Category Archives: italian 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!


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:

20130907-100723.jpg

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.

20130907-102521.jpg
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.

20130907-104744.jpg

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.

20130907-105055.jpg

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.

20130907-105258.jpg
Then fill your pasta with your Macgyver piping bag.

20130907-105548.jpg

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.

20130907-105942.jpg

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.

20130907-110204.jpg

20130907-110215.jpg

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!”

20130907-110530.jpg

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

20130907-110719.jpg

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.