Posts filed under ‘Seastar’

The Confidence Cookie

A few weeks ago, my friend T- brought a container of homemade cookies to school. As people got up from around me to try them, I figured I should grab one before they all ran out. My fingers were inches from the box when T- covered the cookies with both hands and moved the whole container closer to her. “You can’t have one!” she said. I looked around and gestured at the cookies being devoured by half the table. She just looked at me, and I heard someone say, “Well, duh! Elissa bakes.”

While I wish I could have tried one (they looked great,) I understand where T- was coming from. I don’t have any reservations about bringing baked goods to school, to my volunteering sites, even to my SAT prep class – but there was one place I couldn’t touch, and that was Seastar, the restaurant where I intern. Somehow, I couldn’t make myself bring cookies to a professional kitchen full of chefs making excellent food. I didn’t want to disappoint, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed.

But a month or so into my internship, my boss J- uttered a few of the most frightening words I’d ever heard: “Why don’t you bake for us next week? I’d love to see your skills.” I nervously agreed, and spent the next few days agonizing over which cookies to make. I finally decided on two cookies I’ve made many times before, that are simple and always taste good… My Perfect Gingersnaps and my Tiny Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Buttons.

Baking in the Seastar kitchen was nothing like baking at home. One of the things I dislike about baking with other people is that they don’t know my kitchen inside and out, but here, it took me forever to find anything. Although I was working with familiar recipes, being in a new kitchen completely threw me off my game.

The Seastar pantry is amazing. It has every ingredient, even ones that don’t show up on their menu (like peanut butter!) Even though the pantry is small, it’s compact, and it took me as much time to find my ingredients as it did to bake the cookies. I stood there without moving my feet once, eyes scanning every shelf and still managing to overlook everything I needed.

I spent a good five minutes searching for the canola oil, looking in vain at the oversized plastic jugs, before I realized that the box I was standing next to on the floor was a giant container of it. The eggs came in packs of fifteen dozen but still took me a long time to find, hiding on the very top shelf in the walk-in. The butter came in huge, 32 ounce blocks that softened in mere minutes in the hazy heat of the Seastar kitchen.

After collecting my ingredients, I started looking for tools but even found those to be unfamiliar territory. I found a standard sized KitchenAid mixer and didn’t need to use the huge Hobart, but nearly everything else was oversize. I opened every drawer looking for a spatula until I realized that the giant rubber one I was holding was the only size on hand. I tried to find a whisk, but the smallest whisk at Seastar was the size of my largest at home.

When I bake in my own kitchen, it’s utter relaxation. I am usually alone, I always open the curtains and dim the artificial lights, and the kitchen starts out cool and slowly warms as the oven heats up. At Seastar, with the heat and the bright lights, and servers and chefs constantly walking behind me, it was hard to conjure up those feelings of serenity. Even if the kitchen hadn’t been so busy, the pressure to perform would have caused anxiety.

The one change that I fully welcomed was the dishes. At home I stop every few minutes to put tools away and hand wash bowls no longer in use. Here, I simply stacked my dirty dishes high and dropped them off in the dishwashing room. I’d go grab a few more ingredients, and on my way back I’d pick up the perfectly cleaned and dried dishes again. It’s the one thing I wish I could bring home!

The peanut butter dough came together without trouble, but the gingersnaps were more temperamental. Since Seastar doesn’t have small measuring cups, I had to use 4-cup liquid measuring pitchers and eyeball the proper amounts. My proportions were slightly off, and factoring in the humidity, my dough was much sticker than usual. I chilled it until it was workable, then returned to the prep kitchen and began rolling it into balls. After about five minutes, my hands were coated with gingery batter and the dough had begun to melt.

Frustrated, I grabbed all of my work and went to the walk-in fridge. I began to shape the cookies there, between the chilled chanterelle cream and the king crab legs. There were five dozen cookies to roll into even balls and toss in sugar. I usually do this slowly at home, listening to music or daydreaming as my hands work. Today, shivering in my shoes, I just wanted to be quick.

After only two dozen in, my cheeks reddened, goosebumps rose on my arms, and I could see my breath every time I exhaled. I try to dress light under my chef’s jacket because of the warmth on the line, but here in the fridge, I was shivering – hard. My fingers began to stiffen, but I was determined to get it done. Fifteen minutes later I walked out with the tray of ready-to-bake cookies, flushed but defiant and proud of my adaptability.

I knew the gingersnap batter was irregular and wasn’t sure how they would taste. I pulled out the first batch and noted how thin and flat they were, unlike my usual gingersnaps, but they were still sparkly with sugar and perfectly round. A waitress walked by and lifted one right off the warm sheet. I waited with my breath held as she chewed with a thoughtful look on her face. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “This is the best gingersnap I’ve ever had.”

I left the kitchen with a familiar feeling, for the first time that night – downright glowy with happiness at sharing my baked goods.

After the success of my first baking day, I was asked to bake again a few weeks later. Having baked in the Seastar kitchen before, I was much quicker to assemble ingredients and tools. With my new confidence I decided to attempt a much more difficult cookie (I’ll be sharing the recipe once I make it again at home!) Unlike last time, when S- preheated the oven for me, I had to set up the oven myself. I adjusted the temperature and noticed a switch for the fan. Since I don’t bake convection at home, I turned the fan off.

When 25 minutes passed and the cookies were mostly baked, but undercooked in the centers, I knew something was up. The cooking time was only supposed to be 10 minutes. I removed those cookies to cool, put the rest of the batches in, and was about to leave when I noticed the fan switch. Curious, I switched it on, then left to go find somebody to explain this unfamiliar oven to me.

When I returned ten minutes later, I saw to my horror that the fan had most certainly done the job. The cookies were dark brown, burned to an absolute crisp, not a single one salvageable. When J- walked by and I explained the situation, he smiled and said, “The fan helps everything bake evenly. Without it, the oven turns itself off.” Oh, boy, did I feel dumb. Half the cookies were underbaked, and half were overbaked.

More than anything I felt embarrassed as people walked by and asked to try a cookie. After the last successful time, they were calling me “the cookie intern” and praising my skills. I didn’t want to say no, but I didn’t want these cookies to represent me.

I can’t remember the last time in my life I’ve burned anything, and I’ve never burned anything that people liked. But people only had nice things to say about my awful cookies. One waiter told me that they didn’t only taste good, they were “texturally profound!”

I managed to walk to my car feeling just as glowy as last time. After all, mistakes happen, some failure is inevitable, and I am sure to embarrass myself more than a few times. But it doesn’t say anything about me as a person, or even as a baker. If anything, it’s good for me.

This week, I made shortbread cookies. They’re buttery yellow, melt-in-your-mouth, and ridiculously quick to make. I piped them with a large star tip and dipped them in melted dark chocolate. I brought them into work feeling nothing but happy to be there. I set them down and got to work, and when I came back, not a single one was left. It’s good to stand back up and be fearless, and this much is true – no matter what your skill level is and who you’re baking for, a cookie is always appreciated.

[On a totally unrelated note, happy November! And if you tweet, check out Chef John Howie's twitter - he's the owner of Seastar, along with some other great restaurants, and just made an account.]
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November 2, 2009 at 5:23 pm 44 comments

Seastar

Before anything else, I have to say this: thank you! Thank you to everyone who commented on last week’s post, where I asked readers to leave a comment with their location. I was having somewhat of a bad day when I wrote that post, and I included the last sentence (about dropping a comment) on a whim. I wasn’t expecting many responses, but I was blown away by the stories and comments left for me. The comments were so diverse – readers from 6 continents, so many places both in the US and abroad, and readers of so many ages. There were college students, grandparents, entire families, and even other teens who are 17 and Baking. It made me feel like we are all together, we all have something in common, we all have the ability to reach out and connect. Thank you, thank you for making my week!

Remember a month ago when I said I had some fantastic news I was dying to share with you guys? Hint… it has something to do with the chef’s jacket shown above.

You can’t tell because of the camera, but I’m grinning. My super exciting, make-me-go-crazy news? I’m now an intern at Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar!

Seastar is a fine dining seafood restaurant that’s well known around here – it’s been featured in Food and Wine Magazine, Best of City Search, Seattle Weekly, and Evening Magazine’s Best of Western Washington, to name a few. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for a high schooler like me, especially since I’m not pursuing a culinary career. It’s a look into the world of food, of chefs, of fine dining restaurants. It’s amazing. As a pantry chef intern, I help with plating salads and desserts, but I also have some free rein to try other things as well.

The chef I work with is named S-, one of the few women in the kitchen – she’s young and friendly and a patient teacher. On my first day she showed me the kitchen, the pantry, the walk-in fridge, the dishwashing room, and the pantry line where I work. It was so surreal to be in a real professional kitchen, really physically be standing between the huge Hobart mixer and gleaming counters, after seeing them so many times on the Food Network.

As we went over safety and protocol, I began to get a little overwhelmed. There was just so much to learn and remember, and already I was forgetting names and where ingredients were kept and how to get more dishes. I ate dinner sitting on an upside down bucket in the pantry, wondering if I was ever going to be able to keep up. When I got back to the line, orders had really started coming in.

Quite unluckily, my first day was one of the busiest I’ve seen so far. I didn’t know how to eyeball four ounces of lettuce or prep the plate for a panna cotta, so I was too slow and unlearned to be of any use. Ticket after ticket after ticket came in, and unable to keep up, I stood off to the side and watched. I was wearing new black nonslip shoes and after only three hours, my feet ached. The hazy heat seemed to intensify and a familiar phrase vaguely came to me: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. When my shift finally ended at 8, I collapsed into my car and was too tired to drive home until I’d rested there in the dark.

From the upper left, counterclockwise: the counter where servers pick up food,
the spice shelf, the prep kitchen, and the pantry line where I work

My first week I had felt uncharacteristic shyness, unable to remember names and doubtful about my ability. But I started to learn – by my third week I could confidently plate most of the salads and desserts. The introversion had faded, and instead I beamed at every chef or server I encountered because I couldn’t help but feel happy.

Now, four or so weeks in, I feel at home. I offer to complete any task, ask to learn more, and complete tickets without guidance. I pretend not to notice when the clock turns 8, and instead wait for S- to point it out because it means I get to stay an extra five minutes on the line. I know everybody’s name, and they all know mine. I still eat dinner on an upside down bucket in the tiny pantry, but I don’t sit alone and I don’t feel alone. My shoes have finally broken in, and when I step out of the restaurant and into my warm car, I have a smile on my face and a smile in my heart.

From the upper right, counterclockwise: shelves in the pantry,
pots and pans hanging on the walls, crab legs in the prep kitchen

Even though Seastar’s focus is on seafood and entrees, not baking or pastry, there is so much to learn and to love. As a pantry intern, I plate salads and desserts – when someone orders one, a ticket comes through to the pantry line. The prep work is done (the dressing is made, the nuts have been toasted, and the desserts are par-baked) and we do the final touches, the assembly, and the plating. My other tasks include prep work like measuring out ingredients, dicing fruit, slicing veggies, and general upkeep of the pantry. My favorite task so far is prepping the creme brulees with a torch – sprinkling on the sugar and watching it expand and sizzle into crispy amber glass.

I love the environment at Seastar. Every chef is friendly and fun to be around, and there is a sense of teamwork in the kitchen that I’ve never noticed in any PE class. Each night, the chefs who work the line have a meeting that ends in a team cheer, and the chefs and servers have a great relationship. Everyone there manages to be incredibly kind to me, helpful and patient without ever showing condescension or frustration. As I portion out crab, someone inevitably slips me a caramel candy or stick of gum, and as I sort through bunches of basil I can’t help but smile at everyone who passes by.

It’s indescribably thrilling to be in a professional kitchen. I love watching the line chefs create beautiful entrees, and learning all the tricks to how the restaurant runs. Even if I don’t want to be a chef, everything I take away from this internship helps me in “the real world.” I’m learning patience, stress-control, perseverance, hard work, friendliness, and communication skills, and getting to do something I love in the bargain.

The clock at my station and, in the background, the stick where servers
push receipts as they grab their order

There’s a feeling of intensity and time-restraint that I hadn’t expected, and I am never sitting still. On my second day there was a short lull.  I gratefully took the lack of tickets as a break, but a minute later S- came by, picked me up, and said, “This is what you do when there aren’t tickets.” You double check and reorganize the walk-in fridge, you sweep the floors and swipe the counters, you restock ingredients on the pantry and check the dishwashing room for clean supplies. It turns out, once you finish all that, there’s a nice stream of tickets coming in after all.

One evening in the middle of grabbing more mint I suddenly stood still, and it was such a peculiar feeling to know that every single other person in the kitchen at that exact moment was moving. But believe it or not, I love being busy. It feels good – like accomplishment and efficiency.

Another great part of my internship is, of course, the food.

From upper left, counterclockwise: Golden Beet Maple salad, two selections from
the raw bar, caesar salads with parmesan lattice crisps, and two entrees

As an intern I get a free meal every night. I simply look through the menu and nicely ask somebody to make it for me. Sometimes, one of the chefs will offer to make dinner for the whole staff. As a result, I’m getting accustomed to some very nice food lately. So far my favorite meal has been a seafood stew, simply a tomato herb broth with a mix of fish, shrimp, clams, and mussels. And my favorite dessert? The pineapple upside-down cheesecake, light and airy but topped with the most indulgent, creamy caramel-pecan sauce I’ve ever tasted.

Unfortunately I can’t share any Seastar recipes with you, but I can share more photos. :)

Chefs use these plastic lids to keep your food warm before they slide
the plates onto the counter, where servers pick them up.


This is where I work, and there’s always work. I have a lot of custards to brulee!



Another chef prepping sprigs of mint next to a batch of mini pineapple cheesecakes

Between Seastar and 17 and Baking and the wind whispering promises of creeping chill, there is so much I am happy for. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

October 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm 88 comments


Elissa Bernstein



I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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