As I have lived a life in the restaurant business (and not that I'm recommending that to anyone, oh, no No NO!) I am used to coming in to work each day and prepping for a full and busy night. It is second nature to me to peer into my refrigerators each day, clear out the debris, see what can be reshaped or reformed and then organize myself combining those things with the new and fresh. It is a dance, a puzzle, a new breathing of life each and every day. I must confess that I love the challenge and I love putting my hard-won skills to work solving the puzzle.
Unfortunately, it is not something that one can teach in a short period of time. It certainly was nothing that came to me early on, but rather, a philosophy I had to develop myself as well as grow into. I had an amazing mentor, Lucien Kuwamoto, in my "green and raw" days, who beat me up and taught me to use my hands, but better yet, taught me to think, to consider and to plan. He also instilled in my a philosophy of how to work, as an individual, but also how to make a kitchen work and run.
Well trained chefs do their purchasing and their prepping with an eye to utilization. In a properly run kitchen, nothing goes to waste and each purchase is made with an eye to how it can be used to each and every advantage. The great god of Food Cost was the determining force of so many decisions related to purchases. In theory, nothing will go to waste.
I learned that one made the most money for the "house" (and therefore might be entitled to more oneself, with any luck and patience; always patience) by learning to butcher and subsequently using all the disassembled parts in various ways. Hind quarters of beef and veal became steaks and roasts, the glory cuts, yes. But it was the trimmings and the lesser regarded sections of the animal where the money was made. Veal scallopini gave way to veal parmagiana which gave way to blanquette de veau which gave way to various forms of stroganoff and other cost effective stews. The unusable bits, the silver skin and the membranes were roasted with vegetables and turned into a "mother sauce". Truly, nothing was wasted.
The way I work now, at La Cusinga, and in places past, puts more emphasis on the fresh. The menu ostensibly (?!) changes each day and the challenge is now to incorporate that which was fresh and new yesterday into something that is equally fresh today. Equally, the challenge exists to get a staff of young country women, not trained professionally, and in some cases, not trained at all, to grasp, however remotely, that concept of utilization.
I love the learning process, and it has been a joy to me to see the light come on in faces not used to being taught and not used to being encouraged to take pride in the things they do. The realization that rice can be cooked in the oven and doesn't have to boil on the stove until the bottom of the pot is thick with crusted burnt grains is a concept that has only recently been embraced (particularly since this makes the cleaning of the pot much easier). I am moved hearing the pride in the voice of Angelica, my day cook, when she tells me that the mix has been made for a batch of ice cream, or that the bananas have been roasted so that another mix may be started.
The busier we get, however, less of those concepts learned are put to use, and in what is just human nature, our kitchen staff goes back to what they know. Sadly, this often translates to small bits of food hidden away, obscured in a giant hunk of aluminum foil, or a myriad of tiny bowls filling an entire refrigerator shelf, each with a slightly less than usable portion of some treat from days gone past. Despite my pleadings the cover of choice remains aluminum foil as opposed to clear wrap. The foil is about four times as expensive, but is so much easier to handle.
Each night at the end of my shift I place plastic container of usable cooked vegetables in the front of the refrigerator that holds the lunch products and each day when I arrive, there it sits; unused and perhaps unnoticed. I put portioned fish and pieces of chicken that can be used in lunch specials there as well. I want to be able to reach these young women some way, some how, but the connect, the lightbulb, the vision is just not something I seem to be able to communicate. I am not sure if I am battling against a cultural issue, a training issue or a motivational issue.
I want so much for the women I work with to feel the pride, the joy, of a job well done and I would love to sense that more often. Frequently I sense an "oh well, another day" as they scrub their pots and mop the floors. Of course there are moments of light and they do give one hope. There has been some staying a bit later to make sure ordering is done and there are moments of inspiration and even motivation. Yes, there are and I must make sure I notice them. I must also remember the patience that my mentor had with me, so much patience.
One of my favorite quotes is from the baseball manager, Tony LaRussa, in which he says, "Good management is putting people in a position to succeed." I will continue to try to break through. I will continue to praise, to teach and to patiently explain the "why". I will keep doing damage control each day, going through the many tiny bowls and unwrapping the mystery packages. It may make me crazy either way, giving up or forging ahead, but the only way I know how is to keep at it, to keep making the point and explaining the "why". After all, we are in "that" part of the year and it is Full Speed Ahead.