Friday, June 17, 2016

saigon stories.

"What do you mean, you don't wear a chef coat? You should provide the example and wear one".

I was having a conversation with an American acquaintance of mine, also a chef, attempting to explain why I don't wear a chef jacket at my current job.  And the reason is because when I arrived on my first day, I noticed my Vietnamese counterpart, the other chef, wasn't wearing one.  The last thing I want to do is intimidate him or make him uncomfortable in his own kitchen; so on that first day my coat stayed in my bag and I promptly brought it home and put it away.

If there's one thing I know how to do well in life it's how to get along with others.  I have vast training in that field, what with growing up with an overbearing French mother and then falling into a few decades worth of some seriously bad personal relationships, both on the romantic and platonic sides.  But through it all, I learned how to play well in the sandbox with the other kiddos.  Moving here I knew I would have a lot to learn. In my workplaces, people would view me as the loud, passionate American and I would need to tone it down a bit (though i 'm not sure how well i'm succeeding on the loud, passionate side).  I am learning about a new (to me) culture, and there are a tremendous amount of differences. I'd like to think that the days of cultural imperialism are over with, but that's not exactly true.  Lots of expats come over here and like to lord it over the locals.  That's not me.  And that's what this other chef wasn't understanding.

From the first moment we met and he found out what I did for a living, he started name dropping.  "Well, I used to work for Donald - you know Donald, don't you?", he said, referring to Donald Link.  That's when my eyes glazed over and I just stared through him.  I may even have sighed out loud.  God I hate that shit.  "Well Donald and I did this. And Donald and I did that. And Donald Donald Donald.  Oh the first time I went to Prune was with Susan Spicer".  Yadda yadda yawn bore.  I'm not pretentious at all, and I dislike pompous chefs who are like that.

He finally toned it down a bit and became more normal when he realized I wasn't impressed with his coterie of Famous Chef Friends, and that I (sometimes) know what i'm talking about when it comes to (some) food.  I may have warmed up a tiny bit to him when we discovered our mutual dislike for Padma Lakshmi (sorry, I know i'm in the minority here but I just can't get over her condescending talk with food in her mouth on Top Chef.  Nothing grosses me out more than seeing people talking with food in their mouths).


The 50 Best Restaurants lists of 2016 were recently released.  I gave a cursory glance to the worldwide one, but my main focus was the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list.  I am pleased to see that a restaurant we frequented back in November was featured.  Number 43, Cuisine Wat Damnak, which I mention in this post.  I'm thrilled to be dining there again tomorrow night when I head back to Cambodia on a visa run.  They have two set menus which change every two weeks, and the food is pretty wonderful, a different and thoughtful approach to Cambodian cuisine.  One of my kitchen staff, a young kid (I say "young kid", he's probably early 20s but i'm betting i'm the same age as his parents) leaned over my shoulder to look at the list.

"What is this?", he said, curious.
"Fifty best restaurants in all of Asia.  See.... Singapore, Hong Kong. Japan. Campuchia", I said, pointing to number 43.  "But no Vietnam. Yet".

He nodded solemnly. "One day, that will be me".

I was instantly overwhelmed with a feeling of pride.  And damned if I didn't start tearing up and getting a lump in my throat.  I had to get up and leave the room for a moment so no one would notice my gushiness.  I don't have kids of my own, so wherever I end up my staff tend to be surrogates.  I don't doubt that this kid will go far.

As I type this, i'm letting him look through my knife kit. m Most of my knives are old, but if you take care of them you'll have them a long time.  I've got an offset handled Shun santoku i've had for years that the kid's been ogling, so I let him use it.  "I like this. Wow! So nice", he says, smiling while chopping a ton of shallots.  So I pulled out a tiny little Global knife, blade retooled several years ago when I quite stupidly dropped it and the tip broke off (it was fixed by a guy named Edges - not making that up - who sharpens knives for all the restaurants in Atlanta).  I think he's in love.

Friday, June 10, 2016

beginning to think all French chefs are the same.

The first day the New French Chef came onto the job, he quickly scanned my outfit from my high top Chuck Taylors (I don't do chef clogs, they hurt my feet) to my black chef's coat with a few patches of flour on the arms from making bread, and said, "I think we should go change before service, don't you think?".

I blinked at him. I was appropriately dressed for that particular kitchen.  He left for a moment and re-emerged wearing a white chef jacket that more resembled a long-sleeved button down collared shirt.  The dishwasher giggled and said something in Vietnamese about the chef's whites.  "In Michelin starred restaurants", he said snottily, "White chef coats are de rigeur.  In fact, you may want to get some. We need to be completely uniform in this kitchen. Black coats are just vulgar". Right.  This is going to go down really well.

"Isn't he great?", beamed the French owner.  "I've been telling all my friends to come because he is going to revolutionize the menu! He comes from Michelin star breeding! He has great ideas!"

"Oh yeah, I"m really looking forward to it", I said flatly.  I was already unenamored with Michelin Star Boy after he asked me to cut shallots for him then immediately barked "NOOOOON!" in my ear because he thought I was trimming them the wrong way.

Though he wasn't volatile like the last French guy, though he didn't throw pots and pans at us from across the room and shout endless insults, he certainly had a way of irking the shit out of me. He immediately changed all the previous chef's recipes because he thought they were crap (and indeed some of them were), but then tried to introduce some serious old school French techniques that I don't think go down well with the type of restaurant this was.  When I asked about that, he would simply say, "Well in Michelin starred restaurants, we do it this way".  "In Michelin starred restaurants, it's perfectly normal to fist fight with other chefs in the kitchen and then go out for drinks together afterwards", he said after I told him about Volatile French Chef.  "In Michelin starred restaurants, chefs do not come out into the dining room, so you need to stay in the kitchen". That last one was after I went out to greet a friend.

"Yeah but in the US, chefs go out into the dining room all of the time", I retorted.  "People want to see the chef.  Some people pay good money for that.  You should get your ass out there and stop by tables and say hi".  I added, "It'll certainly bring up the Trip Advisor results", knowing that this last one is a soft spot for all restaurants in this town.

His eyes got wide. "No! I couldn't do that".

"Oh? But don't you want this place to be Michelin star quality?", I said sarcastically.

"Oh, okay".

Nowadays you can't get him out of the dining room.

For the remaining few weeks I worked there, I got seriously sick and tired of hearing about the way Michelin starred restaurants do things.  One day, determined to get to the bottom of the Michelin mystery, I started asking him questions.  After a lot of hemming and hawing, he finally admitted he'd only worked at one Michelin starred restaurant (he never told me which one it was), and even further probing unveiled that the restaurant had only one-star.  Which isn't too shabby, but the way he carried on you'd think it was a three-star.  Further digging proved that he wasn't the sous chef or chef de cuisine.

"So what'd you do there? Because restaurants, especially French ones, have definite stations".

"Oh... well.. I did a little bit of everything, you know", he said, looking around trying to evade any further questioning.

"But you must have some specialty, no?", I said evilly.  "So were you a line cook?"

"Oh well i did a bit of that, yeah sure we all have to, you know".

"Saucier? Garde-manger? Pastry? Come on, tell me".


I was not giving up.  "But what was your specialty? Where did you park your ass most of the night?"

"Well.... I guess I did the salads".

Mystery solved.  The great chef who came from a Michelin starred restaurant whom my boss was going on and on about to all and sundry last held a salad station.  That's not to say he's not talented - he is. He's a very fine cook.  But he has a problem with playing well with the other kids in the sandbox.  After Volatile French Chef was dismissed, I was able to convince the owner that I could make the ice creams.  And I did, and they were good.  I make a mean green tea ice cream.  The owner asked me to make a chocolate one, and before I could answer, New French Chef cut him off with a, "No, I'll make it. Mine will be better".

"Oh really?", I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Oh yes", he said haughtily.  "It's a Thierry Marx recipe.  It'll be much better than your crap American technique".

I decided to let this slide.

He emailed a buddy of his for the recipe, someone who worked for the tempermental chef. When the recipe came back, I glanced over the ingredients list.  "Are you sure the owner is going to okay this?", I said.  "There's some pretty expensive ingredients in here, including marscapone.  We're in Vietnam, this shit doesn't come cheap here".

"Oh but it'll be so good he won't care", he said, waving me impatiently away. "Ça va etre une tuerie".

The ingredients arrived and he proceeded to measure them out, dump them all into a bowl at once, and mix together.  This alarmed me. I've made gallons and gallons of ice cream and this is no way to respect the ingredients.

"You aren't going to temper the eggs first to make the custard?"

"No", he looked at me baffled. "Why should I? it'll be perfect.  Now just dump it all in the ice cream maker".

"Hey, this is your baby. You do it".  I did not want responsibility of this pending disaster.

So he dumped the contents of the bowl into the maker, and after 45 minutes realized it hadn't taken.

"Hmm", he said. "Maybe I should have chilled the ingredients first. Okay i'll chill them now and start over tomorrow".

The next day, same results.

"The texture is off", he said, looking at me accusingly.  "What did you do to it?

"What did I do to it? Hey, this one is your project".

"Well you're the so-called ice cream expert here. You tell me".

"I resent that. And you should have tempered the eggs first and slowly introduced the other ingredients, because that's how i've done countless times and mine have never failed. Ever".

"Well you figure out how to fix it then", he said, throwing his hands up in the air and walking away.

One day during break, we were shooting the shit about regular things, American politics, reality TV, etc, when we started talking about religion and Buddhism.  I said something about Judaism, and he blurted out, "God, I fucking hate the Jews".

My jaw dropped.  "What? What did you just say?"

"I fucking hate the Jews.  They're such pieces of shit.  The Jews in France are insufferable".

I took a deep breath.  "Do you realize what you are saying to me?"

"Yeah. That I fucking hate the Jews. Oh, i've some Jewish friends, and they're okay with it".

"You know people who are Jewish who know that you hate Jews and yet they still call you a friend? I call bullshit".

"You don't understand.  Jews in France are different than Jews elsewhere".

"This conversation is making me ill", I said, getting up and walking away.

I ran into one of the servers recently, who said things weren't good.  "People have complained about the food", she said. "And the bread is not the same" (off topic, i've had an issue with bread making lately, and it's due to the incredibly high humidity in our kitchen, though nobody here believes me). "And chef has become very lazy".

I really can't express how happy I am not to work there anymore.