Old State, New Life

It’s been over a month since I moved back to Oregon. There has been a world of transitions both in and out of the kitchen within that time! Home life has been good so far. A lot has been adjusting to a mutual schedule between my partner and me which happens to include a lot of bread baking at home. In a way it has become my therapy on hard days and my joy when the going is easy. 

A sourdough loaf with my still-fresh starter. It’s already developing a nice flavor!

Oregon is and always has been my home since I moved here in 2003. My family came from Idaho and I soon took better to it than I ever did in the high desert. Produce is fresh, local, and incredibly varied! Every city has a farmer’s market or two and I sorely missed blackberry season the last two years I’ve been gone. It’s good to be back!

Wild blackberries ripen in waves here. Once the first wave hit I was out collecting them. A friend and I got 7 pounds all together in one day. Sweet as candy and best of all: free!

I’ve recently started work as the baker at Marco Polo Global Restaurant in downtown Salem. When I say baker that means the entire bakery: desserts, cakes, breads, and the ocassional savory that I’ll make for crew lunches. There are two sides to the coin of being the only person who runs baked goods in a place; I am always held responsible for any mistakes made but I’m not responsible for anyone else. It really puts me in control! When I first got here I was only decorating cakes and making mousse and cheesecake. Now I make the cake bases, lunch desserts, and breads as well. I might as well mention that I am the first person to do any bread baking at the restaurant since opening in 2001 so that’s given me a lot of insight on how to start my own bakery someday. I had to test recipes, retardation methods, and a few loaf shapes before we could settle on a functional table bread. It’s been an amazing and irreplacable experience that reminds me of how fortunate I am to have moved here and to have been trained in New Orleans. Who knew such opportunity could be had in Salem, OR after working in one of the biggest service industry cities in the U.S.? 

Cake balls are a favorite of mine. They’ve been a huge hit for the lunch crowd!

I do miss some of the life in New Orleans though, particularly the few people there that made me smile every day at the bakery and my close friends that are still there. Hopefully I’ll make a short return to the city in November to hit poboy fest and sling sandwiches for oldtime’s sake. Until then, I say welcome home! 

Charlie: our roommate’s bird
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April in New Orleans

As the month of April comes to a close, I’ve had some great experiences to reflect on as a chef. I spent some time with my friend Steven and his brother Eli whom are both climbers, backpackers, and adventurers, as well as admirers of good food. I made a point out of making dinner at some point and we had finally gotten together to make something of Steven’s requesting: filled pasta.

Of course, ravioli and tortellini are very dear to my heart by being about 25% Italian and growing up enjoying casseroles and pasta dishes since I could eat solid food. I had learned around my first years of college that I had a knack for working a pasta machine and a fire in my eyes as I tossed the sturdy dough around. Whether it was in my blood or just something I wanted in my belly I was sold on making pasta by hand whenever possible. This time with Steven was extra special though, since I’ve sent my pasta machine back to Oregon and had to make the entire batch manually. I also decided to attempt a dough made with pure “00” soft wheat flour and all eggs rather than durum and water. The dough was tough; really tough. It didn’t return like a heavy gluten dough but certainly didn’t roll by hand like durum. The work was magnified by the tiny hot kitchen and I felt like I might as well have been on one of the burners. After 30 minutes of slaving with my tiny novelty sized rolling pin, I had 4 satisfyingly thin sheets of beautiful yellow dough.

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Steven and Eli had their own contributions to the meal via their fillings: spiced sweet potato and a remarkable vegan cheese sauce using cashews, nutritional yeast, and tahini. They’ve been developing it for some time and it is phenomenal how it turned out! The marriage of traditional and innovative cooking is something that truly represents the human spirit in food. We finished the pasta off with a classic tomato and garlic herb sauce for the cheese and I made a reduced balsamic for the sweet potato. Out on the patio we talked of people, work, and travel over our well earned meal. Conversation amongst great food and great friends is one I strive for and that night I got just what I wanted.

Another great occurrence this month was coming into my own as a chef at home. I work full time at a mostly vegan bakery using animal free products in 90% of what I make. Every soup I make is one I’m proud to put out and I can honestly say, from the statements of others, that my vegan soups not only rival but often outshine my non-vegan ones. However, combining my imagination and a lack of ingredients can get frustrating so last week I decided to splurge and for good reason: my partner was coming into town and she was inviting guests.

Lately my home meals have been simple and cheap: oatmeal in the morning and lentils and rice at night. My most extravagant cooking has been happening at work and it’s far from the artistic cuisine I admire. This was it, though! A chance to spread my wings, buy the ingredients I so sorely missed, and hit the kitchen with all the tricks I had. When I shopped for the week I was like a hyper-crazed child laughing maniacally while I dove down each aisle. I was unbridled in the culinary world once again and I wasn’t going to miss any chances. I made catfish meunière, creme brûlée, and corn and bean summer chowder with aged cheddar and real chicken stock! I even got a chance to make my famous fat-laden scones with all the goodies stuffed in them.

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Possibly the best scones in the world. I am immensely proud of this recipe! They made extremely good packing food for the long walks we took.

But I never once thought the food was just for me. Maybe I got to show off some skills but my satisfaction was in the pleasing silence while everyone ate dessert and smiled between bites. When one of the guests had a gluten allergy I quickly modified the grilled cheese sandwiches to grilled cheese crepes (the balsamic glazed bacon wasn’t a bad move either). Everyone deserves happiness and everyone deserves to eat good food! Last week I got to share that ideal with many people, not to mention my partner who I believe was quite fond of the waffle s’mores with toasted coconut and pomegranate syrup. Food is still my finest way to share love with the people around me and I will always raise my glass to that!

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Camping food was a little less luxurious but no less satisfying or romantic for us.

Syrup Is Not So Simple

The word syrup has a more nebulous meaning than some may think. It might just remind you of the unnaturally sweet goop in the log cabin bottle that your mother gave you to put on your Eggo waffles in the morning. However, it includes such a vast array of food preps that it seems ambiguous to just call the liquid combination of water and sugar a syrup. It could be a simple syrup, a thick pouring syrup, or a glaze depending on sugar concentration. I’ve found that there really isn’t a lot of readily available information on the subject other than asking your local head pastry chef or just experimenting in the kitchen, of which I did both. Herein are my discoveries and it’s about to get nerdy!

When you dissolve sugar in a liquid the sugar forms hydrogen bonds which give the liquid viscosity and a smooth homogenous state of liquid. However you’ve probably noticed when you make sweet tea with cold liquid and add sugar that a lot of it will just settle on the bottom of the glass. This is because the tea does not have enough energy to cause the molecular motion necessary to dissolve so much sugar. It takes heat to do that and this is why we use simple syrups in cold drinks: because the sugar is already dissolved and ready to be dispersed in the drink!

For simple syrup, the age old ratio is 1:1 by weight which comes out to about 1 1/4 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water leaving the sugar concentration at 50%. You make this sweetener by heating water to boiling, shutting off the burner, then adding the sugar and mixing to dissolve. Some evaporation will occur, leaving you with a higher concentration of sugar but it is minimal. The texture of the liquid will be thicker than water, but not by much.

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A handy dandy graph courtesy of my food science bible “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. It’s a must read if you have questions on how food works beyond the art!

For a thicker syrup that is more akin to natural maple syrups, you’re looking for around 65-68% sugar. There are two methods that can be used for this I’ve found. The traditional method is to make a simple syrup and continue to let it boil until enough water evaporates to get you to the desired concentration of sugar. You can measure this by temperature, as the amount of sugar in the liquid is directly connected to the boiling point of the liquid. Higher concentrations mean a higher boiling point because sugar has a higher specific heat than water (meaning it takes more energy to get its molecules to do something). Candy thermometers will show states of the syrup through terms such as soft ball, hard ball, hard crack, etc. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a thermometer that says syrup or glaze on it so that desired temperature is left in the hands of the capable chef. For 65% I’ve found 220º is just about right.

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A pourable syrup somewhere around 65% sugar. Note the thickness and how it just slightly sticks to the spoon when cold. It is almost a glaze that pours like warm honey.

If you’re looking for a glaze that you can brush onto pastries or savories you’ll want anywhere from 70% to a whopping 75% for something the thickness of molasses. This is where my second method comes in that I’ve actually discovered is my favorite and I’ll tell you why. Instead of starting with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to liquid you start with a 2:1 in the sauce pan while the liquid is cold. This starts you at the pouring syrup concentration of 66% which means once it’s dissolved you’re done with the thick syrup and takes very little boiling time to get it to 70-75%. I find that this is a much more controlled way of getting to a glaze since pans, burners, and chefs all create uncontrollable variables as far as boil temperature is concerned. It is also much faster since there is barely any evaporation involved. I use this method almost exclusively to make my syrups and glazes. If you want to reduce it with the traditional method you’ll be looking at About 224-230º for a glaze but be careful because at 235º you’re at the end of the thread stage of the sugar:water composition and that’s where it starts setting up solid!

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A glaze at a nasty 75% sugar. See how much more it sticks to the spoon and pours in a thicker thread than the pouring syrup? It’s more the consistency of molasses or cold honey. This is perfect for finish basting, adding to sauces, or just as a sauce itself.

Don’t get discouraged if your syrup ends up too thick or too thin because it takes practice to get control over it. If you go too far on accident and it ends up too thick, just add a small amount of water while the liquid is cold to reconstitute it! When using acidic liquids, the second method works best as the acid can cause sugar to burn more easily resulting in a bitter outcome. Good luck, sugar!

Oh and if you’re wondering, maple sap starts out at about 3% sugar so to get one cup of velvety 65% syrup it takes 2.5 gallons of sap. No wonder why the real stuff is so expensive.

The Crew: Half Family Half Team

There’s something that drives people to work in food service. We all have our individual reasons: some of us like to cook, or like to make people smile. But what really draws us all to the professional kitchen is the clear fact that there’s no other place we fit in quite as well. We’re all misfits in one way or another and the kitchen is a healthy place to be our crude selves without judgement from our peers. We don’t just become coworkers in a production environment; we become a “pirate crew” with the joint goal of making the customers, the boss, and ourselves happy.

Every job I’ve had before working in a bakery was the same. They gave decent pay for ditch-digging work. I make less per hour than I ever did washing windows but I’ll never go back to that because when I’m in the bakery, I’m home. The people I work with are friends and family to me and I’ll gladly take up some of their slack if things get rough because they’re worth sacrificing for. We strive together and suffer together and at the end of the day we definitely enjoy drinking together.

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Drinks after work with the coworkers are necessary for a happy and healthy crew. It’s how we decompress and learn the most about each other.

On the clock we still have our fun. The jokes are many but we don’t let that slow us down. We’re still there to work but it’s all about keeping up on our own shit and helping others keep up on theirs. We’re in this together!

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Never without our fair share of stupid quips.

I’ve never felt so close with my coworkers. Coming into work is like coming home and in New Orleans, where I’m surrounded by drunk strangers and obnoxious people it’s one of the few places I find comfort. My crew, my friends, my family.

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Pi Day with Cards Against Humanity with the bakery crew. It was real.

Pare, Slice, and Chop

A carpenter may have his hammer and an executive might sign all contracts with her favorite pen. The humble truck driver wears the same hat on every drive and the hippest bartenders all have personalized bottle openers strapped to their forearms. Just like every profession, the cooks behind the double doors between the kitchen and dining room have their tools. They are our comfort objects, the piece of equipment that helps pay the bills, and the one thing we can be in reasonable control of in a career that is built on uncertainty and the ever-changing whim of indecisive customers. What might our truest tools be? Certainly our brains and our hands have priority on the list but I’m talking about our knives. Between them and our mis-en-place there are few things that will throw us into a protective rage when someone messes with them.

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All of my knives are wrapped with tape to mark that they are mine. It is also the most adorable kitty print to say, “hands off bitch, this cat bites.”

It’s an odd relationship that I have with my knives. I hold them as my dearest partners in the kitchen with every other tool being expendable. I talk sweet nothings to them when I accidentally drop them on a steel prep table and call them badasses when their sharpness surprises me with a nick on a finger. They never let me down and help me to work as efficiently as I need to be. That being said, even the home kitchen deserves a solid set of blades at its disposal.

The knives you should choose as a home cook should be two things: moderately priced and taken care of properly. Anthony Bourdain recommends Global and my personal gastronomy hero Alton Brown is endorsed by Shun. I’ve used both and they are great mid-priced professional knives. I, however, recommend a basic entry level knife made by Mercer. The knife I use most at work is a simple Mercer Millenia Usuba that I got at a restaurant supply store in New Orleans for $17. It has been cutting vegetables immaculately since I bought it a year ago while the $130 Shun sits in the blade guard untouched. My own proof that money doesn’t buy you happiness!

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An example of the fine cuts a $17 blade can get you, with proper technique and practice!

Then there’s knife care. I ritually run my blades along my honing steel every day before I start work to keep their edges in line. I never let them go to dish because I wash them myself and immediately dry them afterwards. This is how home knives should be treated as well. Avoid dishwashers and using the blades against anything harder than wood. I also suggest investing in blade guards and putting your knives in a drawer. I don’t like using knife blocks because they are generally made of wood and can harbor a lot of bacteria. If you take care of your knives they will take care of you!

For a great video on basic knife skills I suggest watching this Shun video with Alton Brown. These are techniques that I use on a daily basis, along with several others not discussed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKgGlpe45T0

Practicing slowly at first is a must! I spent a month working on a straight chop (not shown in the video) and lost a little bit of my knuckles to learning it but now I use it more than any other for its speed and efficiency in fine slices (plus I hate using mandolins). Enjoy your chops and stay hungry, friends!

My Journey Begins

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been in the kitchen. It wasn’t that I was helping since I didn’t even make my first Top Ramen until the age of 12 but I’ve always found home where the food happened to be. I remember getting kicked out of the kitchen before Christmas dinner for stealing Pillsbury crescent rolls before my grandmother could put them out. I began to cook as a means for surviving long summers when my parents were at work because we were sadly bereft of Lunchables and other instantly satisfying foodstuffs. Besides, ramen was cheap and easy for my brother and I so we liked it. We eventually got more daring and broke out the Betty Crocker Kids Cookbook but it would be long before I found myself studying the complex tastes of world cuisine and the knife skills of Morimoto. I had simple beginnings and I will never lose sight of that. Now as a young and budding chef I’ve found a beautiful balance in the food that we make; where human ingenuity, creativity, and survival instincts collide. Everyone uses each of these traits to various degrees while cooking and that’s something that ties all of humanity together. You can make arguments for what people enjoy but we can all agree that everybody loves to eat.

I’ve found that humans as a species find comfort in food that goes beyond the sustenance that it was meant to be for our ancestors. We’ve built culture around what we eat and the ambassadors of the world appear in kitchens more readily than in embassies. However, heritage is but a small part of humanity that cooking represents. The beauty of food is in what it means both to the chef and to the person eating it. A dish can bring back memories both happy and sad, it can bring people together in celebration or mourning, and it can be anywhere from an exhibition of culinary excellence to an utter disaster. What’s on the plate at every meal is the human experience. When a cook makes a dish, whether they are proud of it or not, they really are putting their life on the line. Their memories cooking with their family, their personal expertise, and the fire of their spirit are given to a complete stranger in the hopes that their trust has been rightfully placed. It’s so wonderful that someone can make themselves fully vulnerable to another human being in such an intimate way. My goal is to search for people willing to push their passion forward and to share their love with the world using the medium that I know best: food.

I am going to find culinary greatness in every crack of the world that I can; from the proud home cooks of Louisiana to the executive chefs of Paris to the open markets of Thailand. It will not only be a journey of self-discovery but a chance to give that greatness to the world where it has not yet been. So pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and smile wide my friends; the next great dish is coming right up!