Category Food Writing

Library Review: Sous Chef : 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney

If you ever had grand ideas about working in a kitchen or becoming a chef you should probably abandon them. Though many books have exposed the arduous process of becoming a chef, rarely have we seen the sheer weight of the obligations, routine and pressure to perform laid so bare before us.

Such is the accomplishment of Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, the first book by Michael Gibney. Gibney is the former executive chef at Tavern on the Green. He’s worked for a who’s who of prestigeous restaurants including: Per Se, Le Bernardin, Bouley, Ducasse, wd~50, and Momofuku.

That accumulated wealth of top level culinary experience lends itself to the exacting tone and beat of his walk through a day in the life of a sous chef. Events others might simply omit or gloss over are meticulously retold, and at times you almost assume that he had videotaped his time in the kitchen with his near perfect recall. This book will probably leave you  to conclude – as I did – the following: the job of being a chef is impossible. It can’t be done and to harbor any dreams or delusions about becoming a rockstar chef is a fool’s errand. And yet, people do it.

It is that exacting detail that is the true brilliance of this book. The intricate, painstaking, sensual anecdotes that Gibney gives us to place us firmly in the “you” role of the sous chef. The book is written in 2nd person, forcing the reader to inhabit the character of a sous chef working the line on a 300 hundred cover (300 guest) night at a 90 seat Manhattan restaurant.

The book begins with a map displaying the layout of the restaurant kitchen. Though Gibney later explains that each restaurant kitchen is unique in terms of size, shape, and overall design; that many factors and stations are universal. From studying the map we learn about “the pass” – the area all food travels through between cooking and plating for service, the various food stations and prep areas, as well as walk ins, loading docks, offices and locker rooms.

The crucial factor is that we learn more than just that these places exist. We learn both their importance and their physical location, how one relates to the other to create the unique eco-system that allows a kitchen staff to thrive. Gibney isn’t satisfied to simply give us an annotated map. The book begins with “you”, the sous chef, arriving at an empty restaurant and walking his way through the entire kitchen, preparing for the day: checking the inventory, cleanliness, and state of his world; while pondering the physical and mental strain that is to come. This kind of exposition might seem…odd…boring even, but Gibney’s lively prose and description makes the journey through a deserted restaurant absolutely sing.

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Brussels Sprouts and How to Survive the Holidays

It’s the holiday season, the time of year when families come together, for better or worse, to celebrate the bounties that we as a people are generally afforded, promote the well appointed perception about our love for food and commercialism and to begrudgingly give thanks for one another. I say begrudgingly because for every heartfelt Reddit post about a miracle connection or the hidden kindness of a sympathetic TSA agent there’s a BuzzFeed list on just surviving the holiday. For example:

Holiday Survival 

Liz Lemon’s Guide to Surviving Thanksgiving

While sitting next to your strange aunt or uppity cousin who not so subtlety reminds you how much better he’s doing in life is excruciating so too is having to consume tired casseroles or soggy overcooked vegetables between courses of decadent desserts and awesome slow cooked meats. Would you believe then, that holiday salvation can be found in the form of the most maligned vegetable in the garden.

Yes Virginia, I’m talking about the Brussels sprout. The unassuming and oft neglected little cabbage can teach us everything we need to know about rounding out a holiday meal and dealing with those odd house guests we call relatives.

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New York Comic Con 2013: Interview with Relish Author Lucy Knisley

I was so pleasantly surprised and hooked by Lucy Knisley’s food memoir graphic novel Relish: My Life in Food, that I jumped at the chance to sit down and chat with her at New York Comic Con. There was so much to talk about and Lucy did not disappoint.

Sitting in the back of the First Second Books booth on the floor of NYCC, Lucy and I discussed everything from how she draws food so well, great NY food establishments, why her mom is a wizard and what super power she’d love to have (it’s freakin’ awesome). As it turns out, Lucy might actually have a super power already, at least when it comes to her favorite cupcakes.

Castles & Cooks: Did you ever consider a culinary career?

Lucy Knisley: I love working in the food industry and I did my whole time growing up, but there’s a sort of temperament that you need for that and I always made art as well and I think that something I always think of when people ask me that question like why I didn’t follow in my mom’s footsteps and be a chef, which I did think about, is that I grew up watching that, you know?

Sitting there watching that and digesting that, drawing pictures while I watched it. And I think that made an artist out of me more than a chef because it gave me this perspective where I could watch people and process that and turn it into art. And I love food and I love the food industry and I worked in it for years, but making art was always what I really wanted to do.

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Chefs NOT Wanted: the New Food Network Paradigm

Food Network doesn’t really care if you can cook. I don’t mean to be overly cynical, but that shouldn’t come as any great revelation. This has been the case for some time, but the network doesn’t seem to be hiding it as much anymore. The network which used to almost expertly balance its talent between personality and ability seems to have tipped the scales in favor of the former, with little regard for the latter.

I should begin by saying that yes, I recognize that there is a Cooking Channel, and that the balance of programming has shifted to make Food Network more about food and entertainment. Both are owned by the Scripps Network and it is certainly a smart programming move, similar to the TBS/TNT split between comedy and drama. I get it, but here’s the problem. TBS and TNT are in roughly 85% of homes, and Food Network is available in 87%. The Cooking Channel is available in just over 53%. Kind of hard to create a brand split if most people aren’t able to watch regardless of the programming plans. (If you’re curious about the stats, check out this article from late Aug 2013)

Until the Cooking Channel becomes more available one would think that the Food Network would at least try and keep things balanced, but no. The imbalance has cropped up in several places though many will probably – and rightly – point to the ubiquitous Next Food Network Star as exhibit A. The use of “star” in the title suggests that the show is more concerned with cultivating pure celebrity than it is establishing the next great tv chef. But this isn’t a lesson in language intentionality so we’ll let that go. The more damning evidence comes in how that show has evolved over the years with the ways it measures and tests “talent”.

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Revisiting the Dungeons and Dragons Animated Series at 30

This week, the Dungeons & Dragons animated series turns 30 years old. Thirty years since the kids first set off on that magical roller coaster ride that brought them to “The Dungeon Master”. To say that this show wasn’t exactly beholden to the world of D&D is an understatement, but rather it used the game like you would a spice, sprinkled throughout the show to provide flavor to the fantasy setting.

It also can’t be understated how 80s this show is – something which anyone will notice upon popping in the first episode. For those of you who aren’t familiar – here’s some quick highlights:

  • A group of kids at an amusement park go on a roller coaster that takes them into “The Realm of Dungeons and Dragons” where they meet “The Dungeon Master”.
  • The kids are each given a weapon (and thus a class) to defend themselves and work to find their way home, while also performing side quests along the way to help people. Come to think of it, the overall plot is like a less techy Digimon.
  • Throughout the series the party battles Venger (an evil wizard) and Tiamat a five headed dragon.

If you aren’t sold yet on the show you should know that Peter Cullen and Frank Welker provide the voices for Venger and Tiamat respectively. That’s right – Optimus Prime and Megatron are involved.

To celebrate this magnificent and ridiculous show; I’m going to do a re-watch of the entire series, with recaps and commentary. Crazy right? But I might as well do something productive with all this free time I have.

The recaps won’t start till next week, so if you’d like to be involved – you have time to grab the DVD set and follow along. The show is available on DVD on Amazon at a ridiculously cheap price, which seems to be your only option. So grab a copy, and get ready – because next week we’re hitching a ride into the realm of D&D, with all the awesome 80s synth music we can handle.

This is either going to be awesome…or terrible.

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Messing with BBQ: The Evolution of BBQ Pitmasters

There are many ways to make BBQ and even more opinions on sauces and side dishes. Yet, regardless of geographic allegiance the one key to making good barbecue that everyone agrees on is “don’t mess with it.” Dress the meat however you want, put it on the smoker and then leave it alone.

That mantra hasn’t been part of the production of BBQ Pitmasters – a show that began on TLC in late 2009. Now in it’s 4th season, the show has undergone significant changes each year. What started as a reality show following some of America’s best BBQ chefs to competitions around the country has morphed into a more familiar competitive cooking show in the vein of Chopped. While constant changes and tinkering with the format might signal a show that has lost its way, BBQ Pitmasters has emerged from its growing pains with quite possibly the best format in competition cooking. So how did this happen?

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Food Court Wars Recap: Detroit Crunch City

Life intervened and prevented my recapping of last week’s episode of Food Court Wars, but this week we’re back on track so let’s get right to it. We’re in Midland Michigan at the Midland Mall.

Our main man, Tyler Florence , who has been in the restaurant business for a quarter century (that sounds much more impressive than 25 years) remains dapper looking in the middle of the mall. Quick fashion note, his pocket square doesn’t match the rest of his outfit, but let’s just move onto the teams.

Chip N’ Wich – run by Jonathan and Craig, both from downtown Detroit. Friends for six years, they developed a gourmet sandwich shop that puts their own potato chips right on the sandwich, giving them “the sandwich with the crunch.” They both have jobs in kitchens in Detroit, but are looking for other ways to support their families.

Oasis – Diana and Melania serve international food at the World Cafe, which specialties in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. They already have a restaurant, but the food court kiosk would be called “Oasis” and would be the “quick service” version of their main restaurant. Melania formerly worked in retail, and after moving home to be with family she reinvented herself as a chef relying on culinary experience that came from working in restaurants as a teen.

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Food Court Wars Recap: Slanging Tacos and Island Flavors

After a charming, but relatively unremarkable premiere episode Food Court wars continues – in a new time slot. The show now airs before Food Network Star rather than after it. Also, just a quick note. The episode guide calls this “Season 1, Episode 3” because of the original pilot airing back in 2012, but that is nonsense. As far as I’m concerned, this is episode two.

Tyler Florence continues on his journey to host every type of alternative cooking show imaginable. At this rate, next year he’ll be hosting “Lemonade Stand Wars” by next summer. But this week, we’re in Spartanburg, SC at the West Gate Mall. We waste no time getting to the teams.

Tirado’s Empanandas, run by the mother daughter team of Jen and Trisch. As they explain, an empanada is “a stuffed savory meat pie.” It is “tasteful, but not spicy.” They already run a food cart, and while Jen was on her way to becoming a manager at a bakery, the family always wanted to have a family business, so she quit her job to pursue the dream. As she notes, because you can’t cook on the cart itself, they’ll never have a profit business.

Taco Spot, with owner JB and manager Michael is a “whole new brand of tacos” given the Southern twist that gets put into each taco. JB started the business over 4 years ago with his then friend Lindsay, who is now his wife – yay taco love. Taco Spot actually has two locations, a small 16 seat restaurant and a smaller delivery/pick-up only locale. JB really wants to win to provide extra financial security for his wife, and provide Michael with the chance to be a “business owner”.

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Food Court Wars Recap: Scars Before Stars

“Owning a food court restaurant could make you a multi-millionaire”. With that surprising statement, Food Network’s latest challenge competition show, Food Court Wars is off and running. Hosted by Tyler Florence, formerly of The Great Food Truck Race, each week two teams of “aspiring food court entrepreneurs” compete against one another with the winner earning a food court restaurant rent free for one year.Like the Great Food Truck Race, the two teams compete in both concept and marketing plan to make the most money over a single day.

It should be noted that this isn’t actually the first episode, despite the “series premiere” label. A pilot episode aired in August 2012, with the winning team – Kettle N’ Sprouts – earning a rent free spot for the whole year. However, as of late February 2013, the storefront had mysteriously closed.

The show moves around the country, and for this premiere episode we’re at the Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian Mississippi.

We’re introduced to the two teams, who both have a lot riding on the chance to launch their own food court restaurant. Po’ Boy Station is run by Erica and Stevo, two best friends (from the age of 3) looking to serve authentic New Orleans inspired sandwiches. Erica formerly spent time in New Orleans, but lost everything and was forced to move home to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

The other team, Suck the Shuck, is run by Thomas and Mary Jordan, former restaurant owners in Chicago in the 1980s who now serve Tamales and wings out of a gas station, in exchange for cleaning the bathrooms. They’ve been working on their tamale recipe for 45 years and are still holding onto the dream of getting another shot at running a restaurant.

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Library Review: Ice Sabers 30 Chilled Treats Using the Force of Your Freezer

We can find recipes anywhere. In fact, given the unbelievable access to information that we share, a book might be the last place any of us going looking nowadays. With that being the case, a cookbook really needs to have something special to grab my attention – like lightsaber Popsicle molds. Let’s just say “[they] had me at hello.”

Chronicle Books and author Lara Starr return to a kitchen far far away with Ice Sabers, the latest entry in their Star Wars cookbook series. Like Wookie Pies, Clone Scones, and other Galactic Goodies which focused on pastries and baked treats,  Ice Sabers narrows its focus to frozen desserts and refreshing beverages.

Ice Sabers continues the series goal of trying to encourage more young people to participate in the kitchen and the entire construction of the book emphasizes that. The introduction is directed at young Force users and explains all sorts of tips about being safe in the kitchen, handling equipment with care, and having fun.

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