Hello there, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I was so much better at updating this when I spent a large amount of my time sitting at home baking. I’m still baking at home whenever I get a chance, but between packing to move, working on my final project for school, my new job/stage at a restaurant in the city, and planning a dessert table menu for a charity event, my free time seems to be evaporating quickly.
And I love it. I haven’t been this busy in a long time, or as happy. I feel like I’m finally a contributing member of society again!
The most exciting thing happening is this new restaurant job, (unpaid, unfortunately, but expected). So as I recount my first real-world kitchen experience, I will share some pictures of things I’ve made in class and at home these past two weeks.
Last week I began a stage (intern/apprenticeship type thing) at an Italian restaurant in the Loop. I had met the pastry chef of the restaurant at Green City Market and I asked if I could work for her and get some kitchen experience. Best of all, the executive chef at the restaurant was born in the same town in Italy where I studied abroad! I was so excited just to meet him and talk to him (hopefully in Italian!)
So on my first day, I woke up bright and early and made my way to the loop, via car, bus, and train, (the most efficient and inexpensive option). The pastry chef introduced me to the kitchen and the executive chef, with whom I spoke in Italian for all of thirty seconds, but it was still cool. I then spent the morning baking creme brulees, preparing crepe batter, slicing cake, and helping the chef make torrone. That was a pretty cool thing to learn, so hopefully one day I’ll try on my own and share with you. The best part about that day was when I got to help Lupe, the man who makes all the bread, shape some sourdough loaves. I had flashbacks back to the Italian bakery last summer, with all of the lumps of dough lined up on the bench waiting to be formed.
My second day at the restaurant was much more involved. My chef had to leave and pick up her daughter who had sprained her ankle in school, which left one woman and me to cover the dessert making. I was tasked with making the creme brulee, which I had thankfully just studied for my final so I knew what I was doing. We also made gelato, banana bread, polenta cookies, lemon curd, and chocolate cake. And then the chef needed poached pears, so I peeled, halved and cored about 60 pears. And then some apples. Let me just say I got pretty efficient with that. By the end of the day, my hands smelled of pears, and I had vanilla bean seeds under my fingernails. A most glorious success.
The next day, my pastry chef was not in because of her daughter, so I instead made myself useful to the rest of the kitchen staff. The Italian chef was changing his menu that day, so most things were going to be new, and he decided I would help make the stuffed calamari. Now I cook at home a fair amount, but cooking in a big kitchen with very large flames and very heavy saute pans was a little daunting. Luckily I didn’t have to worry, because the chef didn’t just abandon me with a vague description of what to do. He took the time to walk me through and show me how to do everything. He sauteed some of the zucchini, yellow squash, and shrimp, then let me do the rest. He melted an entire pound of butter with garlic, and mixed that into the cooked ingredients along with breadcrumbs, making the most delicious smelling (and tasting) stuffing ever. Then I stuffed that mixture into the calamari. It was a messy process but I had a lot of fun. And while the chef was working with me, he talked about how it’s important to have a responsible staff, and how the only way to really teach a recipe is to show it. He shared a lot of great advice about being a good chef and boss, and considering how he treated everyone, I could tell he really meant it. I suddenly felt very lucky I had found my way to this restaurant instead of one with a scary chef who would yell at me (which from what I hear is not unusual).
After the calamari I spent a better part of my time with a big hunkin pot of fava beans that needed to be peeled. I didn’t mind the work as much as the standing while I did it. I wished I had a chair or stool or something, because there were moments when muscles in my leg would start spasming. But while I peeled the beans out of their waxy shells, I was able to watch what everyone was doing, whether it be cutting fish, making crackers (by rolling out the dough with the pasta machine), or preparing the filling for tortellini. I’m learning a lot just by observation. Not to mention, I’m now trying to improve my Spanish skills. It feels like my first days at the bakery where I couldn’t understand any of the Italian spoken around me, but this time it’s Spanish which I haven’t studied since high school.
So that’s what I’ve been up to along with school and my volunteer work. Next month I’m going to be catering a dessert table for a charity event, making 200+ desserts two separate days. I’m so excited for the opportunity, not just to cook for people besides family and neighbors, but also for the chance to get Scafuri Bakery’s name out there.
In other news, I bought a baby fig tree (which I named Figaro). The guy who sold it to me said it might even grow a few figs this year, and definitely more next year. That is, if I can keep it alive. So if anyone has any fig or other potted-tree-care advice, please share!