Monday, April 4, 2011

Cranky Cooks, More Fish Tales - Part Two

There should not have to be a part two as I thought this matter was resolved.  Guess again dear reader....bruised egos can be a bitch to deal with and this woman seriously wants to bitch-slap someone in the head but because cooler heads should always prevail, she shall restrain herself for the time being.

You know, sometimes I feel like Basil Fawlty.....I really need some comic relief.  Just so long as that comic relief has nothing to do with older men passing away whilst in the throes of passion with someone who is not their wife in "my" hotel....please dear lord?

Having worked many dinner and lunch rushes I know what getting slammed really means and when one is getting slammed slow down for christ's sake especially given the fact that your clients have lots of time being that they have been on the road all day (a Televisa Crew from Mexico City) and do not mind relaxing and waiting for what they know is a pretty big order.  In this case, lots of ceviche, the local lake fish and shrimp cocktails with all the attendant trimmings.  It was a darn good thing I made a big batch of foccaccia on Saturday!

Even though it was my day off I knew I had to get into the kitchen so I asked our front desk guy to call our cook in at three pm, three hours before he would normally come in.  Knowing that certain prep would need to be executed I grabbed what I needed and started working.  In the meantime however it was tough trying to get a straight answer as to what needed to be defrosted right away as there were three kinds of shrimp and I wanted to make sure I was dealing with the right ones and this time in the proper fashion?

There were only fourteen in the group, not a large number by any stretch of the imagination but to a staff who as of late had not been accustomed to a group walking in and ordering as they did?  I am still scratching my head over this one.  Yes, we cater to large groups, have tour groups coming to stay with us but those menus are predetermined, little changes are made and all is well in Kitchen World - in other words, no surprises but when running a restaurant on top of it one has to anticipate surprises and if one cannot deal with that then that is where the problems begin.

I was handling the prep on the ceviche and hassles there except I wanted some straight answers regarding their way of saucing and presentation.  Everyone, it seemed was flustered, and in turn that got me flustered.  Voices being raised and here is me asking why and how and not getting answered.  It is not a matter of being ignored but it is a concern of mine when a question that is absolutely necessary to be answered (timing issues) is not being dealt with.

My cook, Manuel, I could see was pissed off and I was thinking to myself, oh no, not this attitude again.  Is it the language barrier, the having to share the kitchen with me on occasion, having to realize that there are other ways of dealing with certain dishes or is it because he is a bit of a machista?  At this point I do not know but I do know this, I do not mind taking a secondary role - the prep and instruction, just so long as my words and directions are respected.

In this case I knew how Mexicans liked their ceviche and cocktails and knew that the way these guys wanted me to execute the dishes was just way off.  Being told again that "this is Petenero style" does not cut it with me especially given that most examples of "Petenero style" are just downright abyssmal when it comes to their take on dishes that are not indigenous to the region.  Stick to what you know guys, your food - which while humble can be fantastic - and learn that there are other ways to approach dishes that in the long run can be better for the diner?

In the end I left the kitchen as his behaviour was becoming intolerable and disrespectful.  Childish, that is a word to best describe his tantrum over nothing.  The diners were well-fed but that is not the point.  In any kitchen there is a pecking order and even though we all work as a team there is still a heirarchy.  It does not have to be one of medieval proportions but it is a necessary evil and when my status is questioned, mocked even, that is when I bristle for gender don't mean shit to this chef.  This young man, if he were to go up to any kitchen in the states or Mexico and pull this nonsense off would get his ass kicked.

Pride is something one should have when they execute a dish perfectly, not something to exude when one is dealing with a superior. 

I was thankfully prepared this morning to deal with early breakfast for our clients as I kind of anticipated that Manuel would be a no-show.....I was right but here is the punchline - the Televisa folks took off this morning at four thirty a.m. to catch the Tikal sunrise.  The other two clients did not want breakfast either so my cook, thinking he is getting back at me and leaving me with his job - well, that little tactic has backfired on him.

Will I can his ass?  There are some that would say fire him for his rude behaviour but I have another see, I really like the guy, respect his work and when he is not being a macho prat, love to work with him as we usually laugh our asses off which in a busy kitchen is a good thing but there does come a time when one has to establish that they are indeed the HBIC - today is that day as now I have had a month to see what has been going on and what needs to be changed and implemented - not that I have not already changed certain things but there is always room for improvement in any business.

I love it here and even though like poor Basil Fawlty I want to pull my hair and wring my hands in utter despair there are also those moments that make up for the frustration like when my staff comes in this morning and greet me warmly, laugh about the cook's terrible behaviour and tell me that they are generally happy with my status quo.....oh well, c'est la vie, mi vida loca on this beautiful little slice of paradise.

No one ever said it would be easy.  Good thing I still have hair?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

One Stupid Fish and how it damned near messed up my day

I like fish, I really do and I especially love to fish and cook fresh fish but yesterday was a day when I wanted to wage war against the lifeless fish in the kitchen freezer.  I will get to that in a bit.  First I must backtrack because this tale involves several lessons in how little things can cause a entire breakdown in an otherwise wonderful kitchen machine - the staff.

Many good writers like Tony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential) talk about how one screw-up on a line can affect the entire kitchen.  It could be someone having an off sort of day and not focusing or it could be a simple misunderstanding or as in my particular case the inability to properly articulate in another language a set of particular methodologies that desperately needed to be implemented.  That being said, yesterday was not the day to be La Maestra de la Cocina.

We are coming into the hot season which precedes the rains and for a busy kitchen without air conditioning things can heat up pretty fast in more ways than the obvious.  We had an event for 85 to cater and of course the prep would start early.  This was not going to be a buffet service but rather the full meal deal with proper service which while nice I find rather impractical at times.  There were two menus, one for the adults and one for the children.

Guatemalans can have a strange approach to food and this has to be one of the hardest adjustments for me to make being more classically-oriented.  For example I would never serve an entree accompanied by potatoes if I had already served a potato soup.  I would never serve a shrimp bisque if the main course was fish.  But because these are the catering menus as requested by the clients I have to set aside my opinions and run with it.  Unfortunately though sometimes the look on my face can be misinterpreted and when one is dealing with a culture that can be quite sensitive and proud one has to learn how to deal with their staff proactively rather than reactively.  Yeah right, and monkeys will fly out of my butt.....hahahaha.

No, I am not the wicked bitch of the kitchen nor would I ever want to be thought of that way but there are times when my patience can be sorely tested and yesterday was the day. 

I had worked the morning breakfast shift so my trusted, genteel and wonderfully talented cook Manuel could be rested for the impending slam we would go through later.  My mind was stoked for the prep, our order of prep and I felt calm and confident and then the one glitch in the matrix happened at 1:55 p.m. - a late lunch arrival. 

I do not mind making lunch late in the afternoon but what I do mind is a customer who is in a rush, orders the fussiest thing on the menu and expects two courses in a half-hour.  The latter course being fish that is frozen solid.  So this is where the "fun" begins....and believe me, it was anything but.

Firstly, I should not have made that icky face and rolled my eyes.....but I could not help it because at that time my head was into the hours of prep ahead of me and the execution of 85 plates.  Evelyne, one of our camaristas who also does wonderful kitchen duty on occasion caught my look and the poor woman panicked.  This was not my intention for this to happen but it did.  Onelia, one of our wait staff who is also quite adept in the kitchen followed me to the freezer and we selected a fish but as soon as my back was turned she proceeded to defrost it in hot water.

My emphatic NO must have echoed throughout the cavernous kitchen and I grabbed a large container, got some ice and put the fish into that with some water to properly defrost it.  All this time not realizing that the client was in a rush - this was not articulated to us in the kitchen.  Evelyne in the meantime had turned on the oil and had placed fries into it and I knew immediately that this was another big mistake as oil not heated will saturate whatever hits it, thus making for an awful experience for the diner.  I removed the fries. 

I grabbed some veg and started chopping while Onelia heated up some water for them.  They would be finished off in butter, salt and pepper in the frying pan.  Onelia put together some soup and bread to take out to the customer who by this time had said to our receptionist where is my food?  Our receptionist comes into the kitchen to ask when the entree would be ready and I schooled her on frozen fish and that it takes time to defrost properly whereby she and the other two staff say that they can nuke it.  Well, you can probably guess what my opinion of that was and no, it is not fit for printing.

Manuel, my ever-capable second in command finally arrives and we get into a small war of words over the fish and how to deal with it.  Now my Spanish is quite passable but when flustered for some reason the necessary words elude me and of course there is going to be misunderstandings.  I believe the word stupid was uttered by me but no, it was not directed at my staff but rather the goddamned fish that was mocking me with its lifeless eyes, tempting me to beat the shit out of it and declare an all-out war against it.

Manuel's eyes took on a menacing glare and it was the first time in working with him that I felt he was very angry.  I stood my ground and I said that I refuse to treat a fish the way that they would.  I know to some it may sound silly but I will not work with food in a substandard fashion nor will I ever send out what to me would be a substandard plate.

The fish is finally cooking, the client has his first course but the clock is ticking and I can tell that Manuel is pissed off, I am pissed off, the client is probably wondering what the fuck mayhem is ensuing - get the picture?  Then my cell phone rings and it is my cohort Andrea calling me from Guatemala City asking me what the fuck is going on.  Manuel had snuck out of the kitchen to call her and was threatening to leave and why?  Because my frustration was being misinterpreted.  Hearing that got me flustered.

Being the one "in charge" often-times creates a sense of isolation especially when one has to make some tough decisions that not everyone is going to like and when one's body language and words are not being fully understood a simple matter can turn into a small disaster in fast order.  On a day when lots of work was ahead this was not the time to be tested nor questioned and no, this had nada to do with my ego but more the sensitivities of those who worked with me and how resistant to needed change they could be. 

Compromise, when working in a new country, dealing with a culture different to yours is necessary but there are times when it must be demanded that your approaches and reasons for such be respected as well for after all, it is the primary reason as to why I am here.  As I said to Andrea who is a culinary school graduate, would you abuse a fish in that way?  Would you serve shit?  To put it succinctly these sorts of issues one can find in restaurants all over Central America and why - for the simple fact that they have known no other way and as we all know bad habits once ingrained are hard to break.

In the end the somewhat cooked fish got finished in the nuke.  I felt so demoralized.  After the client left I got back on the phone to Andrea and I stated my frustrations especially when she said to me that that was how things were done.  I told her that those things needed to be changed.  I reminded her of the dismal state of affairs I had walked into just one month ago and that if egos are gonna get bruised on occasion then so be it.  I reminded her that I had total respect for my staff but that I would not tolerate my methodologies being questioned for they were necessary and needed. 

In other words, why the hell was I here if the same old shit was going to continue.  I felt like packing up my knives and catching the first plane back to Canada but then I realized just how stupid on my part that would be and this great hotel with its wonderful, hard-working staff would be left to flounder and I was damned if I was gonna let one stinking fish fuck up a set of plans that have been working thus far.  More to come of course but with the right execution and pacing.

In the end Manuel and I were able to set aside this glitch and get down to the business of the catered affair.  We realized that our first duty was to our clients and the hotel and that we were professionals.  We established our rhythms and even though precious time had been wasted we were more than capable of pumping out the food on time.  That the diners were not ready to eat until an hour and a half after we had rushed to the finish line?  That issue is for another telling for that issue of not respecting the kitchen is universal and not just here.  If diners only understood the pressure that we are under to produce tasty and fresh food while soaked in sweat?  Civilians have no clue as to what we sometimes go through.

Manuel and I hugged and even though I wanted to strangle the painfully slow prep lady we had brought in to assist (for every potato she peeled I peeled five) I could not for she smiled at me so well and so nicely I could not be angry with her but at the end of my time last night I took her aside and in front of Manuel told her that she has much more to learn and that if she is willing I will invite her back more often to assist us.  Manuel was happy about that as I could see his frustration with her last night as well. 

So what lessons have been learned here?  For one, waiters must inform the kitchen immediately if a client is in a rush so that way the chef can tell the waiter to urge the client to order something else....something that takes less time but will be satisfactory.  Second, if there is a gap in communication, don't wait to deal with it, take care of it immediately so there are no further misunderstandings.  Thirdly, sometimes you just gotta let shit slide even if you do not agree with it because my friends, life can be a shit sandwich and we have all on occasion had to eat one.

Damn, ain't life a blast in the blast-furnace called a kitchen?  Hells yeah and I would not trade it for anything except maybe a good wave, a fat cheeseburger and a cold beer.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Saturday Nights and our Sleepy Security

Saturday night is party night on the island and the young idiotas come out to play.  Lots of revving of engines, smashing of beer bottles, loud voices and louder music and because these kids have money - lots of attitude.  Gee, where have I seen this before?  Stupidity and arrogance combined with alcohol and youth......oh well.  At least the streets are blessedly clean the next day.

I know, I know....wait until Semana Santa (Easter Week), the biggest blowout of the year!  That, I can accept but the rest of the time?

Usually it is pretty quiet around here given our location and the surrounding culture of loud, louder and loudest just across the lake in Santa Elena.   Compared to my former city in Canada the revelers here are quite polite for the most part when rebuked.  I have not had a gun pulled on me yet.  Pays to be an Abuelita!!!  No one messes with angry, tired grannies!

Which brings us to the tale of the sleeping security guard.  Oh he is a riot.  Why we bother having him I have not a clue for it has been me for these past three weeks chasing away the Saturday night drunks and making those who have loud car stereos turn their shit down.  Hell, I even have the local cops on my side now and it has not costed one penny!

Three times I have caught this dude sleeping on the job.....the first time I was not amused but I got even the next two times by sneaking up on the bugger and waking him up by yelling in his ear.....gave me quite a bit of satisfaction considering how his inepitude has created a sleep deprivation situation - not good for el cheffo and most certainly not good for other humans who need me at my best.

In a way I am glad he does not understand English for I have called him a "pussy" at least five times under my breath.  Yet, he still takes the time to greet me as la Jefe and accord to me the usual honorifics and respect so I cannot get too pissed off at the man.  I suppose now that he has watched me in action he is a bit more aware of my brute strength....stock pots, that's the ticket to building muscle mass.  Do not mess with da chef.

Yes, life in an erstwhile sleepy town.....gotta love it!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My First Week - lessons learned and some remembered

It has been an intense week on this beautiful island of Flores.  Not one to sit still for long I have plunged into my many tasks wholeheartedly.  Good thing too as a kind of torpor had set in around here.  I liken it to a ship without a captain being run by too many first mates, one of which shall we say is a sneaky devil but I will return to that later.

A hotel, no matter how swanky or perfectly located, will flounder and do so in a spectacular fashion without strong leadership or as in the case of some, just outright bleed money and die.  Some would say this is normal given the country I am in now but I strongly disagree having evaluated hundreds of hotels in Europe, the United States and Canada, Morocco, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.  Some of the finest hotels I have ever stayed in have been the most humble of operations but it is in what they provided given their circumstances that have made them standouts in my mind.

This lovely hotel, with a fantastic (for the most part) staff who have been leaderless, without direction - it is almost a dream come full circle for me, a person who grew up in this business.  People in the hospitality and food businesses always talk of making their mark, putting their imprimature on something.  Without a strong focus and I believe a keen eye for detail and a willingness to adapt one could have a million great ideas that would never be fully realized.

Two words have been my mantra since getting here - Pacing and en Espanol, "piensa" (to think).  Villagers laugh and smile at me as I walk down the street muttering to myself piensa, piensa, piensa!  I go to bed, more tired than I have ever been, thinking constantly of what I have seen and what needs to be implemented.  I wake up and before I have even had a cafe con leche I am jotting down notes of what needs to be discussed with the staff and of course my Patron, the owner, a lovely man who has placed so much trust in me to make the necessary changes in this hotel that he has a love/hate relationship with.

Thus far, in just one week, I have established my presence and sometimes in a not-too-pleasant fashion but I have stuck to my guns so to speak and have the respect required from the staff who love their jobs.  As to those staff whose status quo I am threatening, so be it.  The gauntlet has been tossed down.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The View from here.....Flores, Guatemala

The view from my balcony at the Gran Hotel Flores.  Much more to come of course after I get my rest.  Already I have made lists and have had meetings. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Brain fuzz....breaking points and a really bad airline

There is no such thing as a discount airline.  If you, dear reader, believe that you are saving money by flying on one you are in for a ride and three quarters.  First off I will say that today I saw an ugliness in me but this ugliness only came out after four hours of messing around, two and half which were spent at an airline counter where there seemed to be an overworked staff, a frustrated clientele and a lack of knowledge as to what one hand was doing as opposed to the other.....

Getting too tired to write much more but suffice to say there is more to tell.

It's a beautiful look pretty and I love your shoes!

I am in airport hell.....well, not quite hell but I am caught in that weird moment between sleep deprivation and wanting to give up and just pass out.  If it were not for the very annoying Public Service Announcements warning of not to leave your luggage unattended I would have most likely passed out by now.

Reminder to self - next time make sure that there are no crazy overnight stops at airports where facilities pretty much shut down until dawn.  I would not have minded so much an overnight if certain bits of logistics had not broken down and thus scotched my otherwise brilliant plan of finding a bed for 7 hours....oh to have been in a bed tonight - that would have been pure pleasure.

Instead I am here at the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport killing time and expressing my annoyance to no one in particular regarding those automated voices that kick in everytime one enters or exits telling that person (and yes it is gender-specific) that they look beautiful or have nice shoes.  Yes, I do have nice shoes, don't look half-bad if I do say so myself but at five in the morning it's the last bloody thing I need to hear as my nerves are frayed as it is.

There is the Haitian cleaning lady, Ipod headset on, wandering around singing in a dissonant fashion.  I chuckle to myself as she cannot sing but if it makes her happy then who am I to criticize?

This state I am in is strange indeed.  My ability to type is certainly affected and I find myself going back to correct mistakes.  It is a strange kind of mental fuzziness....and no, it is not the pleasant kind.

In a few hours however I will be on the second to last leg of a journey that started 12 hours ago.  I am however, far too tired to be excited.  All I can dream about is sweet, sweet sleep......