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.
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!
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.?
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!
The notice at work has been given, the plane ticket has been bought, and the lease is up; I’m headed home to Oregon! This meant a lot for me both as a chef and a person. I have had multiple triumphs and failures here that have helped define who I really am over the last year and a half both in and out of the kitchen. The society here is decadent with rich food, plentiful drink, and generous conversation whether you like it or not. I decided to be homeward-bound after I spent time in Mexico and Oregon during the winter which reminded me of the beauty of nature and the roots of my upbringing in the outdoors. As I’ve been telling friends here, “this place is just too damn flat.” When I returned to the south I went away from the life of music I was trying to force and accepted a career of the culinary arts that was infinitely more fulfilling to me. So in homage to this beautiful place that taught me my foundations in professional cooking I’m on a month-long pilgrimage to learn as much as I can about southern food before bringing it back to Oregon! The journey starts at a shack on Jefferson HWY called Crabby Jack’s.
I heard about Crabby Jack’s from a few friends here. The facts I got were: it is owned by the same folks that run Jacques-Imo’s, they have phenomenal local fare, and they share walls with a seafood distribution company. Turns out it’s all true. As I walked my bike up to the front window I saw painted words announcing what the have but not that it’s the best or biggest, which is unusual for this area. The walls inside were adorned with Dr. Bob’s art all depicting his signature phrase, “Be nice or leave!” in one way or another. I knew the tips were well founded when I stepped in. I decided on a catfish poboy to test the freshness and try a flavor I was familiar with along with a half bowl of gumbo to see if mine at the bakery measured up.
I sat down and checked out the clientele. It seemed like I was the only non-regular in the joint with most of the folk being Jefferson parish construction workers and office workers from down the highway. It was refreshing to feel out of place for once!
My name was called and my meal was brought to me contained in unceremonious butcher paper and styrofoam bowl that has become the standard for cheap southern lunches. There is no “for here or to go?” at this place; it’s all the same. I carefully unwrapped my tasty gift and popped the top off of my soup. That’s when it hit me: this is what I smell when I walk or bike past a food shack and begin salivating. It’s fat, salt, heritage, and love. The sandwich was perfect. Cheap French bread, dressed(meaning lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles), with crunchy battered catfish as fresh as you can get. Of course, I’m no fool so I doused it in Crystal hot sauce like any good southerner would. The gumbo was filled with chicken and andouille with a roux base that was bit light for my taste, but damn good nonetheless. Since the catfish passed the test, I might have to return and try the Fleur de Brees which has ham, roast beef debris, and gravy (maybe after a hefty day of biking).
Overall, my first stop on my last month’s culinary pilgrimage was a great success and I hope it gets even better when I check out the po-boys and jambalaya at Sammy’s in the Treme this week!
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.
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.
Working the burners. That red sauce smelled insanely good!
When food is made with love, plating doesn’t matter. Just needs to taste good!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.