Friday, December 3, 2010

Take my white (side)towel and shove it, and other epic fail moments

I give up. This isn't working. A thirtysomething gal supporting herself can't live on love and minimum wage alone, contrary to whatever the idealists may say. Sure, she could, if she had a trust fund or the support of middle-class-to-wealthy kin. I have neither.

The difficulty of scratching out a living from kitchen work, at least for newly minted entrants like myself, hit me hard last week when I received my first paycheck: PHP1,250 ($28.50) for a week's work, plus PHP175 ($4) in tips. I might have stayed if the restaurant were more promising, but at the no-name Italian restaurant and pizzeria I found myself in, I was doomed to eternal boredom of the guestless restaurant. Days would pass when I would be lucky to be cooking two entrées during an entire eight-hour shift. The cooks would dip their fingers in the food to taste it, and prod me, the trainee pasta cook, to do the same. The fact that I brought my own knives and side towels was a novelty to them. There was very little production work. The restaurant also suffered from management problems - an absentee Italian chef-consultant who only came to the resto once a month to collect his paycheck, a menu that had not been changed AT ALL in three years, and an owner who did not remit employees' income taxes and social security payments. Everything pointed to infinitesimally meager learning, minimal pay and an abundance of suffering.

What was I doing at this gem of a place? Oh believe me, I peddled my CV everywhere. I had to contend with security guards who fancied themselves human resource managers ("Who told you we were hiring?? I'll have to speak with the manager if you'll be allowed to deposit your resume" - what, is there a law against that now?); manpower agency personnel hell-bent on pigeonholing me to the front of the house, service staff who'd look me up and down and scoff, "You? In the kitchen?" - and this while I deliberately wore my rattiest shirts so as not to look too prissy to be gutting fish; imperious chefs who would enquire about my goals and then snort at them ("You, cook in a Michelin-starred restaurant??"); and clueless restaurant managers who would tell me I was overqualified because of my university education and refuse to take me seriously because of my corporate background.

I give up. The local food industry is unfriendly to women like me. It takes even less kindly to those who do not have the right connections. So I'll do the next best thing: I'll work towards setting up my own food-related business. Entrepreneurship is the only option I haven't considered, really.

So. I'm still here in the world of pinstripes and neatly pressed slacks. Well, at least I won't break my back, literally. And I'll earn enough to buy my oven and mixer.

So. Apply as food editor for a large publishing company? Or PR executive of a luxury hotel? Why the hell not? It'll be my revenge on the glass-floored (it's a floor, people, a floor! Not a ceiling!), unforgiving industry that didn't love me back.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My angel is a punk rocker

Something amazing happened to me last week. But wait, let's start with the awful stuff first.

I answered a job ad and reported in the morning to a manpower agency's office in Cubao, Quezon City, which is all of eight MRT stations away from where I live. The vacancy turned out to be for a kakanin maker in a canteen for call center employees. In far, far away Cavite. Now, I have nothing against kakanin. As a Filipino with a natural affinity for all things rice I love kakanin, with cassava cake and bibingka being two of my top comfort foods. But as someone with a rudimentary professional baking education, it is the mastery of bread-baking and pastry and dessert production that I'm after. You can imagine I was dismayed and feeling that I was doomed to languish in the pits of a failed career. What career? I haven't found paid work yet!

There she was again, Desperation. I could see her waving her bloody talons out of the corner of my eye. I decided to go home, cobble together a cover letter, and look for Park Avenue Desserts. I vaguely knew that it was owned by Buddy Trinidad, who is one of the Philippines' top pastry chefs (in hindsight, when I looked up his bio after our encounter, I realized I knew so little about how fierce his credentials are!). My plan was just to deposit my CV and leave. I didn't realize I would be granted an audience with The Man!

The first thing he asked me was which school I graduated from. It rang a bell. "Ah, you're a student of Martha's (Ebro)." To my teacher chef Martha, our "Mahal na Diyosa", I'll forever be grateful, because your name opens doors! He asked me a few more questions about my background, and then he said the most thrilling thing anyone has ever said to me: "You're hungry. I will take you in. You're welcome to come in and learn, sort of like another apprenticeship. I don't keep any secrets. I share everything I know with my students." And then he said he would forward my CV to people in his network, mentioning in particular two big names: a French chef and a Colombian guy. I swear, I almost wept!

This was on Tuesday. Well, he kept his word. I was summoned to an interview on Saturday at Restaurant CiҪou. It was scary, of course, and the prospect of working there makes me want to slash my wrists out of a combination of fear, joy and rapture, but hey, this amazing opportunity, and that of learning from him, was thrown in my lap courtesy of my angel the punk rocker.

Have I been a good person? What have I done to deserve this unbelievable, and wholly unexpected, piece of good karma? Now I just hope I don't screw up, or he might whack me with his guitar - okay, maybe not, because it's too precious to risk breaking it on my pate. Maybe a rolling pin instead?

I start reporting to him tomorrow. I'm so excited I wanna be sedated! Okay, that's me borrowing from one of his musical heroes. I'll shut up now before he happens to read this and really does decide to whack me on the head for my foolishness.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Goose Station diary

Things I did during my stâge at The Goose Station:

October 1:
-broke spaghettini into pieces for fideua negra
-diced watermelon for Beet Garden. Fail!
-peeled, ricered and sieved potato for mashed potato
-prepared mashed potato with truffle oil
-put avruga caviar on top of Caviar Surprise
-helped assemble/plate Beet Garden, Unagi Foie Gras Terrine, 24-Hour Steak; Yogurt Foam, Granola, Mint, Mangoes & Berries; Bittersweet Farewell
-picked out mint leaves for Yogurt Foam dessert
-helped assemble Bittersweet Farewell
-deveined and prepped foie gras
-learned how to make brioche
-saw how sous vide cooking is done

-Fideua Negra
-Yogurt Foam
-Savory Macaroon
-oreo-like thingy with boursin

October 2:
-assisted in expediting
-helped plate Eggs Benedict; Squash Soup; Quail; Chocolate Candy Bar
-saw how 24-hr steak is portioned out (150g a la carte, 50g table d'hote)
-learned how lamb sauce and steak sauce are made
-placed in charge of hot station's chiller. Organized it.
-participated in general cleaning. Bled to death (almost!) from cut on right middle finger
-planned employee meals for next 5 days and ordered ingredients for them

October 4:
-cooked employee meal (chopsuey)
-fried the onions for 24-Hour Steak
-learned how quail is fabricated
-learned how demi-glace and tomato sauce are made
-expedited and plated and did better at it :)
-“fired” squash soup and learned how to make it
-helped cold kitchen assemble desserts
-made brioche
-mep for next day's EM (pork salpicao)

October 5:
-fried the onions for 24-Hour Steak
-learned how to make Seared Foie Gras
-learned how to make Potato Glass
-learned how to saute quail
-learned how to make marinade for lamb. Sealed lamb and marinade in vacuum packs for cooking in immersion circulator
-learned how to prepare Farmer's Egg and plate it
-learned how to cook veg for 24-Hour Steak

October 6-7:
-made tapenade
-made cones using fillo pastry for welcome snacks
-learned how to fill cones with foie pate
-plated Beet Garden, Caviar Surprise, Foie Gras Terrine
-mise-en-place for cold station: diced watermelon, sliced honeydew, made beet coins, blanched edamame,
-cleaned up cold station's chiller
-helped with inventory of cold kitchen's supplies
-set up pass
-made welcome snacks and Bittersweet Farewell

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wait a minute...

On second thought, I don't think I want this. Let me clarify: it's alright for the powers that be to post this blog on their page and say it was written by a student. I don't want them to attribute it to my name, though. And I must say, I have misgivings. Once they claim this blog, my editorial integrity is going to be questioned because my readers - yes, all three of you - will start suspecting I have become a marketing tool, and that I have to censor certain sentiments instead of remaining my old, candid self.

Hmmm ... Anyway, last time I checked, I wasn't on their page yet. The brand manager probably found Luto-lutuan too roguish and highly unsuitable. LOL.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

You want me to whaat?

I just got a message today that my school is interested in picking up my blog, probably for marketing purposes.

Super-LOL while blushing!

I hope that's not the end of my cherished anonymity. Also, I'm a bit embarrassed to have the brand manager - hi, Mr./Ms. Brand Manager! - read about how I went through school with utter gracelessness. I would love for my eulogist, as she/he speaks before my ashes are scattered out into the sea, to say that I went through life with great humor and grace, but so far it's been all humor. I certainly hope they get that, the self-deprecating humor-as-coping-mechanism thing. And I certainly hope it does not affect my chances of being hired by their signature restaurant (hint, hint!).

Anyway, please read away. I and this little writing project of mine would be honored, if we do get picked.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The writing on the wall

You might call this one of my life goals - that of being able to write on pastries presentably enough for said pastry to make it to the display case. So. For the last three days of my practicum I asked to be assigned to the chef in charge of decorating the Golden Fan's cakes, and I told him that if he could teach me only one thing, it would have to be this. I spent one whole day trying to write - it's all in the piping cone and the flick of the wrist, he told me - and here are some of the still-awful results, although the sous chef of the hotel came by and said one of them, the "Happy Birthday" in the foreground next to "Happy Anniversary", looked decent enough. Well, the Great Wall wasn't built in one day, was it?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting it right the second time

I love making these meringue cups (would they still be called vacherons?) because making them involves pulling out all of the piping skills I can muster from my flour-dusted self. This was my second time to make them and they're a vast improvement over the first batch I did, which had lots of hollow spaces in the sides. The pastry cooks start turning out quantities of them when a glut of unused egg whites accumulates, and the Golden Fan uses the meringue cups as the base for the fruit tarts it serves in its buffet resto.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cutesy cutesy coo!

Aren't these strawberry cupcakes the cutest? They're for a children's party. I was asked to decorate all of them with a dusting of Bianca powder (essentially a fancy form of confectioner's sugar with an additive that prevents it from absorbing moisture), piped whipped cream (it was like dancing: 1, 2, 3, step!), a fresh strawberry quarter and a triangle of colored white chocolate.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Salty art

This is by far the coolest thing I have ever made in a kitchen, and it's not even edible. It's a salt sculpture! To make them, we mixed salt, cornstarch and water, poured this into a mold and microwaved it for a couple of seconds. My partner and I made about 35 of these dragons in orange and yellow.

The chef saw how much fun we were having so he brought out his other kids for us to play with.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Screwed, almost

I can't believe how close I came to getting screwed. I went yesterday to the posh hotel, which I shall call The Golden Fan, where I was going to do my apprenticeship. Lo and behold, I was told that my file had been placed in the "did not pursue" category. I broke out in a cold sweat despite the glacial air conditioning. I was about to be thrown out on a limb - after having quit my job I had visions of myself moving into a tent made of discarded election posters (national elections had just ended) and selling gruel (with puréed newspapers as extender) to survive while waiting for another internship opening.

The hiring manager must've seen the desperation in my face threatening to erupt any moment and ending with me jumping up and down like a deranged monkey on her paper-cluttered desk. So rather than risk having her filing system upset by some bushy-haired baboon, she decided to hand me my endorsement papers. Off I went to be "interviewed" by the sous chef, with said "interview" consisting of a five-second head-to-toe size-up and a grudging "I'll borrow her for the Thai banquet" mumbled to the HR assistant escorting me. I knew the sous chef doubted my grit. I would've been skeptical too - someone aspiring to work in the kitchen does not usually set foot in it in a prissy lace-trimmed camisole, a knitted robe-like wrap and pointy patent leather ballerina flats. All the toques looked at me too, and I could barely suppress the impulse to slink under the grease trap.

After that minor humiliation, we strolled over to Laundry to make provisions for me to borrow one of their chef's jackets. Wearing your school jacket is fine if you work away in one of the Golden Fan's cavernous hidden kitchens, but not if you hold fort at a station that puts you in contact with guests.

And then, that was that. I ascended the stairwell back to the front of the staff entrance, wiped the cold fear-sweat from my brows, hobbled away from the premises, and searched for a dark corner where I could put my knees together in an upright fetal position, and rocked and rocked until I lost consciousness and awoke to find that I had killed and eaten my pet Madagascar hissing cockroach.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan

Reading 'Cooking Dirty', Jason Sheehan's memoir of his rise from plongeur to (non-celebrity, but that doesn't matter) chef, is giving me the creeps. Mom, I promise not to do drugs and cook at the same time! Maybe I'll do one or the other, but not simultaneously, nyahaha!

Nah. You know me. I've always been the good girl.

Seriously, his stories of drugs, filthy kitchens, juvenile pranks, assault, meaningless sexual encounters on top of bakers' prep tables, hands dipped in 400 degree deep fryer oil and putrid locker rooms are enough for me to momentarily contemplate putting my tail between my legs and begging for my cushy office job back. Except anatomically, I do not possess a tail. And my pride would cause me to slit my wrists than go cowering back to my glamorized role as keyboard pusher who picks up after Big Media Company's other news desks.

And I love making food too much. And I'm not a quitter.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A bad case of performance anxiety

Here it is, my perfectly poached egg (you can also just make out Gisslen, peeking at you from the upper edges of the skimmer). Look at its soft ovoid roundness begging to be cradled in your palm and cooed to. This was at home, in my one-burner kitchen. I was practicing for egg cookery lab in Level 4.

I failed miserably in school the next day. My egg looked like roadkill. In fact, putrifying run-over animals would have looked 50 times more appetizing next to the disaster I ended up with. Poaching eggs demands sureness of hand, even an arrogant, unwavering belief in oneself and one's ability to make a collection of gloopy proteins coalesce by means of vinegar, just the right temp and unerring stirring.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Si Tita Ruth! Si Tita Ruth!"

"It's Aunt Ruth [Reichl]! It's Aunt Ruth!" you might have heard a (mildly) mad-looking woman exclaim this at your friendly neighborhood Powerbooks sometime between 6 and 8 pm on Friday night while doing a silly little shimmy. Ruth Reichl and I are not related. but lately I've taken to calling friends and most everyone I feel an affinity with kuya (big brother), ate (big sister), tita (auntie), tito (uncle), lolo (grandpa) or lola (grandma).

Anyway. Ruth Reichl. She's my goddess, my food journalism mother. She's what I hope to become in the event I attain a measure of authority and respectability in my new profession. Of course, now that Gourmet has folded, I'll never be validated by getting published there one day.

But, enough about my writing ambitions. What I really wanted to say is that I'm thrilled to find a slew of food writing in my favorite bookstore. Garlic and Sapphires, one of Reichl's memoirs, was the very first one I spotted, but it wasn't long before I started salivating at the smorgasbord on the shelves:

1. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

2. Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan.

3. It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time by Moira Hodgson.

4. Tender At The Bone by Ruth Reichl.

5. Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl.

6. Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl.

7. I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci.

8. Born Round by Frank Bruni.

9. Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard.

10. Sacre Cordon Bleu by Michael Booth.

11. My Life in France by Julia Child.

12. Cleaving by Julie Powell.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Crème brulée and the threat of permanent eyebrow loss

I'm really proud of my caramel cages. See, I put two, overkill be damned. However, the chef said the top of the brulée was too scorched for his liking.

Chef, crème brulée means "burnt sugar".

Sorry sir, I'll put the torch down now. Didn't mean to glower and wave it inches from your face.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I hope you have the tongue of an angel

"Maybe that's really your calling because your progress is so quick," said my friend Preppy Boy when he found out I was going to do my internship at a luxury hotel.

Sana magdilang anghel ka. In my culture, to say magdilang anghel is to say that a person has just uttered something akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Values education for budding chefs

After two months in the real world, I've come to realize that cookery schools should include a values education class in their curricula. Alongside the usual classes on knife skills, sauces and plating, future chefs should be receive a grounding on critical life and career issues, including:

* Moderating one's alcohol and cigarette consumption. Since I began my practicum I've received almost daily invitations to go out drinking. I've always turned them down because I feel uncomfortable being the only woman in a group of strange men, and because I'd rather catch up on sleep than get soused up.

"So you don't drink or smoke?' one asked incredulously, implying that I've been living a dull, monotonous existence. Sorry dude. I have a rich, meaningful life full of enriching experiences. I don't feel the need to get piss-drunk or fill my lungs with carcinogens to feel alive. And I'm not square; I do drink and go out with friends once in a while. It's just that doing it everyday, and to the point of senseless inebriation, is not a very adult thing to do.

* A how-to on dealing with sexual harassment for the ladies, and a guide to gallantry for the men. I lasted only 140+ hours at Artsy Asian Outpost because of this. Okay, that's a little misleading - I left because I got accepted to a five-star hotel. Come on men - do you really need to fire off crude jokes and molest female coworkers to cook?

This was something I'd been totally unprepared for when I began my practicum. I actually sobbed my heart out in the bathroom on one particularly bad day when I got bullied and touched inappropriately by four different chefs. Nothing - not my friend's stories or reading up about the kitchen - had prepared me for the real thing and what made it even more of a shock was that I'd worked for such a long time in a company that was a model corporate denizen. The male chefs in school are all nice people. They were the kind you'd want to grab coffee with after class. I'll never forget chef Vic when he asked to excuse himself because he had to say the word 'condom' in class. That's who they were - decent, salt-of-the-earth people. Compare that to the animal who put his arms around me as he proceeded to "teach" me how to properly fabricate chicken, or to the asshole who'd repeatedly comment that I favored a particular sexual act whenever I bent down to lift or pick things up on the floor.

I never could fathom why they needed to do this, but somehow, I'm thankful for the experience because it opened my eyes and showed me I needed to be tougher. I learned valuable things about my self and how to navigate these situations. I left when the offer from the hotel came but if that hadn't happened, I'd probably still be at that resto, toughing it out. If we get fired by the establishment we forfeit our diploma but let me just exult a little: I fired my establishment instead.

* Being a joy to work with. Don't let your competence and rank in the kitchen get to your head; stay modest. You're not hot property - you're not CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you don't have a PhD, and you didn't earn your master's degree as a scholar of two European universities. I've met and been friends with achievers with this sort of pedigree and they're the nicest, most modest and down-to-earth people I've had the fortune of knowing. You're nothing, Power-tripping Chef de Cuisine (you're not even that high up in the kitchen hierarchy!)

And please, don't be mean to those of humbler rank than you. At that resto, they like to order the dishwashers and junior cooks around, just because they can. They're like dogs pissing on their territory.

* Respect for yourself and your customers. Develop good working habits. Work clean; you establish yourself as a conscientious, circumspect chef who respects the food he makes and the people who pay to eat it.

In spite of a somehow bruising encounter - and I've probably only barely scratched the surface - the romance of cooking and making good food is still there for me. Some of the glint of being a chef might have gotten scratched off, but I hope my passion for the profession never fades.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tiramisu, with fetid socks

I made this a month ago for Climber Guy, my prince of a co-worker who was celebrating his birthday.

He admired the caramel topper and said he only sees these things on Iron Chef. Naturally, I was thrilled out of my socks.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Book of Sweets by Marina Schinz

Don't be misled by the frippery title - it's a documentation of the history of sweets, the lore surrounding them and the art of the confectioner.

Sweet and Sugarfree by Karen E. Barkie

I love this book's healthy concept. It keeps its promise - you won't see any sugar in the ingredients and even honey is singled out as a bad guy.

I have yet to try out the recipes though, since I don't have an oven. A pastry chef, which is where I feel the heartstrings tugging, without an oven is like an F1 racer without his car. If the recipes turn out well, I'm going to serve the pastries in the cafe I'm dreaming up.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Here's something I'm really proud of - the Pavlova I made in baking class for meringues day. It was one of the prettiest things I'd ever made. I gave it to my pal Elka, a ballerina and arts writer, who I'm sure would appreciate the connection between the cake and the famed danseuse.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Because chefs can do things their way...

Somewhere inside the hot kitchen:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pumpkin shooters and cop-outs

Two days into my internship, I get a taste of my first big function - cocktails for about 600 guests. I was supposed to assemble pork wantons - spoon kung pao sauce onto the fried triangle of pork, then sprinkle crushed peanuts on top - but got assigned to the pumpkin shooters instead.

That task involved pouring pumpkin soup into a shot glass and decorating it with a drop of yogurt and a papadum sliver. Easy, you say? Fair enough, but the challenge lay in timing assembly and send-outs so that the soup would still be warm by the time it reached the guests. I made two miscues before getting it right. There were heating lamps to keep some of the food warm, but to me this was a cop-out. Sure, they kept the shooters warm, but if you kept soup out long enough, an unattractive film forms on top. The papadums too, which remind me of Indian cornflakes, would become soggy from sitting in the soup too long and would often sink to the bottom. They would have to be fished out and replaced with a new one.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Cutting is a dance...

I spent most of today at the garde manger station slicing things. I still feel unhappy about my knife skills. My cuts look like they were made by someone who'd never gone to cooking school. For someone who cares about doing things the proper way, this is quite a self-esteem deflater.

Anyway, we were talking about dancing, right? In spite of my lack of knife skills, I found the wherewithal to enjoy the groovy house music being piped about the dining area, and remarked to myself how vibrant and energetic the place is. It's nice slicing things with peppy music in the background.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Still kicking!

No, dear audience of three, I haven't died or evaporated. I've simply been incredibly busy with school and work. So while this blog has been in its death throes for a while, don't cart it off to the morgue just yet.

I'm now done with school, or the classroom part at least. I started officially as an intern on March 17 at this resto in one of Manila's financial which I like to call the Artsy Asian Outpost (AAO), and have been enjoying every minute of it, in spite of the leg-breaking (one has to stand up for nearly nine hours everyday without a break) work and the near-zombie like state I sometimes work myself into because of perpetual sleep deprivation.

Everyone was surprisingly nice and decent-behaving. Except for their unanimous disbelief when they hear my response to the standard "how old are you" conversation-opener, and a little irritation on my part when almost everyone kept asking about my marital/relationship status (I should be used to both reactions by now as a single 30-something, but I never am), there weren't too many horror stories of the kind Shuna Fish Lydon described in her blog. One major annoyance was the line cook who pretended to sneeze and spray me with his snot, and then threw bits of chocolate wrapper at me, but I'm taking it in stride. Into each ass a little pain must fall, no? Anyway, he made nice to me afterwards.

I just wish I didn't look so young, because people here (is it only in the Philippines, or everywhere else?) equate youth with being a pushover.