Getcha Goin’

May 30, 2009

- See all 3 of my articles

No Comments

Do you need to get something done? Maybe something that seems scary or difficult to accomplish?

I don’t have a magic bullet, but I do have a bit of energy for you. I keep this one posted at my desk, referring to it occasionally in tough times:

[read in the cave in “Dead Poet’s Society”]


…Come, my friends,
`Tis not too late to seek a newer world…
for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset,…
and tho’ we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven,
That which we are, we are —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find — and not to yield.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson

A day in the life of a chef

April 30, 2009

- See all 3 of my articles

1 Comment

Guest writer Phil Ossifer was formerly employed as a chef.  Today, he gives us a view of a day in the life of a chef.

Phil is also the author of the Stop the Auto Bailout article and a participant in the  Casual Observer Stock Market Contest (coincidentally, today is the deadline for submitting a prediction in the contest).

My Reoccurring Nightmare

aka – A Day in the Life of a Professional Chef

It happens about every two weeks. Eleven years after leaving the industry, I still have the panicky dreams. Everything exploding around me…confusion, smoke, sweat. Wait a minute, I never served in the military, did I?

No, of course not. This is one of the hotel’s kitchens into which I’ve been thrust. Employees struggle to serve two busy restaurants, room service, lounge food, and I’m apparently in charge. Looking down, I find to my great discomfort that I only have a white t-shirt on — no chef’s coat and no pants. Worse, I suddenly realize that I do not know any of the menus, nor any of the employees that I must have personally hired and trained. Why do I still work here; didn’t I quit years ago? Don’t I have another high-paying job — or, or did I get fired? Even though this dream invariably wakes me up, I’m always grateful for the end.

The real nightmare isn’t quite as bad. I know the menus, people, and have a pressed uniform. I know the job, and I know that the salary is pretty good, even if the 70-ish weekly hours makes for a sufficiently pathetic hourly wage. I also know that I will work nearly every day, excepting about three Mondays a month, and will work every night, weekend, and holiday. I do miss having Thanksgiving with my family for the last nine years, but that is part of the price.

The “normal” weekday runs from 9 am to 8 pm, unless a breakfast cook calls in sick, in which case I rush to make the 5:30 am opening. Thankfully, this occurs only about once monthly.

The day starts by greeting those on duty, then as quickly as possible retreating to the office to get a handle on events of the day. Seven hooks each hold a clipboard of the days BEO’s (Banquet Event Orders) and associated prep lists. Today is a normal weekday…4 lunch events and 2 dinners. The lunches are for various sizes of groups (25, 30, 180, 90), and are of routine composition. For example, the party of 25 Kiwani’s women will have a tossed salad, Chicken Piccata, fresh steamed veggies, Linguini, garlic bread, and a slice of pecan pie. Two of the other three parties also have tossed salads, so one cook will plate all of the salads at once, rolling the finished cart into the walk-in coolers for holding. The 180 is having a pork loin buffet, which is a great relief since plating 180 additional meals is rather taxing. Of course, all four events serve precisely noon, which coincides with the restaurant rush, so I may have to pull in a few draftees from outside the kitchen to get us through plate-up.

At 9:15, I take the elevator to the banquet kitchen, and meet the lead banquet cook for our daily catch-up, where he informs me of the status of “prep” for all of today’s banquets. By this point, he and his crew are done with prep for lunches, and are working on dinner prep. By 2 pm, they will be well into prep for the following day. I write all of the prep lists on Sunday for the week- one sheet for each day’s banquets that details all food items, quantities, procedures, and assignments for the day. The banquet lead works from this sheet. Prep includes any thawing needed, so that on Tuesday, the banquet lead is ensuring that Friday’s 400 chicken breasts are placed into a thaw area of the cooler. At about this time, a dishwasher delivers an electric warming cart containing a few hundred clean plates and lids. Hot plates = no cold food.

By 10:00, I am back in my office, working on the purchasing orders for the week. I spend several hours over two days, preparing to place orders with all five of our major vendors, and a few of about 10 specialty vendors (the fresh herbs guy, the coffee company, the specialty cheese/chocolate company). I meet with most of the vendors at the hotel to place orders and field sales pitches for new products. Each Wednesday and Friday, cooks take time to receive the deliveries into the walk-in coolers and freezers.

11:30, and the lunch rush comes…I jet up to a banquet dining room to inspect the buffet food which has been delivered to the chafing dishes and tables. There are mirror displays with fruit, cheese, vegetables, dips, and small fruit and vegetable sculptures. There are hot pans of sliced, roast pork with port wine chanterelle mushroom sauce, twice-baked potatoes, and more. The dessert table looks good, but there are only three varieties of desserts (instead of the requested five), so I jump back to the banquet kitchen to yell at the lead. Of course, extras are always on hand, so it’s only a 10-minute affair to correct this error.

I stay to work the assembly-line plate-up lunches, then head back to the restaurants to check in. Runners would have notified me if there were problems while I was gone. I grab a rueben and fries, and choke this down in five minutes.

This afternoon, I interview several applicants for a lunch-cook position. Having several applicants at one time is quite lucky, and I already know that at least one of them will have a job at the end of the day. In between appointments, I spend some time training a newer line cook for the tablecloth (aka fancy) restaurant, and help two new hires complete their paperwork. Why doesn’t HR do this? Uh…I dunno. Never took the time to find out.

By 4 pm, I am writing the nightly specials for the tablecloth restaurant, and may even prepare a sauce for it. This might be the only cooking I do today, depending on how the restaurant does tonight. The evening sparks up another round of banquet plate-ups (one is a filet mignon dinner for 220 – big bucks!), and checking over the 90-or-so meals that will be produced in the tablecloth restaurant tonight. I stand at the exit window for nearly two hours to ensure each order is correct – hot, cooked right, well-presented, timed with appetizers, etc. The family café restaurant is also in full swing, and will serve upwards of 150 – 200 meals tonight. The café is running pretty well at present, so I may only stop in for one minute tonight to greet the cooks, and while en route, will probably snag an extra filet mignon dinner from the banquet kitchen. We always prepare for 5% over estimated head count.

By 7:30, the main rush is over, and I begin to wrap up for the day – checking personnel schedules for the next day (making needed changes), checking the BEO’s for red flags, cleaning up the office a bit, then heading out by 8 pm if all’s well. If it was Saturday, I would be here until about 10 pm, then back in at 6:00 am Sunday for preparation of the Sunday brunch. Sunday night, I usually get off early (6 pm), as this is the slowest night of the week for the tablecloth restaurant.

I am keeping an eye on this weekend, as we have two concurrent wedding reception dinners, which tend to be a lot of work. Most Saturdays include one wedding reception, but two are not uncommon. This Saturday, I also have to do an ice sculpture for one of the weddings. Thursday, I will pull the ice out to temper it for several hours, then carve the sculpture Thursday night in the parking lot. This will take about 1 ½ hours, after which time I’ll cart the finished, fragile sculpture into the walk-in freezer, ready for the banquet in two days. Once in a while, the sculptures crack or shatter, thus I leave two days for margin of safety.

I get home, peel off the greasy, smelly clothes, take a shower, gulp a beer, and soon am asleep.

It was a day.

Stop the auto bailout

April 1, 2009

- See all 3 of my articles


Today’s guest post is from Phil Ossifer (not his real name), writer of the blog Chunga goes wild. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Soap Boxers.

Phil works in IT, but his journey to the world of Information Technology was interrupted by a jaunt as a chef that involved training at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and a successful career as a chef / ice sculptor. After mastering the world of food, Phil turned his talents to computers. In the process, he logged classroom time toward his Bachelor’s degree in four different decades. Last year, he gave the university an ultimatum – grant him tenure or give him his degree.

Without further ado … “Stop the auto bailout” by Phil Ossifer.

The U.S. Government is making a big mistake by providing additional $billions in another attempt to bail out major players in our failing automotive industry.

Why do we think a few more $billion will help? These companies were losing money even during the economic boom (GM and Chrysler are over $100 billion in debt at the end of 2008, and it has gotten much worse). All of this after already supplying them with $15 billion in 2008.

We should not continue to throw good money after bad in attempts to keep the industry afloat longer, since this will ultimately make our situation worse. It adds billions to our debt, extending the depth and length of the current recession/depression. Hey! National debt is not limitless – eventually, other countries would be unwilling to buy our debt. There are indications that China is already shying away from taking on new U.S. debt. Played out, this is similar to a large auto company failing – only this time it’s a nation.

I realize that there is much pain and gnashing of teeth that will result from a failure of GM or Chrysler, but unfortunately, I think our automakers are destined to fail in the face of superior competition. That’s not an anti-American slam; it’s my objective assessment.

This is not the first time we’ve had a painful parting with a traditional industry that we needed at one time. Over the decades, we’ve had many changes (e.g. outsourcing of manufacturing, toy-making, etc) that have led to job loss and other trickle-down effects. Example: The Japanese beat us at consumer electronics manufacturing and we ended up turning away from that industry. It would have been foolish to try to keep it afloat by adding to taxpayer debt. We had to change, and we have to continue to change to compete in the global economy.

What the U.S. is good at – and has to keep doing to survive – is innovation. We invent something new, lead the pack, then inevitably a competing country beats us at our game, and we re-invent again. Doing this starts with solid education. This process is not something to be feared, because 1) it is inescapable, as more developing countries get in the game, and 2) there is a lot of good in this process – quality improves, choices improve, and prices drop.

I realize that this does not provide any help for the many autoworkers, supporting sub-industries – and trickle-down effects like adding to the mortgage default rate, reduced spending, etc, etc.and I do not have an answer for that.

But let’s not delay the inevitable. The loss of our automakers is pain that we must go through, because our alternatives are either 1) go through the pain now, or 2) go through the pain a little later, but with of billions in new debt. These continued bailouts can hasten the pace towards financial insolvency, and I for one don’t feel like learning the Mandarin language just yet.

I admit that this may be easier for me to say this since I’m more removed from the direct effects of the failing auto industry. I don’t like it, but I think that it is our reality.