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!

 

Saying Goodbye

So, I am going to continue this blog but it is changing gears. Since I’ve finished school I won’t be writing about The Natural Epicurean any more, but I am embarking on a new phase of my learning process. So stay tuned and I’ll keep writing about the good things that are happening, maybe a little bit about what is difficult, and also the things I figured out on my journey.

Below: Before my last day of class.

20120811-082658.jpg

Below: Before my first day of class. It was colder then. 🙂 

Below: I got to address our guests at the culinary showcase we did in our final month of class. 

20120811-084622.jpg

Business Skills Classes

In our last weeks of class, we had a parade of business instructors teach us about branding, marketing, web presence, accounting, writing resumes, and more. We also got to choose to to spend four days in a smaller group  with either a personal chef, a restaurateur/food product developer, or a food media expert learning the things that would set us up for success in our chosen career goals.

I chose to work with Amanda Love, a personal chef, and she had many great pieces of information which are going to help me get my personal chef business going. It was great to be in a small group with Amanda because we were all focused on doing personal chef work and got to ask her questions which were on our minds.

That time was really valuable and I appreciate her knowledge and encouragement. In some ways it was my favorite part of the whole school curriculum because it was the timing was so right based on what I needed at that time. It’s really helpful to have connections and mentors in life, especially when embarking on career change.

Below: John Moore of BrandAutopsy talking about developing a brand.

20120725-225141.jpg

Below: Scott Price of SRP Consulting talks about consumer product marketing. 

20120725-225149.jpg

Below: This guy, Justin Follin, blew me away with his perspective. He came in to talk about public speaking but what he shared with us was useful far beyond communication. This guy is a straight up life guru. He touched on confidence, emotions, duality of self, meditation, and presence. Half the class was in tears by the end, and I mean that in a good way.

20120725-225158.jpg

Makin’ Stuff Happen

So, I set the intention that this was a week that good stuff was going to happen for me. It seemed to have worked.

I’ve been out this week beating the streets in the Chefmobile, trying to make some connections to promote my personal chef business. I just spoke to a dietitian today who plans to refer me to one of her clients who eats really bad restaurant food for every meal.

Below: Marketing myself like a champ. Next – urinal cakes. I am also trying to see if UT will rename the football arena currently known as Darrell K. Royal Field to Austin Healthy Chef Stadium. I have connections in high places.

20120811-082341.jpg

This week I went to a meeting for entrepreneurs called the Holistic Chamber of Commerce. Good people and good connections.

I heard back from my externship site this week I’m starting that work Sunday. Not excited about not getting paid for 160 hours of work. But I’ve had a charmed life so far so maybe this evens things out. And it’s kind of how things go in the food industry.

In really great news, I have a personal chef client! I’m going to begin cooking for him at the end of the month. I met him at the school’s culinary showcase we did a few weeks back. I know he’s going to love it, but I need to do well do keep it going. I suppose that’s true of any work you do.

In other news this week, I got word totally out of the blue about participating in a cooking competition with some fun exposure. I’ll say more once it gets firmed up but let’s just say

Last week, I provided a simple fruit parfait with cashew cream for a corporate function. I made a couple of connections that could turn into paid work for me, which is nice.

Below: The budget for serving ware was not very high, but the food was delicious!

20120809-190424.jpg

And my band, The Sticky Notes, have secured a few gigs through November and we’re having a lot of fun.

Below: Am I awesome? Yes I am. Having tons of fun playing with the band. Check out a promo video.

20120809-190537.jpg

Below: A stuffed zucchini I made during the week. The green sauce, a cillantro-lime dressing, was from Christy Morgan’s book, Blissful Bites.

20120809-190408.jpg

 

Heart Hospital Follow Up

So, I need to catch up on a couple of things…

We made our presentation to the Heart Hospital of Austin. If you recall, we designed some vegetarian menu items for them to beef up their meat-free offerings. And we did a fantastic job! Some tastings were provided.

Below: Some students presenting on the menu items they designed.

20120725-224209.jpg

Below: The photos-of-your-food movement was in full effect, even among hospital staff.

20120725-224223.jpg

Below: Megan Anderson, the hospital dietitian, showed us around the meal service area and the kitchen.

20120725-224953.jpg

Below: Meal trays with the USDA “myplate” imagery.

20120725-224959.jpg

Below: The lead cook at the hospital, whose name I’m sorry to have forgotten after this time, gave us a tour of the kitchen. She clearly was proud of the work they do, as well she should be. They feed a lot of people in a short amount of time. They keep the kitchen incredibly clean, as well. A lot of us, however, were surprised at how differently such an industrial kitchen functions compared to our little learning kitchen where every little item, including the hand-grated pink Himalayan salt (which – gasp – not everyone has), is done to order and made from scratch.

20120725-225009.jpg

We learned a lot about the realities of an mass-production kitchen where the target audience is sick and recovering. We also learned a bit about the realities of limited resources and time. I think it will be a challenge for them to implement many of the menu items we proposed. But it’s heartening that they are thinking about their plant-based options and they seemed to be excited by what we showed them.