Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Breathe, Take a Walk… and Shoot a Goat

I need to have a breath of fresh air. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is playing in the background, piano solo. I would like to take a walk.

There are two choices we make in life: the difficult and the easy. How many times have we heard those clichés about the road less travelled, no guts no glory, and whatever motivational whatnot-

Oftentimes I have felt my soul filled with so much gratitude for receiving all the blessings I have. And there are also times that I noticed that the higher we go, the more that we should not be afraid to fall. Or that the more amount of success we are aiming for, the more that we must be willing to accept failures along the way. I have no problem dealing with failure. I am in the heart of everything that I truly desire, and here I am surrounded with all the abundance I see.
There are bad days, though. Days when you start questioning if being an accidental executive chef before you’re thirty years of age is a blessing or a curse. You start questioning if the gods are playing dice with the universe, and, when they saw you out there in the crowd, they pulled you by the hair, and- zap! gotcha. I knew that from the start there are many people out there who can cook better, who can chop onions faster, and have more impressive resumes than I do. The gods could have played with someone else! You start questioning what your destiny has got to do with all of this mess you’re in. Why can’t my life be just simple? Cook, go home and sleep?

I’ve been through that hellhole yesterday. The boss exploded his wrath and disappointment. An important food tasting will have to be conducted for this group with whom we are bidding the place. But because I am not destined for doom, some forces conspired to cancel that event and move it on a later date when we are more ready. Not now when things are still way too premature. It is not good to disrupt a work in progress. Over the weekend, some sauces were ruined in the fridge (technical & natural causes), and unfortunately there are no close alternatives for them around here. Hence, that food tasting was rescheduled for some other date.

On the other hand, it was such a learning experience if you work closely with a boss whose view of food business is by the numbers, i.e., the proportions of the recipe, the standard weight, the price, and how many plates would make his cash register go ka- ching! ka-ching!

I have long emotionally and spiritually prepared myself for these. I knew that after my training in Japan, the expectations would escalate. (Screw those expectations.) Because they spent for you (again, the language of business is, $$$$$), the upper -ups are looking at you like a fish in a bowl and expect you to perform acrobatics overnight. Sorry to disappoint you, messieurs, for some reasons, I have my own way of doing.

Some people have this tendency to rush and rush things and go through methods like those business plans in the graduate school. System. Create a system. Follow that system. And when you follow that system, you are expected to be successful. What actually goes through that system is a lot of red tape and little bureaucracies that delay the process even more. I am not saying that systems don’t work, but I am not sure if the Harvard reviews and frameworks during my MBA days ever helped me. I don’t even remember any of them. What I noticed is the more I follow such system rigidly step by step and try to manipulate the physical world around instead of just relaxing and trusting the process, the more that I screw up my life.

Last year when the idea of a neo- Japanese cuisine was presented to me, I felt a great sense of excitement and adventure. First of all is because I saw Japanese cooking as something that is too perfect that I had such high reverence for it. Now the gates of the cuisine opened and introduced itself courteously, and with much less resistance I allowed myself to be carried into the flow and discover gracefully its impeccable beauty. You discover, create, re-create, and even after a few trials, though you are dramatically improving, you are still way far from that immaculate perfection. Every night before you sleep, you think of it; when you wake up, you think of it – not because you are being paid to be a chef but because you are ever asking questions and your sense of wonder does not seem to fade away. You started out as a blank slate. Your passion rules you. The cuisine is your newfound love. You introduce yourself to it. What used to be your instant coffee at breakfast is now a cup of freshly- brewed tea, just so you will experience the play of the astringent and fragrance on the roof of your mouth.
Do you remember in the culinary school, you spend so many hours just learning about a potato, and that it isn’t enough that you just use canned mushroom, but know as well how the mushroom grows? Do you remember how you used to wonder why the croissant was shaped that way, why puttanesca is called that way, and do you remember how many times you have to do yet again the mighty brown stock?

All that system and ‘skeletonization’ crammed too much too soon into my brain is what makes the whole project stale; when all that we are after is how to rake in the bucks – the sooner, the better- instead of creating a perfect, original dish that the people wouldn’t forget. I wanted each and every plate to be an unforgettable work. I envision a craft, a new way of fusing cuisines not yet existing in our city, experienced altogether in a great dining experience.

How boring can it get, when the measure of the unagi is price comparison rather than what dish goes best with it? Why are we scrapping out what seems to be a novel salad because we only have to revolve around three dressings? How boring can it get, when the trip to the market is given to someone else because you have to stay in the office to do the costing? I’d rather feel the soramame in my hands than spend the whole afternoon tinkering on a boring spreadsheet. While that is all necessary in the end, I still believe that in the process of creation, you are 100% involved: touch, feel, taste, smell, sight. Savor each and every moment you spend with the food.

This is what got me fuming the other day. I was gritting my teeth out there while discussing the menu, and if we were bulls, me and the boss would have locked horns and threw each other on the opposite sides of the room. It was not about the sauce that got bad in the fridge, (maybe the elves in the fridge just decided to interfere) but the fact that I was being hurried to do things double time because this and that, this and that – because there had been many ridiculous pressuring forces from all sides and probably they were expecting me, again, to perform miracles overnight. What’s the rush all about? Hey, even God created the world and man and woman in 7 days- and He’s a God. On the other hand, if something unfavorable happens beyond your control, it is when nature is speaking the loudest to us – some things aren’t just meant to be.

And after much overhauling (from the menu we created last year where we cropped 30% and introduced new 40%) and tugging and pulling, I was expected to present a perfect 78 dishes (beverage not included) in three weeks without a sous chef? Grant me that benediction, Sensei Morimoto-san!

I hardly remember a day that I worked mumbling and grumping. Quite the opposite in fact, I thought I was enjoying it too much, the boss mistook it for not having a sense of urgency and organization. He must have thought I wasn’t taking his business seriously. Well, I was at the height on non- resistance, the height of play, and for sure, if I paid any attention to what is going on outside, maybe we’re already both insane before the restaurant even opens.

I was very still during the discussion. I could have the choice to cry or walk out. Instead I raised my brows, marched to the powder room and put on some lipstick. Maybelline Red Wine. By all means, I have to feel beautiful: I’m going out there and win my battle.

And while I was combing my hair, I was thinking, they can think about cutting costs and greater profits, but I would still insist that we put that lace doily under the bowl of French onion soup…

But what puzzles me is that the boss was in a very good mood the rest of the afternoon.

Inhale the afternoon air. Somewhere nearby, a pretty little goat.

See.... :)

“Bring yourself out there. You are better than you think you are”.
– Lea Salonga, Miss Saigon


solraya said...

You are doing great!

Anonymous said...

Pretty goat. ;-)

foodhuntress79 said...

I hope so, Solraya. These are the "darkest hours before dawn". Thanks.

foodhuntress79 said...

Zen Chef, that's why I shot it :)