My friend Kevin Rosinbum, a seriously talented photographer, cook, and renaissance guy, turned me on to this page at Traditional Oven – Initially, I was impressed with the versatility of the yeast conversions they had cookin’ there – Then I started poking around on the myriad of other stuff on that right hand column, and my impressed became a seriously wowed.
Winter is turning to spring in most places by now. Our world is in big transition – We have to be out of our place by Friday, and won’t have our new home (and AMAZING kitchen), for a few weeks yet. As such, I’m going to post some good stuff from others, and maybe a surprise house post or two.
For this week, here’s Real Farmacy making more sense than anything you see from our government. Check it out, and let’s get crackin’!
It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.
It’s a safe bet that one of the most important skills, (if not the most), a home cook can posses is also one of the most feared – knife skills. The reasons for this are obvious. Back in the my public service days, a friend who happened to be a local E.R. Doc told me that the leading cause of hand lacerations was folks cutting bagels – sad, but distinctly illustrative. The fact is that proper knife skills are rarely passed from home cook to home cook. Some folks naturally get it, but many don’t, and unless you’ve been formally trained in culinary school or in a restaurant setting, you’ve likely never gotten the instruction and training you need to use knifes safely and effectively. Fortunately, what any good home chef needs to know is pretty simple, and that’s what we’ll cover today.
Knife skills in some form or another go back through pre-history, of course, and the recorded part farther back than you might think. In the Zhou dynasty of China, (1045 to 256 B.C.), the art of fine cooking was called ‘k’o’peng,’ ‘to cut and cook.’ By the end of that lengthy reign, Chinese cookbooks contained a plethora of terms for different cuts, illustrating the importance of good knife skills. As the western world caught on and the golden age of haut cuisine in Europe arrived, knife skills were paramount for any and every chef, and they largely remain so to this day. In virtually every genuine professional kitchen, when you step in, you’re expected to know the mechanics and vocabulary of professional knife skills, (and there are no knives provided by the venue – You bring your own, and you’re expected to know how to use and care for them). And yes, for the record, it’s still considered extremely bad form, verging on culinary blasphemy, to even think about touching another chefs knives.
For home cooks, safe and effective knife use is arguably more important than knowing all the fancy cuts – And doing so safely and efficiently requires reps – hundreds, if not thousands of them, to get truly good. This is true not only in order to make the safe and proper steps of cutting food autonomic, but to understand that ingredients behave quite differently when being cut – Carrots react totally differently than tomatoes, and you really do need to know how those vagaries. Speaking of fancy cuts, forget all that razzle dazzle you see on food porn TV – Those folks are Pro’s with tens of thousands of cuts under their belts, and hell, they’re on TV – Naturally they’re going to show off – Trying to match that kind of speed is a recipe for disaster for the home chef, and frankly, it’s just not necessary. In a professional kitchen, we work under extreme time constraints that require intense speed and focus. At home, we need to get dinner on the table, in decent form, in reasonable time, and first and foremost, without cutting the shit out of ourselves. As the inimitable Anthony Bourdain so aptly put it, “When you cut yourself cooking, half the pain you feel is the realization that you’re a dumbass.”
Thankfully, the first step in reducing our dumbassedness factor is a relatively simple thing – don’t use dull knives. I can attest, from a myriad of personal experience, that the vast majority of home kitchens I’ve cooked in have dull knives, (and too often, dull, crappy knives). This is a recipe for disaster. You’re far more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife, because it simply doesn’t work as it should – That makes you try harder, and the next thing you know, it’s E.R. time. This being the 21st century, there is a wealth of information and equipment out there to help you keep your knives sharp – Find it and use it.
The next thing that must be learned is a proper knife grip. Chances are that a bunch of us are doing this very fundamental thing wrong, and correcting that is, no fooling, the most important step you can take toward better knife skills. To illustrate we first need to diagram out the components and features that make up a typical chefs knife, from butt to tip. The butt is the farthest end from the tip of the blade, the end of the handle/grip/scales of the knife, (the part we grasp). The handle ends at the bolster/finger guard – That feature, often metal, is what separates handle from blade. The blade consists of a point, tip section, cutting edge, and heel. The top side of the blade is the spine. And in any decent knife, the metal that forms the blade continues fully through the handle and ends at the butt – This is what is referred to as a full tang blade.
With that map in mind, chances are good that when you grip your go-to kitchen knife, you grab it by the handle, and only by the handle, such that all of your grip hand is solely on the handle, behind the bolster/finger guard. This is called, naturally enough, a handle grip, and it’s what the vast majority of inexperienced home cooks use. While a handle grip seems to make sense and is generally comfy, it has distinct problems, because the it offers quite limited control of the blade. If you’ve got itty, bitty hands, a handle grip makes sense, otherwise, not so much.
Here’s the solution – The blade grip. Although this might seem counter-intuitive, I promise you that it is not. With a blade grip, your thumb and forefinger are placed along the spine of the blade, on the blade side of the bolster/finger guard. Effectively, you pinch the blade between thumb and forefinger. What a blade grip does is shift the balance point of the knife to your advantage, and affords much greater control and sensitivity for your cutting hand. It may feel a bit weird, even scary to have fingers up there near a sharp blade, but trust me, you’ll have a much better feel for what your knife is doing with this grip. One caveat – A blade grip can feel really awkward on a cheaply made knife, especially one without a bolster/finger guard – And I can’t think of a better reason not to own or use such a thing, frankly.
Once you start to use a blade grip, you’ll quickly get a feel for it, and for the advantages it brings. This grip alone will markedly improve your knife skills, and the safety with which you wield your blades. Note that the blade grip works best with chefs knives, santokus, and the like – It’s harder to employ on something small like a parer, although there is a modified grip for that, as you can see in the image below. Pinching the parer right at the bolster, or placing a forefinger along the spine, works great for fine control. That said, a handle grip will work just fine with a parer for most of what you’ll want to do.
One more piece of the puzzle is needed to complete thisx lesson, and that’s what to do with your non-cutting hand, the hand you grip the stuff you’re cutting with. Mistakes and miscues in this regard are, in fact, the cause of much dumbassedness amongst cooks – Even Pro’s, (watch Chopped for a while, and you’ll see more working professional Chefs cut themselves badly than you might care to watch.) The solution is known as The Claw, and it’s every bit as important as a proper knife grip. Employing the claw requires some set up, and here again is a place where home cooks screw up and hurt themselves all too often. Naturally, the hand you’re going to cut when you do things wrong is the food gripping hand, right? Any time a finger tip, palm, etc is exposed unduly, Murphy’s Law will indeed kick in. The Claw is how you avoid that pain.
The first and foremost mistake made with a home cooks non-cutting hand is trying to cut something that’s not stable, and it’s usually veggies that are the culprit – Take your pick, onion, carrot, tomato – the first slice attempted on a thing that does not want to sit flat on a cutting board, combined with an improper grip, is a recipe for disaster. The solution is to make a first cut that stabilizes things. Using the claw grip to make that stabilizing cut is key – grip the onion, or whatnot, such that no finger tips protrude near the intended path of the blade. As you’ll see from the image above this paragraph, I use a thumb and pinky to do that. Then, use the knuckles of your reminding fingers, (you should have three…), as a guide for the side of the knife blade – your finger tips are curled back on the onion, your knuckles are above the cutting edge, and you make the cut – Doing this makes it very difficult to cut yourself. Cut the target food in half, or at least produce one nice, flat side – You can now rest that against the cutting board, and proceed with confidence that your stuff won’t go skittering across the kitchen when you get after it. The images below show the sequence of employing the claw grip to safely complete a large dice on that onion.
One other technique of note that provides safety as well as effective cutting for a very common task. When you need to mince something, home cooks tend to get a bit wild, attacking, for instance, the celery leaf I’m dealing with in the images below with a whole bunch of clattering whacks with a chefs knife – Two problems there, one is, you’re again inviting serious injury, and secondly, you often end up with more of a mess than you do a well cut ingredient. The solution is to set the tip of your knife on the cutting board, just beside the stuff to be minced. Next, place a finger tip or two on the top of the blade end to anchor that tip to the board. Now you can use a series of relatively gentle, rocking cuts to achieve the mince, chiffonade, etc, without cutting yourself or turning your ingredients into bruised goo.
So, there are the basics to provide you with a solid foundation toward better, safer knife skills. My advice is this – Practice, practice, practice – Take very chance to slow down, study things a bit, and get a feel for the skills. One more caveat – never, ever hold something in your palm and attack it with a sharp blade – You may think you’ve got the chops, but it only takes that one tired, distracted moment to invite disaster.
What about all those fancy cuts you read, see, and hear about? How important to a home Chef is that stuff? The answer lies in how serious you want to get about your cooking. Do you really need to know a large dice from a brunoise? Yes and no – The aim of all those cuts is providing exacting uniformity, in a language that any Chef in any kitchen can understand. If you’re working with recipes that call for a brunoise, then yes, you need to know how to do a consistent julienne, (a matchstick cut roughly 1/8″ square by 2 1/2″ long), that can then be cut into 1/8″ cubes – The brunoise.
If all of that gives you a migraine, then consider this – Strive for two things when you prep ingredients – First, make them uniform. That’s important for even cooking, and for aesthetics. Secondly, know how ingredients react to being cut – You’re gonna have a real hard time trying to brunoise a soft tomato – You end up with mangled tomato bits and juice. When you run into a specific cut you don’t know, stop, dry off your hands, grab a smart phone, and google that sucker – You’ll find plenty of specific, step by step instructions to guide you through the process.
Finally, a question that often comes up from the home Chef is, ‘what knives, exactly, do I need’? That is kind of a trick question, because the answer is somewhat dependent on how good your knife skills are, and how broad your cooking ambitions. Home chefs, just like the Pro’s, are quite enamored of good blades, (present company included), and said knives run the gamut from cheap crap to one off works of art. All in all, a home cook can get by just fine with a decent chefs knife and a parer – Those can be used for easily 90%of the work you need to do. As your skills improve and your cooking advances, you may well be back for more.
NOTE: The knives you see in this post were made by Andy Gladdish of Element Fe Forge, of Guemes Island, Washington – you won’t find anything finer, or a finer maker!
From the bottom of our furry little hearts, Monica and I wish you a 2017 filled with great food, peace, and prosperity.
Our little blog has seen over 135,000 genuine visits in 2016, and we wish to thank each and every one of you for coming by, subscribing, keeping in touch, and sending in feedback. We love what we do here, and you are literally why we do it.
2017 is already an exciting year. This morning, we headed over to the lot we bought around the corner from our little cabin, and met with our contractor. We pulled out the big measuring tape, paced everything off, and marked the corners for our new home. As predicted, it’s been a colder and wetter winter so far – Far more than normal in fact! That said, the new lot was nice and dry and in great shape, and we noticed with great pleasure that we will indeed still enjoy ocean and mountain views from our new living room. Construction should begin within the next couple of weeks, so we’re pretty jazzed.
That means that this blog will, before too long, be coming from a brand spanking new, huge, amazing kitchen! And that means that we’ll be expanding into a series of video posts, in addition to our regular, written format. Our hope is that we’ll be able to provide much more hands on, and very followable direction, for those of you who are visual learners – And you’ll get to make fun of my on camera persona as well, so that’s sure to be a win-win!
We’re pleased and excited to be sharing this journey with you, so by all means, stay tuned!