Posts tagged ‘restaurant’

Rising Confidence and Yeast-Raised Doughnuts

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As boring as it might sound, I’m comfortable with the ordinary. I like routines.

I hit the snooze button twice every morning before crossing the cool carpet to get my fuzzy socks. I have the same cereal in my favorite breakfast bowl, the marbled blue and white one that says “Good Morning” in wavy print along the rim.

When school is finally over, I head to the same patch of parking lot, leaning from the weight of my backpack onto the bumper of my friend C-‘s car. As we carpool home, I look out the window and remark how much brighter each day is getting, and he smiles and turns up the radio.

I like routines, because I like the comfort of knowing what to do – it keeps me focused and organized, and I feel like I’m on target.

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Sometimes, though, you’re forced to adapt, to step out of your comfort zone even if you haven’t put on your shoes or accumulated enough experience. Lately at Seastar, the restaurant where I intern, I’ve been working on banquets, which are uncharted waters for me.

Banquets are different from normally working on the pantry line. Instead of plating orders of food for tables, the Seastar chefs make enough food to feed a private business or organization. While the biggest ticket I’ll probably tackle on the pantry line is for 8 people, banquets can go up in the hundreds. And banquets, unlike salads or desserts on their own, are composed of multiple courses.

If you ask me, banquets are much more stressful. There’s a palpable intensity in the kitchen that I can’t quite handle. There’s a rush to cook and plate the food, and though I wish I could help, I just haven’t learned enough yet. For starters, I’ve never seen most of the entrees and appetizers, and for another, I haven’t picked up the skills to execute what my mentors are doing.

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I tried to be helpful, running to plate hundreds of cheese-filled fingerling potatoes. I used only my fingertips, the way I saw the chef before me, to move each potato half from the sweltering pan to the platter. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t imitate the nimble way the other chefs worked. The blistering heat from the bubbling cheese seemed to burn holes in my palms, and I was slow and clumsy. I ended up stepping back because I felt like a burden.

It’s not like me to get flustered, to feel incompetent and to cast my eyes down in atypical introversion. So even though I didn’t like working on banquets, and could have said so – I think that ultimately this new experience will be good for me, it’ll help me acquire new skills and tougher fingertips.

I had the chance to go back to the pantry line, and I will sometime. But at the moment, it would seem like giving up, and determination is one of my stronger qualities when I put my mind to something. So I’ll keep working through the banquets, despite my frustration and the lack of coordination between my ambition and my ability.

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I know someday the turnaround will come. I’ll be wiping down the counters after a night spent on my feet when I’ll realize I was helpful that day; that my presence made things run a little more smoothly. And everything will be worth it. Right now, I want to try new things in every area of my life, from the stainless steel kitchens at work to my quiet, sunlit kitchen at home.

I’m making a greater and greater variety of things now. In the past, unsure of myself or “realistic” as I called it, I stuck to simple cakes and cookies. Now I’ve made so many things I never thought I could tackle, from French macarons to bagels. I want to cross everything off my wishlist. Every success and every failure makes me a little more daring, and suddenly I forget the appeal of the routine.

When people ask me if I cook, I laugh and shrug a little, and when they ask about bread I deflect by describing my mother’s talents. I’ve said many times before that I’m scared of making bread because I’ve never worked with yeast. But now, I can finally proudly say that I’ve made a yeast-raised baked good – and it wasn’t any scarier than jumping off a diving board.

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I don’t know what gave me the push to make doughnuts. I’ve been eying them for a while, longingly. But the thought of working with yeast, and the “probable failure” I expected overpowered my desire. Who knows what gave me the final push? Maybe 17 and Baking, a browse through Tastespotting, or simply a craving for something homey.

In an effort to avoid the plunge, I considered making cake doughnuts or baked doughnuts. But in my heart I wanted to make yeast-raised doughnuts, fluffy and tall and pillowy, and no talk of “healthier baked doughnuts” or “cakey rings of goodness” could really sway me. My refrigerator was stocked with homemade blackberry jam and leftover meyer lemon curd, and I rejected my reservations like a deep exhalation.

It seemed simple enough to let the yeast bloom in the water like a dusty ripple, and when I peeked underneath the warm towel I saw that the dough had doubled in size. From there it I felt like I was on stable ground, easily cutting the doughnut rings like they were sugar cookies, and chasing them in the bubbling oil with my slotted spoon.

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And the first bite? Anything but ordinary.

[PS: The comments on last week's post were better than a hug from my mom or falling asleep with my dog Tilly (well, maybe.) It was unexpected and so uplifting. Thank you for being supportive, and I want to add that since the exposure has died down, I haven't had experienced any more negativity.]
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February 2, 2010 at 7:19 pm 82 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 122 comments

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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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