Sunday, December 13, 2009

Done and DONE.

Lasarte is officially in my past. WOW.

My last day finished rather uneventfully, with a relatively slow nite at the restaurant, different from other nites only due to the fact that we had to scrub down the giant grills and hoods in the carne and fish partidas. It took an extra 45 minutes of manual labor to end the shift, but I couldn't have cared less, as I knew each aggressive move of the sponge on the grease-caked steel brought me one moment closer to freedom. As everyone filed out, I said my goodbyes to various cooks, bosses, dishwashers, etc. Then I walked out the doors and breathed the most delicious breath of cold, Spanish nite air that my lungs have ever tasted.

There was an informal and impromptu 'mini-fiesta' at my apartment to celebrate the end, and while I thought it would be three to five people with a couple of beers, it ended up being more than 15, which was fantastic. We drank, smoked, laughed, and recounted the restaurant's stories, both mundane and absurd, into the wee hours of the morning. Some time before 4am, I declared that it was time for bed, and the last few stragglers made their way for the door. Saturday I woke up nice and late, feeling rested and ready to get the hell out of dodge. I got a haircut and some lunch, packed my bags (with some difficulty), and caught a ride to the train station in SanSe from Giovanni. By the time the clock struck five, I was G-O-N-E, gone.

The train ride passed quickly enough and by 10 I was in Madrid. One overpriced cab ride later and I was at Ceci's apartment. We made a quick trip down the street for two bottles of wine and two pizzas, then returned to her apartment to finish all of it, naturally. When there was nothing left to eat or drink, we put on Land of the Lost, starring Will Ferrell. Definitely not Oscar material, but there couldn't have been a better cap on the nite. Wine? Check. Pizza? Check. Cheezeball American comedy? Check. I was a happy boy.

Today we woke up around 1 and headed to a restaurant for comida with a bunch of Ceci's classmates. It ended up being around 20 people, which was a blast. Tons of food (octopus, calamari, bomb croquetas, best tortilla I've had in Spain), Sangria, pitchers of beer, and lively conversation. It also didn't hurt that most of the group was beautiful women, which was a welcome sight compared to the troll population that inhabits Lasarte. Everyone was super nice and warm and welcoming and the meal was absolutely perfect. We weaved through the city to a bar afterwards, and then, realizing we were tipsier than we'd intended, Ceci and I made our way back to her apartment.

While she napped, I prepped my things for my upcoming travel plans and enjoyed some much needed rest and downtime. Tomorrow I wake up at 7 for the trip to Morocco. Going solo is definitely a little intimidating, but after the last few months, my adventure confidence is high. I plan to see as much as I can, eat the most bizarre street food I can find (mmm, camel), and just go for broke, figuratively and literally. Thursday I return to Madrid for half a day before my departure to Pisa to see Julia. It's approaching midnight, so I should probably start thinking about sleep.

Africa, here I come...

Monday, December 7, 2009


So it’s my last weekend here in Lasarte. Wow. Can’t believe I’m this close to being finished. As long as some of the days may have seemed, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t fly by. And now, looking back at the road behind me, I must admit, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Yesterday was, by far, the best day of service I’ve had at the restaurant. I awoke with relative ease, fueled by the knowledge that it was the last weekend I’d be working. A quick cup of coffee after my shower and I was off and running. The morning flew by as we prepped for the busy day, and lunchtime arrived before I knew it. Incredibly, there was a surprise in store: instead of the usual Sunday lunch of what I call "grease soup" (chunks of chewing-gum-consistency beef and diced peppers in a pot covered by 3 inches of oil and grease), we ate what was, hands down, the best meal we’ve been served in the kitchen. Ever.

Gabi (the friend who took me to Asturias last month) and his dad often hunt wild boar in the mountains around their town. With incredible generosity, Gabi brought one (‘javeli’ in Spanish) to the restaurant on Wednesday, butchered, broken down, and ready to be cooked. He spent his spare time during the week prepping, marinating, and stewing this glorious beast, and yesterday we were served a huge, mouth-watering pot of stewed boar, in all of its so-tender-it-falls-off-the-bone glory. This was my first time trying boar, and naturally I loved it. I had two huge bowls, sopping up every last drop with hunks of bread. Oh, and I can’t forget the honey ice cream that the pasteleria served us for dessert. At the end of the meal, I could do nothing more than stretch out on my chair, rub my full belly, and grin in satisfaction. De-LACIOUS.

Full of fuel from the lunch to end all lunches, I spent an hour shucking and cleaning my oysters. As I neared completion, Giovanni (who plates the oysters with me during service) was called away to empty and clean one of the walk-ins in preparation for the restaurant’s impending holiday. This would take at least a couple of hours, which meant I would be solo during service. On a slow day, such circumstances would be insignificant, but with the books full, it was slightly daunting. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the challenge.

The rush began, and the restaurant was slammed within 30 minutes of opening the doors. I have to admit, I did nothing but kick ass. I reiterate that the oyster dish is not overly difficult or complex (a mere five touches and it’s done), but when you start the day given five different tables, simultaneously, it’s easy to fall into the weeds. Nevertheless, the weeds remained at bay for the full length of service. I kept track of everything myself, I caught errors that Sany missed, I helped out at the other stations, and every plate went out like an impeccable gem. Not once did I miss a beat, break a sweat, or let a mistake occur. Sany stayed out of my way and let me do my thing, and I reveled in the whiplash ballet that a busy service becomes: the pressure, the competitiveness, the poise, the attention to detail, the necessity to move with both grace and speed, the ability to act without thinking, to anticipate timing... you gotta love it.

At the end of the day, minutes away from the freedom of the weekend, Sany called us together for our usual end-of-week huddle. "Hoy fue un servicio brillante," she beamed. Today’s service was brilliant. To hear this sentence come out of the mouth of someone like Sany is like hearing George Walker Bush recite a Shakespearean sonnet. I was taken aback, floored, and elated. I thanked her with heartfelt words of "gracias" and headed out the door, already feeling my body start to relax and go into chillout mode. I got home, changed into sweatpants, and sank into the couch, smiling from ear to ear as my muscles instinctively began to relax.

The next few hours were spent listening to music and drinking Rioja as we (Giovanni, Jay, Romina, and I) reflected on the past week and the fact that we were almost done. At one point, Sany came up in conversation (as she often does), and Jay paid me a huge compliment: "Some said it was impossible," he said with a grin, "but I think you’ve conquered Sany. You won." And as a smile crept over my own face, I nodded my head in agreement. I’d been thinking about it over the past week, noticing how she almost never yelled at me anymore, how she stayed off my back for the most part during service, how she continued to make pleasant conversation, ask about my girlfriend, laugh at my jokes... hell, she even calls me "Senor Hinojo" ("Mr. Fennel") now due to the fact that I have become the go-to guy when we need an excessive quantity of the infamous and meticulous fennel ‘risotto.’ And, she has promised coffee every morning next week since it’s our last week before closing! Jay is right; whether on my own or with the help of my partida, I have won Sany over. That fact is most likely the biggest accomplishment with which I will leave this place. Fuckin’ A.

Anyway, I look forward to enjoying the rest of my final weekend. Cooking some American food for dinner tonite (sorry, Jamo, I spell how I wanna spell): Mac n’ Cheese and Chicken Nuggets. Tomorrow Jay and I make one last daytrip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim (this time when it’s actually open), and then I have three days of work before I pack up and head back to Madrid. And then Morocco. And then Tuscany. And then... HOME! Home for takeout Thai food, family, friends, Christmas, a bed that wasn’t issued by a correctional facility, my dogs, HBO, and a house in which I’m not scared to walk barefoot.

Wish me ‘buena suerte’ as I push through the final three days at Restaurante Martin Berasategui...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Coming down the home stretch...

So today marks the beginning of my last full week at Martin. Which is sort of mind-blowing. Just throwin' that out there...

This past weekend was somewhat uneventful; I had intended a day-trip to Pamplona, but the combination of a hefty bar tab Sunday nite and torrential downpour on Tuesday & Wednesday yielded a weekend spent mostly in cozy sweats watching movies on the couch. Oh yeah, and EATING. Shocker.

It was Vaughan and Kevin's last weekend here, so Saturday nite was their big 'adios' dinner. We snacked on clams and beer while we cooked, and dinner itself was appropriately excessive; it had to be in order to commemorate their send-off. Surf 'n Turf was the name of the game: ribeye steaks, sauteed tiger prawns, mashed potatoes, sauteed wild mushroom medley, and a creamy roquefort sauce to go over... well, everything. Sauteed chard and leeks on the side, a few bottles of teriffic wine, ample beer, and we were as good as it gets. Seventy-five percent of the table could not finish their plates, which, for this crowd, is saying a lot.

Like I said, the rest of the weekend left little to blog about, but I wanted to take a chance to look back and reflect aloud (or, as aloud as one can get when writing and not speaking) on that from whence I came. My initial reactions to almost everything around me, upon arriving here, were not far from despair. I was hating my crowded apartment, the restaurant kicked my ass up and down the street, I wasn't sure about my roommates, the town of Lasarte was far from what I had imagined... I thought I was going to struggle pretty hard to get through this experience.

Now I look around me and cannot believe I once felt the way I did. My apartment, though not the most spic n' span I've ever inhabited, has truly become a comfortable place and feels like my own. My roommates turned out to be truly good friends and incredibly fun people, and I am genuinely sad to see them go. The restaurant is a breeze now, all of its original challenges bested and then some on the road to becoming a significantly better chef. Even Lasarte, though admittedly still kind of a lame town, has grown on me; at least Naiban, the bar I come to every day, has grown to become a favorite spot of mine. Plus, I have done so much amazing traveling and seen so many unbelievable places and things that when I do have a day or weekend when I stay local, I kind of appreciate having my tiny, crappy, little town that I know so well.

I still have seven work days (15 shifts) left at the restaurant, so the battle is far from over, but I'm starting to get that excited flutter in the pit of my stomach that signifies a change on the horizon. Gotta keep my head down and keep moving forward, but it won't be long now...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey Surprise!!!

Okay, so I had no choice but to share the events that occurred last nite with you all. Sit back and hear a tale of the most memorable Thanksgiving of my life...

We got off work a little bit early due to a slow night, and as we Americans (Kevin, Kyle, and I) climbed the stairs to our apartment, we were lamenting the total lack of any Thanksgivingness in our lives. Suffice it to say we were all in pretty low spirits... to make things even worse, dinner at the restaurant had been the deep fried ham rolls. Ugh.

I unlocked the door with a sigh and pushed it open to see Vaughan (who had gone home midday, sick and nearly throwing up) standing there with a fork and knife. Before I had a chance to ask him how he was feeling and what he was doing waiting for us at the door, he throws his hands up and screams, "HAPPY THANKSGIVING, BITCHES! SURPRISE!" We continue into the apartment to see that the table is set and two bottles of wine, one already open, sit in the middle. In complete shock, mouths agape, we make our way into the kitchen, where Vaughan is putting the finishing touches on the meal. I was expecting a valiant effort, but considering we only have a single induction burner and nothing else to cook with, I didn't have very high expectations. Nonetheless, I would have been beyond happy with even some turkey breast and some boiled potatoes, a mere hint at a real Thanksgiving.

What I saw completely blew me away: creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans with garlic, cranberry sauce from scratch, gravy, six perfectly cooked turkey legs, caramelized onions, stuffing made with sausage and foie, and apple pie. Even thinking about it now, I'm filled with joy and awe. And what's really crazy about all this is the aforementioned lack of cooking apparati. Vaughan used our induction burner and stacked four to five pots at a time, one on top of the other, using the heat from the ones below as a makeshift bain-marie to cook the food above and/or keep everything warm. All this food, for six people, in two hours! Pardon my French, but HOLY SHIT.

Best of all, everything was absolutely delicious. We gorged and gobbled and guzzled until we couldn't consume any more, then sat back to take in the beauty that is Thanksgiving carnage: bones strewn about, gravy puddles on the table, stained shirts and hands, plates licked nearly clean. I don't think anyone at that table has been that happy in a very long time. No words can express our gratitude to Vaughan for bringing Thanksgiving to Spain. We sat around drinking and laughing for another hour before the massive amounts of food, wine, beer, whiskey, and triptophan forced us to retire. Every one of us fell asleep with giant grins on his face, for sure. There is no question, we have a lot to be thankful for.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone. I'm going to go daydream about that stuffing some more...

P.S. - As always, pics are here if you're interested:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bday weekend in SanSe!

So this was quite an incredible birthday celebration, I have to say. You all know I like to stretch out my birthday as long as possible, and though I was out of my country and my comfort zone and therefore not able to squeeze a full 3-4 weeks out of it, I did get a solid 3 days, and they were unbelievable days at that.

The nite of my actual birthday, Jay and I went to the local bar after work for a drink. There happened to be an AMAZING reggae/rap group playing there that nite that consisted of a dj and 3 singers/rappers. They performed songs in English, Spanish, French, and Senegalese, and they were beyond talented. Moreover, to my dismay, Nayad, the bar's owner, is friends with me and knew it was my birthday, so she got them to call me up in front of everyone... to stand there. For like 10 minutes. I really didn't know what I was supposed to do, and I didn't want to be a wet blanket and say no, so I kind of danced in place awkwardly. Thank God I had friends there to make fun of me for the rest of the nite regarding my awkward dancing. Oh well... a unique experience at least.

The next day I got through the day quickly and met Julia at the bust station at midnite. It being Sunday, there wasn't much open, but we managed to find a bar that seemed to be staying open for a bunch of hammered, middle-aged men to play darts. We were able to get a couple drinks in before the men stumbled out and it seemed appropriate to follow suit. Next morning we found the artisan bakery where my restaurant buys its bread and bought a chocolate brioche, a croissant, and a custard croissant to eat with our cafe con leche. The weather was perect, and as we ate we enjoyed the euphoric feeling one gets from drinking good Spanish coffee and eating artisan baked goods in the sun at an outdoor cafe by the beach. Glorious.

We headed to our hotel (Sunday and Tuesday nites were motels out of convenience due to the late arrival, very early departure, and proximity to the bus station), and on the way actually met a woman named Yvette, who was, of all things, born and raised in Cali! She bought us a drink and we chatted about the States, and got some restaurant/pincho bar recommendations. Arrived to the hotel, enjoyed the view for a few minutes, and headed out for what were our only plans for the day: EAT.

We hit up 4 or 5 different pincho bars, and spent the day trying surefire hits, surprising gambles, local fare, gastronomic art, and lots of PORK. Bacon-mushroom-shrimp skewers, mountains of foie, cuttlefish, Spanish peppers, olives, anchovies, blood sausage... There is no way I can list everything we ate, but hit the link at the end of this blog to see the pics and descriptions of every single bite. Our mouths exploded in ecstasy all day and into the nite; we sampled regional Spanish wines, frequently defaulting to wine from Toro, which is the mind-blowing red I discovered early in my time here. Every bite was better than the one before and we headed back to the hotel full, happy, and euphoric. A bottle of Cava greeted us in our room upon our arrival, and we spent the rest of the nite relaxing like two lovebirds. Bubble bath, balcony, bacon chocolate bars... It couldn't have been better.

Tuesday was much of the same. More pinchos, some of the best Spanish tortilla I've ever had. Mmm, baguette with bacon, goat cheese, and honey... again, hit the link for the full rundown. We fueled up and climbed the mountain at the north side of town. Insane views, beautiful, historic castles, watched the sun set over the mountains next to the sea , sitting on the castle wall. It was like a movie. Then back down the mountain to refill our tanks at the pincho bar that actually won the 2009 gastronomic award for best pincho: the award winner was seared scallop with clams, potato cream and citrus foam. The award was well deserved, without a doubt. Definitely the best place we ate at all weekend, and the Toro at this place was the best glass I've had so far. After dinner the weekend had to draw to a close, unfortunately. Headed to the motel and pretty much went right to bed, considering we had to wake up at 4:30 this morning so Julia could catch an early bus to the airport.

Today I have been lost in thought, reflecting on all the incredible things we saw, did, and of course ate! I feel very lucky to have spent such an amazing couple of days celebrating my birthday. I've basically got two weeks left here, and if I'm lucky, these memories will carry me right through to the end. If not, there's always the trip to Pamplona I have planned for the coming weekend.

For now, however, I am about to be late for work... so I am OUT!

Link for pics is here:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vive le France

It is gray, gloomy, and raining here in Lasarte, but cozy clothes and cafe con leche on a day off make everything better.

Yesterday I woke up and hopped on the train to Saint Jean de Luz, a very small, very old town in Southern France. I knew nothing about the town, what there was to do, or how to get there, but the more time I spend over here, the more these little adventures seem to appeal to me. I got some info from the guy at the train station and in less than an hour, I was there.

The town itself was very quaint: lots of old, old buildings, churches, and streets, but with the contemporary touch of copious boutiques, bars, restaurants, etc. The town clearly realized the tourist appeal of its antiquity and built as many opportunities as possible to take tourists' money. I was starving when I arrived, so I scoped out a few cafes and found one that seemed to call out to me. They served me the best croque monsieur I have ever tasted in my entire life. The cheese atop the sandwich was the absolute perfect balance of crispy, bubbly, and melty, and the mornay, ham, and bread beneath just melted together into creamy bites of heaven. Washed down by a glass of Bordeaux, my day was off to a good start.

From there, I spent a few hours wandering around the town. I window shopped in what were actually some cool little stores, walked along the water, snapped photos of old buildings, etc. Grabbed a chocolate croissant from a little bakery, and good God, it was like eating a chocolate filled cloud. Tried exploring some streets off the beaten path and found a cemetery outside town that totally blew my mind. It had clearly been around for at least a couple hundred years (based on the inscriptions on some of the headstones), and some of the markers were beyond impressive. Pyramids, giant crosses, obelisks, mausoleums, this place was like the Cadillac showroom of graveyards. I think I snapped as many photos within its walls as I did the entire rest of the day.

It started to get dark, so I headed back into town, found a wine shop, and bought a bottle of Bordeaux to drink upon my return home. Then for dinner I knew I had to do something nice and French... obviously, duck confit was the way to go. Very yummy, with frites and a salad, watching some tennis tournament live from Paris. I made it back to the train station, only to find that despite what the arrivals/departures screen said, trains in Saint Jean de Luz show up whenever they please. I watched three different listed departure times come and go and started to panic a little, thinking that I might be stranded for the night; thankfully, after 90 minutes of waiting, my train arrived. The night ended nicely with the Bordeaux (though to my unfortunate surprise, it was only so-so) and a movie.

Today will be spent hiding from daylight, watching movies, and digesting the 35 euro worth of Doner Kebab my roommates and I just consumed. Looking forward to work tomorrow, really looking forward to my birthday weekend with Julia in 5 days, and really, REALLY looking forward to being done in like three weeks!!! Europe has been fantastic, but the stars and stripes are calling me home...

See you soon!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

King of the Oysters

So last week was the final week of good friend and roommate Juan Carlos from Mexico. Up to this week, he was in charge of the oyster dish that I have alluded to several times; up to this week, my triumphs were encapsulated by applying the sauce during plating without getting bitch-slapped across the kitchen by Sany; up to this week, I was still a very, very minor part of the dish (roughly 10% contribution).

This week is different.

With the opening left by Juan Carlos' departure, someone was going to be assigned to pick up the slack on the oysters. True to form, Sany made no such declarations, but allowed the first few days of the week to be something of a free-for-all. When it was time to prep, she doled out random oyster responsibilities at will. When it was time to plate, she either asked whoever was closest or let someone try to jump in. Seeing that the position was apparently to be won as if it were a Surge commercial (anyone else remember that soda and those commercials?), I kicked my ass into gear. Today marked, to put it as dramatically as possible, my arrival at the mountain peak.

I have been put officially in charge of the dish, which means I did it perfectly, and did so enough times to prove to Sany that she can trust me (and Sany trusts people about half as far as she can shotput them). I prep the mis en place, I set things for service, I plate, I keep track of the orders, it's all me. And today I even had to train a new guy in all things oyster related... and might I add, I actually did so with patience, and with appropriate explanation when necessary. Imagine that! Using words and gestures to communicate my instructions instead of disgusted faces and curse words! Best of all, service went off without a hitch (on a pretty busy day), and there were even a few times I caught mistakes Sany didn't. Yahoo for me!

Okay, I realize that I may be making a slightly bigger deal of this than it actually is. After all, as I've previously mentioned, the oyster dish is pretty damn simple. But the way I see it, this blog should be at least somewhat entertaining, and we all know how much Johnny loves a good story full of drama and superlatives, so forgive me if I overly vivify an otherwise mundane course of events (BEST OYSTER PLATER EVER!!!). Moreover, to earn any ground in the land of Sany actually is a pretty big deal, and this marks the furthest I've come since I started with her; it's like getting promoted by the Soup Nazi.

Anyway, big deal or not, I am a happy camper. And to be honest, I was getting really bored with the complete lack of responsibility; having to stand around and wait for a single task all throughout service was making me want to shove the oyster shucker into my eye. At least now there's some multitasking required and I feel somewhat more engaged.

By the way, if anyone's interested, Julia is kicking ass in Tuscany! The white truffle festival starts in her town this weekend and the restaurant is booked solid for like three weeks. I spoke to her today and she had that wonderful Julia energy that comes from being just on the brink of overwhelmed but not there yet, and loving every minute of it. She's also working part time some mornings in a little cafe doing random cooking tasks: butchering wild boar, making sandwiches, baking pastries, whatever's around. She's fully settled in, and though living alone in a tiny town isn't easy, she's making the best of it. Best of all, she comes to San Sebastian next weekend for my birthday!

Alright, it's almost time for dinner service; time to don my apron and play with some more oysters. No sweat, right? Less than a month left here; can't say I'm sad about that, but I'll be making the best of the next few weeks.

Till next time... Viva las ostras!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just checking in...

Howdy out there!

I spent the past weekend staying local and catching up on my sleep, and things have been relatively slow at the restaurant due to the lengthening distance from tourist season, so I don't really have all that much to report. That being said, this blog is one of my main connections to my world back home, so I felt it necessary to write at least a little something.

It's really funny how bipolar my eating habits are during the week versus the weekends. During the week, every meal is eaten at the restaurant; and due to the incredibly poor quality of the food served, I tend not to eat much. How poor, you wonder? Let me highlight the worst of the worst for you as far as staff meals are concerned: tongue in tomato sauce... hot dogs in tomato sauce... boiled broccoli and fried beef (nobody knows which cut of beef it actually is)... fried eggs, rice, and soggy bacon... slices of ham, rolled around a piece of cheese, breaded and deep fried... you get the idea. Best of all, every week we eat the same meals, so at this point, very little is appetizing. My best days are when I can snag a handful (quite literally) of French butter from the walk-in to smear on my bread. Mmm, French butter...

Meanwhile, my apartment is almost overflowing with food. Spaghetti with tomatoes and bottarga (tuna roe) last nite... giant pork chops with caramelized apples and mashed potatoes and red wine au jus the nite before... LITERALLY the best empanadas I've ever eaten and ratatouille the nite before that... a small army of pork over 4 courses the nite before that... you get the idea. Most of what I've consumed has been photographed, so the previous weeks have spoken for themselves. I guess I can't really complain because I am eating like Henry the 8th on the weekends, I just wish there were a little more balance!

Other than that, things are still cruising. Today marks the official 'one month left' point, and I must admit, I am looking forward to getting home. Between now and then there will be a trip to Pamplona, one to southern France, one to Morocco, and one to Italy. Speaking of the Morocco trip, anyone wanna come? December 14th thru the 17th; I already bought my ticket and my travel buddy bailed on me, so unless I see any hands raised, I'm hitting Africa alone. No worries though, I love a good adventure...

Anyway, I have to head home and sharpen my knives. I am counting down the days until I see many of you. Oh, and don't forget, just 9 days till my birthday! I suppose I should just go ahead and set up a Paypal account here on the blog so anyone interested can just deposit my gifts directly to me. Just kidding... mostly.

Buenas tardes, muchachos!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Beautiful, beautiful Barcelona...

So this past weekend (I know it's almost next weekend for you all but my week started yesterday), I made the long anticipated trek to Barcelona to meet up with Julia. I went to bed early Sunday nite, alarm set for 5am in order to catch a cab, bus, and plane (and another bus) into Barcelona. I fell asleep excited for the next morning to arrive, and I awoke... at 6am. Cursing my new Spanish cell phone alarm, I showered and left as quickly as possible. Thankfully the trip was free of hiccups and I arrived within plenty of time.

Upon my arrival, I tried to meet Julia at the airport. She arrived only 30 minutes after me, so I had a coffee, and upon her arrival we tried to coordinate a meeting spot through cell calls and texts. This process lasted a good 25 minutes.
Because we were not in the same airport.
I honestly did not know there were 2 airports in Barcelona, so while Julia was at Girona (and she even went so far as to ask me several times, "Are you sure you're at Girona?"), I was at... the other one. We finally realized this, and with the last remaining credits on our respective phones (thanks, Murphy's Law), set out to meet at the hotel.

The rest of the day was fantastic. Great paella and fantastic wine at a restaurant on the beach, recommended to me by one of the chefs at the restaurant who is from Barcelona. Saw the Sagrada Familia, took photos galore of fountains, carnicerias, ourselves, cruised La Rambla, Sangria on the terrace of a little plaza cafe... good stuff.

Next morning we woke up at and had first breakfast (tostada, croissant, cafe con leche) around 11, and second breakfast (bocadillos de tortilla and bocadillos de chorizo) around 12:30. Set off for the Parque Guell, which was by far my favorite spot in the city. Hiked up one side through the forest, arrived at the top to a breathtaking view of the city and the sea beyond (so similar to the view of SF from Twin peaks!). Then wound our way down through the park, seeing Gaudi's surreal architecture at every turn. It was like walking through a park drawn by Dr. Seuss. Stopped near the bottom at the big plaza where we got some dope ice cream and kicked it for a little while listening to 3 dudes on guitars; they were pretty rad, Julia even bought their CD. Then out of the park (past the dragon, of course) and to find some tapas, obviously: pan con tomate, albondigas, garlic mushrooms... and a cold beer (because it's always 5 o'clock in Spain).

That was the last stop of the whirlwind weekend; back to pick up our bags, and then metro to our stop. Julia went one way and I went the other... so tough to leave each other after such an amazing time together (like when you have summer camp withdrawal). She headed to the airport to stay at a hotel the night before her early flight the next day.
I... missed my flight.
Definitely miscalculated travel time from city center to terminal. I, for some reason, was under the impression that there was a train from the Catalunya metro stop that ran directly to the airport, like a shuttle. What the trip actually entailed was a train from Catalunya to another station, then a transfer to another type of train at that station, then a transfer to another platform at another station (and this train only ran once every 30-40 minutes), then a bus from the airport train station to the terminal, then a drop off all the way at one far end of the terminal. I arrived as my flight departed.

Even worse, I had to drop like 250 bones on a flight 90 minutes later! It was the last flight to Bilbao. UGH. Needless to say, as I made my way to my gate, I was pretty miserable. I plopped into my seat to wait for the flight to start boarding, realizing I may not even make it in time to catch the hour-long bus ride from Bilbao to San Sebastian. But just when I was about to really start feeling sorry for myself, I realized that there was no way I was going to allow a shitty end to punctuate my state of mind as I wrapped up the weekend. There was so much that was wonderful, I honestly just put all my energy into focusing on that, looked through pics on my camera, and by the time I boarded the plae, I was fine. Slept the entire flight, the entire bus ride, caught a cab from SanSe and made it home in one piece (albeit a piece that was $250 smaller).

This week has beein flying by; I am back with Sany, and I never thought I would actually feel welcomed back by berating and abuse from a boss, but... it's good to be back. I am pretty much at the halfway point of the trip, and I feel like I'm at cruising altitude. Probably gonna take it easy this weekend, maybe hit up the Guggenheim (when it's actually open this time) or maybe a day trip into Southern France (the town of Irun to be specific... I think) if the weather improves. It's rained here on and off for almost 2 weeks... yuck. Cross your fingers for me, yeah?

Btw, here's the link for pics if you're interested:

Hasta luego...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The grass is always greener on the other side of the kitchen...

So this week, believe it or not, I am back with Monday. Because he doesn't run a primary kitchen team (meat or fish or firsts or desserts or etc.), he depends on the charity of other teams to operate. So every week goes the game of Russian roulette that decides who will be the lucky 2-4 people that get to spend quality time with Mr. Personality. It's been 5 weeks since I last had the privilege, so this week, my number was up.

The thing is, now I am having a hard time figuring out which spot I prefer. In all honesty, I would prefer neither; I would prefer any other team in the kitchen to Monday or Sany, but between the two, choosing my favored has become a conundrum. Yes, Sany is coarse, annoying, unpleasant to look at, and generally free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever; but by now I have learned how to stay off her radar, get my shit done, and make it to closing with minimal unpleasantness. Even whilst being berated I can go through the day pretty much unscathed, thanks to the Sany-shield I have built up. So when I'm on her team, I know what I have to do, I know the routines, I like the other people on my team, and the days, even the busy ones, are more or less gravy.

Monday's team, on the other hand, involves random tasks that change daily depending on what needs to get done. There's no wedding this week so we don't have to prep for that, which means there is even more time to fill. This is bad in the sense that sometimes the days streeeeeeetttttcccccchhhhh ooooooouuuuuttttt, but good in the sense that tasks change frequently enough to keep it interesting. It sucks not being part of the real kitchen, but at least I don't want for variety: in the last 48 hours I have eviscerated 2 types of bird (interesting enough), chopped half a dozen different vegetables to half a dozen different specifications (eh), hauled boxes and machinery (ugh), cooked for family meals (at least it's cooking), bagged bread (zzz), done random landscaping (that sucked), peeled a buttload of carrots & potatoes (that really sucked), and, best of all, helped finish the leftover booze in storage (that part was, obviously, fun). It sucks being the team that's the go-to for bitch work, but at least it only lasts a week. Plus, now that I'm not so new, Monday doesn't go out of his way to be an asshole (though it comes pretty naturally most of the time).

So where would I rather be? Believe it or not, I still vote Sany's team; I like being part of the machine and I like knowing the territory. But for now, I'll try to appreciate the variety, and I definitely dig the fact that we roll in at 9 and get 2+ hours for siesta every day guaranteed. And it's just over 3 days till I hop on a plane for Barcelona and see Julia... HOLLA!

For now, I'll keep grindin' on the Monday train... NOW FUCK OFF!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whirlwind weekend in Asturias

So I am sitting here outside El Bar Cazador (The Hunter´s Bar), with a glass of wine, winding down on what has been possibly my best weekend so far.

I have to admit, I was initially hesitant to accept Gabi's invitation to come to his hometown for the weekend. With the weeks being as hectic as they are, downtime and rest on the weekends are a very important part of my life. And coming to a place 4 hours away, where I knew I would be alone the majority of the time (Gabi works at the bar, owned by his family, all weekend), arriving home in the wee hours of the morning before another long work week, was daunting. But like I said in my last post, adventures abroad are not to be turned down. And HOLY SHIT, was I ever rewarded by the limb out onto which I ventured...

We arrived Sunday nite around 10:30... I spent the 4 hour drive passed out in the back seat, soooo nice to catch some much needed Z's! Our first stop was the bar, where there were 2 pizzas waiting for us!!! We each housed an entire pie to ourselves: super thin, super crispy dough and crust, not too much cheese, bacon, mushrooms, pineapple... all in all, really good! Complemented by a glass of wine (on the house of course) while we watched the Spainsh equivalent of Sportscenter for soccer; I couldn't have been happier. Then to a friend's bar for a quick beer, then back to Gabi's apartment where I slept for 12 GLORIOUS HOURS; in a real bed, where I could starfish to my heart's desire. ¡Gracias a dios!

Woke up at noon on Monday and Gabi took me to the state's capital, Oviedo. We started with a drive up the mountain outside town to scope out the standard giant stone Jesus that seems to exist in every Spanish city on the map. Snapped photos on the way down of some 2,000 year old Roman churches, and then he left me in Oviedo while he went to work. I ate a solid meal at a reccomended Sidria: this is a cider house, one of the things Asturias is famous for. Sidra (cider) is like their official state drink and you only drink it one slug at a time, first poured by extending the bottle high over your head and holding the glass as low as possible. From what I understood, this opens up the cider in the same way a decantur opens up wine... gives it oxygen, some bubbles, etc. You spill every time you do it but I was told it is the ONLY way to drink sidra, no exceptions. I actually got the hang of it pretty quickly, and it makes drinking that much more enetertaining!

After lunch I cruised to el Parque de San Francisco (really!), where you can find more than 1,000 species of trees. I read there for a while, people-watched, then made my way into the old town. Saw incredible buildings, cathedrals, wish you were here, etc. Then bought a phone and after 3 separate returns to the store, figured out how to make international calls correctly. Spoke to my mom, and Julia, who is fresh off the plane in San Miniato, and despite a few hiccups, kicking ass like I knew she would. Cruised the town a little more as dusk turned to night, found a pinche bar (tapas etc.), enjoyed some yummy bites and a glass of wine, then hopped on the train back to Gabi's town. A beer at the bar, then to his buddy's place to play with new PUPPIES! They were, of course, friggin' adorable. Then back to the apartment for another great night of sleep: another solid 12 hours! I hesitate to say this may have been one of the highlights of the trip!

Woke around 1pm, and it was off to the mountians. We entered Los Montes Cantabricos, the major mountain range in this part of the country. We ascended to the highest peak in the state by Land Rover, foot, pickup, and foot, respectively. At the top is the local ski resort (closed until the season starts, obviously) where Gabi had friends working, so we wandered around for a bit, rendered breathless by the altitude and views alike. Fotos galore! Then on our way down, we ran into his brother-in-law (yes, it seems that everywhere we went he had familiars), who was crusing on an ATV. I hopped on the back and descended the entire route at 40 mph, hanging on for dear life and loving every second of it. I have to admit, it was, in a word, badass.

After the mountians it was north across the state. Our route was through another part of the mountians, scoping out beautiful landscapes and tiny pueblos along the way, beautiful beautiful. We eventually arrived at a few different parts of the northern coast, and to my continued disbelief, every stop yielded sights more beautiful than the ones before. We ended at some starkly impressive cliffs, enjoying sunset at a point so high that looking out to the sea felt like we could see the end of the world. My jaw dropped so many times I think I left it somewhere amidst the cliffs. Finally it was back to the bar, which brings me to the present moment. Gabi is tending bar inside, providing me with on-the-house drinks before I can ask for them. The nice buzz I have accquired will be the perfect setup for spending the drive back to Lasarte in peaceful sleep. I can't remember the last time I saw and did so much in such a short amount of time, and being able to spend a few hours here blogging, catching up on emails, and just enjoying the downtime couldn't be a better cap on the weekend.

So like I said, this trip has been just way too amazing. A beautiful, off-the-tourist-beaten-path European city, more sleep than I could justifiably ask for, free drinks all weekend, mountains, landscapes galore, beautiful coasts... could I possibly ask for anything more? And best of all, I really feel vindicated in my ability to cut it in a city, state, country with a language not my own, often rolling by myself, finding train stations and bars without problem, et al. I dare say I am nearly Spanish. Well, not really, but I am far from a clueless tourist, that's for sure.

I don't have my computer here so you'll have to wait for the link to pics (of which there are MANY), but check back in a day or 2 and they will be here. Until then, thanks for reading... if you made it this far in such a torrent of bloggage. Time for some more pizza and then, salimos. Vale.

OK kids, pics are up; sorry for the delay, facebook sucks sometimes...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I asked, and I recieved.

Okay so I know I posted like 8 hours ago, but we just finished the dinner shift and I felt that within the context of today's previous post, this was necessary.

I wanted less fennel and more action, and I GOT IT. We had a table of 40 tonite; and when the plates require what ours do and the entire table is doing the tasting menu, it means that once the guests arrive and the plating begins, it doesn't stop until dessert is out the door. So things were poppin'. Plates were being passed like hot potatoes, people were hopping over tables, sauces swirled, microgreens placed lightning quick but with the utmost care, waiters flowing constantly like a stream of spawning salmon. It was fuuuuuun.

Best of all, hands were needed everywhere, so I finally got a chance to jump in. I can't say I was the cornerstone of the operation, but at least I was able to get my hands dirty, just like I wanted. Plating everything meant a closer look at all the different dishes, and really starting to learn some more. Plus, it was the first time we were really under pressure since I've been there, and I was loving it. And no fennel in sight.

I also witnessed something that gave me some food for thought. We all know that Sany is constantly berating us, degrading us, calling us useless, idiots, etc. But it's so constant that it gets easy to tune out. Well the guy who runs the pasteleria (desserts), Juan, has always seemed to me like the nicest guy ever. He's always joking with his team, very polite, helpful, sings to himself, etc. Well tonite his team was short 4 desserts when they were plating, which meant they had to take an extra 15 minutes to prep and plate them. Juan LOST IT. He started just going off on his team, screaming, turning red, all but foaming at the mouth. For like, 15 minutes. Without pause.

So it got me thinking. What's better or worse? To have the constant negativity that gets easy to tune out, even though it kinda sucks all the time? Or to have the rosier cozier everyday with that freakout meltdown just waiting to happen... because it will always at happen at some point: people mess up because they're human. I'll leave you with that as I head to bed.

Buenas noches.

Rain, rain, go away... And take the fennel with you!

It came down BUCKETS here today. Most rain I've seen in at least a year. So of course, there had to be an entire crapload of boxes to break down and walk down the block to the recycling. In the torrential downpour. And get who got asked to do it? Booya!

Then we were smack dab in the middle of the slowest lunch shift EVER, with the combination of a party of 35 coming tonite and a party of 55 coming for lunch tomorrow, which meant that to prep, we had to cut more fennel than I have ever seen in my life. I don't know if you remember my description of this fennel cutting process from one of my earlier posts, but suffice it to say it is painstaking, meticulous, tedious... not super fun. Rain like whoah, nothing to do but cut fennel, the knowledge of a crazy dinner shift looming: call it the perfect storm. Pun intended.

And I have to say, when I imagined what my externship would be, I did not expect it to involve hours of vegetable cutting, a la prep cook. I remember almost every chef at school telling us that the whole reason we were in Culinary School was so that we would have that leg up and be able to start out on the line, or at least close to it. Then again, I suppose this is what I get for choosing a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars as my externship, so I ought not complain. And despite the fact that I hate fennel right now, I know things could be far, far worse, and I do feel very blessed to have this opportunity at all. Just wanted to be clear that this isn't another venting email, just felt like sharing my semi-lame day in case anyone out there felt like commiserating.

Anyway, the clock is about to strike 6, which means siesta esta terminado, y es la hora de trabajo. I'm off to a place called Asturias this weekend; it's about 4 hours west by car, and I am tagging along with a friend from the restaurant who is going home (he lives and works there on the weekends). I have never heard of this place, but hew claims it's one of the greatest and most beautiful spots in Northern Spain slash Basque country, and it's a free ride with a free place to stay, so who am I to say no to an adventure? He has to work all weekend so I will be exploring the city by myself, which I always enjoy. Hopefully come next week I will have some amazing things to talk about. Or at the very least, some amazing meals. Till then, ADIOS!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Daytrip to Bilbao

So yesterday was a hell of a great day. Took the bus to Bilbao with Jay, a dude from SoCal who works in the kitchen with me. We intended to see the Guggenheim, but discovered to our dismay that it is closed Mondays! Bad luck, but oh well. Instead we just spent the day cruising around the city, which was, at least, rife with enough interesting architecture and art to fill the day. Plus we found a dope spot for tapas and ate well: seared foie, croquettes (w lemon! so good!), chorizo, patatas bravas, glasses of chacoli. Very happy we were able to spot a quality tapas bar despite having just arrived in the city.

We caught the bus back around 730 and took a little nap en route, but when we arrived home, my stomach was not doing so well. I don't know if it was something in the tapas or what, but I walked in the door of my apartment, took off my coat, and promptly threw up. TMI?

I felt immediately better, and was further ameliorated by the glass of champagne served to me by one of my roommates. The bubbles took care of the last bit of stomach discomfort, and due to the aforementioned expulsion of all my stomach's contents, I was now hungry... and I was in LUCK! My roommates were in the process of preparing a 4 course meal for us...

We started with seared foie gras over toasted baguette with caramelized apple and a balsamic-pear reduction. So incredible, the foie cooked perfectly by Chef Vaughn. Next came ravioli, inspired by Igor's previous stage at a restaurant in Florence. They were double stuffed, so instead of one pocket, each ravioli had two! The fillings were a mushroom duxelle with mint and a Camembert-Brie blend with apricot. All this and when he was making the pasta from scratch he had to use a wine bottle to roll it out! After ravioli was ricotta gnocchi in a Roquefort cream sauce with some of the best blood sausage I have ever tasted in my life. Incredible, and garnished with green apples that helped cut the heaviness of the sauce. Perfection. Last was simple but sensational: mussels and frites with a bernaise sauce to dip, accompanied by a bottle of Cava. The combination of the mussels and the Cava couldn't have been better, and the bernaise went really nicely with the fries. All in all, a fantastic meal!

The party then proceeded to the bar for a couple games of pool and eventually back to the apartment into the wee hours of the morning for many bottles of wine and stupid games of stacking wine glasses and beer bottles into towers on the coffee table. And at some point in the night Vaughn won 40 Euro when he bet on me in an arm wrestling match against another roommate. Who knew?!

I managed to wake up around 2pm today for a run and then a haircut, and as the weekend winds down I have another skype date with a certain beautiful, blue-eyed babe in a couple hours. 3 weeks down, 7 to go. I am actually not dreading work tomorrow forb the most part, as long as I can get a good night's sleep tonite.

By the way, here's the link to photos for anyone not on facebook:

I think I'm going to be including a link like this any time I create a new facebook album, if for no other reason than that you guys can see pics of the FOOD! That's all for now, see you guys next post; same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


So things have gone from good to better, and I have kicked some serious ass this weekend.

We had another wedding yesterday, so that meant basically no break, again. Not even enough time to go home this time, so a few of us spent it on the back steps of the restaurant. Nevertheless, dinner rush arrived, and it was one of the busiest since I've been here. At the beginning of the shift, Sany calls me over and tells me, "I'm putting you in charge of the oyster dish tonight. Do a good job, and if you make even a single mistake, I'm pulling you off and putting you back on salads." No pressure, right? This is the dish that, last week, I applied about a thimble too much of sauce, and was called and idiot and sent back to salads. Salads means I spend my time placing individual microgreens and flower petals, whereas oysters involves plating a la minute and being in charge of a dish by myself; more responsibility, less mundane minutia, etc. In short: Oysters, good; salad, bad.

So with a steady hand a heightened pulse, I took the reins of oysters. And I knocked the shit out of the PARK. Granted, we're not talking about a dish that requires much culinary skill: drop an oyster on the plate, apply some sauce, gelee, garnish. But the point is that I was able to do it so flawlessly that even Sany had to give me kudos at the end of the nite. As you may have gathered at this point, Sany's standards leave no room for error. None. So to pass in her eyes means you did it perfectly. I was even able to follow the soccer game being played on the flatscreen in the main part of the kitchen and still be on top of my game. Service went off like French butter and we were out of there before 1 am.

Today was no different: she kept me on oysters and I kept on top of my game. She even gave me a shout out during our team huddle at closing, using me as an example of someone who has come a long way and grown a lot in the last week. Gravy, right? And my Spanish has gotten good enough that I can finally be funny in the kitchen! My linguistics have caught up with my wit, so that the clever quips and one liners that have previously gotten tangled up between my head and my mouth are now actually making Sany LAUGH! Good gracious, who knew? So I think I have officially gotten my footing here at the restaurant, and while I still have plenty I can learn, I am no longer the bitch, the fish, the green-as-grass, wet-behind-the-ears new guy.

In part, this is true because there's a new New Guy. Igor arrived Thursday and he was added to our apartment. I know what you're thinking, but he's not some hunchbacked, lazy-eyed, lab coat clad halfling; he's actually Brazilian and arrived here after fresh off a stage at 3 Michelin star restaurant in Florence. Chill dude and a nice addition to the apartment and restaurant alike... and he has officially taken my position at the bottom of the ladder as far as Sany is concerned. I feel bad for the guy, because I see him going through exactly the same things I did when I arrived. Sany lays into him left and right and breaks him down the same way she did me. And being at this point now, I can look back with 20/20 hindsight and I try to make him see that it will get better, but just like I didn't believe the others, he doesn't believe me. C'est la vie; he's just gonna have to tough it out.

All in all, I am pretty pleased with myself. I was given more lemons than even the folks at Minute Maid could handle, and I think I made some pretty damn good lemonade. And if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. Wait, no, that's New York... well, you know what I mean. Now it's the weekend, my roommate is making duck tonite, and it's off to Bilabo tomorrow to see the Guggenheim and find some serious tapas. And, just 2 weeks till I see Julia in Barcelona. I dare say, life is good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Today was a good day.

So things are really movin' now at the restaurant... it's bedtime for me so I'ma keep this brief, but I felt it necessary to report on two key happenings today in the kitchen that has become my life.

First off, the gelpads I bought over the weekend are possibly the best purchase I have ever made in my life. I cannot even begin to describe the difference they have made in my day-to-day. Considering the fact that I spend roughly 16 hours on my feet every day, not being in incredible pain is something of a plus. Everything is so much more tolerable: the hours, the work, the rush... nothing is really that bad now that I am not wincing in pain with every step. Even Sany!

Which brings me to happening number 2: Sany smiled at me today! TWICE!!! I had to do a double take, I almost couldn't believe it. And she addressed me like a normal human being, which made me sure I was hearing things; cordial comments about the weather? Inquiring as to where I'm from? Good lord, I think I think the thermometer in hell just reached 32.

The most ironic part is that the first part of the day was one of the hardest I've experienced here. I left in shambles, dogged and seething... poor Julia even had to be on the receiving end of a venting rant in email form. (Sorry lamburger.) Somehow, I was able to collect myself over a cafe con leche and return refreshed, ready to be positive again. (Thanks Mom.) Well, positivity begets positivity, I'll be god damned. Sany was in a great mood for some reason and service was relatively slow, so despite being shorthanded, our team cruised all night, and I received the aforementioned cordialities!

So has it all been an act? Was she just breaking me down to mold me into her little soldier? Is it smooth sailing and rosy cozy posies from here on out? Not likely, since she was her usual pushy, anal, get-on-everyone's-ass self as soon as we started cleanup. But hey, so shines a ray of sun through the clouds. That, in itself, was enough to push me through to the weekend, which barring complications should include a trip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim with Jay from SoCal. Stay tuned...

By the way, thanks for all the encouragement on this blog from friends and family alike via email, facebook, etc. Like I mentioned before, posting here and knowing y'all are reading back home is comforting; I feel the connection and it makes everything easier. So feel free to comment here in the blog (I think I changed the settings so that you can comment without being a member), or stick to other media. Either way, keep keeping in touch.

Okay, bedtime. In the words of someone I know: "NOW FUCK OFF!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Upping the ante in SanSe

Another thankfully phenomenal weekend, to erase the previous week and recharge me for the coming one, was had in San Sebastian...

I got some recomendations for tapas places to check out (sorry, Sasha, I couldn't find yours, maybe next time don't give me directions like a pirate treasure map). My hotel was in the Old Town ("La Parte Vieja"), so I decided to try the place in that area: El Fuego Negro. What followed was one of the best meals I have ever had. For the real play-by-play, here is the link for the album that contains photos and course descriptions:

I highly recommend checking it out. 11 courses, 3 glasses of the best wine I've ever tasted (or at least, my favorite), very small place, decorated with badass art, chill vibe, high-end gourmet Basque food in a hip, relaxed atmosphere. The food aspired to the heights of gastronomy in every sense: presentation, originality, taste, flavors, textures, use of local ingredients, freshness, technique... and nowhere did it fall short.

After dinner, some more strolling around the city, a short nap, then a walk around the bay that took me from sun-high-in-the-sky to twilight. Every breath of sea air was savored, and to feel the sand beneath my feet was, in the context of my current day-to-day, perfection. Got to skype with the folks (love you guys!), then read for a little while in a bar next to my hotel with a glass of rioja and some more tapas: goat cheese on baguette w jam, baguette w roasted green pepper, iberian ham, and anchovy fillets (Yes, Julia! Anchovies! And I loved them!), savory chicken wings, all yummy. And best of all, this was just a small sample of the stuff placed out along the bar. I LOVE IT!

And then.... I got to go to sleep in a real sized bed! In my own room! With my own bathroom! King in the castle, king in the castle...

I woke around 11, ate breakfast on the terrace of a nearby cafe (slice of toast w/ marmalade & cafe con leche), then ran some errands; most notable of which included some intense gel-pads to line my shoes. Cross your fingers, if they can make my feet feel even 50% better I will be overjoyed. The rest of my day has been uneventful: some house cleaning, laundry, etc. But I have a skype date with Julia in an hour... which makes me happy happy.

3 weeks till my weekend with her in Barcelona, 8 weeks to go in all. "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Overworked, unpaid, and I asked for it all!!! : )

Lemme start this post out by apologizing in advance. I have a feeling that this is going to descend into a little venting at some point, and though I am not a negative person by nature, this blog has taken on the nature of a second journal for me (see my self-diagnoses of need for approval in the previous post), and as such, you all, whoever you are out there, are going to have to bear with me.

This has been, I can say fairly confidently, the most difficult week of my life. Granted, I have not lead a very difficult life, and previous entries into this category are somewhat pedestrian: first week of Middle School, pledging a fraternity, bad breakup with a girlfriend, etc. But this one knocks them out of the fuckin' PARK.

8am to midnite (at the earliest). Every day. 10 to 20 minutes for lunch, 10 to 20 minutes for dinner. And by this I mean, when we were given 10 minutes for dinner last nite and I was 1 minute late, I was punished with extra cleaning. We are supposed to get a 1 to 2 hour siesta, but my team is lead by Sany (ah, Sany...hold that thought), and Sany doesn't give a shit about us, so sometimes our siesta is only 45 minutes. Yesterday we had a wedding that ran late, so my 'siesta' consisted of walking back to my apartment, using the bathroom, and returning to the restaurant. And we finished at 1:30. am. YEAH.

And best of all, we are lead by the worse-than-Monday Sany. I mentioned her a little bit in my last post, but really she deserves oh so much more! Sany, I discovered, only looks like she's in her fifties. She's actually like 34, I think. She has a mousy overbite and a perma-scowl. She lives in the basement of the restaurant, no joke. I mean, there are like 8 other people who live in the basement, but they are doing so temporarily while they stage. 3 months, 6 months, etc. Sany lives there, like, thats her home. And from what I heard, she pretty much locks herself in her room on the weekends. So you do the math: looks like a mouse/rat, 16 hour days, no life outside work... on a scale of 1 to 10, how miserable would you be?

And boy, does misery ever love company! I have been doing a behavioral experiment of sorts, and I have discovered that the more miserable I (and my team) appear to be, the happier Sany acts. On the other hand, when we are jovial, when we laugh, when we converse with one another, Sany's temper is even shorter than usual, she barks orders that much more sharply, is that much less satisfied by our work. So herein lies the rub, right? Do I try to be/look miserable so that she cuts me some slack and therefore makes me a little less miserable? Or do I try to stay positive and keep myself motivated and upbeat, despite the fact that it will, in the end, bring on more potential misery? Conundrum!

I have a feeling that the latter will prevail; I have asked and observed around the restaurant and found that Sany is shitty to everybody except those above her, whose asses she kisses like they were made of chapstick. So if she's always gonna be awful, what's the point in trying to make her a little tiny bit less awful? Like I always say: if you're gonna get wet, you might as well go swimming. BRING IT ON, SANY.

That all being said (see, I knew I needed to vent), I am looking forward to the weekend! It's back to SanSe, and with a couple of recomendations for restaurants with some of the best tapas in Spain. I cannot WAIT to have a bedroom to myself, a full size bed to sleep in like a starfish, and a beautiful city to wake up to. My feet have been hurting so much that at nite they prevent me from falling asleep, so I also plan on picking up some gelpads, thank GOD. Good food, a city to explore, and no work for 2 days... hells yeah. And 3 weeks till I see Julia in Barcelona. That is what gets me through each and every day, fer sher.

I miss SF, Dtown, and all you guys. Nothin' but love from this corner of the planet, and if you get the itch to come visit, don't hesitate! If not, see you stateside...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Age & Enlightenment (and fennel)

So this morning I got chewed out, for sure. But it was a good thing... or at least, I took something good from it.

This week I am on the 'Primeros Platos' team. Sidebar: I don't know why it's called this, as the dishes that we prepare and plate do not come first in any way. They're not served first, they're not first on the menu... weird, right? No one can give me a good answer as to why they are called 'primeros.' I'd say it's closer to Garde Manger than anything else. But I digress... The team is led by a woman named Sany; five-foot-nothing, in her mid-fifties (I estimate), and a drama queen who seems to have some medical incapability of expressing joy. She's not as bad as Monday, but a close second, and is infamous as such.

Today when we were cleaning the kitchen at the end of the lunch shift, I was mopping, and Christian, another cook, asked if he could see the mop I was using. Taking him literally, I handed it over, expecting it to be returned almost immediately (I figured he had spilled something and just needed it for a hot second). To my surprise, he walked off with it and began to mop another section of the kitchen. I called after him, but amidst the kitchen din, he didn't hear me, and for about 2.4 seconds, I stood there, dumbfounded, with my proverbial thumb up my proverbial ass. In strict accordance with Murphy's law, that's when Sany happened to look over at me (I have learned that in the kitchen, Murphy's law is in decree at all times).

She flipped out at me: "Why do you just stand there while everyone else cleans?! What's wrong with you?! Are you some kind of idiot?" There was more, but the Spanish got too fast for me. I'm sure it was something nice. Anyway, as I made haste for the place we keep the mops, hoping to find another, I attempted to blurt out an explanation (blurting, when slightly panicked, in Spanish, is tough), that I was neither 'just standing there,' nor an idiot. That was a mistake. Sany thought I was giving her lip and her eyes got even wider. Moreover, one of the other kitchen bosses, Felipe, was standing nearby, heard the end of it go down, and though Sany already had her foot up my ass, he managed to cram his in there as well. All I could do was nod, eyes down, and repeat, "Oido... Oido... Oido..." ('Oido' literally means 'heard,' but it's the all-purpose word in the Spanish kitchen for 'yes sir/ma'am,' 'i understand,' 'will do,' 'the order will be ready asap,' etc.)

As much as this was a less than pleasant experience, it was quickly moved past. When we were finished cleaning, I found Sany and explained that I had meant no disrespect; she said she understood but that regardless, when she tells me to do something, I can hold the commentary and just do it. Oido.

Moreover, Felipe came and found me before I left and told me everything was cool, he just had to get Sany's back; he explained that she's the boss of me, and regardless of the circumstances, no matter what she asks, I need to do it and do it fast. Oido. He also mentioned that she's almost sixty years old, and for this, she deserves my utmost respect. And herein lies the takeaway for me. This ain't the USA; kitchen hierarchy aside (in which I presently rank somewhere between used fryer oil and mop buckets), this is a different culture than I'm used to. Age means a lot as far as respect earned. And as much as I may dislike it, there's little I can do about it. Plus, it was all just a big reinforcement of the fact that I am a lowly, temporary peon, and a green one at that, with very little experience in this industry; this is only the beginning of the licks in store for me, fer sher.

As I pondered all this on my walk home, I also came to the realization that I am wired differently than the kitchen demands. My whole life, I have always been a seeker of approval when it comes to jobs, school, work, whatever. I tend to find motivation in seeing that my superiors are pleased with my work, and lose it when I instead see disinterest. Moreover, I've been fortunate enough to have most of my superiors act in accordance with this, ingraining it even more deeply in my persona. But it's time to learn that there are gonna be plenty of people out there who simply don't give a shit. And no matter how well I do, they're not going to say 'good job,' and they're not going to grant me that approval; what's more, these people are going to be doubly pissed if I give anything less than my best. So though I am no doubt learning it later in life than most, this is a great experience for me to learn to build my ability to self-motivate, despite the reactions, or lack thereof, of my superiors. I just need to keep a poker face and get it done.

Though you are probably sick of reading by now (I'm almost sick of typing), my goal has been to mention food in every post, and I'm familiar enough now with the dishes my team is in charge of. Foodies, keep reading...

The first is a fennel 'risotto,' which I've heard is one of the best dishes on the menu. We filet the fennel bulbs (which is as hard as you might imagine) to super thin, then cut them into UNIFORM pieces roughly the size of Arborio rice. Can you say, tedious? These are parcooked in olive oil, then added to a fennel-cream sauce: this is the 'risotto.' It's topped with a nest of translucently thin fennel and a ring of fennel foam, garnished with 4 sprouts of micro-greens.

The second is a BOMB oyster dish: A bowl starts with an aspic, flavored with arugula and another similar green I'd never tasted before that has a citric aftertaste. The aspic is on the bottom, and 2 thin slices of green apple sit along the sides. The raw oyster goes on the aspic, next to it goes a dollop of cream sauce flavored with fennel & lemongrass, and the oyster itself gets a dollop of some gelee (this one is still unknown to me), and it's garnished with black pepper and a single microgreen. I like everything about this dish except the gelee on the oyster: too much similarity in slimy texture for me.

The last one is a ridiculous (I use that word as literally as possible) salad that requires, no joke, about 45 touches before it's sent out. Huge plate, starts with a tomato-water aspic; in the center go 2 slices of avocado, sliced paper thin, rolled into tubes, and stood upright. Into the tubes go a single chive each. Then a ring of frisee around this. Then leaves of arugula and lettuce, placed one at a time, like building a house around the avocado. Then a slice of little onion at either side of the plate. A sprinkling of asparagus brunoise by each onion slice. Then comes the fun part: 4 different microgreens and 6 different colored edible flower petals; there are 4 of everything, and every single green, petal, etc. is placed ONE AT A TIME. That's nearly 30 touches for something that's little more than garnish! After this the plate gets a scoop of tomato meat/seeds (which I think is weird), 2 small pieces of lobster meat, a dressing over the lettuce/avocado house, a squeeze of some green mystery puree, and a quenelle of a crab-lobster-mayo concoction. A mandolin is used to shave a few slices of wild mushroom onto the plate, then 2 asparagus tips get sauteed a la minute and placed meticulously. Finally, 2 manual twists of fresh black pepper. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!

Okay, sorry I went on so long, and to the few of you that made it this far, thanks for reading.

As I reread the paragraph of musings on my own psyche, I realize I may be getting a little deep for a 'This is my trip to Spain' blog, so I apologize if it's TMI. I also want to apologize to my mom for using all the French language, I know she doesn't like it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My new favorite European city...

So yesterday I spent the day in San Sebastian. OH. MY. GOD.

The city has everything you could possibly want. Gorgeous beaches, incredible architecture, abundant shopping, terrific food, beautiful people, culture, history... I am completely enamored; so much so that my plan for the rest of trip is to stay in the cheap hotels I found and spend the entirety of my weekends there. I think I could be there for months and still have more I'd want to do.

My day started off with a nice, long lunch at a cafe next to the Catedral de Buen Pastor (all the pics are on facebook by the way). Had some patatas bravas, a sandwich, a couple of glasses of HEAVENLY sangria. Seriously, it was like drinking nectar. Then walked along the beach, found myself in front of the aquarium, so decided to check that out. Looked at fishies for a couple hours, then walked around the mountain at the northern tip of the city, saw a couple churches, did some window shopping, had a fanta (I love European soda pop!)... made my way to the center of town and watched teenagers practice their breakdancing, had a cafe con leche and wrote in my journal for a while, then found a little spot for dinner. My good friend Megan told me, before I left, that SanSe was her fave spot in Spain. I can see why! And because it's the off-season for tourism, I found a modest hotel for 25 Euro per nite! It will henceforth be my home away from home away from home. Quite a necessary luxury, as I am often battling the challenges of living amongst 9 people...

...Not the least of which is the fact that every single human being in this country smokes cigarettes CONSTANTLY. I guess I've been spoiled by the health-conscious SF lifestyle, because my throat is constantly scratchy and I haven't been able to breathe out of both nostrils simultaneously since I landed in Madrid. However, for the challenges of my living situation, there are benefits as well... after all, I am living among 9 chefs. Last nite when I returned, one of my roommates had prepared a 5 course meal for the house! Shrimp consomme and mushroom ravioli, cod throat (think salmon belly but even better!), risotto, this incredible fish over sauteed leeks topped with thinly sliced fried potato discs (a dish he learned when he worked for Gordon Ramsey at the Savoy in London), and vanilla ice cream with a chocolate/coffee/crushed peanut sauce. No joke, right? And then I get home from a run this morning (by morning I mean 2pm) to plates of Eggs Benedict and sausage. So I guess I have to admit, I am taking the good with the bad out of this situation. That's the way it works, right?

Anyway, it's back to work tomorrow, but the weekend has left me renewed and refreshed. Moreover, the promise of weekend life in SanSe should prove to be motivation for the laborious work week. I start on Primeros Platos (appetizers) tomorrow... wish me luck!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

1 week down, 9 to go...

So I made it through the first week alive. Gravy.

I have been pushed to my limits, for sure, and interestingly enough, I have already fulfilled 1/2 of my required externship hours. Ridiculous, right? If only my feet didn't feel like they were about to fall off. Seriously, the best part of my day is the moment I take my shoes off. Even thinking about it I get giddy and light-headed.

As I sit now overlooking the plaza, sipping Rioja, I can honestly say I am satisfied with myself thus far. I'd be lying if I said there hadn't been hiccups, but the first week is the hardest for sure, and I got through it relatively unscathed. Next week I move to the 'Primeros Platos' team, which means no more Monday, thank God. And it also means less bitch work and more actual food, learning, plating, etc. So I am pretty excited. But it also means longer hours; c'est la vie, right?

Tomorrow I head to San Sebastian! I am wishing my ass off that the weather replicates today's 85 and sunny, because I am bringing my bathing suit. I plan on spending the day there, maybe even the night.

Almost forgot to mention food (as is my goal each time I post in this blog)... Today's lunch at the restaurant was actually pretty incredible: braised beef cheek, asparagus, mushrooms, baguettes, leftover crab from yesterday's wedding, and these little roasted peppers that are like jalapenos but not spicy. Really delicious, I have to admit.

Alright, time to figure out what I'm doing tonite... option A is pass the f**k out and sleep for 15 hours, option B is head out with my roommates and make tonite an even later nite than last nite. Time will tell...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everyone hates Monday...

So I'm here, I'm adjusted, I'm off and running. And I am HAPPY to be as such.

My apartment is pretty much the model of absurdity: 9 people. 3 bedrooms. And best of all: 1 BATHROOM. Uno. That being said, it is quite a fun place to live, despite the sardine-like conditions. 2 Mexicans dudes, girl from Agentina/Miami, guy from New Zealand (who was the exec chef at the Fillmore in SF, coinicidentally!), kid from Portugal who speaks 5 languages (known by most as 'The Professor'), a Spaniard, a Korean, and Kevin from Oklahoma. The partridge and the pear tree arrive next week.

The restaurant is one big ass-kicking, making me realize I really have never done a hard day's work in my life. So for the next 10 weeks I will be making up for lost time. Best of all, the guy telling me what to do as of now is a jet-black Nigerian named Monday (what?!), whose favorite sentence-ender is 'fuck off.' Seriously. King Asshole of the land of assholes. Yesterday he screams at me: "YOU ARE NEW! IF YOU DON'T KNOW SOMETHING, YOU ASK! UNDERSTAND?! NOW FUCK OFF!" Lovely, I know. Then today, I ask him a question about rolling croquetas, and he screams at me: "DON'T ASK ME ANYTHING, EVER! JUST DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO DO!" Sweet.

That being said, he's not hard to figure out. I just work as hard as I can, as fast as I can, and he ignores me. Those are his only 2 settings: Angry at you or Ignoring you. Hmm, I'm going to go with Option B. The really hard part is that he insists no one speak in the kitchen. At all. So when we want to have conversations, we have to be really quiet and then shut up whenever he walks by. Dude makes the Soup Nazi look like Mister Rogers.

Best of all, our work day starts at 9am and goes until around midnight. For reals. There's usually about 20 minutes for lunch at noon (yesterday was tripe, today was beef tongue... can't wait till tomorrow!) and two hours for siesta at 5. At least I can take comfort in the fact that any job I take back in SF can't have hours much longer than this one...

I think I'ma do some exploring in San Sebastian this weekend, stay tuned for that. I now have regular, free wireless at the cafe across the plaza from my apartment and they make a mean cafe con leche (yummy...), so I imagine most of my siestas will be spent here basking in the glow of the internet.

All in all, the adjustment is complete, and while I can't say life is easy or luxurious, it is definitely good. I am happy, albeit usually exhausted, and I can't wait to start exploring Spain, continuing to learn from those around me, and, most importantly, EATING THINGS!!!

Focker, out!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hola de Espana!

So I am about as cracked out as cracked out can be. The only sleep I've had in the last 24 hours was 2 hours on the plane and an hour and a half in the train station. But I met up with Ceci! Which made me feel a lot better. So did her snazzy blazer. And I ate a de-LACIOUS sandwich de jamon serrano. Yummy in my tummy. I've got 2 hours till my 5-hour train to San Sebastian, at which point I will be showing up at the restaurant around 10pm to find the person who will take me to my apartment...? Hopefully.

I just wanna be settled and not vagabonding. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...

I've also had my first homesickness pains. And I miss my gypsyfish. Stay tuned, hopefully the next post will be from my actual apartment that actually exists...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go...

Seriously though. They are. And they cost me $250 to check. Which is the bullshit! Thanks, Delta.

As I sit here at National, minutes away from boarding, I surprise myself at my ability to hold down the chicken club and pint of Sam Adams Octoberfest that will (hopefully) hold me over until the delight of AIRPLANE FOOD! My newly sharpened culinary palate is in for the equivalent of a Nascar driver renting a Smartcar to drive cross-country...

Anyway, I've said most of my goodbyes at this point and am still HELLA (for you, Sar) nervous. Cross your fingers and toes for me, speak to the ascended Masters on my behalf, wish on a falling star, yada yada yada...

"This is it. Don't get scared now."
-Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone

Monday, September 28, 2009

Amuse Bouche

So here I am, blogging the first entry in this delicious, nutritious blog. I'm here in my parents' family room watching Superbad, enjoying a glass of Tempranillo and some organic dark chocolate. I leave for Spain (Basque Country, to be specific) in T-minus 16 hours.

Like, HOLY shit.

In all honesty, I am hella nervous. Mostly for speaking Spanish in the kitchen. And understanding it when it's spoken to me at a very fast rate. During the dinner rush. But I'm a fast learner and a hard worker and a decent guy and I think that altogether I'll be okay. I just want to learn as much as I can and fill my head with good stuff so that when I come back I can set myself apart. And that's all I'ma blog for now: a tasty little taste.