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.