Category Archives: food

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.


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.