Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chef for a Night

Remember a while back I told you I'd won "Chef for a Night" at a local restaurant? That restaurant was Tin Fish and I took advantage of my prize last week. Would you like to see how it went?

I reported for duty at 5:30 and decided to wear black pants and a white shirt because that just felt kitchen-y. No matter, they provided a smock and as soon as I donned it, I looked like I fit right in (yeah, right!). The only wardrobe requirement was that I had to wear close-toed shoes. No problem there.

Brandon was the real chef on duty that night. Super nice guy, he reminded me just a bit of Nicolas Cage. I can't actually put my finger on why, but he did. He was making a corn chowder soup in a huge "tilt-skillet" (oh, Ollie's going to need one of those!) and I was surprised to see his cooks harvesting corn by slicing it straight off the cob. No packets of frozen Niblets here! Brandon told me that they try to buy local as much as possible and the corn on the cob was probably purchased from a Tinley Park farmstand. Very green. (The mindset, not the corn!)

Oh, by the way, Brandon asked me if I had any food allergies (I don't) and asked if I'd like a glass of wine or anything. I was fine with water for the time being, but he brought me a plate of buffalo shrimp. Of everything on the Tin Fish menu, I think the Buffalo Shrimp is my favorite. Here's a shot of the appetizer, when I remembered to pull out my camera. Of course, most of it is already gone!

It seems that the Chef of the Night enjoys food and "entertainment" but isn't expected to do any work. I offered to pitch in because I always feel better when I'm contributing and they let me chop onions. It's been *years* since I chopped onions... but the process remains the same. LOL Last time I did so many onions in a row it was for Ben's Hot Dog's on 31st Street in Chicago - my first job.

Anyway, my onions were part of the chowder that would be served for the next two nights. Pretty exciting. After combining the corn with peppers (green, red, poblano) and my onions, Brandon sizzled them up on this tilt skillet while he cooked the bare cobs in a deep pot of cream for the base.

Yeah, this recipe isn't exactly step-by-step, nor would you (or I) want to make so much at once, but the idea can inspire us, right? Brandon removed the cooked veggies then made a roux in the tilt skillet without cleaning out the crispies left behind. Adds to the flavor. He explained a white roux and then went on to discuss rouxs (how on earth does one pluralize roux?) that were cooked overnight and became very dark. These, he said, were often used in Cajun dishes and he warned that the line between a dark roux and a bitter/ruined one was very fine. Don't worry... I don't have any 8 hour rouxs (?) planned in the near future.

Eventually he added the veggies back to the roux, then added the corn-flavored cream. Kosher salt, some chili powder, fresh oregano and tarragon. A little more salt. and ... yum!!

It was fun to watch. And that was early, before the restaurant started to get busy. At that point I snuck into a corner to keep out of the servers', cooks', and runners' way. Manny was the man who took all the finished dishes, garnished them with whatever they required - lemons, parsley, soup spoons, steak knives, doilies, and hoisted them on his shoulder to take out to eager diners.

Primo seemed like he was the main cook in the back end. I think I'd like to develop a character who looks like him. Tall, Hispanic, quick with a smile and with a red tattoo (I think it was a dragon) on his chest... he would be fun to write about. Anyway, about midway through the evening, Primo asked if I'd like to try anything. There was a special salad offered that night - King Crab and Avocado. I told him that looked good and in moments they'd prepared it for me. Absolutely, phenomenally delicious. It was garnished with watercress and fried wontons, and drizzled with cilantro oil, and a balsamic vinaigrette (IIRC). Tomatoes, obviously. So, wonderful!

Janet was probably the friendliest server. She kept asking what I'd like and would have been happy to bring wine, or anything else. Seriously, back there, in the heat (there was an occasional cool breeze) water was what I wanted most of all.

Throughout, Brandon oversaw the kitchen. He stepped up to help Manny dress the dishes when it got super busy, and I wandered about, asking questions which they all graciously answered.

Did you know that when frying fish, you want to use minimal oil, but you need to get the pan very, very hot? That's what prevents fish from sticking -- not the amount of oil you use, but how hot the pan is. Brandon walked me through that too.

By the time I left, I was satiated by the delicious dishes I'd sampled and I'd learned a lot that will help me make Ollie's kitchen scenes more real in future books.

Thanks so much, Tin Fish!!



Guess what? I was on Rick Kogan's radio show - Sunday Papers. If you're interested in listening - I talk a bit about Grace Under Pressure, about becoming an author, and about the White House Chef novels. Here's the link: SUNDAY PAPERS


  1. It sounds like you had a blast, Julie! Don't forget, when you get a minute to breathe, our dinner invitation is still open.

  2. Oh I am jealous ha. It does sound like you had the best time. Glad you shared your experience with us.

  3. Sounds like a great time and wonderful experience to aid Ollie's kitchen run even smoother. Spending a little time in a kitchen can help one appreciate all the hard work that goes into preparing a meal at a restaurant.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Shel, that "finding a minute to breathe" is getting tough these days, but I haven't forgotten. Curt and I love going into the city for dinner. As soon as things clear up, I'll be knocking on you "virtual* door! *grin*

    Babs - it was fun. It occurs to me that other restaurants may do this as well. It may be worth checking into if it's something you'd like to do!

  5. Mason - you're completely right. Brandon took time to give me lots of little insights that could help Ollie. He pointed out a couple of different pieces of equipment and assured me that *every* kitchen has a version of these pieces. He also talked about which are the top brands. Very helpful stuff!

  6. It sounds like a wonderful experience....

  7. Ooh, that sounds wonderful--lucky you!.. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in a restaurant (and I'd chop if they'd let me).

    Eric Ripert's book On The Line is great for desribing how a (high-end) restaurant works, behind the scenes. And Tony Bourdain is helpful too (I'll follow him anywhere).

  8. Alicia - it was. So much fun!

    Sheila - thanks for the suggestion on Eric Ripert's book. Hadn't heard of that one, but I'll be sure to look it up!

  9. I love all the tips you picked up! I didn't know the tip on cooking fish...makes good sense, though.

    Sounds like your onion chopping from so many years ago came back to you to serve you well at the restaurant!

  10. Love the fish tip - we fry lots of fish here.
    What a wonderful experience -- thanks so much for sharing the adventure with us, Julie. I can't wait to see Primo pop up in a book!

  11. What a fabulous, fun evening! I'm sure your writer's brain is packed full of ideas now. :)

  12. Elizabeth and Jenn - yep, it was so neat to get tips from a pro - as he prepared meals right in front of me.

    Terry - my thoughts exactly! Too cool!

    Janel - you know it! I've written down a bunch of notes and I plan to make good use of them. I just love learning new things.

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  15. What a wonderful post and a terrific experience. Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Julie!

    I'm fascinated that they used the corn cobs to flavor the cream for the soup. How many things do we throw away that could be very useful like that?

    Thanks, thanks, thanks, Julie! Fascinating!


  16. Krista - I was thinking the exact same thing. Makes me want to stop doing things on auto-pilot and think before I toss out items that may have further use.

  17. Julie,
    I must admit the ifrst thing I thought about was "oh, how hot would it be..." but then...."forget the heat...how cool an experience this would be!!'
    I am intrigued about the cilantro oil...we have a bumper crop this year and I don't think I can come up with many more ways to use it :-( But I am going to try and make some with olive oil! thanks for sharing your fun with all of us!

  18. I couldn't wait to hear about your experience at the Tin Fish. It sounds like you had a fantastic time and you worked with a wonderful crew. FYI: I especially loved your tip on frying fish!

  19. Nanc - I'm really eager to try making cilantro oil too. I love cilantro and I'm always trying to include it on everything. My crop is small, but I value it highly!

    Cleo -it was a really fun experience. Totally new for me and that's the best of all. I love learning new things!

  20. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for letting me know about this. It was a fun and interesting read, and I am glad you survived the heat. :) It always fascinates me watching kitchens at work, sounds like you had a great time doing some tasty research!