Thursday, January 26, 2012

Working with Fish & Seafood

Just to let everyone know, anyone who wants to cook has to go through a learning process in the kitchen.  Even chefs have their day.

My first job in a restaurant was as a line cook at Fedora Cafe.  My Executive Chef was a very demanding classically trained French Chef named Jean-Paul.  I like to refer to him as the "French Nightmare" and his only requirement of his cooks/chefs was to learn, learn, learn.  And learn I did, especially from my mistakes.  One of my first mistakes in retrospect was the funniest thing I have ever done.  Being a line cook in Chef Jean-Paul's kitchen meant I was not allowed in the prep area and that's where I wanted to be.  So I began to ask Chef Jean-Paul if i could help with prep.  The answer was always NO.  Not being one who gives up easily I just hounded the poor man with all I had.

One day when I asked if I could help out in the prep kitchen, instead of saying no, he asked me if I knew how to cook pasta.  Of course "I do" was my response.  So he told me to cook 25 pounds of Penne pasta as part of the special he was planning for the evening service.

You can not imagine how I was feeling at that moment.  The pride I was feeling, I was going to cook the pasta for Chef Jean-Paul's special.  I had already imagined the conversation I was going to have with my friends and family.  And I prepared myself to be the envy of all the line cooks.  Yes I was going to be the man that day.

I began by weighing my pasta.  Next I filled the kettle with cold water and very meticulously salted my water adding a tablespoon at a time to achieve the flavor of the sea.  And here is where it gets fun.  Once the water was salted just right, instead of letting the water come to a boil, I just dumped in the 25 pounds of pasta and began to stir.  You know it is amazing the mess 25 pounds of pasta, cold water and salt can make!  When Chef Jean-Paul came into the kitchen to check on my progress, well you can imagine he was not too happy.  A full six months went by before he allowed me in the prep area again.  But I did learn a very important lesson about being "full of myself" and focusing on the job at hand.  Fast forward two years and Chef Jean-Paul promoted me to Sous Chef, his first such appointment in over six years.

Several years later I would land the role of Executive Chef at McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant.  It is a 10 million dollar operation with 10 million pounds of responsibility.  It was here that I developed my love affair with seafood.  There is nothing better than slicing off a small piece of raw Ahi Tuna from a 20 pound loin at 6:00 AM just to start your day.

Over the years I have worked with so many different species of fish that I have lost count.  But one thing remains constant, if you start with quality product you end with quality product.  Freshness in essential!  The best way to know you are getting quality product is to become best friends with your fish-monger (the person behind the fish counter).  They can tell you when they receive product so you get the freshest fish possible.

Some things in general to keep in mind when purchasing fresh fish.  Smell the fish, if it smells fishy do not buy it.  If buying whole fish, check the fish's eyes.  If they are cloudy, don't but it.  If it appears discolored, don't buy it.

The question I get asked the most is about fish is "how do you know when it is done."  That depends on the kind of fish you are cooking.  Through experience, I have learned to tell doneness by touch.  That takes a lot of experience and cooking.  So the safest way to tell when fish is done is to use an instant read thermometer.  Stick it in the thickest part of the fish and look for a temperature of 145 degrees for 15 seconds.  If you don't own one, get one.  Another rule of thumb for cooking fish is 10 minutes for each inch of thickness.  Be careful when you are cooking fish as there is nothing worse than over cooked fish.

The main thing to remember is to try.  Don't be afraid of fish or seafood.  Like anything we attempt, you get better with practice.  As Martha Stewart would say "it's a good thing."  Enjoy cooking and eating fish.  Besides tasting great - it's good for you too.

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