Category: Chicago

Career Advice

My coworkers, rather my ex-coworkers, when I lost my job, their immediate heartfelt reaction was to not let this minor inconvenience get in my way of pastry domination- a catchphrase that came out of my lips multiple times on a daily basis during my reign as a Pastry Chef at two top Chicago restaurants.  Pastry domination, taking over the Chicago dining scene, being one of the best pastry chefs in the nation, making pastry relevant again, was my dream.  I worked so damn hard at pastry domination, at being successful, at making badass dishes that people loved and remembered and talked about and Instagrammed.  I was in multiple magazines, I was on television, I sold a rather large percentage of dishes, I was for a brief moment successful.

So when that unexpected ax came for my head, when my success wasn’t actually successful, I gave up the fight.

I did.  I gave up.  I don’t give up on anything.  I am a fighter, I am determined,  I don’t let anything get in the way when I have made up my mind on something.  But I did, I gave up.  I threw in the dirty towel.

I have been cooking since legally allowed to start earning money.  I didn’t have much background before that- I didn’t learn from grandma, I didn’t grow up in the kitchen under mom’s apron. But once I picked up that knife, I didn’t put it back down.  I have 19 years in food service.  I have been a part of every angle, in every corner of the industry, learning and experiencing the entire gamut of food service- fast food, catering, cafeteria, fine dining, modern casual dining, large restaurants, small restaurants, serving, busing, prep cook, line cook, pastry assistant, pastry chef, menu development, costing, management, dishwasher.  You name it, I have done it.

I thought that this would be important, I thought that this would prove to be an asset.  Everyone needs to eat, right?

Well yes, but as it turns out, people don’t really care about what they eat so much.  They care about fashion, they care about cocktails, they care about gossip, and movies, and politics, and social media.  People care about taking pictures of their food, but they don’t actually care about food.  Cooking and cleaning is a nuisance, and eating out is expensive.  So the people want something fast and cheap and easy.  This leaves me irrelevant.

Not only do I have the years of food service, I put all my eggs in one basket.  I gave up everything to pursue my dream.  I gave up making any kind of money.  I gave up having a life of my own.  I lost my friends.  I gave up holidays with my family.  I gave up on the physical self- I gained weight, lost muscle, stopped going to the gym, got veracious veins, developed asthma, had a bout of psoriasis for about 3 years, got acne, developed alcoholic tendencies, ran myself into a car on my bike which resulted in sever bruising but couldn’t take any time off work, got very sick many times but still worked my 12+ hour shifts, got burned, got cut, worked mornings, worked nights, worked the night and then the next morning, I got mugged on the way home from working a late shift, I got pink eye, I never had vacation, I could hardly even request a day off.  I had two full-time jobs at once multiple times so that I could pay rent.

I gave up my dignity- I got yelled at, verbally harassed, degraded, threatened, treated like a child.  I never got complimented, nobody ever said “good job”.  I didn’t get breaks of any sort, I ate my one meal a day standing up while still trying to get my prep work done.  I never had health insurance, (don’t even ask about dental, that’s hilarious) never had time or money for the doctor.  All for nothing.  All to be a servant.  I never made any money.  The most money I ever made a college grad would turn their nose up at, and say no way in hell would I work for so little, even at an easy job.

I thought it was worth it, but when that ax came down I felt like a damn fool.

My coworkers told me not to give up, they told me that I was very skilled, that I had something.  They looked me in the eye and said to keep going.

They still ask “where did you end up?”  I reply I am on welfare.

So I am not following their advice.  I am not following the path anymore.  I am going to carve out my clearing by giving up.

VDAY 2017

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Red Wine Velvet.  Dark chocolate, red wine, toasted almond, red rose petal, pomegranate.

This plate is a celebration of love and sensuality.  Chocolate, red wine, and roses- all the things a luck lady wants to receive on this Hallmark of Love Holiday.  Complimented with almond and pomegranate, a dark chocolate ganache cake spiked with red wine is the centerpiece.  All the flavors are aphrodisiacs, the texture is very rich, smooth, and deep.  Topped with cold, creamy toasted almond ice cream, below a tangy pomegranate glaze, paired with crunchy rose petal candy and caramel almonds, red wine pearls strung along, this is memorable dish was created to enjoy with love.

Focused on the Blur

After so many first times, it must, at some point, level out and start to get easier to do things for the first time.  It Must. Right? Or is it like how getting fully submerged in a cold lake on a hot summer day never gets easier no matter how many times you shock dry skin into the heavy wet water?

I have a great salt and pepper blend of confidence and humility, but I get nervous-I am not graceful on my feet.  I am a behind the scenes person, I am the focus of my delusions, but secretly super shy.  Interviewing a chef is like photographing Sasquatch, we are creatures not fully of this dimension and most times talking is hard.

I remember the first time I split and scrapped a vanilla bean- a long, thin, small, precious, and plump, ready to create a subtle explosion of flavor- I was hands shaking with my pairing knife, afraid to waste any one of the million seeds, knowing that this was a turning point in my life- one small step, the first one really, into a study that I so enthusiscitcally pursue.  So everytime I do something for the first time, I remember how natural it is for me to split a vanilla bean.

T Minus Countdown

Ok everyone, so it’s the last official day before we officially start serving the general public with their opinions and their impressions and their reviews.  Am I nervous?  I would say terrified is more appropriate of a feeling.  Am I starting out with safe desserts?  Crowd pleasers that are tried, tested, and true?  Well, no, obviously.  That would be too easy.  There is risk involved, there is a good chance of failure.

Things not helping my anxiety:  the boys are killing it with their dishes and their execution.  These are professionals with professional tongues.  Every time I taste the food, my ego is like “what the fuck are you doing here?”  I have wanted this for a very long time, I have worked very hard to get here. I have the training, the education, the creativity, the work ethic, the vision, yet still, I feel unprepared, and no amount of work will make me feel prepared.  After a 6 month build up, and 3 weeks of work til you drop, the focus of a med school student, I still feel like a wet lost dog.

Thanks for listening everyone, see you on the hot side of the counter.

Spring Remodel

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Black Bottom Brazilian Cheesecake, Violet Meringue, Rhubarb

 

Forging for spring ingredients,

Feeling frantic for bright flavors,

Inspired by natural colors

Enrobed with the love of chocolate

Somehow we find a way to wait patiently for the spring produce to pop.

 

 

Rice Pudding Parfait

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This rendition of the classic rice pudding dessert truly highlight the humble grain of rice.

It’s a rice on rice concept, one that makes the most out of one ingredient.  The rice is cooked in horchata-  a Latin American drink made from water soaked in rice, almonds, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. This flavor is highlighted by first toasting the rice in the horchata and in the rice pudding itself.

The dish is served with candied almonds, to bring out the almond flavor in the horachata, to match the toasted flavor in the rice, to add a necessary crunch to the mushy pudding.

The horchata rice pudding, rice on rice custard, is also served with diced raw banana and a caramel sauce made from Guanabara beer- A Brazilian Imperial stout made with raw cane sugar.  The caramel sauce is additionally sweetened with raw cane sugar- in this instance piloncillo, a Mexican version that is readily available.  The banana and beer go great together, each drawing out the flavors of one another.  The grain of the beer pairs well with the toasted rice, unifying all the flavors.

To further draw out the raw sugar flavors present in the beer, and the natural sweetness of the banana, the horchata rice pudding is sweetened with demerara sugar- it’s like sugar in the raw but just slightly less processed, having a nice raw flavor to it.  The only processed white sugar in the dish is presented in the candied almonds- here it is necessary because the almonds are caramelized slightly, and this can only be done with a purified sugar else it will burn.

This dish is finished off with long, thin crisps made from almond meal, banana purée, and rice flour to add height and another crunch dimension.

This dish is presented in layers in a parfait style to give class to this common food item, to showcase the subtle flavors that all tie together nicely to highlight the simple grain of rice.

3 Leche Spring

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Because the concept of the 3 leche cake- a Latin American iconic confection, a cake soaked with 3 types of milk until soggy, is limited to white cake and milk soak.  I love this concept and I want to build upon this classic dessert with a curious twist, with fanciful flavors, and whimsical undertones.

In this rendition, I made a cajeta sweetened cake (cajeta is goat’s milk and sugar cooked down to a caramel flavor and consistency- when it is cooking it fills the entire restaurant with the scent of snickerdoodle cookies.  This is a heavenly smell and produces an equally heavenly end product) that is then soaked with the traditional 3 leches, but with goat’s milk replacing the cream, and further fortified with chocolate to make a unique chocolate milk soak.  This lightly sweet, slightly chocolaty and caramel cake is served with Brazil nut streusel (for crunch and a nice nut flavor that resembles the Macadamia nut), acai purée (a small dark purple berry valued for its high nutritional content and subtle blueberry flavor), candied cocoa nibs (a pure form of chocolate) to enhance the chocolate notes in the dish, and cajeta chantilly (whip cream sweetened with cajeta) to balanced out the heavy liquid with a cloud like aura.

This dish is reflective of the season.  This is a spring dish in the ingredients used, the textures represented, and the earthy presentation.  This dish is modeled after the soggy spring, with lush, muddy ground waiting to sprout new growth.  The chocolate soak mimics the wet and fertile ground.  The streusel mimics broken up, freshly tilled soil in appearance and texture.  Because of limited local seasonal availability,  I used the hard to source acai berry to add a fruity flavor that interacts very well with the established flavors of the cake.  Early spring, right off winter, is the season to focus on frozen and preserved foods, and highlight them in the menu when you have the chance to search to globe for ingredients.  If you are going to use a frozen product, you mind as well use one that invokes curiosity and is not readily available to the average person.

Finally the whipped cream adds such a soft touch, light as the spring’s warmth, to round of the overall mouth feel.  The flavors are not too bold, except for the tiny explosion of flavor in the cocoa nibs- as a final lasting impression.

 

 

Tricks and Time

Swimming competitively in high school taught me the value of time down to a second.  A split second, as it turns out, is a lot of time.  I worked hard for years, trained twice daily in the early morning, in the cold, in the peak of summer time bliss to shave down a split second of a time in a race.

So when the train takes 8 minutes to arrive, and the connecting train takes 10 minutes to arrive, sometimes I get stressed over all those nanoseconds of wasted time when I could be at home in bed, or at work on the clocking getting paid, precious time wasted in my schedule chopped full of rest, fun, and personal projects.  I am concerned about getting back home as soon I can and soaking in the bath tub.

That 18 minutes, though, of time waiting for the iron chariot to arrive at the platform stop, is not really that much time.  It is only 3 minutes longer then 15, which is nothing but a wink in time.  It’s a coffee break, it’s a gossip break, it’s a few text messages on the phone.

Funny thing is, though, that as I was hyping myself for not being mad at myself for not running to catch the train, for telling myself that I can be a few minutes late to work- I have all day after all, the train that I ended up boarding got stuck on the rails for a full 30 minutes- no moving, locked inside with the explanation about a delay happening.

Ironic, that even the most well intended pep talks, isn’t always enough.  Fortunately though, there is always tomorrow, with a new train to catch, and new minutes to idly pass while dreaming of maximum productivity.

The Unpopular Portrait

The worst spot in Chicago 20 years ago was a neighborhood slight north and little bit west of downtown.  Cabrini Green, Chicago’s public housing project, the city’s solution to the problem of poverty for 40 years.  Maybe you have heard of it, seen it years ago and you still remember the sight of complete and utter hopelessness.  It left a lasting impression, seeing the tall buildings stacked together close as dominos, even if you only saw it once.  Now, of course, this is prime real estate, given that the location is very convenient and accessible to the city’s the hub of commerce, close to the skyscrapers but offering a neighborhood and parking.

In this now vacant land, there used to be rows of light brown project buildings, surrounded by a black metal fence.  The fence was less about keeping the public out, and more about keeping the poor people trapped inside.  The visual was so striking, that just driving by the projects made an impression on the passerby: this was a place of poverty, violence,  depravity, and unhappiness.  One look from the outside was enough to see through the concrete walls into the deplorable state of living that was inside.  The memory of this infamous place is fading, there is no photographic portrait of this time and place, the worst solution ever devised to deal with the poor, the uneducated, the immigrants, the modern slave labor.  There is no tribute to what this neighborhood used to embody, there are no signs of trying to deal with this ongoing problem of the city’s needy, of the displaced, the unfortunate.  No youth center, no job training facility, no refuge for the homeless.  Now, next to the open lot, sits a target where you can go and buy candles.