Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Cook's Life #2 - Crew Meal

"What's for CREW MEAL today?"

this question has elicited complete joy AND ran shivers down my spine, as it could mean a period of zen cooking or hellacious hospital experiment in a pan. the last two kitchens i've worked in, i have been responsible for making what's called staff meal or crew meal. basically, it's a meal provided by the restaurant for the employees. sometimes it's for front of the house (wait staff, hosts, managers, bartenders), back of the house (cooks, chefs, dishwashers, janitors), or sometimes both.

where i work now, i've consistently cooked crew meal for the lunch crew (roughly 25 people everyday) as long as i've worked lunch shift, and now i cook crew meal for the dinner crew (front of the house, at least ten orders) two nights out of the week. the reason for such extreme reactions to crew meal is because i never really know what i'm going to make. sometimes, i've been able to plan a day ahead with my sous chef Ted, and we've made some killer meals, but most of the time, i cook what we have, and that usually means whatever needs to be used up because it's going bad, whatever fish or beef scraps we have, or at worst, eggs and bacon with rice. this also has to be done in addition to the work that goes along with the station, and well, it's tough to put up something nice when your station is in the shits. of course you try to do your best, but sometimes, it's just really, really bad.

at this point in my career, i've got crew meal down, but it wasn't always so. in the beginning, i had some major disasters, like spaghetti sauce that was more like wallpaper-tomato paste and horrific beef stroganoff that NO ONE wanted to eat. believe me, cooking for cooks holds a pressure all its own, because we get hungry AND we know what good food should taste like. i had to find my niche and thought back on my life and realized, i'd been cooking good, simple food for lots of people all my life. i started cooking family meals when i was nine. back in college while living with so many different people, i'd always cook a huge pot of something, and since then i've always loved cooking for roommates, housemates, friends.

so, i started cooking comfort food: fried chicken, meatloaf, shepherds pie, chicken fried steak and eggs with grits, chicken and dumplings, hamburgers with fries, garlic herb roasted chicken with potatoes and veg, fish and chips, Portuguese sausage and fish stew with grilled bread, chili with garnish of red onion, cilantro, and cheese, goulash, beef stew, steak and eggs with grilled tomatoes and bearnaise, grilled lamb sausages with tzaziki, cous cous and greek salad, and probably my most popular (next to the fried chicken, meatloaf, and hamburgers) chinese kung pao beef or mongolian beef with plenty of rice on the side.

now, if you're a cook reading this, you know that most kitchens have a heavily latino based workforce, and most veteranos work en el dia. i've felt it an honor to work alongside these men, most of them far away from home sending money back to their families, most working two or three jobs full time, but when they get in there they get it done. sure, there's some horseplay, and i've learned all the bad spanish words i can stand, but when it's time for business, these men take it. and it's because of these men (and my sous chef Ted) that i've learned how to cook mexican food: tacos, enchiladas, cochinita pibil (i once made this using some pork that i shouldn't have, and although i was reprimanded, Chef still went back for seconds AND told me great job!), fajitas, chile quiles, cocido, chile con carne, real guacamole, real salsa, and some chicken and potato stews that i learned from my co-workers (mostly through stunted english, my broken spanish, and lots of hand gestures) who in turn had learned the recipes from their mothers or grandmothers.

i've learned from these men, that's it's important to do a good job, whether you want to or not. most of these men chose a culinary profession because its a trade in high demand that would guarantee them skilled work for a paycheck many times over in their own country. you pit that intense drive for survival and responsibility for others (wives, children) against the pollyanna-naivete of the starched-white culinary student (most of whom haven't worked a day in their lives) and the results are laughable. it's the classic Professional vs. Enthusiast, which i will get into on a future "Philosophical Musings" post.

Being a cook means that you are making something special for someone to eat, and that is given a monetary value (for the customer) but, an ethical and spiritual value by the cook; we want to do a good job, but also know when we aren't, and although it's very hard and humbling work, we THRIVE from it. we cook for hours for COMPLETE STRANGERS, and we are tired, and we get hungry. so, when i approach crew meal, i think of my co-workers, and how i know them, have befriended them, and love them. it's important to me as a cook to make something good, but even more so to make it good for my kitchen family.

crew meal is that point in the day, even if it only lasts five minutes (most of the time it only lasts two) that we can have a moment to ourselves, and ironically, eat food. it's a sacred moment, when we can stop to sit, take a breath, and enjoy something warm. it's one of the only comforts we have, because other than that, we are moving constantly, always standing, always alert, always working, always doing SOMETHING for something or someone else, except for when it's crew meal time.

since i've moved to nights, i see the lunch crew when i get in, and they are always happy to see me and i them. they always ask me,"Comida?" and i always have to tell them, "No mas." some of them even point to their stomachs and make frowny faces. yeah, i miss feeding them, and they miss eating my food. now when i make crew meal, it's mostly been fish scraps, rice and salad, with the exception of a killer shepherds pie, meatloaf, and chili i was able to make with sous chef Ted's help (ahhh, the good old days).

so, if you've ever wondered if cooks get to eat at work, or had this idea that all we did was eat all day and get fat, it's really much, much more. this is how i've run with it, and i've tried to make it the best food experience possible.


p.s. props to Steven for pancakes, candied walnut french toast, and maple syrup butter...OH YEAH!

p.p.s. i miss you all: samantha (aka mariposa), felix (aka chupas), sal, javier (aka pitallas), chago, ray, abel (aka blueberry, chiquita), eutemio (aka tortuga), humberto (aka chapin), pancho, christopher, and all the cochos from front of the house!

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