Megnut

Some questions and answers about cooking

Folks have written asking some questions about how I'm making the transition from geek to chef, and rather than reply individually, I thought I'd do a little public Q & A to share with all.

I am curious what steps you took to make the change. You're cooking in the kitchen of a good restaurant?
When I first arrived on Nantucket I met the owners of Fifty-Six Union through my aunt. Over the course of the summer, I talked with them about my interest in cooking and spent some time hostessing during August. Peter, the chef, recommended that before I head to culinary school, I spend six months working in a kitchen to see if I really wanted to do it. So I asked him if I could work in his kitchen, and he generously said yes. And yes, Fifty-Six is a good restaurant, and Peter is a graduate of the CIA.

[H]aving spent my formative years slaving away in a hot kitchen for my parents' Chinese takeaway, I can't imagine what on earth you like about it!
I like the energy of the kitchen, of being on my feet and being active. I love the way I get consumed in what I'm doing, almost lost. Last night I looked at the clock and it was 7 PM, a little while later (it seemed) I checked again and it was nearly 10! I'd just been in the moment, making salads and apps and desserts. I love the short life-cycle of a kitchen day. Unlike a software project that takes weeks to months to years (to even never!) to complete, in the kitchen the order comes in, you prepare it, and it's gone. By the end of the night, the "project" is over and the battle is won. I love the satisfaction of making something people enjoy. I made an apple tarte tatin for last night's dessert special. I plated an order and thirty minutes later, the server told me, "They loved the apple tart and were raving!" I love doing lots of things at once and figuring out the most efficient way to do it, and I love to be under pressure and make it all happen and get it right. I love sending out a perfect plate.

I just wanted to ask how you got into cooking.. did you need to take any formal training, or was it primarily on the job? did you take a pay cut?
I've always loved cooking and baking, ever since I was little. During college I always had food service jobs (made ice cream, worked in a pie shop on Cape Cod, etc.) and learned some skills there. And I've just been a passionate home cook, reading and learning as much as I could from doing and watching Iron Chef and other cooking programs. I've realized that I knew more than I thought and also that I have a long way to go. And yes, I took a pay cut. Cooks with no professional experience do not make the same salary as software engineering managers with 10 years experience.

If you have further questions, feel free to write! Obviously I have less time for posting than in the past, but I'll try. And soon too, a post about my first impressions...

Thanks for the encouragement

Thanks to all who've written with words of encouragement about my adventure in cooking. The flood of support reminded me once again why I love to write megnut and reinforced my interest in continuing with it. For those that were wondering, I don't have any plans to stop the site anytime soon. And I wanted to share one especially poignant email that I received from Warren:

You've never met me, but Blogger did for me what cooking has done for you. I used to work in television, doing technical work. I was good at it, but I knew I should be writing. When I signed up with Blogger, I finally got in the habit of writing something every day, and many friends and family members told me time and again I was wasting my time in television, when clearly I should be scribbling. I took the plunge last year, first going to journalism school and now writing for a newspaper, and I'm glad I did. I know now that whatever career path I take, it'll have to involve writing.

But I wouldn't have been able to take these steps in my life without Blogger giving my ass the kick it needed. I just wanted to say thanks, and to wish you luck in your new endeavor. "Follow your heart" sounds sappy, but it's true. Good luck.

It really was nice to hear this. I think sometimes when I'm trying to make a decision, I focus too much on the negatives and overlook what's been good. Warren's email reminded me, once again, of the impact of Blogger and that makes me feel so happy and proud.

Two geek in the kitchen stories

One of my first tasks last night was prepping the shrimp for a dish we do called "Javanese Fried Rice." Around the kitchen though, everyone refers to it as, "Javi." I mixed the shrimp in the marinade, and then Ben told me to cover it, label it, and put it in the walk-in. With my black marker I wrote, "Java Shrimp, 9/13."

Later in the evening, as dessert orders were coming in, a ticket printed out that said:

Single scoop
!Toffee chips

Erin grabbed the toffee chips off the shelf and handed them to me to put on the scoop of vanilla ice cream. It took me more than a moment to realize that what I'd read wasn't "bang Toffee chips" (geek speak for "no toffee chips") but rather a request to add toffee chips to a dish that didn't usually come with them.

I have a lot to learn. Or maybe it's unlearn.

From geek to chef

This past May, when I decided to go on sabbatical I wrote that I needed a break because:

I had no perspective on anything, I was so deep into my world of weblogs and tech that I didn't have much sense of what was going on outside of my geek circles... I've been burning my candle at both ends for years now, and decided it was time to stop. Emotionally I was drained. Physically I was drained.

But that wasn't the full truth of it, because there was something I'd been feeling that I wasn't quite able to admit. It's taken me several months of time away from computers and tech and geeks to accept the fact that computers and technology are not my passion.

My interest in the web and tech was always more about people. With weblogs, it was making it possible for everyone to write online and share and communicate. And while I was doing it, I really did care very deeply about my work -- the products we were creating, the people for whom they were built, and the people who worked with me to build them. As my career progressed, I pushed myself to be more visible as a technology speaker, dabbled at freelance writing, and started another tech company. But something was always missing, and I've realized that was true passion for what I was doing.

So last night I ended my sabbatical and began my new career doing something I've always felt passionate about: cooking. I'm working in the kitchen of a restaurant called Fifty-Six Union (mentioned at the bottom of this Feasting on Nantucket article) here on Nantucket. Yesterday at 3 PM I put on my black chef's clogs, my black pants and white t-shirt, pulled my Red Sox cap over my hair and got to work peeling and deveining shrimp. Seven hours later, sweatily scrubbing the kitchen floors, I was still smiling.

I've learned a lot this summer during my sabbatical but it all can be summarized in three words: follow your heart.

On the island running front

I've been building up my distance lately as marathon day (or M-day) draws closer. Last Sunday I had a beautiful 10 miler out to the ocean and back, which you can see here on my map of my running route. I'll keep adding to this as my weekend runs lengthen. For my 20 miler, I'm thinking about going out to Siasconset, around to Polpis and back home. And maybe if I go totally insane, I'll run out to Great Point and back. But that seems unlikely.

On the island soup front

Exciting news! "Soups are back" at the Fog Island Cafe, or so claim the signs posted in their windows, enticing customers with an exclamation point and "thumbs-up" graphic. Ah fall on Nantucket...

Watching the Pats in style

If you find yourself on Nantucket, wandering about trying to find a good spot to watch the Patriots game, you would do well to wander yourself to the Gaslight Theater on North Union Street in Town. (Note: it may have a different name now, but I can't remember if it does, or what its new name would be. Update: it's now called the Starlight.) It was there last night that my friend Sarah and I partook of the Patriots glorious victory over the Colts in their season opener, watching the game on the movie screen! With a waitress delivering beers to those unwilling or unable to move from their movie seats, and a raucous crowd of New England fans, it was a great start to the season.

Photos from the RNC

In case you haven't been checking in with my Slower.net widget (bottom-right corner of the screen), you should be aware that Elliot's been posting some amazing photographs from the Republican Convention in New York City over at Slower.net. His work raises many important questions, including, "What is it with Republicans and hats?" Surely the following photos demonstrate the decisive issues facing our country: Ugly red hat, Why wear one hat when you can wear two, Cowboy up #1, Cowboy up #2, My giant American red hat, My American red hat #2. Maybe the whole red/blue America is really just a question of headwear.

September?!

Holy moly but I can't believe it's September already! I'm not sure where the entire summer went, but it seems to be nearly gone. The nice thing about that? So are the tourists! Different plants are blooming, traffic is returning to what it was back in June, and we're into an R month so I can go shellfishing for oysters!

The return of the manifesto

A new site's recently launched called ChangeThis which hopes to, "challenge the way ideas are created and spread." They propose to do this by creating and disseminating manifestos on various topics of interest and importance.

We're betting that a significant portion of the population wants to hear thoughtful, rational, constructive arguments about important issues. We're certain that the best of these manifestos will spread, hand to hand, person to person, until these manifestos have reached a critical mass and actually changed the tone and substance of our debate.

I've been a fan of manifestos for a long time, and Kill Your Children (about the dangers of sugar) was very interesting. But I can't help but wonder why all the manifestos they offer are Adobe PDF files. They certainly look beautiful -- nice colors and font treatments -- but they're kind of a pain because you have to download them and launch another program to view them.

It seems to me that if the goal is to spread the manifestos, they should be presented in the easiest-to-spread manner possible, like plain text or HTML. Great manifestos of the past (Communist, Cluetrain) were about substance. They didn't look great, but they spread like crazy. That's not to say a nice looking manifesto won't also spread, of course, but I believe they won't spread as effectively because of the additional hurdles to read and distribute them. All told, I still look forward to seeing how it progresses and what topics they chose to address. It's an optimistic endeavor, and I love optimistic endeavors! [via evhead]

Fodor's has a travel blog

I just noticed tonight that the travel site Fodor's has a blog, Right This Way...The Fodor's Blog. Who knows how long they've had it, but it looks chock full of helpful information. On August 9th there's a post entitled, Get Far Away From It All which links to a New York Times article about rustic cabins that can be rented from state parks. Handy! And just the kind of thing I like. I'm going to keep my eye on the Fodor's blog for sure.

Why I'll never be a fast runner

An interesting article in the New York Times yesterday examines Why Joggers Labor and Olympians Fly. Apparently elite atheletes (like we know from cyclist Lance Armstrong) possess physiological traits that "normal" people don't have, such as larger hearts.

Exercise physiologists say there are three components to great running: A high VO2 max, the volume of oxygen an athlete can consume at maximum exertion; great running efficiency, a measurement of the energy used to run at a particular pace; and an ability to keep going at a high level of exertion for a long time, expressed as the percentage of VO2 max that can be sustained during a run.

Some day I'd like to get my VO2 max measured. Meanwhile, my marathon training has been progressing quite well, or it was until yesterday when I was running in the woods, took my mind off the trail, and started thinking about the interval training I was going to do after I warmed up. Then I tripped on a root and went non-Olympian flying through the air, bonking my knee as I skidded along the pine needled floor of the forest. No interval training after that, just a slow jog back home and a day of icing the knee. I guess I'm still in the "Joggers Labor" phase of my running career.

Spies like us

Having been away from New York City for nearly six weeks before I returned, I can't say exactly when the City's train systems -- MTA, Amtrak, and LIRR -- began their new disturbing announcement campaign exhorting all passengers to keep their eyes open and report suspicious behavior immediately to police. But I heard the announcement over and over again, on every subway I rode and while I waited at Penn Station for an Amtrak train to Boston. It was more than the old "unattended bags" line, and it was more than even a "look out for unattended bags." It sounded like, "watch everyone around you and report them to the police." It gave me a very East German Stasi-esque feeling, and of course, got me thinking about what a New Yorker would actually bother to report as suspicious behavior.

Living in NYC you see a lot of weird things, things that if you just happened to be visiting NYC you might even find "suspicious" but which are just part of living in a big, messy, diverse, crazy city. Would the woman talking to herself walking in circles count? What about people walking between subway cars, speaking a foreign language? Or someone wandering slowly, eyeing each store in Penn Station? That was me of course, not because I was casing the place but because I was trying to kill time and find a sandwich. Is asking the general population of New York City to spy and snoop on each other a good preventative measure, a la The Wisdom of Crowds, or is it an opportunity for mistrust and misunderstanding, like Annie Jacobsen's Northwest flight from Detroit to Los Angeles in June?

The most amazing salad in the world

The other night, as Jason already reported, I had dinner at Craft. One of the highlights of the meal for me was the special heirloom tomato appetizer we ordered. It perfectly accentuated the range of intoxicating sweetness to be found in these delightful vegetables (fruits, whatever).

As a fairly recent victor in Battle Tomato, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and found myself on Friday buying over a pound of heirloom tomatoes at the Greenmarket to attempt an at-home recreation of the dish. I'm happy to report that my Craft's Heirloom Tomato Salad was a huge success (coupled with fresh corn on the cob, it made for an all-Greenmarket-veggie dinner). So delightful was it that Saturday morning on my way home from a run, I stopped again at the Greenmarket to use my last few dollars to buy three more tomatoes. If you enjoy tomatoes and have access to nice ripe heirlooms, you couldn't ask for a better way to enjoy them.

Craft's Heirloom Tomato Salad

5 to 6 ripe heirloom tomatoes‡
fresh small basil leaves
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper

Gothamist launches recipes

Yesterday Gothamist launched a new food section that will feature a weekly column/recipe from Joe DeSalazar, founder and chef of foodie. Using Thomas Keller's Butter Poached Lobster recipe as a starting point, Joe's created Butter Poached Lobster & Peach Salad Avocado, Mint, Frisee. It sounds delicious and like something I might have to try and create. I'm sure I'll be checking in weekly to see what else Joe concocts.

The declining state of diner dining

A rather disheartening article in the week's New York magazine, The Death of the Diner: What's killing the cheeseburger deluxe?

Sad but true: The classic New York coffee shop is fading fast. The recession is part of the problem; according to Pan Gregorian Enterprises, a purchasing co-op for coffee shops and diners that has 475 local members, revenues were down 20 percent last year. But there are other forces at work, from skyrocketing rents to Starbucks hegemony, that are forcing coffee-shop owners...into retirement.

Some of my favorite Manhattan places to eat are diners: in Tribeca I frequently had lunch at the Square Diner (at the intersection of Leonard and West Broadway), closer to my hood I like Joe Jr's on Sixth Avenue and the Bonbonniere on Eighth Avenue. And whenever I go to the movies up on 34th Street, I like to have a pre-theatre meal at the Cheyenne, at Ninth Avenue and 33rd Street.

One of the things I missed most about the east coast during my tenure in San Francisco were diners, and one of the highlights of my first return to New York City after an absence of many years was our trip to the now-demolished Jones Diner. It might have been the final push I needed to move back east. I've never tasted a better grilled cheese, or a worse cup of coffee, or had a nicer time on a cold winter's afternoon with the light fading into a cruddy January grey. There's a lot I could do without in this world, but I can't say that I want to live a life without my diners.

I scream for poutine

In the midst of lively recounting of Canada Day, Maciej enjoys his first dish of the Canadian delight, poutine (cheese curds, brown gravy, and french fries).

The brown gravy was turpid and dark, with a sturdy tannin structure supporting notes of oak, wood smoke, spice, aniseed and musk. There was the faintest hint of chocolate and raspberry in the finish, though that may have reflected a previous use of the serving dish. In the nose, the poutine was beefy and slightly insolent - I detected an almost wanton playfulness, the evanescent flavors frolicking together like young beavers in a GaspŽ pond at dusk - but in the mouth it opened to reveal a velvety (or perhaps Velveeta-like) smoothness that tenaciously clung to every membrane in my mouth, esophagus, and stomach for the next three hours.

Now who wouldn't want to eat that?

Dear Roger "Fatty" Clemens

Today in Slate, an open letter to former Red Sox pitcher (and tonight's starter for the National League in the All-Star Game) Roger Clemens, Roger and Me: Why I hate the greatest pitcher of all time.

But here's the real problem with your behavior: Fans like to think that players are giving it their all. All the time. I like to think that, anyway. But then I'm just a simple, good-hearted man, a man who wants to believe in heroes. How can I believe in heroes, Mr. Clemens, when the world is home to people like you? It's clear that you just try hard when you feel like it.

Sadly that seems to be the general state in sports these days, and why I tend to be a big fan of the hustlers still making names for themselves. I can relate to the author's anger. Also he calls The Rocket, "wicked fat." Ha ha ha. What is it with ballplayers? They're like the fattest professional athletes, with so many guts and bellies. I mean, if you're a nose guard, sure you've got a gut. But you're not supposed to dive and make a catch and run between bases. Wicked fat. Ha.

More of a good Blue Hill thing

New York has a review of the new restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located 30 miles north of New York City in Pocantico Hills, New York. I'm a big fan of Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, and when I first heard about the new spot, I added it to my list of restaurants to investigate, it sounds delicious. Also if you're interested in Blue Hill, be sure and check out the article (not available online), "Back on the Farm" in the July 2004 Gourmet by Blue Hill chef Dan Barber. It's all about going to his family farm with his staff to plant and pick veggies. Sounds wonderful. And yummy!

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