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Despite many popular cooking competition and celebrity chef’s show on TV, “Chef” remains as mysterious occupation to some of my friends and acquaintances.

A friend never dare to invite me to her house for dinner because “cooking for a chef is too stressful”. Another friend freaks out selecting a place to eat out with me, “worrying that it may not be up to your standard”. And yet another wonders, “what cake would a pastry chef have in mind for her birthday?”

I cannot speak for all chefs but many chefs spent hours standing and cooking for others during work, and especially during weekends, holidays, and birthdays (yes, including chef’s own birthday). It would be a blessing to just sit down with family and friends and catch up. During off days, it’s such a great relief enjoying food served to them, without worrying about customer’s special request like “vegetarian but okay with seafood”.

I spent my birthday making cakes for other’s birthday. One of the best birthday presents I received this year is from Pastry Union‘s customer, Kat. She sent an email to me with only four words: “Your cakes are delicious !!!!!!!!”

My new year food resolution: eat breakfast.

When I was a child, my regular breakfast item would be a cup of milk made by my dad. My dad would wake up earlier to prepare the milk and then drove me to school later. I was very fortunate, wasn’t I? Every morning, a cup of milk, made from powdered milk… with clumps of undissolved powder floating on the surface. I tried breaking the lumps with the back of the spoon. I tried gulping it fast so that I wouldn’t feel the lumps broke into a powdery mush on my tongue. I tried staying in my room until almost late for school and rushed straight into the car without having to drink the milk.

One morning, dad knocked on my door and said “The milk is ready, come and drink it when it is hot.”

Reluctantly, I came out from my room. There it was, the cup of milk. Wait a minute, something was different. It was a cup of chocolate milk! Dad tried making the milk more appetising by adding some cocoa powder. Dad was smiling but me wasn’t. It was yet another cup of milk with more clumps of milk powder and cocoa powder and a mixture of both! I couldn’t bear hurting his feelings for all the love and effort he put. I drank it and said thank you. The next day, it was a cup of chocolate milk, again. And the “to drink or not to drink” battle went on.

Until now, my pace will naturally speed up when I walk past the shelf of milk powder in the supermarket. Ever since I have the decision power on the drink for my breakfast, reconstituted powdered milk is simply out of sight, out of mind.

What do you have for breakfast today? Oliver Schwarzwald has taken a series of photos of common breakfast item in different countries. If he ever comes to Malaysia, a favourite breakfast food he shouldn’t miss will be nasi lemak. Nasi lemak is made from rice cooked in coconut milk and usually served with cucumber slices, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), roasted peanuts, hard-boiled egg and sambal (a spicy chili sauce). Pretty solid for breakfast, maybe too much kick to some. A nutritionist will probably advice that if you are taking nasi lemak as breakfast, add this and that, replace this to that and reduce this and that to achieve a more balanced diet.

My suggestion: to start with, choose the food that you like to eat for breakfast, so that you won’t find excuses for skipping it.

photo courtesy of mrllamatastic, crunchybottom, bistrochic, pancious, paniconcept, wikimedia

 

The easiest and hardest question asked by many culinary students is: how long do you …?

Poach an egg?
Bake the choux pastry?
Fry the chips?

Chef Christophe would probably use his thumb and index finger to act as a caliper, showing a few inches gap and say “this long.” Why did Chef want to give student a hard time? Why didn’t he tell his students the time needed?

Sometimes, student came to me and complained that although he/she followed the recipe given by me and baked the product for the same amount of time like what I did in class, the product did not turn out properly.

In general, pastry requires  precise scaling of ingredient, so following a formula is crucial. Yet, blindly following a recipe can be disastrous. One of the most common mistakes made by many freshies in the kitchen is over-obsessed with the time stated in the recipe.

Whipped cream becomes butter, tart with undercooked/raw dough, and  amazingly, burnt cake is left in the oven just because the recipe indicated that the cake should be baked for forty minutes. Mistakes after mistakes, they learned an important lesson: pay attention observing the condition of the product itself, not the timer.

 

One of the great things I learned by teaching others is to ask WHY.

There are a lot of recipes telling you: first you do this then you do that, follow by this and that. Even in a professional kitchen, you are so accustomed in doing things in a certain way until it becomes a routine or common sense. When being questioned, a more experienced chef/cook will probably answer: “it’s just the way it’s done”.

Freshies in patisserie are like kids who like to ask lots of question. As papa or mama, sometimes you can get away with your kids endless question by saying: you will know it when you grow up. However, for eager freshies, they NEED AN ANSWER. Luckily, it’s convenient to perform some research on internet, and with the popularity of molecular gastronomy and food science, reference is usually readily available.

When making custard, why do you add half of the sugar to the milk and the other half to the egg?

Why not all into milk? or all into egg? Why half and half? Why not 1/4 and 3/4? Why? Why? Why?

1. If you add all your sugar into your milk, you may need to wait for a longer time for the milk to heat up before you can add to your egg.

2. If you add all your sugar into your egg, you may need to whisk it longer to ensure sugar and egg are mixed properly. Over-whisking will create too much air bubbles in your mixture. Too much air bubbles will affect the smoothness of custard like crème caramel.

3. Sugar is a poor heat conductor. By adding a layer of sugar on the bottom of a pan when heating milk can prevent milk from burning onto the pan.

So, actually in this case, it actually doesn’t matter how much you add your sugar into the milk IF your are mixing the milk, sugar and egg carefully. To be honest, sometimes, methods are just up to own preference or norm, no big theory. I’m definitely not a food scientist, but I believe understanding the WHYs behind the HOWs will give you more freedom to play around with a recipe.

Have fun WHY-ing.

Why? Because I enjoy cooking for family and friends, you replied. Enjoy cooking, yes, it’s a prerequisite for a chef. Cooking for family and friends? Sorry, think again. You will be working nights, weekends, holidays. You will be so preoccupied with the list of things to prepare for the guests in the F&B establishment you work in until you forgot the last time you met with your family and friends. Hopefully, your family and friends will forgive you that you choose to rest rather than to cook for them after working 50+ hours a week.  (P/s: Perhaps that the reason cooks are not well paid?! You don’t have time to spend!)

If you can’t stand the heat, or simply can’t stand, stay out of the kitchen. You will be on your feet almost constantly. Before becoming a chef, you will be trained as a cook that performs monotonous chores rigorously. It may be the Nth prawn you have shelled for the day, but bear in mind Chef Louis Eguaras’s reminder: A chef’s routine is the customer’s special event. Even if you swear that you won’t eat prawn for the rest of your life, you will still need to shell it like the one you first did. Customer comes first, not your sore feet, not your hatred.

And did I mention burns and cuts? Stressed out by flooded orders and irrational customers? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting people off from pursuing their dreams to be a chef. I am just trying to share some insights of the real world, other than the Chefdom glamour portrayed by celebrity chefs on TV.  Professional kitchen is a hectic workplace packed with adrenaline rush. A great teamwork, a smooth service, and an appreciation from the customer are certainly the fruits of labour sought after by many chefs in the industry.  Don’t limit yourself in the kitchen either, because a Chef does more than just cooking.

It’s World Cup 2010 Final.  Many people are betting. Spain or Holland? I’m not a football fan, I’m clueless.

Perhaps, let start with something I’m more familiar: food. Almost every culture has food made by deep-frying dough: donut, beignets, youtiao, and in this case, Churros vs. Oliebollen.

Churros is a type of deep-fried choux pastry often served dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. My churros con chocolate experience in Barcelona almost left me with a sore throat the next day. The chocolate for dunking is soooooo rich that I felt like I finished a bar of melted chocolate. Quite heavy for a summer breakfast but it would be ideal in winter. My advice: enjoy moderately.

During a trip to Rotterdam, I noticed a street vendor selling Oliebollen.  To a non-Dutch speaker like me, it sounds so cool and looks yummy. However, when my Dutch friend told me that Oliebollen literally means “oil balls”, I hesitated. Calories, greasy, it’s not an appetising name after all. Since it’s so popular, okay, I will try one, just one. Oliebollen is essentially a yeasted dough like a doughnut with bits of raisin and apple filling. My verdict: One is just nice.

Paul the Octopus has made his choice. Have you?

Kitchen staffs and service staffs have symbiotic relationship. Not only both parties need to speak the same language, they need to respect each other. Yet, there are always newbies and idiots in every kitchen.

“Chef, can I get some cookies?” asked a newbie service staff.

“Ok. Wait.” Busy with orders, Chef gave a short, crisp answer.

After waiting for a while, the newbie felt neglected. Aha, there’s the cookie box. The newbie moves towards it.

“What the f*** are you doing? Who the hell do you think you are? F*** off!!”

Service staff should never enter the kitchen without permission (especially during service). Yes, you may know where things are stored. Yes, you may think that you are doing chef a favour by helping out. Yes, the customers out there is very fussy and can’t wait any longer.

No, no, no. Please learn to read the mind of Chef. “Ok. Wait” means “I get your order. I am busy. I will get it for you.” If you need something really urgent, say “express”. In Chef’s mind, the act of helping yourself with the cookie box means “You think I am deaf? You think this is a buffet? You think you can do a better job than me?

Ego aside, in fact, kitchen runs on precision and timing. Trespasser ruins the smooth flow. You may see the cookie box. You may not know which box to serve first. You may not notice a hot tray coming through on your way reaching the box. You may take and go without putting it back in place or worse, leaving an empty box without notifying the Chef that it needs replenishment.

Trespassers in kitchen are perceived as dangerous hazards. Chef is constantly working under high pressure. An uninvited intruder is just the easy target for Chef to let go all the stress. You may end up waiting longer just to listen to the Chef dumping all the F word to you, and the next time you want something else, some Chef will purposely delay and let you wait even longer. Remember, it is just that simple: when it is ready, chef/cook will pass it to you or ask you to pick up. Full stop.