Two Years Out

It’s been two years since I started culinary school. I spend 2013 becoming a better cook, working with different clients, and continuing to love my work.

At the moment I have three clients and things are going well. I enjoy the work and look forward to growing.

Keys to 2013 Success
A great website name – Austin Healthy Chef – was awesome for Google searches.
Taking on all clients who could afford my rate (not being scared by new things)
Only taking on clients who would afford my rate (not lowering my expectations)
Testing recipes to grow my skills and knowledge
Posting photos online
Having a GREAT network of people that I’ve worked with who refer me business and who I can call on to help me. And being willing to offer help when asked.

Goals for 2014
Keep testing recipes and growing as a cook. Take cooking classes that grow my skills.
Improve my web presence even more. Move to Wix or another site with a slicker look.
Look into growing my network of personal chefs in Austin.

The Next Chapter – Austin Healthy Chef

Greetings!

It’s been one year since I embarked on the journey to culinary school, and six months since I graduated and created my new identity – Austin Healthy Chef.

I’ve been working as a personal chef, making healthful and whole foods meals. I’ve also taught some classes privately in homes, for groups privately, and even some classes at my alma mater, The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts. I’ve worked with some terrific chefs in various temporary arrangements, competed in a couple of cooking competitions, and learned a lot of lessons during all of it. It has been one of the most rewarding years of my life. 

Despite making the riskiest financial decision of my life, I’ve managed to get off on a very solid foot. And though the past year has been a financial risk, it was a slam dunk no-brainer for my spirit. I’m far happier, more motivated, and more inspired than ever.

2013 will be another year of growth for me as I take my business from seat-of-the-pants success to engineered prosperity. Marketing will be a key activity for me this year. 

Toward that end, I have created AustinHealthyChef.com, and a Facebook page to match. As part of my effort to promote myself in a focused way, the energy I’ve put into this blog will mostly be directed elsewhere. I will be posting updates about myself, food, and nutrition at these places. Please “like” my Facebook page and subscribe to the WordPress blog at AustinHealthyChef.com

Thanks for your ongoing support!

Victory: Winning the Papi Tino’s New Chef Challenge

At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Cooking a still relatively unfamiliar-to-me cuisine and doing it with animal protein, something my vegetarian culinary school never discussed. But then I consulted with some experts, read up on Mexican cuisine (real Mex, not the “Tex” variety), and tested some recipes. Then I chose an outstanding collaborator for the finals, my fellow Natural Epicurean alum, Chip Singer, who is himself a pro at Latin cuisine and a terrific creative mind.

We were faced with a mystery box for the final round and we were up against students from the Escoffier and Cordon Bleu cooking schools here in Austin, both larger and if I understand correctly, much more established on the national scene (although Natural Epicurean has other locations in the works, including Portland).

Our protein draw was ground pork from Richardson Farms, which made me glad because I’ve visited Richardson Farms and I think they probably raise animals for food as honorably and sustainably as any commercial purveyor you could find in our area. We also had peanuts and sweet potatoes, which played perfectly into the only concept I had done advanced testing on – a roasted potato puree with peanut and lime – and which we were able to produce for the final dish. I had no plan for ground pork, however.

I did some research using ye olde iPhone and found a concept we could build on, with modifications. Chip and I got chopping, roasting, blending, pickling, browning, pureeing, and tasting. We spent a few good minutes finalizing the plating. All the while we bounced ideas off each other regarding flavors and pairings. Chip brought a tremendous confidence to the table with his knowledge of Latin cuisine that was invaluable. I remembered that no culinary effort at this scale is a one-man effort. In this kind of task, you’re better off finding support and using your collective knowledge to accomplish the mission. Chip was a great partner and I’m really glad to have worked with him (we also work together at Green Island Catering, a local vegan caterer and meals-to-go company).

I have to give big time credit to my wife, also. She listened to me whine about how nervous I was and told me to imagine myself winning. She’s been a great support through this whole culinary enterprise I’ve been on for the past several months.

Below: The scene at Papi Tino’s (Photo: Vess Consulting).

Big thanks to The Natural Epicurean for donating a big load of fresh produce to the competitors via Farm to Table. I felt like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games getting help from unseen sponsors in her life or death match. We ended up using some limes and green leaf lettuce from that delivery. Of course it was all available to everyone and I’m sure the others made good use of it, also.

The prize for the victory is a 6-month contract to work at Papi Tino’s. It would be a great chance to continue my exploration of Mexican cooking. I’m not sure I have the time to make that happen, but just having the opportunity is nice .

Uchiko Internship: Complete

I finished 80 hours of internship hours at Uchiko, a highly regarded restaurant in Austin. In addition, it’s among the most highly regarded restaurants in the Southwest US. I’m glad I chose Uchiko, but in retrospect it may not have been the best choice for me. And I’m glad I decided to cut my time there in half.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place with top tier talent. The systems are excellent and their standards are high. I learned a lot and in the fullness of time, I may realize that I learned even more. But it just wasn’t me. I never quite felt like I fit the mold of the prototypical Uchiko staff member and although I love Asian food and LOVE Uchiko as a customer, it wasn’t quite my style of cooking. And I kind of knew it before starting.

Part of it was I was fairly intimidated to be among the best. And living up to the (sometimes confusing) standards was difficult. And I am too ponderous and insecure for my own good sometimes. But in retrospect I would have been more motivated had I felt the environment were more applicable to my needs and interests. But when was I going to get a chance to work with people at this level? Never. And even though I didn’t really enjoy myself, I suppose I can’t regret it either. I worked with ingredients I never would have seen otherwise. I got to experience a pressure I’ve never had before. I got some good advice on how to work more quickly, which is good for any cook. I got exposure to recipes which will be useful to me.

For future culinary students, I say go with your gut. Go to the place that excites you. Where you will be hungry to learn. Go to the place where you will impress them with your desire and inquisitiveness. And if you go somewhere and realize it isn’t right, that’s okay. Move on to the next thing. Just like Grant Achatz left Charlie Trotter’s and found The French Laundry, you will find a place to thrive.

Below: The original Uchiko-meter.

20120919-202049.jpg

Below: One guess as to what’s in this box. Hint – you won’t see it on display at Whole Foods.

20120919-202122.jpg

Below: Frozen balls of some kind of confection concocted by Philip Speer, the dessert/pastry mastermind of the Uchi/Uchiko enterprise.

20120919-202131.jpg

Below: Huckleberry glass.

20120919-202143.jpg

Below: Not sure what this is, but I cut them up.

20120919-202155.jpg

Papi Tino’s Cooking Competition

Some behind the scenes shots from the competition Wednesday night.
The competition was for new chefs. Chip Singer and I were pitted against each other in a “battle Royale” as Alton Brown would say. In this case, we weren’t in Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef, but we were in Papi Tino’s snug cooking space on East Sixth Street here in Austin.

Below: The night’s menu.

20120910-083344.jpg

We had about 4.5 hours to prepare 50 portions of each dish. I think it went pretty smoothly, thanks to Chef Lalo’s outstanding guidance and team. He provided help all along the way, especially with practical issues like keeping food warm during service. He made an emergency run to the store when my lentils ended up overcooked.

Chip and I both did meat-free selections for the guests, who had paid $35 a head for the three-course-plus-drinks evening, which was sponsored by Wahaka Mezcal and Vess Consulting, a local events organizer/marketing company.

Below: Chip plating like a champ.

20120910-083404.jpg

Below: My original plating layout.

20120910-083351.jpg

Below: Chef Lalo’s plating (the one we used).

20120910-083357.jpg

Below: Chef Lalo, me, Chef Marko from The Natural Epicurean/Balcones Springs Resort, and Chip Singer.

20120910-083410.jpg

I was lucky to have won by a slight margin. Now I’m going up against students from other cooking schools in Austin on September 26. Come out and show your support! I’ll be developing a new dish for that night.

Here’s an Austin Chronicle article about the evening – http://www.austinchronicle.com/blogs/food/2012-09-07/culinary-school-students-compete-at-papi-tinos/

Catering Job

I catered a small party tonight. Time was tight but got the food on the table with help from my client and his friends. Also had my friend Amy assisting.

I was worried about having enough food but it worked out fine, although some people brought in more food.

I used a recipe for making feta “cheese” using tofu and it was awesome. It’s my new favorite. All it takes is a cubed block of tofu, a quarter cups of oil, some miso, and Italian herbs.

20120908-225055.jpg

20120908-225104.jpg

20120908-225115.jpg

20120908-225121.jpg

A Rolling Chef Gathers No Moss

Another busy week is complete. I am definitely living like a rolling stone, gathering no moss. What I am gathering is good times, a little bit of money and experience, to name a few.

Papi Tino’s New Chef Competition

I’m participating in a cooking competition for new chefs at Papi Tino’s on September 5. We had a preliminary meeting at the restaurant with a tasting of Wahaka mezcal. For more info on tickets for the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/199666736830125/

20120902-100544.jpg

Below: A bit rough looking, but my competition dish in the testing phase.

20120902-100550.jpg

Other Stuff

I went to a launch party for a new cooking app called Cooking Planit. It helps people plan and cook meals using step by step instructions.

20120902-100557.jpg

I’ve also been doing some marketing for Green Island Catering meals to-go. Here I am at Central Market.

20120902-100606.jpg

Below: Testing vegetarian paella for a personal chef gig.

20120902-100616.jpg

Below: Cat bonding time.

20120902-100624.jpg

Yesterday I helped Green Island Catering host an awesome party barge float on Lake Travis. We hosted 100 vegans and veg-curious people for a delicious plant-based buffet. I met some awesome people and we had a great time.

20120902-100639.jpg

Monday’s personal chef gig went exceptionally well and I’m planning for next week. I think I’m going to need to start planning a couple of weeks in advance to stay ahead of the deadlines. Also, I want to figure out how to label the food I store in the fridge. The masking tape method was effective, but not very elegant.

The Pain of Not Knowing

I’ve had some internal struggles during my externship at Uchiko and I think I realized today why that is. It’s because I hate to not know stuff.

Boot Camp

Working in a restaurant with very exacting standards and processes — one that is owned by James Beard award winning chef Tyson Cole and formerly led by James Beard award winning chef and Top Chef winner Paul Qui — requires one to do things a certain way. So not only is it really useful to have restaurant experience, but anyone – pro or beginner – is going to have a huge learning curve. You’ll need to learn their systems, their methods, their menu, and their people. And I am a newbie on all of those things. I am a novice in commercial kitchens, and I’ve certainly never worked in a restaurant of this caliber.

I am continually shown how to do things for the first time. And how to do things better. And how the onion rings should look like THIS not like THAT. And by the way, even though I told you how to cut cucumbers last week, here’s new information about how the cucumbers should look to make them really perfect for the customers. And why don’t you seem to understand how the dehydrators work? And let’s not forget about the mistakes I make which have nothing to do with being new, like forgetting to separate the eggs even though the recipe says “yolks only.”

Having new information come at you so often and frequently being shown how you’re doing it wrong is a test for the ego. In some ways I feel like I’m in boot camp where I need to set aside my pride and buy into the mission. The demands for speed make it tough, as well. My cooking style is pretty intuitive and conscious. Working at high speed requires almost a tunnel vision focus that makes me feel a bit detached. However, I can step back and notice that the end result is amazingly high quality.

What We All Want

It’s frustrating when you think you know what’s expected of you and then you get contrary or new information. It makes you feel incompetent. And we all like to feel competent. At this point I am craving a sense of confidence that I am being useful and that my work is going OK. And I occasionally get that feedback, but as a new member of the team, it’s simply not something I can expect much of for now.

Persistence

I have a tendency to consider giving up when the tough gets going. I remember when I was a kid and my first day of swim practice felt too hard to finish. I went to my mom crying that I wanted to quit. But I got the encouragement to stick with it and the next year I won an award for being the most improved swimmer. And I swam lots of races, did just fine, and had a lot of fun.

Yes I’ve had a few unhappy looks thrown my way at the restaurant when I didn’t understand how to do a certain process the right way. But mostly everyone has been really supportive and patient. And we all just want to get the job done and produce food at an exceptionally high level.

Anyone embarking on a career change is going to encounter this type of struggle. So, fellow life-changer, let’s soldier on together and stay focused on our ultimate goals to learn and to do good work.

Externship Update

I’m plugging along on my externship at Uchiko. I wish I could get some photos there, but the environment is not really conducive to the kind of photography I like to do. What I can say is that it’s a meticulously clean environment. There is no down time and very little conversation or activity that doesn’t relate to producing food. This doesn’t bother me, in fact it’s pretty cool that people are so focused. And the focus helps the time pass really fast.

I am definitely getting exposed to some unique ideas and recipes but the pressure to perform quickly is so great I’m not sure I notice what I’m learning. So, let me take a quick stock of a few things I’ve learned

  • Having high standards for food prep (e.g., size of knife cuts, quality of produce, customer expectations in a fine dining establishment)
  • Maintaining an efficient food storage system
  • Various recipes
  • A general sense of urgency in performance
  • Exposure to new ingredients and items (e.g., nasturtium, piperade, masago)

Below: Owner/Executive Chef Tyson Cole shows off some onion chips, which were made in a dehydrator. I have made these things, so I figured this was a good photo. By the way, I did not take this photo. There are so many photos available on the internet of Uchiko it’s amazing. Photo: madbetty.com

Meanwhile I am working for Green Island Catering, which is a vegan catering company. We are now producing meals to-go that we sell out of a couple of local store fronts (Daily Juice on 45th and The Wet Whistle on MLK near Chicon).

I am also preparing to compete in a cooking competition on September 5th at Papi Tino’s, a local Mexican restaurant. The idea is that recent culinary school graduates will develop a recipe, prepare it with the Papi Tino’s chef, and have it judged by some local luminaries. The winner on September 5 will compete in a final event at the end of the month. Wish me luck!