Sunday, October 14, 2012

These are a few of my favorite things...

Last week was a tough one. I don't really want to talk about it too much. This week has been a little better, but it still has it's stresses. I may elaborate a bit on that in the future. But the point of the next few posts is to focus on the positive. I probably should have started this little series long ago. Well, I've started it now so heeeeeere we go!

I'm visiting my family in Texas. Calvin and I got out here Friday evening and my Aunt took us to the HEB (grocery store) on Saturday to stock up on food for the dude and anything I might need, too. We stumbled on this little gem pictured on the left- Central Market brand organic PRICKLY PEAR Italian soda. Y'all. Y'ALL! OMG! This stuff is amazing! I have pretty much given up soda because it's very difficult to find soda without all the crappy chemicals and HFCS for a reasonable price (I'm on a budget after all). But the weirdest thing in this is purple carrot juice. And really, how awesome is that too?! It was a bit of a splurge, I'll admit that. BUT! It was worth it.

If the Central Market brand is available in your area, check their products out! I mean, if they have things as awesome as this, you really can't go wrong.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I'm flippin' mad over someone's comment about pancakes

See what I did there? Ha! I make me laugh. Moving on...

This is irrational and stupid, but I don't care. I'm mad.

Someone, somewhere on the Internet (a friend of a friend) just said "a hot pan and lots of butter are key to the first pancake". The hot pan part, yes. The lots of butter part, um no? Yeah. NO! Unless you like greasy, flat, unevenly browned, fritter-like pancakes. If that's you're cup o' tea, then by all means butter it up, Paula Deen!

[I would tell you that the most important thing ever about pancakes is the batter. But everyone thinks that their recipe is best and fool proof and you just can't convince them otherwise. Plus there are things to consider like gluten free, types of flour used, buttermilk or regular milk, adding fruit or chocolate, etc. So we'll just skip that. If you're interested in my recipe for my favorite pancake, leave a comment or get in touch with me through email/Facebook.]

The key to pancakes first and foremost is patience. Let's just be honest here- I have very little patience. I know! I wouldn't believe it either if I were you, but it's true! Ahem. My lack of patience usually means that the first pancake is a dud. It's cooked-ish, but it doesn't look pretty and it doesn't taste as good as the rest. The next most important thing is the type of pan you're using. Typically a good quality non-stick pan or flat griddle is best. If you don't have non-stick because you're scared of Teflon and cancer then a well seasoned, flat bottom skillet should do the trick. The point here is that your pan should heat evenly all over the bottom and should be non-stick in one way or another. Now that you've got that squared away, we need to talk about temperature control. You may have to adjust the temperature several times while cooking the entire batch of pancakes and that's okay. If you have the world's best pan and stove top, then you may not have to adjust at all. Also, I'm jealous and I'd like to move into your kitchen. The lady that inspired this post did have at least one good point. Your pan needs to be good and hot. I usually set the pan on the burner, turn the burner on to med-hi and let it heat up while I'm making the batter. Then, when I'm ready to cook, I'll adjust the heat as needed. I use a small pat of butter to coat my pan evenly in a thin layer over the entire pan. This, apparently, is where my friend's friend and I disagree. If you use too much fat, you'll get a fritter-like pancake with greasy, sorta crispy edges. Now, if you like that? Go for it! But to me the ideal pancake is light and fluffy, evenly browned  with a light colored ring all the way around. Once the pan is hot and you've greased it evenly**, you can pour in the batter. This is where that patience I was talking about comes in. The leavening in pancakes will usually come from baking powder. The baking powder is what helps create all of those little air bubbles that makes the batter rise. When cooking your pancake, you'll start to see little air bubbles rise to the surface. That's a good sign! But the trick is to be patient and wait until you see lots and lots of them before you flip the pancake. Once the surface is covered with little air bubbles, gently lift the pancake with a wide, flat spatula and flip it! The other side should only take a minute or so to finish cooking. If you see that some of your pancakes are starting to get dark too quickly, then lower the temperature slightly. If it's truly taking forever and a day to brown on the first side, turn the heat up a bit. You'll just have to experiment until you get it right as there are a lot of factors that have to do with your specific equipment.

Okay. Now that I've talked it out with you guys, I'm not mad anymore. Now I think I'm worried about how people of the world make their pancakes. I wish there was some kind of culinary super hero that went around the world saving people from cooking disasters...

And before I make myself seem any more ridiculous, I'm done! Go make pancakes!


P.S. It just occurred to me that making things like pancakes and waffles is an odd combination of baking and cooking- like a weird hybrid. That's why they're so finicky!

**If the oil/butter/fat in the pan is smoking when you put it in, your pan is too hot for pancakes. Pull it off the heat and let it chill for a minute, then try again. There are many times where a pan that is just starting to smoke is good, but this is definitely not one of those times.

Friday, October 5, 2012

How to not make your waitress cry and not piss off the kitchen...

Tonight at work was, by far, the busiest we've ever been since the restaurant reopened; worse than the Sunday, after church lunch crowd and worse than when we're in-house catering for a group of 20+ while being open for normal service. It. Was. Insane. Would you like to know why it was so chaotic? If you don't want to know, I suggest you stop reading. Seriously!? If you don't care, why are you even on this site? Geeze. If you do, then you're in luck!

Two large groups made reservations for this evening. One group of 12 and another group of 16. Reservations were set at 6:30pm for both parties. Fine. Nothing we can't handle. Both parties were asked to preorder. This is fairly simple to do as our menu has 7 meal options. The food would still be cooked to order, but as much prep and pre-assembly as possible could be done ahead of time. Both groups declined to preorder. Uh, okay. Thanks then. Meanieheads. On top of these 2 groups, our 80 seat restaurant was packed solid (with my visiting and local family included). There were people on the lawn waiting to be seated, as well. We had 4 waitresses, a hostess, a runner/back waitress, and Leigh (the boss). There were 3 of us in the kitchen and Luz (our fabulous dishwasher and all-around helper) in the dish pit. We would have done well to have 2 more runners, but anyway...

The group of 12's order came back first. Ginni noted any special requests or changes, condensed the ticket, and went on her way. Their order went fairly smooth, but since they didn't preorder it took us a while to get it all out. They didn't really complain much and Ginni did her best to refill drinks and stall them. Move stage left to the group of 16. It took them all for-freaking-ever to figure out what they wanted. Most of them made changes or special requests (then denied those changes when they got their food) so Valis couldn't really condense the ticket. Then they got angry at her when the food didn't come out in less than 20 minutes and that it didn't come out all at once. Eventually they revoked their dessert order, glared at Valis as she refilled drinks, muttered how awful their service was, and left her a crappy tip. One of the ladies- I'm assuming the one that set up the reservation- attempted to rip Clyde's (other boss) head off about the situation. I'm not sure what he said to rebut , but he came back to the kitchen laughing. I took that as him handling the whole thing very well. But poor Valis! She ran her butt off and did everything right. I honestly don't think these people would have been happy if we'd given the food to them for free. They were that bad.

So, here are a few pointers if you are ever involved in a large group at a restaurant:
  • Make reservations at least 24-hours in advanced. If it isn't possible for you to reserve that far advance, make your reservations as far out from the time you wish to be there as possible.
  • If you're asked to preorder your food please, for the love of all that is good in the world, just do it. Even if it means you have to call the other people in your group. It's okay if you make changes to it later, but this way the kitchen staff at least has an idea of what they can expect.
  • Be patient. Yes, you should expect great service no matter what. But your food will not come out at the same time as the table of 4 that sat down 5 minutes after you. It's just not going to happen. 
  • If you have children in your party, you may ask that they receive their food first. Most children's plates are less involved and easy to put together quickly.
  • Be nice to your waitstaff. This is a good rule for EVERYONE going out to eat, whether you're in a big group or not. But cut them a little slack, especially if you can see that they are running around like mad trying to meet your needs. 
  • If you have a genuine complaint or concern (and you're not just being a picky S.O.B.) politely ask to speak to a manager or owner. Don't make a scene, mutter under your breath, or generally act a fool for the entire restaurant to see. 
  • Try to be understanding. Again, if there is something that is really unacceptable, see the previous bullet. 
  • Mistakes in your order may not always be your server's fault. There's a 50/50 chance that it was a kitchen error. 
  • Tip well! In most cases, your server will not be given other tables in order to tend to your group's needs properly. This means that as long as you're there taking up space in the restaurant, you are her only source of income. Many times gratuity is included in your bill, but be sure to check. And don't be a cheap-ass. If everyone in your group shells out an extra dollar on top of that pre-added gratuity, it can make a world of difference. 20% minimum of the total bill is a good starting place, depending on how well you were served. 
  • It's okay for you to smile and be polite to ALL staff you see or come in contact with, even if they aren't specifically waiting on you. You won't burst into flames. I promise.
  • Ask. Don't make demands. 
  • The terms "Please" and "Thank You" will be helpful to you and should be used at every opportunity! 
One would think that those points would really be common sense. But those of us that have worked in or are currently working in a service industry know better. Be considerate!


PS Picture credit:  
MisterPants's Etsy Shop-

PPS As I've had to delete a commenter's rude and hateful comments TWICE, I feel the need to mention this: What I've said above comes from my sole experience in the restaurants I've worked in. I've worked in small-town, locally owned restaurants only. My experiences are based purely on that. So if you don't agree with me, that's perfectly okay. But this is how I saw things at the time. My views have changed since then, in certain respects, but I write in the moment so I will not change what's already been written. (edited to add this disclaimer on January 26, 2013 by Elle)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Choo choooooooo!

I think it's been a sufficient amount of time since I started working at my new job to tell y'all a little bit about it. I haven't said too much before because I didn't want to jinx it. It's not that I'm superstitious or's just a thing.

I am now a cook at SideTracked in my homey little town of Central, South Carolina. I guess I should give you a quick history of the town before I go on to explain the restaurant, because the town's history is important to the theme and the owners' general idea. Central is a small, old mill town in upstate South Carolina. It gets it's name for being the central point between the 2 major hubs in the south east [Atlanta and Charlotte] along the former Atlanta and Richmond Air-Line Rail Line. It was incorporated as a town in 1875. In it's glory days it was a booming little town with lots of great little cafes and eateries. But after the railway moved it's headquarters to Greenville and most mills either closed or downsized, the town took a hit and became mainly residential. Thus, the need for all the neat little eateries was significantly less. Don't get me wrong. Central has some great places now, but nothing like it was way back when. In an attempt to bring a little history and down home cooking back to the little town, the Hedden family started up SideTracked Cafe and Catering. They started the business about 3 years ago. They closed for the summer to move to the new location, which is right next door to the old one, and reopened in September. I was lucky enough to be a part of that.

It's in a 1890's, newly remodeled home directly in front of the railroad tracks. This is a step up from the hole in the wall they started out in. The original cafe shared a building with a hair salon. They could seat about 30 people total as long as the weather was nice enough for outdoor seating. Otherwise they could cram about 20 into a very tiny dining area. The kitchen was...not much of a kitchen at all. It's a wonder they could ever get one plate sent out. The new restaurant is beautiful. They did enough remodeling to make it a suitable place for a restaurant while leaving a good bit of rustic charm (and I do mean that in the best possible way). It can seat 80 people at a time inside and another 20 or so outside. There are rooms that can be closed off for private events and each one is painted a welcoming, warm color. The kitchen leaves something to be desired, but it is a thousand times better than it's predecessor. It is a work in progress and they hope to add better equipment as time goes on.

One of my very favorite things about this place is the fact that the menu changes every week. The only things you'll see every week are the the ham & 3-cheese quiche and boneless fried chicken. The soup is different, the salad is a variation of the same thing but still different, the entrees are new, and the desserts are always changing as well. Everything is made from scratch, with very few exceptions and short cuts. Clyde and Leigh (the owners, operators, and cooks) are constantly cooking and baking. The food isn't gourmet, but it's good. They get their ideas from magazines, cookbooks and cooking shows. Then, like many cooks, they take those ideas and add their own twists to make them unique.

So...what do I do? Well, I do a little bit of everything. I do a lot of prep, a bit of cooking, and tons of assembling. I also expo-make sure tickets are correct and the orders go out as they should. There were a few bumps in the road at the beginning with scheduling and expectations, but things were easily sorted out. It is a pleasure working there and working for this family. They appreciate me and my efforts and I really appreciate what they do and the direction in which they are heading. In my initial interview, Clyde said that their goal was to be in Southern Living magazine. I honestly believe they are well on their way to that.

Of course it's not all rainbows and sunshine. There are a few things that drive me up the wall! I, in no way, intend for the following to sound snooty, but it's going to: I am the only one there that has any kind of actual culinary training. Leigh and Clyde are just home cooks that really wanted to give running a restaurant a go. But they have been in non-food related careers all of their lives. They are not "restaurant people". So they don't use the lingo. They don't do many things as I have/would typically. My station is never appropriately cleaned or organized how it should be when I get there for the evening shift. And the chaos that tends to occur in the daily running of the restaurant could easily be avoided. With that said, it is not my business to run and I keep what little ego I have in check at all times. I do hope to be able to help them make subtle improvements using my training and past experience. But they were doing well before I ever came along and I think they will continue to do so.

And there's my long-winded explanation of where I work. It was hard to go from being a full time stay-at-home mommy to taking on a part time job, but the timing was right and I needed to get back into a kitchen. I think this was a great place for me to get back into the industry.


PS The novelty of the trains barreling by every half hour or so hasn't worn off yet. I still love that sound!