The Best of the Past Three Months

Sorry this post is a little bit overdue. The last post I wrote about my experience in the culinary world sounded a bit negative, so I thought I’d balance it out by sharing some of my favorite moments from the past three months I’ve been in professional kitchens. Like I’ve said before, my time in this life has been a roller coaster, which means along with many downs there have been many ups as well. Otherwise I would have quit by now!

A great first moment was asking for a job at the Jalopy (thanks to a suggestion from Tanya) and being met with a smile and an “of course!” Nic (the owner) is a great guy, and helped ease me into what I should expect. My stint at the Jalopy didn’t last long, but I made some money (which is always a good thing, earning money while pursuing your passion) and gained some experience and insight into what to expect.

The second was talking with Bryce Gilmore and getting the opportunity to stage at Barley Swine. I’ve always had tremendous respect for Bryce’s philosophy about food and the whole farm-to-table idea, and the BS kitchen truly does put out some amazing food. I was so excited to just get a chance to be a part of the kitchen of one of the most popular restaurants in Austin, and when I first walked in, I was thinking “maybe I do have something amazing in me, if Chef Bryce is willing to let me be here!”

The third was having the cook working the Garde Manger station at BS call me over, show me how to plate a particular dish (Artichoke Custard), and basically tell me to take over that dish whenever an order for it came in. I truly felt involved, calling back orders, communicating times, trying to put together a beautiful plate that I was proud of, taking plates up to the pass for inspection, and having them go out to customers. It was only one dish, but I felt so happy and proud of myself. “I put those plates together, in the kitchen of a restaurant with an amazing reputation, and they are passing quality control and going out to customers. This is what I want to do, all the time,” I told myself.

The fourth was getting pushed and eventually working up the courage to talk to Chef Philip Speer of Uchiko in hopes of getting in the door. Everybody from Ben Starr to Tanya to Josh (my supporter friend in my audition episode) said that it was worth a shot. I was pretty intimidated at first. Barley Swine is one thing. The kitchen is rather informal (people cook in shorts and T-shirts, the feel is informal, and it is at its heart and soul a gastropub (a casual bar that serves great food). Uchiko is more of your typical upscale restaurant. Celebrities are regulars, the kitchen is run tight and spotless, mistakes are punished, everybody wears a chef’s coat and refers to their superiors as “chef”, and it might be one of the few places in Austin whose reputation rivals BS. Adding to the pressure, Executive Chef Paul Qui is basically a culinary celebrity after winning the latest season of Top Chef. Screwing up majorly in front of him could mean that my reputation in kitchens would be forever tarnished. Chef/Owner Tyson Cole is an even more intimidating man, despite his small stature.

However, approach I did. I was given the opportunity, and have thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Each day I learned something new, and it never ceases to amaze me how the kitchen just runs so flawlessly and smoothly. Everybody there is respectful of one another (even me!), communication is flawless, the kitchen is spotless, a true well-oiled machine. If you thought all restaurant kitchens were renditions of “Hell’s Kitchen”, think again. The orders are called out just barely at conversational level, the communication is quiet but effective, the dishes come out quickly and impeccably, and the only dish I’ve ever seen sent back was one diner who wanted their salmon “well done” *shudder*. The kitchen handles parties of up to 30+ (!!!) people with ease, and I think only once have I seen a station mess up an order (only sent two when there should have been 4 dishes). Even though I don’t do the most exciting of tasks, I just relish the opportunity to be in that environment, soak it all in, and take mental notes on how to run my own kitchen that effectively and efficiently some day.

The fifth is all the relationships that I have built. Nayan, the prep cook who patiently works with and teaches me how to do all the prep at Uchiko; Angela (aka @majkokid on twitter), the badass sushi chef that is one of the coolest people ever; Chef Tim Dornon, who’s usually in charge at Uchiko, always greets me with a smile and a handshake, and sneaks me tastes of all kinds of fish, sushi, tempura, and whatever dish he’s working on; Chef Philip Speer, culinary director of the Uchi Restaurant Corporation, whom I first approached about staging there and never hesitates to work me into the schedule last minute, whether as a stage or getting me a table even when the reservation list is full, and now a friend. Even at Intel, Frito, the deli station cook who likes to joke around with me, helps me understand when my personality comes across as abrasive, and who I can point out cute boys to. He’s straight, yet is starting to really understand my “rating system”. F: “That’s a 7/10 over there!” M: “Dang, you’re getting a little too good at this…..” Also, Rita, the friendly and fabulous barista that always make free drinks for me and sneaks some protein powder in there when the manager isn’t watching ;-).

The sixth is being told to make something I’ve never made before, me making it, and having people taste it and proclaim it delicious. Things like Hummus, ALL SORTS OF SALADS (I have to come up with a new “special” salad every 1-3 days at work), soups, even the special dinner I cooked for my friend who just gave birth (see earlier post). In each of these circumstances, I was presented with a simple task (“Make some hummus” “We’re behind on soup, can you make one in about 20 minutes?” “Can you put together a crudite platter?” “Can you use up this couscous for your special salad today?”), knew the techniques/process of what I wanted to do despite having never done it before, searched for the necessary ingredients and made on-the-fly substitutions, executed the dish properly, tasted and fixed it if it didn’t seem right. And almost always I came up with a product that both I and the chef in charge was happy with (“It looks phenomenal…”). These are the moments that affirm to me that despite my necessary improvement on aspects like efficiency, organization, cleanliness, communication, and kitchen dynamics, I do have the instincts and palate to have a successful career as a chef. It also makes me groan a little bit at how much more I could have done/shown people if I had stayed longer and pushed my limits more in the MasterChef kitchen. Right now I have to work my way up from the bottom the hard way, but with any luck I’ll get a bit of a break soon :).

The last is just little bits of encouragement that I’ve picked up from different sources that have stuck with me and made a crappy day a little bit better. From my station manager, Karl: “This may be your first cooking job, but you sure are a hell of a lot better than the prep cooks at my other job.” From my staffing manager at Acrobat: “We usually offer people in your position an hourly rate of X, but because we value your ability and like what you’ve done over the two day trial, we would instead like to offer you a rate of Y.” From a random coworker as I was blitzing through julienning onions: “Has anybody ever told you that you’re a badass?” From both the Chef and the Manager at the Intel Cafe: “You make great food.” From Chef Tim at Uchiko: “It’s great having you around, even though you’re a little green. You have that passion and hunger and it reminds those of us that have been around longer to be humble, because we were in your shoes not that long ago.” From Chef Speer, after I submitted a last-minute request to stage at Uchiko one night…he told me I was all set and after I apologized for the late notice: “No problem. We (him and Chef Tim) like you, or we wouldn’t even consider it.”

These are the moments that get me through a tough day/week when all I want to do is quit and go back to the comfortable life and go back to school and leave this madness all behind me. These are the reasons that I’m still living through this craziness and continue to pursue what I’m pursuing.

Update: Corrected name to Tim Dornon

About Michael Chen

A contestant on season 3 of FOX's MasterChef! Tune in on June 4 and 5 at 9/8c to watch me compete in the top 100 home cooks in America!
This entry was posted in Austin, Jobs, MasterChef. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Best of the Past Three Months

  1. Gregory Wright says:

    Awesome, and those guys would tell you if you were out of your league! Kind of a big deal that they let you come up with special salads and soup. How cool are you? Great update.

  2. I went to Uchiko Monday night for the sake social hour! :) I knew it sounded familiar… It was a great restaurant. :)

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