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Woefully neglected.

There it is again.  That nagging little tick.  In the background just watching.  Are you gonna blog about it?  My mind internally debates the merits of the post, would anyone be interested, how is this moving you forward.  The usual crap.  So instead I’m just gonna write.  At least it’s a start.

2014 seems like a make it or break it year.  Things are going well and the holiday crush is over.  Now begins a new crush, the year that’s flying by like it doesn’t exist.  I’ve made some decisions, predictions and intentions.  Nothing crazy on it’s surface but seemingly impossible at times.  I’ve decided that 2014 is the year of production.  What am I producing and who is noticing.  I cook, I read and I think about a career in food.  Does that move the needle forward?  Some say yes, others meh…  I feel like I have surrounded myself with good people and opportunities but I don’t feel I act upon them as well as I should.  How to change that? We will see.

Production to me means verifiable, a reference a body.  I recently was asked to describe myself in an email to a chef describing what I look to cook and where I see myself going.  It was a tough task.  I can talk about these subjects for hours but it seems there isn’t quiet the focus of logic that, oddly enough, I often look for in others speech. How am I going to measure the needle going through 2014 if I can’t articulate what that needle is measuring?  What makes this year different from the last so that this conversation doesn’t happen again? I see three big areas to drill down into, production through working, production through knowledge and production of physical space.

Working to me is production, it’s resume building, it’s experience gaining.  I have not yet worked in a professional kitchen and that needs to change.  Do I continue to hold out for a a select few opportunities or do I just start asking everywhere? The main reason I haven’t worked yet can be found in my personality.  I want to take care of your needs first.  How do you ask someone to help you fulfill their goal when all I can see is the distraction I may be to their goals.  Aren’t we all adults here? Luckily I think I’ve landed an audition.  A one night spot to assist, observe and most importantly to me make an impression.  This is your gig, tell me how to help you make it better.  With any luck I can earn a little respect and feel like I have accomplished something even if it is for someone else.  Film at 11…

Production to me is also wrapped up in knowledge.  I love books, always have.  In the same email I decided to count the collection, something I’d never done.  Counting each work made me think of what I gained in return for the investment.  How many cover to covers where notched in my belt?  How many dishes or techniques could I recite from any given selection?  I’ve been exposed to a lot (and have lots more left unread) but find myself asking if I’ve learned enough for those I’ve finished.  In response to this exercise I already see myself reading with a little more intent and with retention in mind.  I’m looking for a system to decide what to read when so that I’m getting the most I can.  Production of the mind.

Production of the physical space has a double meaning to me.  Physically what am I doing to bring this intangible to reality?  Both in the kitchen and in my life.  I think of order and repetition in a life running a business (how else are you going to handle the unknowns that will get through at you along the way?).  Am I practicing now what I think I’ll be doing then?  The host of a podcast I listen to often talks about “the grind” as a way to describe their life.  Reading, writing, planning and also failing; sleep and repeat.  If I’m going to get more physical to handle the demands of standing at a station so I don’t feel like I am wasting the chefs time where is that going to fit in my schedule?  If I am going to read more where am I going to do that during the lunch I’m not taking at work? The fact that I’m writing on Tuesday night because I’ve already prepped dinner tells me I’m on the right path.  Just enough time now for some reading before the house is full and the TV starts. Body and soul.

A little less than triumphant return but a return none the less.  That tick seems to have subsided for the time being. Unless you count the others it’s activated. 

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Summer Soiree

This coming Saturday I’ll be “catering” an event for a close friend.  After a few years of withdrawal following the death of her husband she has decided to throw a party and celebrate the purchase of a new piece of artwork (her first since his passing).  The artist is a mutual friend of ours and will also be showing several other works for a “meet and greet” style party.  Of course I volunteered to cook.  She has a fun kitchen and a is a wonderful hostess, what more could I ask for?

I started thinking about a menu of bite size tastings.  I’ve had the pleasure of attending several Third Thursday events with some great friends over at Cooking with Caitlin.  Watching them churn out 6 courses of 50 plus servings in a single sitting has been a lot of fun.  It’s also a great lesson in efficiency and preparation.  The night flows along since there is always something new to try which helps keep people interested and interacting.  Plus you aren’t tied to one spot in the room to put your plate down and keep track of utensils.  While I won’t come close to the volume her team puts out in a night I will still have between 20-40 guests that night.  My best friend (who is a very accomplished cook) will be assisting with prep in the afternoon and I’ve got two food runners.  The bar is being covered by another friend who is making a couple of signature drinks to compliment the menu.  With live musicians in the living room and a beautiful patio and pool in the back we should have a great time!

UPDATE!

I didn’t get a chance to finish this post before the event took place.  I’ll fill in the details now.

The hostess and guest of honor were so pleased with how things turned out.  I learned a lot and feel like I stretched myself to the limit.  WIth the help of great friends I was able to pull off 7 of the 9 courses I’d planned and prepped for.

The night before I prepped a few of the items I’d need for the next day, mainly some of the pastry crusts and one of the baked desserts.  I’m not sure why I thought making pastry dough ahead of schedule would be a safe idea.  Lucky not only did I wrap them tightly and I put each individual round in a sealed container.  Around midnight I had everything packed in the fridge and ready for the next days shopping.  As I have mentioned before there is something magical about an empty grocery store at 7 AM on a Saturday morning.  All the produce is stacked and waiting, the aisles are all faced and ready for you.  I was on a mission and finished in record time. My car was packed to the brim and I felt like I was ready for battle.

In the weeks leading up to the event I had written and rewritten list after list and a whole schedule of what to prep and when.  It was the first time I had really created a plan around food and people.  I wouldn’t count Thanksgiving because  if we eat 30 mins late then no one seems to notice.  This was different.  After unloading the food and equipment I packed I set about organizing things by dish and finding places to store the food once cooked.  This was going to be the second 16 day for me and I knew it would start taking a toll at some point.   As the hours ticked past and I checked each item on the list a growing sense of pride took over and I couldn’t help but see things come together.

Not everything worked out.  I lost two entire dishes.  I’m not sure how I would have handled this if I hadn’t been in such a supportive environment. One of the bits I was making called for corn tortillas and I just couldn’t get them soft enough to work with.  Every time I rolled or folded they cracked and unwound.  I scrapped the dish just as guests were arriving in order to make sure everything else went well but took all the leftovers home.  Now after a week of having them for dinner I figured out how to best heat them in a skillet to roll them tight.  This would have never worked in that situation which is both comforting and disappointing.  The second dish I lost was a desert.  The peaches I’d so carefully selected that morning were not as soft and ripe as I’d thought and they continued to be hard and hold on to what little juice they came with.  All in all there was more than enough food but had I truly been hired and promised the dish how would that work out? Do you refund? Luckily I didn’t have to find out that night.

All in all the lessons I took away were simple and numerous, here are just a few.  You can never have enough baking sheets (unrimmed preferably). Space, for dry goods, for fresh goods for cooking, for cooked food storage and for plating.  You can’t have one without the other and you have to be careful using the same space for multiple uses.  I can survive 16 hours of active work time and it feels good.  Good ideas, carefully planned don’t always work out, its nothing personal but you must learn from the situation.  Imagine eating each course in succession in order to understand an entire “meal”, just because its beautiful and tastes great doesn’t mean it will fly with the guest (I had far too much bread/pastry).    Good help is worth its weight in gold and must be recognized.  At the end of the day I feel better about myself and my work if I can see a physical object move its way through a process and then reach its final destination.

Below are a few pictures of the food you may have seen on my Twitter feed.  I hope you enjoy!

Apple jicama slaw with white balsamic lemon vinaigrette in an endive cup.

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Gallete of leeks, fennel, asparagus and Bulgarian feta before and plated.

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Bruschetta with goat cheese and chives, pancetta, tomato, arugula and balsamic drizzle.

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Portobello Wellington. Portobello caps, goat cheese, roasted red peppers wrapped in swiss chard and puff pastry.

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Corn pudding mini muffins (or spoonbread if you like) topped with pulled pork shoulder and BBQ sauce.

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Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the mini apple pies and fresh fried churros with coconut dulce de leche sauce.  They were a big hit and went fast at the end of the night.

 

Ch ch ch changes

As the holiday’s draw near and the year comes to a close I’ve been doing some thinking about the future and what the next step on my journey should be. I’ve also moved into a new space to live and unloaded a lot of things along the way. It’s been an interesting transition but one I am increasingly excited about. I thought I would share of of the things that have been on my mind in hopes that I can process them a little further.

Living in a new space brings with it excitement, an adjustment period and at least a little frustration. My new kitchen offers so much more counter space I sometimes pinch myself to be sure its all really there. I am grateful for the experience of working in a small space and finding ways to make things work. It reminded me of a meal I had a few years ago in Mt Adams. I always try and get a peak at the kitchen of a resturant and this one was small to say the least. When I got back to my seat and I reviewed the menu again and tried to mentally place where everything would be to no success. The new space is not without it’s challenges. First and foremost and electric range. It’s been close to 6 years since I’ve cooked on electric and it may just be me but finding the best level to caramelize without burning has been a challenge. Bottom line I love where I live, I look forward to spending time in it and I’ve created a space to study that is separate from the main living space. Hopefully that will entice me to be more regular with my posts and expediate my reading list.

Having some free time after turkey day I came across a series of lectures online. I had been introduced to TedTalks in the past but had not taken the time to do any real research and find things pertinent to my interests. Then I came across this from one of my favorite chefs and writers. Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns has to be one of my most fascinating people. His take on farm to table and quest for the best food in my opinion rivals that of any other chef. The concept of Stone Barns is as close to my idea of the perfect job and model for what we as a country need in order to get back on track. I’ve often heard if your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough. This is a dream to me. I can see myself opening a business and know I may or may not be successful but this? This would would keep me up at night because I would be devastated to see it fail. Recently an article by Barber caught my eye. I was so glad to see someone so respected and sucessful speak with such vigor. I admit I agree with much of what he says and have shared this article with many people. Hopefully you will find a nugget of inspiration from it or the video lecture above.

I took the time and visited a local culinary education program to get some hard and fast facts and figures. I found myself concerned less with the cost associated with the program and more focused on how to support the rest of my life while I would be in it. I couldn’t help but draw a comparisson to the Welcome session I sat through with mom before I embarked on an undergrad degree. This was going to cost WAY less and be done MUCH sooner and I am EXPONENTIALLY more interested in the subject matter for sure. Funny how 10 years if working in the real world will change your perception and priorities. There is a lot I have gained from being in a corporate enviroment and I am grateful for the lifestyle it has given me. Over the years I have cut out a lot of the fat and live a much simpler life than I need to. Still the thought of loosing that income, even for a brief period, concerns me and gives rise to a whole slew of issues. I have often seen in my generation a tendency to take more risk than necessary when it comes to education and jobs. Not to mention an ingrained belief in formulaic opinions of career progression (i.e. debt for good degree from specific school automatically equals high level job and a stable future). Just because I get a degree and open a splashy place doesn’t mean I will have a show on food network in the next 5 years. Could that happen? YES. Does it require a level of commitment and work that the ordinary person would find inconcievable? Most likely yes. This is the key factor that I believe most people in my peer group don’t have. That being said I do find myself welcoming the challenge more and more.

That being said there are more than road to reach the same goal. If I am going to delay my education does that give me more time to prepare? I am sure I could find a job within the industry that would give me a much better window into what I am actually facing. Could staging two weekends a month for the next year for a local chef give me a leg up on the competition? I think so. Again we are back to a question of commitment. While I would be seeing more than the average student sees each week I was in a kitchen I have spent the last 10 years only needing to work one job. While this would be experience working a job where I know I would feel more connected, excited and productive it’s still going to take away from some other area of my life, I just don’t know how much and where yet. On a related note I’ve been asking if I am even in the position to join a kitchen given my ameture status. Do I have the tools and the basic knowledge? Yes. Would a ServSafe course help put someone’s mind at ease leaving prep to a stranger? It’s going to be a process to find a right fit. It’s going to be a fun 2013.

Lastly there was a question posed in the video above. Dan Barber meets a young lady on a bus and she asks him, “What do you most want to communicate to your guests as a chef?” This spurred a whole slew of thoughts and opinions in my mind. There are many things I love to share with people when I cook. I couldn’t quiet come to a fully formed expression for what I would like to convey to diners. I think that is something that will evolve depending on where I am cooking and what I am prepping. I did come up with a small list of words that I hope will help me evolve a fully formed thought as I continue into this career. I’ll leave them as an ending thought:

embrace

tradition

bracing

passionate

family

sustain

approachable

congregate

learn

Fall, two types.

This morning I went grocery shopping for the necessities like I do every weekend.  I didn’t make time to hit the markets like I usually do so I planned a few simple things for this week.  Roasted chicken that I could later make into soup ect. Just a quick trip and I’d be on my way.  The air outside my apartment was crisp at 39 degrees, “Fall is officially settled in.” I thought as I started my car and thought about heading back in for some tea for the road.  I knew apple season was upon us and a friend had sent me a photo the day before of his bag of Honeycrisps since he knows I am slightly obsessed.  Little did I know what would be waiting for me at the store.

I stepped into the store and started picking through the produce, trying to find the last of the local stuff and checking off items on my list.  As I rounded the corner I saw them.  The milk jugs.  Not pearly white but auburn brown.  That could only mean one thing, cider. Finding good, unfiltered, local cider is a thing of beauty.  I thought of homemade vinegar and hot spicy drinks.  Bourbon of course came to mind! Above all that, a fall favorite popped forth.  Since I knew I’d be spending the better part of the day with friends and family watching football I called our hosts and asked if I could claim their kitchen during the game.  Odd considering I spend almost every Sunday cooking for a crowd but the polite thing to do none-the-less.  When I explained the menu I was greeted with rounds of support and excitement.

Caramelized onion and cider braised pork shoulder with turnip greens, garlic potatoes and a gravy from the pan juices.  For me this is fall on a plate.  Hearty, filling and savory with a sweetness.  After discovering they were out of turnip greens I opted for brussels sprouts since I knew I could roast them with much the same approval as the greens would have received.  I liked the “balance” I could try to create between the sweet pan gravy and the earthy, not quite bitter, sprouts. Not to mention I could bust out my oval cast iron dutch oven for the meat which is always a treat in my mind.  After that a quick stop for pork shoulder and I’d be on my way.

Once the game was in full swing I got to work.  After trimming the meat slightly I scored the fat cap with a rather pretty crosshatch.  I was proud of the uniformity (for once) and set about slicing onions.  In the past I used sweet onions.  After the mishap last year with the French Onion Soup I knew better than to use just those so I grabbed several varieties.  The cider would have a lot of sweetness which I wanted but I couldn’t have that cloying sugary taste with the meat. Once I had everything set and the meat was browned I set it in the oven and went off to enjoy the game.  When the time came to set up the potatoes and sprouts the whole floor of the house smelled of apples and pork, something I feel Glade should make a plugin for.  Only one minor mishap, but more on that later. Here is the finished plate:

 

What did I learn from this meal? A few things.

To me the best part about this dish, apart from firm pork slices that are still tender enough you can cut with a fork, is the pan gravy.  When I checked the meat halfway through the onions weren’t caramelized the way I wanted so I fished as many out as I could and set them in a non-stick skillet to get some color.  Not the best solution I’m sure but I got the color I wanted and returned them to the pot.  The cider I used was not the unfiltered kind I love to use.  I got plenty of odd looks as I systematically flipped each jug on the display, looking for the one with the most amount of debris, later called mother when you make vinegar, on the bottom.  It was sweeter than I had hoped but still worked well.  It needed an earthy taste overall but how to add that? Mushrooms and what kind?  I’m not sure but I now have a goal for this to work towards.

The sprouts turned out great and the potatoes creamy with just a hint of garlic since I added it to the boiling liquid when I cooked them.  My big mistake came in the prep of those items.  Not really a mistake so to speak but definitely one that will cost me some street cred if I’m not careful in the future.  I cut my finger.  Not a gusher but enough to make things uncomfortable for the rest of the night (though typing is proving a challenge at the moment) I went through the nail this time and that’s never good.  I have read all about proper curling of the fingers when you are slicing and have seen more than one chef demonstrate the technique.  It’s one that I feel I can do but obviously not well enough.  I just dont’ feel like I have control over what I am holding without the tips resting firmly on the item I’m cutting.  Had I not been aware that I am prone to this mistake the cut could have been much worse, still not something to be proud of.

Which to me opens the door to another set of question.  Is this not just a part of everyday kitchen life? You see if happen on cooking competition shows all the time.  I think of Top Chef and how many incredibly talented and very experienced chefs have cut themselves and I feel a little better about myself.  But I know I was rushing and thinking about something other than was doing.  That isn’t an excuse. What If I was at the beginning of a full day of prep for a “real job”?  What if I had gone deeper and couldnt’ have finished the job.  It’s not something I will allow myself to dwell on for too long but definitely on my short list of things to correct and fast.  Maybe I’m not alone out there and some of you readers who work in the profession will let me know. For now I will just enjoy my full stomach, the last of the 8 PM sunsets and the smells of apples and pork, still wafting through the air.

Knowledge

I’ve thought a lot recently about the base of knowledge I’ve built when it comes to food and cooking.  I’ve volunteering for an event soon and hopefully will be able to work for some great culinary minds in my area.  As I prepare for the event I’ve asked myself a lot of questions.  It has been so long since I’ve worked in a restaurant (high school) and that was a joke considering 70% of the food we put out was made in a microwave.  I know lots of basics used in the kitchen and can pick up things very quickly., but this is a show of their food and expertise.  They will have seasoned members of their team completing tasks and prepping the dishes, I’m not even sure where I will be able to fit in.   I’ve I’m to succeed I need a plan.

I think of knowledge in terms of recorded, experience and application.  Recorded knowledge is the most obvious.  From books to blogs to magazines and tweets.   I tend to surround myself with these things in the hopes of picking up as much as I can.  If osmosis where an option I’d dive in!  Experience is worth its own weight in the food world.  Where you have worked, who you have worked with all leave a mark in where you will go and what you accomplish.  While I have experienced a lot outside of a professional kitchen my time is limited on an actual line.  Application is a totally different story.  Many of the smartest people I know can not apply basic knowledge into their everyday life.  You can also apply knowledge of a process with no clue as to the why it is done?

So where does that leave me? What I lack in each category I more than make up for with drive and interest.  As I said earlier recorded knowledge is around me all the time.  I make it a point to have reading material with me at all times.  I’ve collected a fairly substantial amount of cookbooks and textbooks from culinary school giants.  I’ve started this blog as a collection of my thoughts and experiences in an effort to track my journey to hopefully point me towards a successful future.  I’ve made a space for myself in my home to be able to read/learn/write/research.  My experience has been limited, admittedly by my own doing.  I’ve cooked for small to large groups, participated in cooking demonstrations for crowds at festivals, taken time to teach privately for friends and family who want to tackle new projects.  Have I worked a Friday night line with a full board calling back orders from an expo? No. I’ll get there.  Application is on the fence and is what makes me the most excited. I often consider the highs and lows of working towards a line position or the safety of a cook school classroom.  Each has a lot to offer in terms of knowledge. Hopefully through this event I will be able to see which is better for me?

All of these areas are not without their caveats. Nothing but being in the pressure cooker of a kitchen will prepare you for life in it.  No amount of cooking will expose you to all that food has to offer outside of your own kitchen.  No matter how well you do one thing there is always more than you can do and do better.  What I’ve tried to concentrate on is not the balance or which is more important but the move forward and constant addition to all areas.  Another book read or lesson learned can only help me with the next dish prepared or menu planned.  Every event I can work will only help me when I actually apply for a job.  And any technique I can master will only serve to help me show someone else what I have learned and what they can learn to.

To keep with tradition I’ll ask the question… What did I learn?  No amount of thought or planning will prepare for the unknown.  Nothing I say here or read there will put me in a better position just because.  Awareness of my surrounding, confidence in what I do know and consistent application of that knowledge will.

As the season is winding down I find myself looking at all the things I’ve cooked and not taken the time to write about. I could make excuses all day but really I just wanted to cook, eat and enjoy the season. Now as everything comes to market each week it’s a dizzying array of options and opportunities. So much room for creation and expression. I am hoping to capture some of what’s left and preserve it for this winters enjoyment.

This spring I had the opportunity to share some of that expression with a few friends. We planned a small get together for drinks cards and of course good food. One part of the couple is an accomplished backyard gardener as well as fantastic cook. Each visit to their home I find myself trying to get to the back yard as fast as I can to see what new has sprouted, what is available for harvest and just how much things have changed. It’s a great place to dream for the future when I settle into my own place. I look forward to cooking for my vegan and vegetarian friends. It’s always a fun challenge to try something new to my own palate while adapting to their individual confines.

As it was spring I decided to try to celebrate all the green and fresh options that were making their first appearance of the season in the market. Asparagus is always a first impulse for me when I think green, tender and spring. When I was shopping I found some softball size fennel. Thinking I could use the fronds as a garnish and not having much experience cooking it myself I grabbed two. Leeks were the next grab. I love how leeks have two sections to their useable part. Green fades to white and the density seems greater the closer you get to the root base. That could just be my imagination but I feel like I get two onions in one. Now a vessel to bring them all together.

I’d seen a lot of salads being featured in the collective food realm which is not uncommon for spring. Magazines, food blogs restaurant adds. Several times I saw a shaved salad. Celery or yellow squash cut ribbon thin longwise with a peeler or madonline. I wanted to see how that changed the texture or what texture remained. All of the preparations where raw and incorporated traditional salad accompaniments. Since it was early spring there was still a crispness to the air and I had fleetingly few days left to use the oven. Sadly I don’t live it a home with central air so during the warm months the stove is retired and everything is done on the grill. In keeping with the shaved salad idea I chose a galette (freeform tart) to bring all my flavors together.

In my search for a recipe I came across one that called for sour cream. To be honest I had some that I needed to use up which was good enough excuse to run with it. I brought it together quickly in the food processor and left it to rest in the fridge. After trimming the head from the asparagus I set to peeling them. not as easy a task as I’d thought. I was shocked that each stalk yielded maybe four strips, the first and last being mainly the green exterior. Still good enough to eat but the pale white center strips outlined with green where what I really wanted. I sliced the fennel bulbs on a mandolin and sent them in some butter to caramelize. I really wanted a brown, almost crunchy exterior to them. As they crackled in the pan I sliced my leeks into half-moons and tossed in a bowl to break them up. I used the leeks to “deglaze” the pan in a sense. I didn’t want to add any liquid but more on that later. After a quick taste I knew I needed more salt but decided to dice some feta instead give salty punches throughout the mixture. No to assemble it all and fire up the oven.

Galettes are usually irregular in shape and design. I’ve seen them round or rectangular, sweet or savory. I rolled the dough flat and circular, keeping the cracked edges just as they were, after tossing all the veggies together with the cheese I mounded it all in the center. working carefully to not rip the dough I slowly folded up the edges with an inadvertent spiral pattern. I love how just enough of the dough would hold some of the filling between two layers (at the edge) and the center was open to the heat of the oven. I popped the reserved asparagus tops in the center for a garnish instead of the fennel fronds and egg washed the edges for color. Here is the before and after.

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What did I learn for this? a few different things. First I love how the pasty turned out! I was flakey and tender but when you cut it into pizza slices you could still pick it up without breaking. The egg wash may have been a bit heavy but browned so nicely I didn’t mind. The filling was nice and light. One of the reasons I didn’t add liquid to deglaze the pan was for fear of breaking the pastry once it heated in the oven. The brown you see on the pan was from the egg wash slipping off, I was afraid a whole side might open up and the contents ooze out. In the future some white wine vinegar or a touch of white wine would work if I make sure to reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. I do wish I had sliced the fennel thicker. The flavors of the four components were perceivable but maybe only slightly so. No one element jumped forward. Slicing the asparagus in half and then chopping into inch long pieces might help retain some flavor as well. I did not add spices or herbs but so many could work with this. Thyme, fennel seed, coriander seed, chives or even basil. I didn’t want to overpower the green flavor I thought I would get from the vegetables but in the future may be able to have both. Lastly I’d like to figure out what the presence of sour cream does to the dough. It is technically a fat and since it’s cultured should add a slight tang to the dough but I wonder how it affects the structure and behavior. All in all this was a success in my mind and has encouraged me to try other fillings and combinations. Enjoy.

You just never know what you will get until you put the request out there.  This was definitely a lesson learn last week when an innocent tweet turned into a weekend adventure I won’t soon forget.

A few Friday’s ago I was out running errands after work and didn’t have a plan for dinner.  Rounding the corner I spotted City Barbeque.  Local places like this are some of my favorite places to eat.  While technically a chain these folks have not forgotten their roots and still produce a product that is hard to beat.  I typically go for the deluxe city sampler.  Brisket, pork, 1/2 slab and 1/4 chicken with two sides.  I can get three meals out of it for close to $20.  Once inside the door I realized the whole place was packed with a line to the door.  Knowing these guys are set up for this type of thing I set about doing one of me second favorite activities outside of cooking.  People watching.  People at table, people in line and most of all the people behind the counter.  The Florence store has the distinction of a clear view straight to the back of the building where the smokers sit.  I couldn’t help but stare in the hopes of catching a glimpse inside and made getting a better idea of how they do what they do.

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When I got home I tweeted @citybarbeque and mentioned my meal.  The following week I got a response asking about my experience.  Many places have an outside firm that manages these type of accounts and I was surprised to get the amount of interaction that we had over the afternoon.  Culminating in my mention of the jealousy I had for their smokers and the secrets they held.  Imagine my surprise when I got a message with instructions to contact Chris the GM and set up a tour!

That Saturday I called up ahead of time and chatted with Chris to get a better idea of when it would be good to come by.  I didn’t want to try and explain things during a lunch rush or shift change.  To my surprise tours of the smokers are a common event in their stores if there is time and personel to accomodate the guests and tour members.  I have a feeling that most people don’t end up staying as long as I did.  I headed down the road and got there just after the doors opened.

Chris and the other ast manager (who is opening a new location in Lexington) were working the front line when I arrived.  After introductions we went straight to the back where an employee was loading some ribs when we walked up.  These were no ordinary smokers as you can see from the photo. Racks upon racks rotated in a large dark space that was controlled by a small interface on the front.  After talking dry rubs we headed out back to the rear where wood is held and loaded.  Each smokers is gas assisted which means there is a small box on the back where the wood is loaded, hickory to be exact.  To put it simply the box holds the wood and a gas burner keeps the smoke coming.  Once the box is at temperature it kicks off and vice versa.  It’s definitely not your backyard smoker and with a hefty price tag it’s really only a model that you would need if you smoked 1 million lbs of meat a year like this group does.

After getting a lay of the land Chris and I started talking about my goals and interests.  I shared my plans to attend culinary school and eventually open a restaurant.  I shared photos from the blog and a few idea for future posts.  Chris attended courses in Pittsburg but did not pursue a culinary degree.  Unlike other chefs I’ve met he wanted to know what I wanted out of school and why I planned to attend before he dished out his own advice and opinion on the matter. After sharing some of my concerns and fears entering the restaurant business I felt inclined to throw out a few of my big fears and see what he had to say. I appreciated his candor and direction.  Having owned his own shop for some time before coming to City he knew firsthand what each side of the business requires and what it would take to succeed. Without missing a beat his distilled view on customers, product and practices came out,  the rest he said, will take care of itself.

So what behind the scenes secrets did I take home?  Well I didn’t get the exact blend of their cheese sauce for the mac and cheese (which took a lot of effort to get just right from they way Chris described it) but I did get to see that the values and standards I want are a lot easier to attain that I once thought.  First off City Barbecue uses many Ohio businesses to assist in it’s production.  Huge boxes of it’s premixed dry rub are made in Celina, OH (the ingredient list was short and sweet, no stabilizers or unpronounceable names here).  The sauces and buns come from another local vendor.  It’s one thing to read about sustainability on a website but quite another to see tag after tag with local names and locations.  Secondly basic skills done right make a better product.  The pulled chicken is the number one seller for City.  A trend they had not predicted when opening.  They smoke the birds whole which leaves a lot of bones behind.  Want to know why their green beans are so good?  They cook those bones down into a stock right in the store and use that as the base.  As I checked out the line with Chris another employee brought out a 5 gallon bucket of it and started loading the steam kettle.  It was so rich and dark I almost asked for a spoonfull.  Talk about nothing going to waste. There are dozens more of these little lessons I noticed while I was there.

I encourage you to check them out.  Between the great food and wonderful service I felt instantly at home behind the line as I’m sure you will in the dinning room.  As the lunch crowd started lining up one of the guys turned to me with a huge smile and said, “This is my favorite part. Seeing people enjoying your product.”  I headed out the door shortly thereafter, but not without a sample of their dry rub to “try at home to make my own bit of barbeque”.  Pride, hard work, planning and customer service all working together to create a successful business.  I can’t wait!

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