Thursday, February 2, 2017

French Cuisine in a trailer

Tuesday, January 31, 2017
10:18 p.m.
I opened the cart last week, finally. Maybe "finally" makes it sound melodramatic, perhaps it is, a bit. Though it's only been a few years since I really devoted actual time and effort to bringing this idea to fruition, it feels like it's been a lot longer. Anyway, the cart is open, I'm cooking what I WANT to cook, and it seems that people like it. One of my insecurities was that I was fooling myself with another delusion about giving people something they didn't know they wanted. When I'd tell people I was aiming at fusing real French cuisine with street food, most of the time I'd get the proverbial “deer in the headlights” look as a response. There were the obvious questions: Was I going to do French Fries?, French Toast?, and of course, escargot? As humbly as I know how, and I admit “humble” is not always my strong suit, I explained repeatedly that “French” fries are, in fact, Belgian (God bless them for that fact alone!), French Toast is called Pain Perdu in French and no, I wasn't going to make it, nor will I make escargot... for Now (but Escargot Bourguignon will show up in popper form on my menu eventually!). The other perplexing part for folks was what little they knew of French cuisine, they could imagine coming from Portland's form of taco trucks even less.
Which is why it brought me no small amount of gratification that a fellow cart chef/owner get's what I'm doing. He recognized that I cook my sandwiches en croute when I brought him my Porc Normande sandwich he ordered. He went on to write about my food on his own website: “ It's great to see French food done in an informal setting like this. It's almost become sort of a forgotten cuisine, probably not in New Orleans, but throughout much of the rest of the country there seems to be a reaction against the fact that it held sway over "serious food" for so long. And of course, the irony there is that French cuisine evolved largely out of peasant fare (and, arguably was brought to France by the Medici family of Florence, but that's another discussion). It's time for a populist French revival, and that's what Greg is doing. Awesome”
Yeah, after the schlmazel of the last two-point-five years, I'm feelin' pretty good right about now...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Vol au vent pastries don't fight me the way rice noodles do...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016
2:17 a.m. Local time

It feels weird to be writing for the blog again, but in a good way. The fact that the cooking job in Sandy River devolved into the psychological hell that it did kinda' killed my desire to write about my joys of cooking, to say nothing of what it did to my said joys of cooking. Then my kids all decided to, one by one, relocate to Portland, which they had all kinda' fallen in love with when they'd come to visit me while I was in culinary school... so I left Alaska a 2nd time to rejoin my family. Before I had been back two full weeks, I suffered 3 strokes in a matter of 12 hours; I've always strived to some how be an over-achiever, but 3?!, talk about your blog-writing mood killers!

Of course it affected my right side, because, of course, I'm right handed. I was out of work for 9 months, and when I did start interviewing with potential employers again, I had to be honest with them all and let them know I wasn't entirely “whole” again yet. When my vegetarian son who was working as the cleaner of the meat department (wait, what?!...) at the New Seasons Market in Beaverton suggested I look into applying at their prepared foods department, I finally found people who would take a chance on a broken person.

The NSM store in Tualatin was needing a line cook: being a native Southern Californian, I've done Mexican food almost my entire life. I learned some German delicacies while I lived/worked in that country, and certain Italian dishes became my fave things to cook when I first got married in the mid 80's. French and East Indian are the two cuisines that specifically rock Gregland, so natch I learned to cook both. I've done regional U.S. recipes, lotsa' European stuff, I've even learned some things to do from a few African nations. So, what's the ONE cuisine I literally have NO experience with, that is, if you're kind enough not to consider the train wreck of a meal I attempted to do Japanese tempura for one of my besties/ my kids' dear Godmother decades ago? ...Asian. And what do they have me doing, like, 90% of my average day? Woks.

And it's a BLAST!! I'm now doing wok bowls, bento bowls, ramens. I use a varietal tour of Asia in sauces; Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, two different styles of Chinese, Indonesian, even a yellow curry (the not my-face-feels-like-it's-melting hot one of the three). We braise pork gently for hours to be pulled and portioned up. Kung Pao bowls get a handful of peanuts tossed in them to be quickly toasted along with the rich, spicy sauce. I've learned how to gently brown cubes of tofu before adding the vegetables so they come out with a toasty crunch.

That said, it feels pathetic to admit the bane of my existence has become rice freaking noodles. I hate them with just about every fiber of my being. Portioning them into the little paper envelopes is like wrestling one of those fan-inflated “dancing” guy things you see in front of businesses advertising a special sale; they're everywhere. At once. Why don't I just stuff a handful of stainless steal springs in there as well?!, that's about the level of cooperation I'm gonna' get! And then, when you add them to the wok?, if you let them rest just a moment too long at the bottom next to the hot metal, they stick like they're culinary concrete. Of course when they perform that annoying little trick, it's without fail during a rush and you hafta' waste extra time scrubbing their remnants from the bowl of the wok, and because the kitchen is “open”, customers are busily mean mugging you from 12 feet away wondering what's taking you so long to cook THEIR wok they can still see waiting in front of your face. Rice noodles hate me so much?, I'm considering taking one of my vacation weeks to Thailand, just so I can find the factory that supplies us and burning it to the ground. Lol Just kidding. Maybe. But I've never had problems like that with, say, cassoulet...

Which is why I'm busily working on opening my own food cart in Portland. French-fusion. Updated French classic dishes sealed inside bread dough and baked (“en croute”), with appropriate sauces and cheese. Hopefully my Indiegogo campaign will work raising the fundage I need, 'cause I really don't wanna' end up on the news for torching an unwitting Thai noodlery... lol, just kidding, again. Maybe...

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

This is a food facility, not your doctor's exam room...

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013
3:18 p.m. local time

Contrary to “popular” consensus, I am not a nazi in the kitchen. Or anywhere else, for that matter. But still, that being said, I do have just a coupla' rules when you're in my kitchen/dining room. And when I say “my kitchen”, I mean, if I'm working it, by myself?, then it's mine. Even if you own the place and have hired me to work it, as long as I'm working it alone, as I said, it's mine. For the time being.  And that's not really a bad thing, since, if it's "mine", I'ma' take care of/clean it like it's mine, too, see?   

I digress; I have a coupla' rules in my kitchen/dining room. They're not harsh, unreasonable, or even authoritarian. They're just courteous. No big deal, right? Well, come to find out, some people just can't handle that. The first rule I have is no comparing, under any circumstances, food to excrement. Nobody wants to imagine the latter while indulging in the former. And if you're bound and determined to do such comparing, please take yourself outta' my kitchen and back to high school, have fun being a sophomore again.

The 2nd (notice how I didn't use the term “number 2”, 'cuz, I'm serial here about the whole excrement reference thang...) rule, following logically on the heels of the first, is you ain't need to be discussing bodily functions at the table. There is a time and place for that, and while cooking/dining is neither. The downside of course is that I have people very near and dear to me who almost relish the opportunities to relate their bowel habits to everyone with in earshot, and if you're all at the table together, “earshot” kinda' goes without saying.

So why is it that grown ass adults, strangers I've just met like literally hours ago, are all wanting to tell me about such while they're traversing my kitchen during breakfast this morning?! Yeah, I made oatmeal!, SO?! That does not give you poetic license to describe to me in ANY kinda' detail how well it “cleans out” your insides! Check it; I'm your cook, not your doctor. Hear the difference? You can tell your doctor any ole' whatever about any of your parts and functions you want, in fact I'll cheer you on. But as your cook, most of the time?, the most I wanna' hear from you is that you enjoyed what I put on the table. I can take constructive criticism, so if something didn't meet your expectations or whatever, fine, write it down on a piece of paper and I'll be sure to burn-I-mean-file that.  If you absolutely insist on informing me of your "habits", then come tip time, you can pay me what you'd be paying your family physician, and not what I'm earning here.  

But I digress. Again. Here's this person whom I only remembered his name because it's one of those old world names you never hear anymore (for good reason), and he's launching into a litany of how oatmeal has benefitted his colon!  Dude!, I love my children more than life itself, and I don't even wanna' know about THEIR intestinal anything! The look of terror on my face must not have registered with him, because he quickly joined his colleagues at the table, and then they all joined him in sharing history making bowel movements they've had courtesy of oatmeal!!! LOUDLY! Clamping my oven-mitt clad hands over my ears and shouting “I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!! LA LA LA LA LA!!!” actually accomplished nothing, they all remained painfully oblivious, and as I was in the middle of two different pans of fried eggs over easy, it wasn't like I could run screaming outside into the drizzling rain. Nope, I hadda' stand there, enduring the audial onslaught of vibrantly described bodily funtions; gas; high colonics; diverticulitis; enflamed tissues and topical ointments; etc, while continuing to cook eggs to order and serve up yet MORE oatmeal, which of course only drew more guests into the fiendish conversation! It was beyond hideous, it was quite literally hell on earth.

I may never serve oatmeal again. In fact, for this group?, I think I'm gonna' start loading every single dish I can with cheese. Yeah, uh huh, lessee how verbal all you Chatty Cathies are when you're all blocked up... My kitchen, my game, I win.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Oh no he DIDN'T just compare my cooking to...

Friday, 21 June, 2013
3:41 p.m. Local time

For a few years now, since I've gotten into the culinary biz full time professionally, I've loved to day dream about my own place, one that Guy Fieri takes the “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” crew on an inspired assignment to, where they all rave about my cassoulet, or my Japanese style spicy maple glazed pork, or halibut Mombasa, etc., all en croute. Guests would gleefully anticipate my Irish potato soup on cold winter days, and my mini Sacher tortes, Japanese apple-pear tarte Tatins, and amped up Cannoli would become the hit of the after hours crowd. I have pinterest boards loaded with dishes I'd like to do ala Francais, as well as pictures of how I'd decorate a bistro of my own, right down to wall art and background music.

Since arriving at Sandy River Lodge, I've been doing my best to put out some memorable meals here, which is difficult at best in such rural conditions. One night I packed pork ribs in garlic, kosher salt, oregano, lemon zest, coarse black pepper, paprika and brown sugar, then smoked them over alder branches for hours. Another night I glazed salmon in Sriracha and onion soup mix blended with olive oil. Pork loin got braised in white wine, thyme, allspice, garlic cloves and red onions. Moose steaks were dredged in flour laced with garlic salt, paprika, sage and white pepper, egg, and finally panko, then deep fried.

So imagine my chagrin when I heard from the controlled chaos of the dining room of the early morning;
Greg, your pancakes are just like the ones at McDonald's!”. Suddenly, the whole scene in front of me skidded to a halt, I was literally hearing that sound effect in my head. All the air was sucked outta' the room; in my minds eye, Guy Fieri and crew are now torching my kitchen and dining room like an angry mob from a Frankenstein movie, foreign nations are declaring war on our country for the travesty they feel I've made of one of their traditional dishes, and ghosts of long dead Le Cordon Bleu instructors are reaching out from their graves, shredding my chef's coat from my body.
Dude, are you o.k.?, you still in there?, hello?...” I come back to reality as Jason and Trevor are staring intently at me, I've got my 10” chef's knife poised over my abdomen ready to commit ritual seppukku in the middle of the camp dining room.
Sorry, what?...” I mumble.
Dude, like, everybody loves your pancakes!, I could personally eat these everyday!”

Yeah, nope, I can't think of anybody who'd like to start their day being told their pancakes “are just like McDonald's!”, not even the people who “cook” at McDonald's. O.k., so I'm using Krusteaz pancake mix; this is a remote wilderness camp, cut me a break! But c'mon, it's me!, you so know I'ma' doctor that stuff up! Some vanilla, or maybe almond, extract and ground cinnamon, YEAH!, that's what I'm talking about. So they're not German pancakes, you know those platter sized pastries that form their own bowl that you then fill with fresh fruit and real whipped cream, but they're stylin' for being at camp. And I know Jason (one of the fishing guides), he's a good guy, he was totally smiling when he said it, so I know he meant it as a compliment. But when you're working to perfect your international cuisine skills, specifically French, being compared to Mickey D's is pretty much professional death. I mean, like, I think I woulda' even accepted him comparing my cooking to, like, Ihop! But no, Crackdonald's it was. I'm sure the look on my face would have been more appropriate had Jason stabbed a hunormous bite of pancakes and then jabbed it into my eye, or set the syrup ablaze on his plate and then smashed me in the crotch with it.

If my demise doesn't involve one of the lovely and now active volcanoes oh so close by, or a particularly ornery local brown bear, within the next few days, I have half a mind to dress entirely in black and start asking all my diners if they'd “like fries with that” while I'm serving...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I don't remember signing up for active volcanoes!

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
11:12 p.m. local time

WOW, crazy hella' major busy week!  Cooking for only 17 people should be a WHOLE lot simpler than this, hell, I've cooked for 450 easier than this!  BUT, I've got multiple pantries on different ends of the compound and more than one kitchen I'm cooking in at any given time.  e.g.?, tonight, the bulk of supper was put together in the main kitchen at the east end of the camp.  But the main course, deep fried Chicken fried moose steak hadda' be done in the smoke house, two buildings away.  So, prepping the mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, salad (lettuce, cuq's, green onions, mushrooms, red cabbage, and red & yellow bells), and frosting the cakes first (duh), before schlepping 8 bazillion ingredients and implements to the smoke house kinda' saved my butt.  But running the finished product back to the kitchen for service while it was still hot from the deep fryer like to wore me out!  Whatever, people raved about the entire meal (thanks for your help listening for my timers Jacob!), as did some of our neighboring fauna; a brown bear (they're called "grizzlies" in the Lower 48) followed the scent of the moose steaks, dancing around in the biblically hot oil, up to the air strip!  We could tell he musta' been a big 'un, 'cuz even from far away we could make out his musculature, and he was impressive enough we were collectively glad he remained far away!  Now the fog is rolling in from the Bristol Bay, and you know I gotta' get up at least once a night to answer the call of nature; we're supposed to watch out for bears napping on the lawn in this?  Maybe I should retrieve one of the empty plastic coffee cans from the mud room...

The curious/peckish bruin was just a cap on an already mildly nerve racking day; both volcanoes Veniaminof to the east and Pavlof to the south were more than a little active all day long.  Veni' was steaming when we flew in a week and a half ago; today he (she?) was full on smoking, his (her?) ash cloud streaming first southward and then curving sharply west to sail directly overhead (in spite of the distinct breeze blowing eastward, hmmm...).  Then Pavlof, who's been completely quiet this whole time, was steaming to the point at first glance it appeared like storm clouds rolling in.  THEN, this evening while thrashing about in the kitchen, the guests were cruising through chattering about Veni rumbling.  ?!  "Rumbling?!  What rumbling, I didn't hear any 'rumbling!!, are you f'ing kidding me?!"  All that smoke and ash from Veni earlier in the day was startling enough, I had just finished my workout and was shower bound when I saw what was transpiring not 25 miles from here.  I'm rushing through my shower envisioning some people in ancient Pompei innocently showering themselves when Vesuvius decided to throw its bitch fit of an eruption, and thought "I really don't want fanny pack wearing tourists strolling past the fossilized ruins of Sandy River Lodge, and my naked form immortalized in stone tearing open a dime store shower curtain and scrambling for a towel, thank you very little!".  Needless to say, that was the fastest shower I've ever accomplished, like, ever.  Not like I think I woulda' been able to run away from an volcanic eruption, I mean, where the heck would I go?!, into the arms of the brown bear who attempted raiding my chicken fired moose steaks?!  There really ain't anyplace out here to run to, but such is where the mind goes when faced with cataclysmic fiery death.  I know; if I were one of my kids carrying on this way, I'd be reaching for the nearest statuette sized object and feign presenting it to them while intoning "And the Oscar goes to..."

Well, like I said, the fog has rolled in, which reminds me so much of being at the beach, that I'm lulled into a false sense of security, and now if either of the stupid volcanoes do go off, I'll neither see them, nor hear them, and hopefully said cataclysmic fiery death will be mercifully quick and painless, however dying like that can be "painless", but whatever.  At least I'll go down with my pantry (one of them, located literally behind a "secret panel" wall), and future tourists will be in awe of the spices I had out here in the tundra, and not snickering at some hapless clod caught bare assed in the shower when the world as I knew it came crashing to its end.

And then maybe I'm just feeling "remote cabin fever" already, and need to chillax.  Anything's possible... 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fire, knives, and tundra

Sunday, June 9th, 2013
10:55 p.m. local time

Wow, it's been a long time.  So long, in fact, that I can't even find my old blog, those bastards at google musta' deleted it or whatever.  NO worries, I needed to start fresh anywho.  

Started my new (for the summer) job at Sandy River Camp today; it's a fishing/hunting lodge very near Port Moller and Nelson Lagoon in the eastern Aleutians, Alaska.  Landing this job, in fact, is what in part enabled me to come home to AK.  I'd been looking for work in a kitchen (any kitchen!!) since I'd graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon, last May (2012).  But let's face it, with THREE culinary schools in town, competition was majorly fierce.  So much so that out of ALL the job postings I responded to (and I've serially lost count of how many there were...), I only received one working interview, and that was last December.  A "working" interview is where you show up and essentially participate in the kitchen as if you already work there, doing tasks the chef asks of you.  No problems there, in fact I totally outdid myself by creating a pumpkin pie spice caramel sauce for the chef's roasted pumpkin dessert that hadn't come out quite the way he'd wanted it to.  Chef seemed very appreciative of my work... until it came time to go home, and suddenly he's dodgy about what time he wants me to come in next.  He basically told me "don't call me, I'll call you...".  Whatever, I made $100 off it, and still had my bartending job at the Lebanese place in SW downtown Portland.  

But bartending was not what I wanna' do any more.  Like, EVER.  O.k., there was the painfully brief cooking job on board a fleet of tugboats that I was uber excited to land... and I mean painfully brief, because it only lasted 11 days, 5 of which I spent discovering just how seasick I get by heaving my guts up on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.  And I was totally looking forward to traveling with that job.  

But, WHATEVER!, I'm cooking on dry land now, and loving it, thank you GOD!  We tried flying in yesterday, but the fog ceiling was only like 200 feet, and I really prefer my pilots to be able to SEE where we're landing, thank you very little.  We got through the cloud cover today no prob, and suddenly there's Bristol Bay, like, I could see waves breaking onto the beach below us!  Another first for me, YAY!  I was kinda' expecting this to be like where I'd cooked in Lake Chignik four summers ago, but this is pretty much tundra and there's not a tree in sight.  As it's only early summer, everything is still fairly brown... except the little red fox who trotted into the courtyard between the dorms and my kitchen.  I watched him through the window over my sink, he got so close I could count his individual whiskers.  I hope he comes back; I didn't getta' snap a picture of him!  

It feels really good to be gainfully employed again, like, I'm not cleverly 'disguised' as a responsible adult anymore; I actually am one now.  I know that sounds silly, but I can totally relate to adults desperately searching for real work at a point later in life they never expected to be in.  It's not fun.  And because of that, I'm gonna' make this one of the most awesome jobs I've ever had, however temporary it is!