Sorry, no bittersweet love story here. If that’s what you were hoping for, just move along.
Before I started working in a professional kitchen, I never had a recipe notebook. I had a gajillion cookbooks and an accordion folder of random recipes, but no notebook. As soon as I got to the first restaurant, the Executive Pastry Chef told me to get one and copy down all the recipes we used. He also told me that I could go through his huge recipe binder and copy down anything that looked good. So, I went out and bought one of those 5-section medium-sized notebooks at Walgreen’s, and I began copying.
This sounds like a big fat task, but what I was copying was just lists of ingredients with a Very Truncated set of directions. The paragraphs-long Procedure Section was apparently supposed to be in my head. You know the ones: “Preheat oven. Prepare pan. Beat on medium speed for 1.7 minutes. Scrape the bowl with exactly 8 scrapes. ” You see, in restaurant kitchens, they just kind of assume that you know how to prepare your pans. They figure you know how to do The Creaming Method. The chef will just come over to you during your second week with a sixth pan of horseradish broth and say “Make some sorbet out of this for a garnish on a sashimi dish,” and then just walk away. As you sit, flummoxed, holding the pan and trying to psych yourself up to be The Iron Pastry Chef.
Know that before I walked into these restaurant kitchens, I needed a huge procedure section, too. In the restaurant world, the procedure section is the kiddy pool. Throw away the procedure section, and you’re in the diving well trying to stay afloat. If I can do it, so can you. In a professional kitchen, it’s all about multi-tasking and streamlining. There is a lot to do and only a set amount of time in which to do it. So, you learn pretty quickly to commit a few of the “whats” to memory (the formula for pizza dough that I made every day) and almost all of the “hows” to memory.
Which brings me back to my notebook. It took me awhile to get back here, but that’s just how I am. At any rate, when I left one restaurant to help open another, my notebook came with me, and I added to it–adding new recipes (read: ingredient lists and skeletal procedures) as we came up with new desserts and dishes. One morning, I came in and started doing my thing. I had memorized most of my everyday tasks–spiced caramel corn, bread pretzels, ice cream base, etc. But then, when it was time to get started on a newer dish, I couldn’t find My Notebook! I searched everywhere. Other people searched everywhere, but alas. It was gone. Our intrepid dishwasher offered to go look in the dumpster. After several tense minutes, he found it–it had apparently plummeted into the garbage can late the night before (I worked the early shift) and was then Tied Up and Thrown Away. There it sat, in the dark, smelly dumpster, in the belly of the bag, like Jonah in the Whale. It had quail egg goo on it. It had other Unspeakable Things on it. It smelled decidedly odd. But it also contained all my recipes!
I went and tossed it into the trunk of my car. I stopped on the way home and bought a full-sized Replacement Notebook–again, at the Walgreen’s–and transcribed all the recipes from the smelly, eggy book to the nice new book. Then, I quietly buried Old Blue out back, by the dim light of the half moon…
When I left that restaurant and subsequently came to North Carolina, New Blue (who is actually green) accompanied me. Let me share a couple of the “recipes.”
- cream 4 oz.
- mascarpone 1.5 oz.
- honey 1 TBSP
- salt tt (to taste)
Port Balsamic Sauce
- port 1 bottle
- balsamic 8 oz.
- sugar 28 oz.
- cinnamon sticks 4 ea.
- star anise 2-3
- salt tt
- IQF raspberries 5#
- sugar 4.5#
- lemon juice tt
- salt tt
“BTAB (bring to a boil). Simmer until jammy.”
Pretty scientific stuff, huh? What I want you to come away with is the idea that the procedure section should live in your head. You can internalize it by recognizing the universality of many techniques. I had a crash course, but just start. This might be one of the beginning steps to automaticity. Write down your ingredients and internalize the procedure. As you become more comfortable with this, vary your ingredient lists, writing them down as variations, if you want. As an Exercise, tell me in the comment section what you would do to make the Mascarpone Cream or the Port Balsamic Sauce. I bet you’ll be right. I also bet that, even if you don’t do it exactly the way I would, your cream or sauce will still turn out just fine.
And, yes, once again, I am writing from an Undisclosed Location.