The Notebook

Here she is:  New Blue (Green)

Here she is: New Blue (Green)

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.”

Honeyed Mascarpone

  • 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

Raspberry Jam

  • 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.

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Comments

  1. says

    On the honeyed mascarpone, I’d probably whip the cream to soft peaks, beat the honey, mascarpone & salt until smooth, then fold into the whipped cream to combine.

    Not sure on the port balsamic sauce other than to just combine and cook to reduce (by half?) then strain.

    • says

      Donna–great methods for both ingredient lists! The procedure for the port balsamic is exactly how we did it at the restaurant–surprising that something so “chefly” sounding should be so simple, right?! :) As for the mascarpone cream, your method would work quite nicely, however we actually just whipped everything together, starting slowly to thin out the mascarpone. A+, Donna :D

  2. says

    Once I had a notebook as well. I forgot it by my station one night at the hotel where I was working. I realized it an hour later (after getting home-of course), went back to the hotel only to find the cleaning crew had tossed it. I never found her, and still feel a hole in my soul with her departure.

    We must treasure those whom we love.

    • says

      @cheesewench (which is a Fabulous name–your folks must have really loved cheese to name you that) I can understand that empty feeling. Fortunately, I had Helpful Dumpster Diving Dan to save me. I’m sorry about your Old Blue :(

  3. says

    First off, I am so happy to have found your blog!

    Wow! What a fascinating story of the notebook. And what great insight into the world of a chef! I often write recipes to myself with a similar “shorthand”. I am often tempted to write out recipes in this way on my blog. However, I am a tech writer by day, with many of my readers being current and former co-workers. Most of them know that my blog is my hobby and spare me my lax adherence to rules of grammar, etc. Still, as someone who writes procedures for a living, I spend WAY too much time stressing over writing out every little detail of a recipe. Sigh. I like the Chef’s Notebook Method better. :)

    • says

      @Make Roux I’m glad you found me, too! Sometimes I just want to write an ingredient list for people, too. The teacher in me often feels the need to write down “the rules” in great detail, but that same teacher in me hopes to teach people enough techniques and methods to NOT have to write down all the rules. It’s a dilemma. Sometimes, having only the ingredient list or only the procedure frees you up to be more creative. And, your King Cake looks awesome :)

  4. says

    I am so behind with my blog post readings but I read every word of this! It really is starting to come together (at least in my own head, if not in actual performance) what you are talking about. As I look at the ingredients lists above, something immediately popped to mind:

    ‘tt’, to taste – I realize that my slavish adherence to succinct directions meant that I never tasted as I cooked! Isn’t that a cardinal rule of the kitchen, to taste your food before serving it to some unsuspecting palate? And yet, I implicitly trusted the recipe b/c I assumed that the exact amounts, directions, times, etc. guaranteed that the food would taste good!

    Now, what would I have done for the honey mascarpone and balsamic sauce? Probably the same thing as Donna! 8-) Seriously, my first thought for the h.m. was to beat it all together until smooth, as for a spread. I wouldn’t have thought of it as a thinner sauce but I could see where that would be delicious over a spiced dessert (like gingered pears or something). But I have made something similar to the port sauce before so a reduction came to mind.

    The learning continues . . .

  5. says

    @Tangled Noodle :D By Jove, I think she’s got it! Yay–taste as you go; your palate will guide you!

    For the honey mascarpone, we whipped them altogether–it comes out fluffy like whipped cream. See, you know more than you think you do!

  6. says

    Out of those three, the only one I would trust myself with is the raspberry jam, but then again the sterilization of the jars is also rather daunting… :P

    Nice post. I find that I can’t really commit any procedure to memory unless I do it or see it performed multiple times. The former is definitely the better way to learn: hands-on and interacting with the ingredients, inevitably but crucially making mistakes along the way.

  7. says

    @Chris Believe me, I have made my share of mistakes along the way. And still!

    We went through the jam so quickly (within 2-3 weeks) and there was so much sugar in it that we never canned it–we just chilled it quickly and let it live in the fridge until it was time to make some more :)

  8. norecipes says

    What a great story! I don’t think I could deal with the stress of working in a restaurant. I have a “temp” file on my desktop that I always keep open with a running list of ideas for the blog. Sometimes I forget to save it and on occasion, when the computer crashes, I loose a few tidbits and curse myself for not writing it on paper.

  9. says

    @norecipes So, you have a cyber-notebook! I bet that won’t get thrown out w/the garbage:D Maybe you should burn to disc? The Beloved always tells me to do that, although it is at odds w/my spontaneous self :lol:

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