The Final Step?
I currently find myself at what might be the last in a series of steps on this journey of mine through various kitchens towards my ideal destination of running my own kitchen-namely, a food truck. From the idea's inception, a serendipitous series of events has ushered me forth into my current situation. I am exactly where I want to be, where I planned to be, and the ease of the transitions (not the work) has convinced me that it could be no other way. Life Herself has heard my pleas and answered in my favor. How else to explain the exactitude of the results of my labors and experience along the way?
I am fully aware that my current situation is not the result of an effortless "blessing"; had I not tried my damnedest at every step of the way, I would not be where I am, but if one were to be familiar with my history, one would understand that my life has been fraught with tribulation, difficulty, and self-inflicted failure, and that my current status is an historic anomaly. What is to follow is a brief synopsis of my journey into the professional kitchen, with the desired result being that the reader might understand why I feel that I cannot fail at the next level.
Before the Jobs/The Jobs
I spent my early adult life as a working musician. As any working artist can tell you, "working" does not mean "successful", in monetary terms, so my main sources of income were jobs I had in call centers. I had been in the recording studio and practicing a variety of instruments since my pre-teen years and had decided early that that was to be the mode of my life. I played sports in high school and college, all while writing, performing, recording, and increasing my knowledge of audio production. In my early 20's I met the woman who would become my wife. During our courting phase, she had introduced me to eating well, drinking well, and the basics of cooking. When our first child was born, we decided that foods in boxes and in the freezer simply wouldn't be good enough. My interest in quality cuisine germinated.
By my late 20's I had graduated from writing, composing, and performance into production: recording, mixing, sound design, etc. I had scored a couple of independent short films, done some voiceover work, and even some consulting. I had established a small client base for my humble recording studio, which grew too large to maintain a feeling of security for my family. Strangers coming into your house on a regular basis, in a neighborhood such as ours was simply untenable. I wasn't making enough to rent out proper studio space and building a studio on our property was out of the question.
"How do I make money doing what I love?"
My other loves were food, drink, and cooking. By that time, I had been taking cuisine very seriously for nearly 12 years and developed into a decent home cook and grillist. In early 2013 I had decided that food would be the way. The food truck explosion was in its first expansion at that time, here in San Antonio, Texas. I felt the heat of those flames.
Having always been practical, I knew that it would be ridiculous to try to open a business without experience in the industry from the ground up. Getting into culinary school was my first step. Our income level and family status made it easy to obtain financial aid for the Culinary Arts program at St. Philip's College. It was also a great help that this would be my second time in college; credits from my previous education in Business Administration made it unnecessary for me to have to repeat any prerequisites. I met semesterly hour requirements with interesting electives. I was able to hit the ground running, studying international culinary arts, restaurant and hospitality management, and networking like mad with students and chefs alike.
Meanwhile, one night, while out on a rare date with my wife, we decided to eat at a Mediterranean restaurant that we hadn't tried yet. I had the Lamb Kebab that changed my life. I told my wife that THIS was what I wanted to learn to cook on my first foray into the professional kitchen. She told me to get an application before we left. I asked the server for an application. He asked which position I was interested in and I told him that I wanted to learn how to cook that lamb kebab. It turned out that he was one of the owners. We shot the shit for a while and he set me up an interview for the end of that same week. I met with the chef/kitchen manager and was hired on the spot. He was impressed with my knowledge of cuisine, my age, and apparent eagerness. I spent two and a half years in that kitchen, until it became plain that it was no longer for me.
The same week that I decided that it was time to hunt for another kitchen, I was sitting in a relatively new Puerto Rican restaurant, eating a Mofongo con Carne Frita. I had just gotten out of class for the day, and I was still wearing my St. Philip's uniform. A woman who introduced herself as the owner came and asked me if I would be interested in a job. She was familiar with the St. Philip's culinary program and could really use some help. I was hired about 15 minutes later.
During my time in that kitchen, one of my semester projects was to choose a country, design a menu native to that country, do a brief history of the country, the historical and cultural development of the cuisine and its ingredients, draw the plates of the menu, and cook a dish from the menu. I decided that it would be best to speak to a chef of the cuisine instead of just using books and the interwebs. I managed to secure an interview with the chef of one of the two Jamaican restaurants in town. The interview went well, and he told me that if I ever needed any additional help, to contact him.
After a year at the Puerto Rican restaurant, it became apparent that my time there was up. The moment I decided to begin a new search, the chef that had helped me with my Jamaican project popped into my head. I went to his restaurant and sat to eat. He came out about halfway into my meal and chatted for a bit. I asked him if he happened to need any cooks. He asked if I was asking for myself. When I told him that I was, he hired me on the spot. This chef became a friend, which made it that much more difficult when, after merely five months, it was time for me to leave that kitchen.
Before I had even applied for my first cooking gig, I had researched different San Antonio kitchens and chefs. One that intrigued me was a French fusion restaurant whose chef was the son of a French classical chef and a Vietnamese restaurateur. I had applied to work in this restaurant a couple of years prior, but never got a call back. This time, I got the interview and the job.
This was by far the toughest kitchen yet. I decided to leave this kitchen after a year, as well. I am not one to withstand abuse. One year was all I could stand to give that chef. The staff (minus one) was great, the food was interesting and fun, but…no. Nobody abuses me. Ever.
What I Got
At the Mediterranean restaurant, there were four of us on the line when the rush was on. There was no expediter, but the owner took the lead, allowing the servers to stack the tickets while we just ground it out. It was terrifying, but I loved it. I brought up the issue of the stacking of tickets, but the owner refused to take advice from a 36-year old first timer. I didn't resent that. It prepared me for what was to come.
At the Puerto Rican restaurant, the line was a matter of "look at the ticket and do the next needed thing". There was absolutely no organization and, even though I was the titular kitchen manager, the owners simply refused to back me up when I tried to organize a proper service by assigning stations and duties. It was a free-for-all clusterf*!k every weekend. We always pulled through, but I was always disappointed in our performance and the quality of the food we put out.
In the Jamaican kitchen, I was the sole cook. Friday and Saturday nights could bring anywhere from 30 to 60 covers and I was in there by myself. The shift would start with a batch each of most of the menu items ready to go, and I would prep those that weren't. Should the evening have proven to be a busy one, I would have to prep, cook, replenish, and plate all by my lonesome...during the rush! It took three months, but it got to the point that I was able to achieve, not only another level of speed, but of smoothness during those heavy shifts. That kitchen hardened me, in the way a warrior becomes hardened and it help me become viscous while moving from station to station and from the walk-ins and dry storage back into the kitchen.
The French kitchen provided me with an education in tolerating negative personalities. There were a couple of people whose method of coping with their personal misery was to take it out on others and try to drag them into their miserable little bubbles of existence. I'm from the street. Out there, when one doesn't want certain people around them, one either excuses themselves from the area or has the offending individual removed from the area, either by suggestion or by conflict if necessary. There is no space in the kitchen. There is nowhere to go and nowhere to send anyone away to, lest one find themselves trying to conduct a rush hour line of one. Coping with terrible coworkers is a valuable skill that I am grateful for. I also learned that the term "fine dining" can be only a veneer.
The Latest/Last Job?
Once again, I found myself on a search for a new kitchen. This search resulted in my applying to work in a kitchen inside of San Antonio's Historic Pearl Brewery.
The Pearl, as it's called colloquially, is a serious hotspot right now, and its growth has not stopped since it opened. The people who shop there have disposable income, and the prices on the menus of the restaurants reflect that fact. The wife and I had eaten there once…once. We had saved up to do so. The entire district was bustling. Asking around revealed that the weekends were always that heavy and the weekdays a bit less.
I received a call from the executive chef himself while I was sitting in the middle of a car dealership on a Saturday, anticipating another rejection for vehicle financing. I walked out with a new key fob and an interview the following Monday.
I sat with the chef and we talked for about 10 minutes. He told me that I had the job and that I could come in the following day to fill out the application.
I was placed on sauté: popcorn grits; garlic mashed potatoes; brussels with chorizo; red and golden beets with house dressing and oregano; schnitzel with spaetzle and lemon caper butter; quinoa with grilled zucchini; braised shortribs; porkbelly with demiglace; meatloaf with charred haricort vert, garlic, and mushroom demi; trout with apple butter cream sauce; salmon crepes with truffled goat and cream cheese; bacon-wrapped quail, achiote chicken, and shrimp and pork belly skewers; and the accoutrement that go along with each. That's just my weekday lunch shift responsibility.
I work the brunch shifts on Saturday and Sunday as well but for these shifts, I'm on our four-foot flattop: burgers, to order; double-burgers on crispy creme buns, with bacon, queso poblano, grilled whiskey onions, donut frosting, and pancake syrup; giant pancakes; French toast with bourbon caramel, and kids French toast; a breakfast hash, with potatoes, pork belly, bacon, salsa, and sri racha cream; a scrapple in a hot dog bun with onions, peppers, dijonnaise, grilled pineapple, cherry, and an over-medium egg. Let me say here that all of these plates feature over-medium eggs, unless the customers specifically ask for over easy, over hard, scrambled, etc., and I am constantly making eggs during the shift. I went through 30 dozen eggs this past Sunday. It is in this kitchen that I've experienced my first 350-cover shift. I am thankful that there is a prep team. We do our share of prep every morning, but there is simply too many food items that need to be prepped for the line cooks to do it themselves. The volume is brutal and there are only 4 of us manning the line during the brunch shifts. The guys I work with are bad-ass.
I do believe that this is the last kitchen that I'll be working on that is owned by someone other than myself. I don't know how long I'll work in this specific kitchen, but when I leave, it will be because it's time to open mine. And I'll be ready. If it turns out that I must work in yet another kitchen, then so be it. I will work in as many kitchens as necessary in order to achieve my goal. And I'll still be ready.