My First Restaurant Job: The Beginning of a Career

The very first restaurant that I worked for happened to be owned by my mother and stepfather. We opened in march of 2008 in southern Florida. The theme was Italian American fare. The name of the restaurant was “Cena,” pronounced: Chen-uh. Cena is Italian for “dinner.” In its very short debut, I witnessed and attributed to the blood, sweat and tears that went into it’s creation and saw it’s demise nearly a year after opening.

My mother and stepfather had been in the mortgage business for over a decade. When the real estate business started to drown in Florida, they were hit pretty hard. They owned their own business and were feeling the effects of the economic crisis. After countless lawsuits and the declaration of bankruptcy on their home, they decided it was time to get out of the real estate business.

My stepfather has always been what I like to call a “professional home cook.” The man loves food and I don’t blame him. His mother and father came from Sicily to the U.S., where they settled in Buffalo, New York. Being born into an Italian family, he was raised loving food. His immigrant parents  struggled to save money but always found a way to get food on the table. He is still making his family’s classic, one hundred year old recipes to this day.

When making new meals at home, he would test dishes on us. He would say “I’ve never made this before, tell me what you think.” He could tell if my brother and I were lying. He would say “You like it? No you don’t. It’s crap.” Then he would do a retake on his recipe at a later time (could be weeks to months later) and repeat the questions. If he didn’t get it right, he would do it again. He was persistent and wanted his family to enjoy every meal. There was never a half-assed dish because he put too much thought into everything he did.

When they left the mortgage industry, they decided to follow their hearts and open Cena. My stepfather had never worked in a professional kitchen before. So, this was something different than anything he had ever done. My mother was a server for a few years after high school and I imagine even in high school. She knew how restaurants work and more specifically, how to manage the front of house. They are both business savvy and can do numbers in their sleep, but nothing ever prepared them for opening a restaurant.

I was seventeen when they told me of their plans. Immediately, I wanted to be an integral part of this new venture. After finding the building, which was an old deli in a small shopping plaza, we needed to begin remodeling. We did not outsource the job to constructors and painters. We did it all ourselves. My brother and I would go into the abandoned deli and start tearing down the walls, literally. we stripped and gutted the entire space until it was ready for a new paint job and some furniture additions. For nearly five months we did this.

Surprisingly, I was not offered a job after opening. I don’t blame them for it. I had never worked in a restaurant before and had only held one job (which I still had at the time). If they were going to be successful, they needed to hire people who were experienced. Eventually, both my brother and I were working at the family business. I was hired as a busser and my brother as a dishwasher/pantry cook.

I always had my eye in the tight, 15’x15′ kitchen. I was interested in what went on in there. I wanted to know how to make the food and to use a knife. My stepfather hired a chef who claimed to work at multiple famous places. He did not get along with my brother much. There was always yelling back and forth (mostly from chef). I remember one day when my brother had enough. He told my mother after his shift that he wasn’t coming back “because the chef is an asshole.”

Now, understand one thing about Italians and my stepfather: family is supreme to everything else. Chef was fired shortly after my brother quit. Who was going to take his place? There wasn’t much money coming into this sixty seat restaurant. The small budget didn’t leave any wiggle room for a new hire. My stepfather decided to take over the kitchen and with my brother gone, he moved me into the kitchen as well. I was ecstatic.

Washing dishes and making salads has never been as much fun as it was at Cena. I got to see dishes getting made to order and sent to the window for the servers to take. I was able to pick up a few things and start to work with my knife skills (I found out later that I needed some real help with my knife handling). I learned how to make frying batter and the appropriate techniques for dredging food in flour and egg. These were all basic skill sets for a young cook.

Even though I was in college and had no plans of becoming a chef at the time, I loved working for Cena and with my family. I enjoyed getting a chance to do something new. Little did I know, Cena paved my career path years after I worked there. I eventually left school to work in the industry and advance my culinary knowledge.

After being opened for just over a year, Cena had to close it’s doors. It was a sad day when my parents sold their beloved restaurant so that they could come close to breaking even on the whole venture. They were still in debt from the mortgage business. This was a big bust for them. They didn’t know what to do for money at that point so they went back into the real estate game as it was something familiar.

I know that my mother and stepfather see Cena as a failed attempt at a new life, but they are always proud that they took a risk for sake of following their hearts. And I only have them to thank for giving me my first kitchen job. Since Cena, I have not left the restaurant industry. Food was instilled in me and I had to learn more and do more. I have now worked for several restaurant concepts that have twisted my food knowledge into a bundle of Italian, French, American, and Japanese. I have recently come to the realization that I want to focus my career in it’s roots, where I started. I am going to go back to Italian cuisine. In fact, this week I have a working interview for one of Seattle’s top italian restaurants. Thank you Cena for opening my eyes to the insanity, busyness, and thrill that is the restaurant industry!

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Three Versatile Ingredients Found in Every Kitchen

I was browsing through my pantry cabinets and refrigerator today in search of the right ingredients for a snack. It became clear that I needed to do some shopping. But I’ll save that for another day. Today, I created something out of three ingredients that can be found in almost any professional or home kitchen: peanut butter, bacon and onions. And it was gluten free, which is a plus.

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I know that this combination may sound crazy to most of you but my guess is that there’s some licking their lips while they read this.

My first thought when I saw the peanut butter was “well, I can think of a hundred things to do with this.” There are endless combinations out there with peanut butter: peanut butter with jelly, with honey, with bread, with coffee, with desserts, with rice. The uses I’ve seen are endless.

The next ingredient I came across was the bacon. Oh bacon! You really are the most versatile ingredient. If you were ever curious as to why most chefs drool over the slightest mention of bacon, I’ll fill you in. Bacon goes good with everything! Why wouldn’t a chef love an ingredient that can be used in savory and sweet dishes alike? I ask you to think of the first ingredient that comes to mind and picture it with bacon wrapped around it, crumbled on top of it, or even picture it cooked in bacon grease. If you were thinking of something sweet, what about pairing it with candied bacon?

Onions, we’ve all got ’em. They come in all sizes and colors. Here, in Seattle, we have sweet Walla Walla onions (they’re awesome). Think of your favorite dish. Does it have onion in it? Probably. I am an onion fanatic. I use them in so many different dishes in so many different ways. They can be sautĂ©ed, grilled, fried, and roasted. A truly caramelized onion develops a sweet flavor and tends to lose that strong onion-y flavor. This is perfect for pairing with something sweeter.

“I Don’t Know What to Call It” Taco:

Peanut butter
Bacon
Onion
Corn tortilla

To begin my experiment, I pan fried a few strips of bacon. I am very generous with crushed black pepper on my bacon. I enjoy a good crunch and the pepper adds that texture without overcooking the bacon.

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Once I had the bacon nice and crispy, I let it dry on paper towels. There was still some grease in the pan. Bacon grease is a very versatile thing in itself. You can save it for later use or dispose of it properly.

I simply swiped the pan with a paper towel to get the excess grease off. I used the same pan to caramelize the onions. The flavors from the grease are still in the pan, giving the onions a bacon-like flavor.

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When my bacon and onions were finished, I set up the rest. I placed a corn tortilla on a plate and thinly spread peanut butter.

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I then added the bacon.

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Then the onions, and there it is!

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These three versatile ingredients not only go well with just about anything else, but also with each other. I also have to mention that these are gluten free again.


The Best Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookies

Over the last few years, since I met my wife, I have been searching for the best gluten free alternatives. My wife was diagnosed with celiacs disease when she was younger. This means that she has an intolerance to gluten. Being a proffessional cook, I find it hard to prepare classic desserts and exclude gluten from the recipe. We have found so many frozen foods and prepared foods that are gluten free and taste similar to their gluten counterparts. The fact of the matter remains; my wife and I are foodies and we would much rather prepare a meal from scratch than simply heat something up in the oven or microwave.

I have found a brilliant recipe for peanut butter cookies that most gluten intolerant people can enjoy. There is a basic cookie dough recipe, and if you want to add a twist, follow the extra steps.

For the basic cookie dough you will need:

1 cup Peanut Butter (I prefer creamy)
1 cup Granulated Sugar (try brown if you like)
1 Large Egg
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Using a mixing bowl, add the sugar and egg then whisk. Sprinkle the pinch of salt. You need to whisk this mixture only briefly as to break down the egg.

Now you will add your 1 cup of peanut butter to the egg/sugar mixture. Using a rubber spatula, fold the peanut butter with the other ingredients.

For these cookies, you can use chunky peanut butter or add crushed peanuts if you like. I am giving you a blank canvas to work with. The cookies with the basic dough are delicious as is, but can be spiced up according to your palate.

Once the dough mixture has a simple creamy texture (about 5 minutes of folding), you’re ready to create. Using a metal spoon, scoop about 1 1/2 tablespoons of dough and place on ungreased cookie tray. The oil from the peanut butter will prevent the cookies from sticking to the tray.

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When all of the dough has been scooped and transferred, use your hands to round out the dough. You want to create small spheres. Place these about an inch and a half apart on the cookie tray.

You can bake these cookies for 10-13 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Now, if you like to be creative, you may enjoy my secret to creating The Best Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookie.
Using the dough recipe above, add 2 tablespoons of honey to the mixture. This means you can retract a little sugar from the original recipe if you like. The honey acts as a natural sweetener and gives the cookies a great earthy taste that pairs well with the peanut flavor.
Use the same method from before for transferring the dough to the cookie tray. Once all of the cookies have been rounded, you can use your finger tip to press a slight imprint into the cookies to make a sort of “cup” for extra ingredients. In this cup, you can place what your heart desires. I prefer to put a single honey roasted peanut. But remember, it’s your creation.

From here I will sprinkle my favorite ground coffee on top of the cookies. I prefer a nice medium roast. This makes for a great earthy harmony between the peanut, honey and coffee. Using this same balance of flavors, you can also replace the honey roasted peanut with a coffee bean and sprinkle crushed peanuts on top. The ideas are endless. Let your palate decide. And remember, these are completely gluten free!

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I hope you enjoy this simple recipe. Let me know your thoughts and what ideas you used to make the basic recipe better.


Make Fresh Pasta! Because it’s Right

I used to have this delusion that only the best chefs could make fresh pasta, that only the grandsons and granddaughters of Italian women could master this seemingly complicated trade. After numerous failed attempts and retakes on recipes, I was finally able to make a good pasta of my own. I could taste the egg, flour and water combination for what it was: a symphony of flavor. It was the proper combination of the ingredients combined with the proper preparation techniques that produced this flavor punch. Forget your bagged and dried pasta. Forget that frozen stuff you grab from the grocer. Fresh pasta has no exceptions.

This is how I make 100% hand made tortellini:

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When making fresh pasta, the dough is first and foremost the biggest part of the art. You will need:

2-2 1/2 cups flour

3 eggs whole

1 egg yolk

2 tbsp water

Pinch of salt

The choice of flour is strictly up to you. A lot of pasta connoisseurs would choose semolina flour, durum or the mixture of the two. Truthfully, all purpose flour brings its own strength to the game.

To begin, using a bowl or countertop, pour the flour and make a well in the center of it. I have heard some describe it as looking like a volcano. You want the well to be big enough to hold your egg and water mixture without running over.
Now take the egg and water mixture and pour it into the “volcano.” sprinkle salt to your liking at this point. Using only a fork, whisk the eggs together, gradually working your way to the outside of the “volcano.” You want to work the mixture until the eggs have touched most of the flour.
At this point, if using a bowl, dump its contents onto the floured work surface. Using your hands, start to knead the dough. Kneading is a process of folding and pressing the dough together to combine the proteins. Right handers: fold the dough from the top towards you with your right hand. Then press the fold with the heal of your hand. Use your left hand to turn the dough counterclockwise at one quarter turn. Repeat the kneading process until the dough is firm and smooth on the outside.

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Left handers will do this step the same but for turning the dough clockwise with your right hand and pressing with your left.
Once the dough has been kneaded long enough (5-10 min or so), simply form it into a ball and cover it with a bowl or place it in a bowl with a damp (not wet, but moist) towel on top. Let it rest for at least 25-35 minutes. This process allows the dough to enhance its structure. If you skip the resting step, your dough will not listen to you when you tell it to take this shape or that. Let it rest, it’s had a long day thus far with all the kneading beatings its been given.
During this down time, you can make the filling (easy filling is to just use goat cheese crumbles and your favorite herbs mixed). I made a goat cheese prosciutto mix, thickened with heavy cream. I simply filled a sandwich bag with the mixture and cut off a corner to make it a piping bag.

Once your dough has relaxed and ended its despise of you, take the bowl off of the counter and apologize for what’s to come… Then cut it into four equal pieces. One slice straight down the middle and the other side to side.
Now that the dough is dismantled, it shouldn’t cause you any more problems (unless the dough shows air pockets after cutting, in which case discard). Take one of the four cuts and place it on the floured work surface. Dust your rolling pin with flour and gently push the center of your dough. This is the first step to hand rolling. You want to make that first impression to see how tough this dough is going to be. If it seems too soft, more flour on the work surface may be enough to bring it together. Roll the dough outward then inward adding a light amount of weight. As it starts to stretch, you can add more weight and be more forceful. Once you have a nice strip of dough from the outward/inward motions, start rolling side to side to spread the dough across more surface space. Your going to roll then flip the dough almost constantly.
This part of pasta making shows if you can hang with the pros. Do you have the strength to push out four sheets of dough to an equal 1/16 of an inch? If not, you should go back and apologize to the dough again for wasting it’s time…or I guess you could just use a pasta machine to roll it out.
Once you have the thinness you like, let the first sheet hang on something while you roll the next three. I just use the edges of my bowl to hang the pasta.

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Once all four sheets are done, take one and place it on the work surface. You don’t need fancy gadgets for this step, just a cup. Use the rim of the cup to cut out circles in your dough.

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Once all of the pasta sheets have felt like Swiss cheese, you are ready for the next step: align the dough circles on the work surface.

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Then fill your pasta with your Macgyver piping bag.

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Once they have all been filled with about a tbsp of filling, you can start the “forma” (shaping). Simply fold half of the pasta over the other half.

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Once all have been folded, push the dough around the filling and release any air pockets. Then press the edges together with your thumb. You can cut the edge however you like. I prefer to use a zig zag edge.

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This is the part where you say to yourself “oh that’s how they do it!” Using your finger, take one corner of the pasta and wrap it around your finger until it reaches the other corner. Gently press the two together with your thumb and “walla!”

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Do this to the stragglers you have left. There you have it: Fresh, 100% handmade tortellini.

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These will keep well in the freezer for about a month, but you know you’re gonna try them right away.
This pasta will go well with a thin butter sauce or in soups made from stock.


Realizations

I am brought back to a time when I was a young boy and my mother used to pack my lunches for school. It was in the mid 90s in southern Florida that I chased my adolescence. There was nearly always a sandwich accompanied by a pudding or a “jell-O” pack tucked away neatly in my Disney lunchbox. Amongst these two powerhouses were usually a variety of other things (it all depended on what we had at home as we weren’t the wealthiest household on the block) including grapes and potato chips to last nights potato salad. If I was lucky, I got a juice box and a fruit roll up. I knew that I didn’t have the most elaborate lunch everyday. Hell, some days I had to take the two dollars my mother and father had and by a school lunch. Those were ugly.

At this time, there was almost an even split between those with packed lunches and those who ate the cafeteria food. The divide was mostly made by the socio-economic differences between the families of the students. The less fortunate students had to eat the cafeteria food under what little allowance their parents could afford. In some cases, they couldn’t afford much and were allotted a food card by the school which paid for their cafeteria lunches up to a certain cost. The more fortunate children had their meals packed high and deep (turkey sandwiches with the works: lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, whole grain bread etc) with homemade everything. I was somewhere in the grey matter on this one. My parents were not wealthy but were always able to provide something.

My mother’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich.. It was no Turkey Club or Monte Cristo with all of their intricacies but I remember taking this out of my box and always enjoying it. On one such occasion, my friend David (who was often forced to eat the school lunch) told me how his mother forgot to give him lunch money. I understood that I should give him something. I handed him half of my sandwich and let him finish my grapes. The look on his face as he bit into my mother’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich was pure perfection.

“This is really good!” he said. “When my mom makes these, it sticks to my mouth. How does your mom make them?”

The second that question was asked, I knew two things: first was that I could tell him that my mother puts a thin spread of mayonnaise on the bread before anything else (this is what kept the peanut butter from sticking to his mouth), second, I could tell him “I don’t know (this of course being a lie as I can still visualize my mother diligently making these sandwiches for my brother and I).”

On that day, I learned a Chef’s code with no thought of the matter: You can share your family’s food but their recipes are for family only!

This is one of the fond food memories that transports me to a place where my current knowledge of food and “food law” were derived.. unconsciously.

For nearly five years now I have been working in kitchens from Florida and Seattle in my goals to become a chef. This blog is for my creative freedom to be expressed in my two favorite ways: food and word.