty) swede and potato, and a fruity filling on the other as dessert. They were early packed lunches for the miners. Naturally, a stay in Cornwall means you have to sample as many of these as possible (I'm writing this on the journey home and am pleased to report that the car is full of the heady aroma of the best pasties in the area, from Malcolm Barnecutt the baker, and there are another 8 handmade and frozen in a triple-wrapped and double-coat insulated bundle behind my head somewhere). I have taken the modern interpretation of the miner's packed lunch to be the surfer's reward, a hot pasty gobbled furiously after an hour and a half of being slapped in the face by 40 knot winds, alternately drowning in a wave, snorting seawater and having better (aka 'competent') surfers land on your head when you inadvertently bellysurf through their legs. Incidentally, I actually believe this takes considerable skill, but appreciate I may be alone in this. The enjoyment of food is inextricably tied into the circumstances in which it is enjoyed, and for me, a good pasty will now always remind me of cold water dribbling down my back and a salty tang on my lips from dunking too often in the sea. Look for handcrimping, and expect a reasonable price for proper steak and a nice peppery kick and you'll be alright.

As for cream teas, well, I could dedicate an entire post to these on their own. I appreciate that whilst a scone is a beautiful thing, it can cause tremendous upset as lifelong friends and passionate lovers wrangle over The Right Way To Prepare A Scone. N is the fiercest advocate of the art of Sconking and patented the term 'Fat Sandwich'. We Sconk with a homemade, warm scone (the texture should be somewhere along the lines of a good soda bread, not too crumbly as it needs to support the toppings, and not so dense that it adheres to the roof of one's mouth), either fruit or plain depending on your own taste, or lavender if you can. Whilst cheddar and marmite scones are a beautiful thing, they're not made for proper sconking so we will leave that to one side for the moment. Cut the scone in half (I hear that not everyone does this, which I find a shocking waste of topping opportunity) and add a reasonable layer of butter. This upsets many but I am a firm believer that a whisper of salt on the palate enhances sweet flavours, and besides, my blog, my rules. Then add your jam. A nice thick layer that threatens to escape if you don't demolish your scone quickly enough. And it must be strawberry, preferably home made - my last Sconking episode was not two hours ago and involved local honey-infused homemade strawberry jam and was delicious. I put my jam on first as a) I consider the clotted cream to be the crowning glory and b) I don't want anything turning pink, preferring to keep a bold white/red contrast.

Atop your jam goes the clotted cream. Clotted cream is made by heating full-fat cow's milk in steam or a waterbath and allowing it to cool in shallow pans, when clots of cream rise to the surface. It has the consistency of a thick unset custard, should have a delicate yellowy crust and be cold to contrast against the warm scone. The fact that many think aerosol cream will do makes me very, very sad. Eat quickly, with inappropriate groans, and a pot of proper tea such as Earl Grey on the side.

A seaside stay would not be complete without fish, and I'm glad to report that even my fish-fearing younger brother's conversion has begun. Dinner at The Seafood Restaurant in Padstein involved an enormous hot seafood platter, a seemingly bottomless turrine of bouillabaisse, a japanese take on hand-picked crab, juicy fat scallops and a variety of freshly caught and responsibly sourced fish. Confusingly, one of these was Brill, listed as one to avoid according to the Fish Fight, but having seen this appear on the menu in a number of local restaurants and enquiring after its provenance, I enjoyed it with a clear conscience. As I believe that if you can eat something, you should know where it came from and how, we decided to go fishing for our supper on our last day.

Fishing trips are not hard to find by the sea, and are an inexpensive way to have fun finding out where your dinner came from, as well as providing healthy competition with your holidaymates and a great sense of achievement and pride in your food. And it turns out that mackerel are easy to catch by the dozen, particularly for first-timers like myself who managed to catch three at once!

They don't need bait and aren't particularly fussy about the depth of the water. As oily fish, you can smell their oils as they leave the water, but as with anything fresh from the sea, this is not a strongly 'fishy' smell, which is instead an indicator that the fish is not at its best. My early post on fish describes how to prepare the fillets, and whilst this should perhaps be done indoors, mackerel can easily be cooked on a campstove on the beach. Mackerel's meatiness can handle stronger flavours and is wonderful fried. Try adding some roughly-chopped garlic cloves and torn bay leaves to shimmering-hot olive oil before adding mackerel fillets, skin-side down, on top. Wait for the fillets to become nearly entirely white before turning them over to finish on the flesh side for one minute, remove and drizzle with a squeeze of lemon and serve with new potatoes or hunks of bread and a simply-dressed tomato salad. Your nouveau-caveman meal will taste all the better for knowing that you caught the fish yourself.

*Note to readers: whilst I appreciate that it is not possible to 'catch' a scone, or a cornish pasty, the message is the same: know where your food is from and eat local, and it will taste better, I promise.