Sometimes the months go by in a blink of an eye. WordPress is telling me that I’ve been a member for five months and that I’ve hit 10 posts (and I cannot even begin to describe how thankful/flattered I am that people have been reading and hitting that “like” button! I started writing these posts as a way to keep my mind active and sharp — idk if I’m any sharper. Time will tell, I guess.). Not bad, but I find each week I’m struggling to find something to review. As far as cookbooks go, the ones I’ve reviewed so far are ones I’ve cooked from at length, and I feel that before I review a cookbook much inspectigation needs to happen. There are a few I’m currently cooking from (like Vegetarian Everyday and Mamushka: A Cookbook) that I’ll be looking forward to reviewing in the upcoming months. I’ve also entered the brave new world of cooking/cookbook apps, which I must admit I’m enjoying way more than I thought I would (that review will also be happening soon).
Serendipity plays a huge roll in my life sometimes. Take this week’s book, Sous Chef by Michael Gibney, I happened upon it while out thrifting (I should seriously own shares at Value Village!). I was intrigued because, at the time, branching out into cooking-related writing was new to me. I mean, sometimes I would geek-out and read through introductions of cookbooks or pour over cooking-related magazines, but I never really thought to look into this genre of writing. Let me be the first to say that I find these accounts, memoirs, stories, etc. so interesting. Sous Chef is no exception — a fictional, fast-paced day-in-the-life account of a NYC sous chef. Based on Gibney’s own knowledge and experiences as a sous chef, this book provides a detailed, behind-the-scenes account of life in a typical, upscale restaurant kitchen.
To be honest, it never occurred to me how much preparation goes into food service at a restaurant (and to be equally honest, if a restaurant is any good, you won’t. It’s the seamlessness — magic really — that makes a meal out special). From keeping tabs on the stock and inventory, to coming up with a menu or even specials — it’s incredible. As Gibney states: It’s a plate-spinning act, which could topple over at any moment. A chef’s goal during any given meal period is to prevent this from happening — to sustain a fusion of all the moving parts, to keep the team together, to keep the bus driving straight. I know I will never experience this environment first-hand so I feel the account given is so immersive and honest I won’t need to. If you’ve ever been curious what happens behind-the-scenes at your favourite restaurant give this book a read. Two things I will never do (or at the very least try not to do) are: send food back or show up at a restaurant just before/close to closing. I’m sure intuitively everyone knows why these actions would present their own set of problems for the kitchen. Ever wonder how they perfectly time everything so that a table’s worth of food arrives at the same time (even when each dish ordered may have huge differences in cooking and prep times)? Truly remarkable when you think about it.
One of the things I’ve started doing since reading this book is to try to prepare more thoroughly for each meal. What I mean by this is that I: a) read and reread the recipes over b) cut veggies/etc ahead of time and have a decent mise-en-place set up. My kitchen (even though it’s only me cooking) runs much smoother. Also, we definitely have long-standing menu items (such as Friday night pizza and Sunday dinner) but I’ve also taken to keeping an eye on the pantry which gives rise to daily/weekly “specials” in order to keep a tight turn around on foodstuffs. So you can imagine how this leads to food waste being cut drastically.
Sous Chef has me thinking of all the dining I’ve done, so here’s where I’ll give a few shout-outs to some of my favourite restaurants (because I know there must be some legit, hardworking people there in order to give those great dining experiences visit after visit).
I lived in Edmonton (Alberta!) for a long time and when I return for visits there are two restaurants I always visit: The Upper Crust Cafe & Caterers and Continental Treat. Now, The Upper Crust has been in Edmonton since the mid-80s and is one of the best places to get delicious food. It was always the place my mom took us when she wanted to make us feel special (a trip to the dentist downtown was treated with a visit to TUC on the way home). It was one of those restaurants that had a clean-plate menu (not a single item that a kid would not “clean her plate” upon being served). Since then my menu choice has never (and I actually mean this!) deviated: the large salad selection. I know a plate full of fresh pasta salad, potato salad, homemade bread (if my mom is reading this, she’s thinking about their cornbread!) sounds mundane but you have no idea how perfect and comforting it is. Next on my list is The Continental Treat — even as I write this my mouth is watering just thinking about their Dill Pickle Soup. If followed by Wild Mushroom and Sauerkraut Pierogi all the better. I think when I eat here it fulfills my deep yearning for my Eastern European heritage. They even have a separate vegetarian menu, which is always a bonus. (below: Dill Pickle Soup in its glory!)
Ottawa & Kingston, Ontario:
I would be remiss if I did not mention one of my all-time favourite vegetarian restaurants: The Green Door in beautiful Ottawa, Ontario. A pay-by-weight buffet-style restaurant where there is no shortage of delicious food. Marinated Avocado Salad, Broccoli & Tofu Stir Fry, Raspberry Pie are always on my plate. What helps greatly is that they have a cookbook available so should you love this place, you can cook any of their wonderful dishes in the comfort of your own home. Another Eastern Ontario institution is Pan Chancho Bakery & Cafe/Chez Piggy in Kingston (they also have a cookbooks incidentally). Owned by the same people, these restaurants offer the best of casual eating and fine dining that this small, university town has to offer. Before I became really interested in cooking, my “treat” would be to go to Pan Chancho and order salads, etc, from their deli case, then buy dessert and fresh breads from their bakery. We would eat like royalty for days! One of our favourites? Dragon Noodle Salad. Writing this I’m reminded that I haven’t made it in awhile — better get on that pronto! Now, when my husband would “treat” me to a fancy-pants dinner out, he’d take me to Chez Piggy. Seriously excellent food! (below: Lemon Currant Rolls from the Chez Piggy Cookbook)
Halifax, Nova Scotia:
I’m sure any native Haligonian might think my choice is a bit of a given (I think this restaurant is many people’s favourite and I really haven’t been to very many restaurants considering I’m super into cooking and have a small kid) but I love The Bicycle Thief. It’s one of those restaurants that you need a reservation for or else you may find yourself disappointed. A place where they don’t take reservations (but you really wish they did) is EDNA. Last summer, when we celebrated a big anniversary (!!), it was here that my husband took me. Their menu is local and seasonal and changes on a very regular basis (so much so that when they upload their menu at 3pm each daily, it’s always a good idea to take a peek at what’s being offered). Needless to say this isn’t a restaurant where you become married to a favourite dish. I love that each time we’ve gone I’ve had something equally delicious and elegant. It’s one of those place where your own home cooking may be inspired (totally the reason why I bought a tortilla press!)
All of this talk about food is leaving me seriously hungry! Sufficed to say that all of these (very successful) restaurants would be nowhere if it weren’t for the tireless work behind-the-scenes. Sure great service up front is what we all want but after reading Sous Chef, one realizes that food service in general rests on the strengths of the kitchen staff. A good friend of mine lives by these words: People are always willing to forgive bad service not bad food. I think to some extent this is true. So I think my (almost 30-year) devotion to a place like The Upper Crust speaks to the truth behind this idea.