Friday, May 22, 2009

Typical Chef

he wine goddess and I have this ongoing argument. The kind that when you get into it, you know it’s completely pointless and that one of you - the one feeling most mature at that moment - should sound the beep beep beep, this truck is backing up sound and leave the scene. Some days both parties dig their heels in, checking their footing to make sure it’s good and secure.

The quicksand in our argument trap is that she thinks that most chefs are - wait, how was it? oh, right - arrogant, hot-headed, ego maniacal narcissists. I think I have that right. It’s a common front-of-the-house critique of the back. She tells me that she doesn’t think this of me, of course. Just most everyone else to ever put on a chef coat, in the history of people putting on chef coats.

The converse of this opinion is that bandied about by the back of the house. Namely that most servers are lazy, selfish, money-chasing suck-ups. I think I have that right, too. It’s a common back-of-the-house critique of the front. I don’t think this of her, of course. I just think this of most everyone else to don a servers uniform, in the history of people donning servers uniforms.

We can all point to plenty of admirable examples of altruistic, humble chefs and hard-working, generous servers. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of them. Behold the nature of stereotypes. There may be some sizable truth in them, but their indiscriminate use necessarily throws a lot of innocents under the bus.

I haven’t worked in the restaurant business for 5 years, so perhaps I’m out of touch. But when I did, I felt that these stereotypes, these attitudes that sit so thinly veiled beneath the surface are almost built into the poor design of the restaurant machine.

Work with me through this clunky analogy: When a car is built there are many hands involved, all the way along the assembly line. It’s cliche, I know, but everyone is doing their part to get the car built. What if, imagine, at the end of the line, the person who took that car and delivered it to the customer, and yes, dealt with their bullshit, just as the car-builders might deal with the factory manager’s bullshit, was the one to receive the entirety of the payout for a job well done. Imagine how that arrangement might cause some team dynamic “issues”, to say the least.

What I want to know is when and who, in the history of restaurants, decided that it would ever be a good idea to separate two highly interdependent working units into two distinct camps? It seems so obvious to me that cooks should be given the same monetary incentives to get good food out in a timely manner that servers get to seal the deal and handle the people and their issues.

My sturdy chef clogs are dug deep into the trenches of this argument.

To be fair, there are some houses that “tip out” the back of the house, my local favorite place sends back 3%. This is very much appreciated, I’m sure, and can help to add a buck or two to a typical cook’s hourly which is around $12, in these parts. At the end of the day it’s a good symbolic step but it still leaves me shaking my head. The problem is that any major systemic changes would have to be tackled in most restaurants, or places risk losing their front of the house staff to restaurants where they can earn more. It’s the American way, I know this.


Consider this thought: What if you went into a restaurant and at the conclusion of your meal, your check had two tip lines, one that said kitchen and one that said service. Some nights the food is horrible and the service wonderful. Your tip would go to the right person. Similarly, sometimes the food is great and the service dismal. Now you can feel somewhat better that your tip has gone to the 50% of the equation that got it right.

"That would never work!" says April, "What server is going to stay in a job for so little? Servers get paid minimum wage."

Point taken.

Consider a different, much more radical thought: What if restaurants paid all their staff an hourly wage based on experience, hard work, and seniority. All tips that come into the house are pooled, the restaurant owners take some to reimburse themselves for paying everyone a living hourly wage. When tips are over a certain percentage, they get distributed equally to every single person working in the restaurant, because - every single person in that restaurant has a hand, a big hand, in the enjoyment of that customer who leaves a tip.

Would good servers work in places set up like that? After the precedent of getting the lion’s share of the gratuity when they deliver that proverbial car to the customer, who can blame them if they didn't?

Interestingly, for all our attitudes about each other’s professions, April and I chose each other. Fodder for the therapist’s couch aside, I think that, in the end, we don’t want to think these things of each other’s professions. We want to be the one to not only defy the stereotype ourselves but to think better of the other half of our team.

When April mumbles “typical chef” under her breath about some (admittedly) ego-crazed, knife-wielding megalomaniac, I want to agree with her, but I don’t because I want even more to change this paradigm. I want to toss up the front and back of the house pieces and have them fall down in completely new arrangements.

And, okay, yes, he was a total asshole. A complete narcissist! But, shhhh, don’t tell her I said that.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hungry Monkey

He had me at this line:

"I won't buy strawberries from California, not because I'm a dogmatic locavore but because strawberries from California suck."

Well, Mr. Amster-Burton, author of Hungry Monkey: A food-loving father's quest to raise an adventurous eater, I couldn't agree more.

Matthew is a friend, an uber-talented writer and a most excellent father. I read his book in like, oh, 4 minutes. I saved the last few chapters for a few days because it felt too cheap and dirty to consume his off-color observational humor so quickly. I doled it out at the end, a chapter here or there, like so much book-crack while sitting at Volunteer Park, laughter erupting every now and again. Each time I laughed, it was worth the weird looks I got (I have a distinctively loud guffaw).

What makes Hungry Monkey so thoroughly bad ass is that he was able to write a book all about food - good food - and raising his daughter to love good food without being controlling, snobbish or inaccessible. Missing are the power struggles. Gone are the punishing "sit at this table until you finish everything on that plate young lady!" threats. (That didn't happen to me. Well, okay, yes, yes, that did happen to me from about, oh I'd say 1974-1978, heretofore known as the "dark years"). Nonexistent are high brow, urban-centric paeans to precious, expensive ingredients. (Gone are even high brow words like "paean".) Instead, Amster-Burton talks about food. Real food; Ethnic food; Hot dogs; Mackerel one minute, pancakes the next.

His writing is as approachable as the recipes that are included at the end of each chapter. Most kids are picky, it's true. Hell, I would pick every last speck of anything "odd" out of my food before I'd eat it. I especially loathed tomatoes, beans and anything green. But what's the use in making your kid eat foods they hate? It's no fun for anyone. (Are you reading this Dad?) Amster-Burton seems a bit bummed that his daughter Iris' picky stage is not as much fun as her 2 year old worldly palate stage, though he doesn't dwell on it. He just keeps plugging along, engaging Iris in the process of loving food, making food, eating it and talking about it.

Let's be real: what do we really have in common with 5 year olds anyway? They eat. We eat. It happens many times a day, more than 3 if you are so lucky. Matthew and Iris have several opportunities built into their day to share something they both love and I can feel their bond through food in this book. It almost makes me want to have my own kid to share with them the discovery of food. Almost. Then I remember how I like to wake up (late), have coffee, in peace, and plan all sorts of fun, adult activities for the day and I come to my senses.

More important than anything else I've mentioned, the book is damn funny. You know when your friend with kids talks your ear off all about how cute their little Johnny is and all the funny things he says and blah and blah and blahblahblah? Hungry Monkey has its share of these stories but they are carefully selected for humor, real humor, not that cocktail party ohhahaha you're SO funny! kind of humor. They don't engage my gag response with their over the top cuteness. Rather, the little snippets of conversation recorded between father and daughter appeal to me because they evoke that most universal of observations: kids say some really fucked up funny things.

At Halloween, for example, Iris becomes obsessed with the Grim Reaper display at the local supermarket. She says, "its name is Beth."

"You mean, Death?" asks her father.

"Yes, Beth." says Iris.

In her world, there is no earthly reason why the Grim Reaper can't be called Beth. Shit, from now on, as far as I'm concerned, that's what I'm callin' her.

Perhaps I'm biased. I know Matthew. I've met Iris. I know Laurie, Iris' mom. I've cooked in their kitchen and watched Iris delight in the way the smoke from dry ice curled around the edge of her soup bowl. Yet, I don't think I'm biased. In a world awash in books about food, kids, food and kids, somehow Hungry Monkey feels totally and completely new. Stories about the limitless food discoveries between father and daughter have never been written.

Until now.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Food Movies at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)

Go on, if you live in Seattle, go git your tickets early.

Food, Inc.
USA, 2008, 94 min.
4:15 p.m. May 30, Egyptian
7 p.m. May 31, Egyptian

You are what you eat, the saying goes. But do you really KNOW what you eat? Filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the curtain on the unsavory practices of our nation’s food industry. The film illustrates how the corporate purveyors of food products have literally gotten away with murder—and all with the complicity of our government’s regulatory agencies. As Kenner shows in detail, the food supply in the United States is controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit before health—not only of the consumers of their processed foodstuffs, but the economic health of farmers and food workers, and the health of the environment. Drawing on the works of authors Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), Kenner’s film details the cozy relationship between agribusiness and government—a relationship that allows the corporate behemoth Monsanto to monopolize soybean production and litigate aggressively against small farmers who harvest their own seeds rather than buy Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds. Food, Inc. paints a vivid picture of the wages of unsustainable food production—obesity, diabetes, and E. COLI poisoning. But for all its outrage, Food, Inc. posits a hopeful (and delicious) future, highlighting a burgeoning organic farming movement that has made it all the way to the White House lawn.

What’s On Your Plate?
USA, 2009, 73 min.
4 p.m. June 12, Pacific Place
11 a.m. June 13, Pacific Place

This provocative and entertaining documentary follows two 11-year-old African-American kids as they explore the politics of food in America. Director Catherine Gund (whose daughter Sadie is one of the exploratory duo) knows how important it is to inform the younger generation and understand the way food gets to the family table. With the audience as their companion, the girls talk with each other, farmers, food activists, and their families to learn what ends up on our plates and how it gets there, from cultivation to market. There are revelatory visits to grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and especially the school lunchroom, where they become involved in encouraging their school district to improve their mystery meat in favor of healthier alternatives. In addition to these traditional venues, the girls examine sustainable food systems through farms and community-supported agriculture programs. They quickly discover social awareness has a multitude of positive effects: the environment, jobs for farmers, and affordable local food. With tremendous sophistication and compassion, these culinary enthusiasts inspire hope and active engagement from all members of the family, laying the groundwork for a future of healthy habits and tasty flavors. Recommended for all ages.

Modern Life
France, 2008, 88 min.
11 a.m. May 23, Uptown
7 p.m. June 2, Harvard Exit

As small family farming disappears from the French countryside, the people who have worked the land for generations refuse to give up and let their livelihoods crumble around them. Director Raymond Depardon travels between families and farms, feeling the pressure of the changing times as families attempt to cope with the devastating loss of their lifestyles. Over the course of ten years, Depardon returns to each family to catch up on their stories, allowing the passage of time to play a major role in the film. We meet octogenarian brothers who struggle with the daily task of maintaining their farm despite their age and the evolution of their trade. Depardon takes on the role of filmmaker, interviewer, and narrator, coaxing the traditionally reserved farmers to open up about their lives and feelings of despair over the decline of their industry. Visually astute, Depardon imparts his sincere affection and respect for his subjects through sprawling shots of the countryside’s natural beauty as well as striking images that divulge the naked truth of the situation.

The Garden
USA, 2008, 80 min.
7 p.m. May 28, Pacific Place
11 a.m. May 30, Pacific Place

Constructed just after the devastating 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, a 14-acre community garden was built on a former dumping ground at 41st and Alameda Streets. What started as a step in the post-riot healing process soon became the largest urban farm in the United States. This community miracle brought together families and neighbors as they grew their own food and nourished their families, creating a shining light in one of the country’s most blighted neighborhoods. However, only a few years after achieving success and sustainability, the garden’s existence was threatened by a developer’s plans to construct warehouses on the site. In a follow-up to his well-regarded debut documentary, OT: Our Town, director and producer Scott Hamilton Kennedy follows the garden’s mostly Latino farmers over a period of four years as they organize and fight back to save their hallowed patch of ground. The Garden is an emotional and demanding documentary that takes viewers through urban politics, racial grievances, and the lives of ordinary people willing to put up a long fight in order to keep their oasis alive. Featuring Danny Glover, Daryl Hannah, Antonio Villaraigosa, Dennis Kucinich, Joan Baez.

Thanks to Mary Embleton of Cascade Harvest Coalition for bringing these movies to my attention. Movie synopses from SIFF's website.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Does this blog make me look fat?

Imagine this entry filled with words. Words all about the most amazingly enjoyable day I had foraging for clams with some friends recently.

There would have been my photos too, albeit amateur and taken with my cellphone. There would have been some irreverent comments I'm sure. But you see, one of my friends wrote such a perfect summation of our day that all that I could possibly add to it would be my photos.

Grainy, unprofessional photos.

And sure, maybe I'd give you the recipes for the dishes we made. But I haven't written them up yet.

So, today I give you (wait for it...)

a big Fat LAZY LINK.

Does this blog make me look fat? Yes, yes it does.

Fat of the Land Fat

have a good day.


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