Tag Archives: Cook

Thanksgiving Again

This was the post I wrote back in 2008 around this time. Way back then I guess I hadn’t really tried to tie everything into a business theme as I do now. It’s just a reflection of how my family enjoys the routine and repetition of the day. 8 years further down the road, I realize that there is a good reason why having the same thing every year is a wonderful thing. Just about everything else I wrote about in the piece below has changed. People have moved and one has died. Houses have been sold and others have been bought. The kids are all grown now and are working and the rarity of everyone getting together has increased.

If there’s a business lesson in all of this, it just might be to appreciate the familiar moments and not to complain too loudly about routine. Rest assured that there will be enough chaos and change for everyone along the way. Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo

My family loves Thanksgiving.  For the most part, so do I.  The entire family getting together is not something that happens with great regularity anymore – grandparents winter in Florida, kids are in college or living their own lives, brothers and sisters and other relations have busy schedules too.  So when 20 or 25 of us can pile into one location, it’s special, and each gathering is unique.  Except for one thing.

Thanksgiving’s menu in my house is something that descended directly from the Pilgrims.  It is etched in two tablets made from the skin of the original bird (and we can have the discussion about whether that bird was in Plymouth or in St.Augustine another time).  Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and apricots, cranberry mold, cranberry bread, veggies, stuffing and gallons of gravy are pretty much it.

I cook every year and love to do it.  Except I can do it in my sleep at this point. I am under strict orders from all parties NOT TO FOOL (they use another word) WITH THE MENU.  The only choices I get to make are what kinds of stuffing and which veggies to serve.  But I don’t, really.

One year I caused a huge ruckus by announcing in advance (mistake) that I would be frying one of the birds (we usually have two).  The discovery of a cure for cancer would have caused less of a ruckus.  Of course, now a fried turkey is mandatory.  Another year I made four dressings – one a cornbread and andouille, one a sausage and herb, one an oyster, and one a vegetarian version that was very traditional.  Of course, only the last one was eaten up.  No more oysters (and don’t even start the discussion about that’s what the Indians ate) in the damn dressing and leave that andouille stuff south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Another year, I slow cooked the green beans with bacon.  “Darling, do you have any less cooked?  I’m not sure I know what I’m eating…”  Another year I served carrots with a tangerine glaze.  The next, I was berated for not serving carrots.

I’m writing this now because there are only two weeks to go and my Mom is asking if I’ve shopped yet (Mom is always ready well in advance).  I tell her I haven’t shopped because I haven’t planned the menu yet but who am I kidding?  The menu was done years ago.  I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m roasting the other bird in a Caja China and not an oven and that I’m seriously considering bringing back the cornbread thing.  But I’ll cook them whatever they want since having the family all together is more important to me than my exercising my chefly prerogatives.

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They Don’t Make It Like That Anymore

This Foodie Friday I am going to run the risk of sounding like the grumpy old man I’m slowly becoming. Rather than admonishing you all to get off my lawn, I want to share the sentiment I had a week or so ago as I fired up my smoker. My smoker, or as it’s lovingly known, “The Beast”, was made by the New Braunfels Smoker Company at least 20 years ago, How do I know that? Well, that’s today’s food and business thought.

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move. Why was that, especially when I also gave away or junked a Caja China and two other grills? In a sentence:

Because they don’t make them like that anymore.

The New Braunfels Smoker Company was sold to Char-Broil 20 years ago. Almost immediately, the quality of the products went downhill, and this was especially noticeable on the gauge of the steel. The steel was thinner and didn’t hold heat as well. When a rust spot developed, it was difficult to sand and paint it without almost going through the area that has rusted. The products were similar in design and name, but that was about all that was the same. The bbq forums, home to serious meat smoking aficionados like me, were deluged with negative comments and, more importantly to the business, better alternatives to what had been a superior line of smokers.

This is something from which any business can learn. We’re always under pressure to improve our margins. Some folks look to cheaper materials, other to cheaper, less-skilled labor, and still others to cutting customer service. Sometimes we just skimp on quality control. While margins might improve, there is a strong chance that revenues will decline as the customer base figures out that “you’re not making it like that anymore.” As an Apple user, I recently switched to a Chromebook because my Mac OS isn’t as smooth and there are glitches that were never an issue before. For you cooks out there, Pyrex changed their formula and “new” Pyrex is not as good. Recent Craftsman tools, once the industry standard, are now made in China and aren’t nearly as good. I can go on and I’m sure you can as well.

If you’re successful, resist the temptation to cut corners. People notice (so does your staff). Don’t be part of a conversation that claims you don’t make it like that anymore.

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Techniques, Not Recipes

It’s finally Foodie Friday again and something I cooked last week sparked a thought. I was trying to find a recipe for a dish I liked and found several versions, each slightly different. The one thing that they had in common, however, was how they were prepared. The process of pulling the dish together was nearly identical in every example. Each used a few common terms to represent techniques: saute, fold, and others.

A cook sautees onions and peppers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This reminded me of a very basic thing I heard a long time ago: it’s learning techniques that matter, not learning recipes. One of the world’s culinary masters, Jacques Pepin, wrote a book decades ago called “La Technique” which is an encyclopedic look at everything from boning out a leg of lamb to making garnishes out of fruit. As a cook, learning technique is what frees you up to explore food and create your version of anything. It’s a process that never ends, by the way. Despite my years in the kitchen, I’ve only learned to sous vide and to use a pressure cooker in the last couple of years. Both techniques have become skills I use on a regular basis now.

Of course, this thinking doesn’t just apply to cooking. If you play a musical instrument, you’re probably aware that you spend an inordinate amount of time learning everything from how to hold the thing, the proper fingerings to produce certain notes, and what notes are in which scales. As a guitar player, I learned patterns, bends, and hammers as well. Once you understood what each of those techniques produces, you were freed up to make music: YOUR music.

Business isn’t any different. The problem, however, is that many folks don’t take the time to understand that they must learn technique before they can make their own music or create their own food. They try to produce the recipes that make for success in business without having the skills required. Without those techniques, the results will take far longer, if they’re achieved at all. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for them to make their own music.

Which techniques? Analyzing, communicating, synthesizing, negotiating, budgeting, and presenting are good places to start. There is another dozen I could add to the list, but You get the point. In the office or in the kitchen, having an understanding of the basic techniques which underpin business or cooking, respectively, is a critical element in your success. Otherwise, just trying to duplicate someone else’s recipe will be the best you can do, and even that might be a long slog. Make sense?

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Opening A Can Of Mistrust

It’s Foodie Friday and I want to talk about a widespread fraud this week. If you cook Italian food every so often, you might have been a victim of this common deception, and of course, it has implications for your business (or else why would I bring it up here?). I’m talking about the lies told by many companies about what lies within a can of tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano.”

If you’ve been to Italy you’ve tasted the difference in what they have there vs. what we commonly use here, and one of the biggest differences is the true San Marzano tomato. Grown in the volcanic soil that surrounds Mt. Vesuvius, these plum tomatoes are protected by an official designation – DOP – which certifies that they are the real deal. Many other types of products receive this stamp which certifies that they are locally grown and packaged in the specific region according to strict standards – balsamic vinegar and mozzarella di bufala are two of the best known along with these tomatoes.

If you walk through your local supermarket, you will find many cans labeled “San Marzano” and yet there is a high likelihood that they are nothing of the sort. 95% of the tomatoes sold here as San Marzanos are fake, at least according to the person who certifies them. If you see crushed or diced San Marzanos, they’re fake, since true ones are only sold whole. If they are grown in the US, they’re fake. If it doesn’t have the DOP seal and the seal of the consortium that sells them, they’re fake. Some unscrupulous packagers put a DOP-looking seal on their cans; some don’t even bother, knowing that the words “San Marzano” are enough to confuse shoppers.

Why do I raise this? First, it bothers me that so many retailers are complicit in perpetuating this fraud. You wouldn’t see a legitimate store knowingly selling fake Dior bags or knockoff golf clubs with high-end labels. Why do supermarkets allow this? Can I trust that the wild-caught fish you’re selling at the fish counter isn’t farm-raised? Second, some fairly big time packagers engage in this, which calls into question what’s in the cans of other products they produce. Are those really organic peas or are you just charging more for the same stuff that’s in the non-organic cans? Lastly, and most importantly, it reiterates the point we’ve made often here in the screed. The most important thing any business gets from customers is trust. Losing that trust can be fatal, no matter how good your service or pricing might be. Knowingly perpetuating a fraud on your customers is way over the foul line.

I don’t want to make too big a point about a can of tomatoes. Most shoppers don’t look for San Marzano tomatoes – they buy whatever is on sale. It only takes one customer, however (like me?), who figures out that you’re profiting off of the deception to put a crack in your reputation. That’s not the type of sauce you want to be serving, is it?

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Foaming At the Mouth

This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about foams for a minute. Food foams, that is, and not the thick ones such as whipped cream, marshmallows, or even cake. I mean the foams that have come out of molecular gastronomy and are made out of mushrooms or parmesan cheese or just about anything else. Throw some stabilizing agent (agar, lecithin,etc.) into a liquid, grab the old immersion blender and voila: foam.

Let me give you two prominent cooks takes on them. The first is Gordon Ramsay:

If I want foam I will stick to my bubble bath after the end of a long week. Watching foam sit on a plate and 30 seconds later it starts to disintegrate and it starts to look like toxic scum on a stagnant pool of crap. I don’t want to eat foams. It’s not good.

Then there is Alton Brown‘s take:

Don’t think you can replace cooking technique with throwing a bunch of flavors on top of something. Any more than you can making it into a caviar. Or making it into a foam. If I live the rest of my culinary life without a seeing another foam, I’ll be OK. I’m sick to death of foam. What does foam do? Cover our bad cooking, by and large.

I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of foams on my plate but I find the above two quotes of interest to us today because each also contains a business point. Chef Ramsay rightfully points out that when customers purchase a product they expect it to perform and endure. If you have kids, you know the experience of toys being destroyed by lunch time on Christmas. It’s almost as if the toy makers never put the thing into the hands of a 4-year-old to test endurance. But many of us have had the same experience with tech toys and other products. We need to build our products and services to last.

The second quote points out that customers aren’t easily distracted. A nicely flavored foam can’t hide a poorly cooked protein underneath it. It’s great that we design digital products and physical products to look nice but consumers value substance over style in the long run. Just as diners order the protein and not the foam, consumers are focused on the main promise the product is making and not on how pretty it is.

Foams add flavor without adding substance. I think we all need a lot more substance in this world. You?

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Cooks And Bakers

It’s Foodie Friday and today I want you to think about if you’re a cook or if you’re a baker.  Your immediate response, assuming you spend time in the kitchen, might be “Gee, I do both.”  That’s probably true.  When I’m preparing the Thanksgiving feast, I bake pies and the occasional cake but I am definitely NOT a baker.

One of the bakers at Boudin Bakery in Fisherma...

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s my rebellious nature (those of use who lived through the 1960’s have that streak) but baking is way too rigid for me.  Baking is chemistry.  It’s Baroque music to cooking’s jazz.  One has specific formulas and rules; the other encourages improvisation.  I know how certain flavors go together and armed with just an idea and my tools I can usually make something pretty good.  Try that with baking.

When you make a baking mistake it’s pretty obvious.  Not so with cooking.  I can eyeball a tablespoon of oil for a pan.  Try eyeballing a tablespoon of baking powder armed with the knowledge that if you’re off the whole project fails.  This is not to say I think less of bakers.  They are far more precise and patient than I tend to be in the kitchen.  I can’t see very many bakers I know or see on TV going off on a rant while many of the chefs appear to be aggressive, anxious, and on edge.  Walk in to any restaurant and you’ll see them both.  Which is, of course, the business point.

Like a restaurant, any business needs both bakers and cooks on the team to produce a complete product.  You need the team members who try new things and crave pushing the boundaries.  You also need the ones who are calmer and more grounded in the “recipes” that make your business go.  Which brings us back to my initial question.  Are you a baker or a cook?  There is no right answer, but whatever your answer is should remind you that you need someone to make the other half of the menu.  You might be a cook who can bake a little (me) or a baker who has kitchen skills but finding both types are what will make your business well-rounded and last.

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Top Foodie Friday Post Of 2014

Since it’s Friday I thought I’d finish the week of reviewing the most-read posts of last year with the most-read Foodie Friday post.  This one is from April 11 and was originally called “Sinkers vs. Floaters.”  In all candor it tied two other posts – “Pumpkin Eggnog” and “Why Saving The Pots Is Bad Business” – as most read.  Since it was the oldest and kind of one of my favorites, I’m reposting it.  Enjoy – back to new rants next week!

It’s Foodie Friday and this is the last food-related post before the start of Passover.

matzah ball soup

Photo credit: h-bomb)

In honor of that, I thought I’d raise one of the most important questions this time of year brings:  sinkers or floaters?   I’m talking about matzo balls, of course, and the question of whether they should float in the soup like little clouds or sink to the bottom like rocks is a matter of serious debate around the Seder table.  As it turns out, the debate contains some instructive business thinking as well.

I’ll preface what I am about to say with an acknowledgment that I am not a neutral party.  I have some definite thoughts about matzo balls.  I should also add that here in the New York area, many non-Jews eat a lot of matzo ball soup year round so the debate isn’t limited to Passover tables.

The basic recipe for matzo balls is simple.  Matzoh meal, eggs, fat of some sort, and liquid.  That’s where agreement stops.  The primary aspects of the discussion involve the following (almost Talmudic) questions:

  • Should the kneidlach (Yiddish for matzo balls) sink or float in the soup?
  • Should they contain schmaltz (chicken fat) or margarine or oil?
  • Should seltzer be used to “leaven” them?
  • Should the egg whites be separated and whipped to add lightness?
  • Should they be boiled in salted water or in the soup broth?
  • Should they be the size of golf balls or tennis balls?

There are some minor issues including the use of parsley and other seasoning but the above are the main elements.  Every family has their own answers and even within a family there is disagreement, especially if there are two grandmothers involved.  Which brings us to the business point.

There are few things more simple and yet as complex as these little dumplings.  The risk one runs when just assuming they can make them without careful thought to each of the above is that the debate rears its ugly head at the table and a familial brouhaha ensues.  The same problem happens in business.  We often look at seemingly simple issues without a fully thinking through the many complex underlying issues that can affect how well the final product fares.  That can be a huge mistake and it’s always worth a few minutes thinking through those issues before jumping into a problem.

Floaters with a nice “chew”, by the way.  Yours?

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