Saturday, January 21, 2006

Corporate Kohen

So I've completed my first week as "Concierge" to the recruiters coming to the Business School to woo students into summer internship and potential full time positions after graduation. It's so interesting to see the whole process take place. Each day that I observe, I am more grateful and relieved that I am not one of those students.

Firms such as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, and J.P. Morgan all came this past week and conducted intense 2 on 1 interviews with students interested in banking. With the students pacing and quaking, I sat behind my desk and observed with utter fascination.

The school offers about 50 small interview rooms that are all utterly bland, yet acutely intimidating. Part of my responsibility is to set up the rooms at the end of each day for the next mornings interviews. The paraphernalia consists of brochures about the school, mints, pens, paper, etc.

It's a welcome relief getting a break from not only being on my feet, but from working in the cafeteria. I'm fully immersing myself into the corporate world, which is something I haven't done for quite some time. I'm wearing heels, blow drying my hair, and actually baking cookies for the ladies in the office. It's strange. I feel completely displaced, yet strangely comfortable.

Yesterday, I took the train down to Hyde Park. We live about 10 minutes north of downtown and Hyde Park is maybe 20 minutes south of downtown. The train was filled during the entire trip south. When I stepped on in my neighborhood, everyone was white. As we headed downtown, a few black people jumped on board and by the time we were maybe 4 or 5 stops south of the city, the train was completely black. Just another random observation.

I'm back in the cafeteria today and tomorrow and then Monday through Friday of next week, I'm back in my business suit.

My husband and I were very successful with our super foods this past week. We will try again for week 2. Besides tonight, of course, when we went out for Mexican and I gorged on chicken enchiladas.

By the way, did anyone else freak out when they saw David Palmer still doing State Farm commercials? Didn't he just get assassinated?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Super Foods To The Rescue!

This afternoon I took some time to glance over the San Francisco Chronicle's Food Section. It's consistently recognized as one of the best in the country. I noticed an article titled, "The Power of Super Foods." These articles seems to pop up right after New Year's; attempting to play on the guilt of Americans after their season of holiday indulgence.

I gave in and printed out the list of the super foods and tacked them onto our refrigerator:
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Bean
  • Blueberries
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Kiwis
  • Oats
  • Spinach
  • Walnuts
  • Yogurt
The article claims that these foods can "possibly transform my life." I don't really have a problem with any of them, especially the chocolate. Blueberries will be tough to find right now and I assume blueberry pancakes and scones aren't what the article suggest I eat. Hmmm...I could probably get some of that Greek yogurt and drizzle it with some honey and thaw some frozen blueberries from Trader Joes.

Honey Crisp Apples are absolutely divine. Unfortunately, the Whole Foods by our apartment doesn't carry them. Come to think of it, I've only seen them at work. They are crisp and sweet and the perfect addition to any salad. But any variety of apple is great with salad and even a nice addition to some sandwiches.

Everything else on the list seems simple enough to add to our diet; except kiwis. I guess I can add it to some cold side salads or combine it with mango for a salsa or relish.

So my husband and I are only together for three dinners this week. Here is our menu:

Salad of Spinach, Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts, and Apples
Walnut Crusted Chicken
Quinoa Salad of Dried Cranberries, Scallions and Citrus Vinaigrette
Spinach with Lemon and Toasted Pine Nuts

Turkey Burgers
Sweet Potato Fries
Salad of Avocado, Shaved Red Onion, and Cucumber

Salad of Spinach, Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts, and Apples
Chicken Stuffed with Spinach and Ricotta
Saute of Zucchini, Summer Squash and Orange Pepper with Thyme
Brown Rice

We have a ton of chicken breast in our freezer so I'm trying to use that up. And I also hate wasting food and having it sit around. So, for example, if I'm going to use red onion on the turkey burgers, I'll have plenty left over to mix it with avocado and cucumber. Likewise, I'll use one whole bunch of scallions between the quinoa salad and the turkey burgers.

Brown rice is just painful to eat sometimes because it gets so dry. I make it with chicken stock which definitely helps.

Tomorrow I'm working in Garde Manger again from 2pm-10:30pm. Ugh. I hate working that late. And it's NFL Playoff time. There is a wedding for 230 guests and I have to plate a salad for them. I'm hoping I can get everything done before I have to plate, and then just leave a little early. We shall see.

Not So Bittersweet

My husband and I live above a bakery: "Bittersweet Bakery." It's a cruel and delightful circumstance. When we first moved in, I would bake in the kitchen and try to compete with the scents and smells that were drifting from upstairs. I finally gave up and succumbed to letting the aroma of baking scones act as my alarm clock.

Apparently they have blueberry, apricot, and ginger scones, but I'm hooked on raspberry. They must be loaded with butter because they don't really crumble and they literally melt in my mouth.

On my days off, I treat myself to my perfect breakfast of a raspberry scones and large mug of hot hot tea. It's relaxing and soothing and the ideal kickoff to a day of laziness. When I went downstairs this morning, I asked for the recipe and a subtle look of panic appeared on girl's face behind the counter.

"We don't really have any recipes," she said, as if the sweetness from the bakery had forced its way into her voice.

By the time we leave Chicago, I'd like to have a copy of that recipe so I'll keep trying. Tomorrow I'm back to work. I've had three glorious days off. Perfect timing, as I've been fighting a cold too. Wednesday and Thursday, I'm dreadfully working in the cafeteria from noon-8:30pm. Saturday I'm working upstairs with Garde Manger from 2-10:30pm. Boo...

The following week, I worked a deal out with the Executive Sous Chef that I would be taking Monday through Fridays off and only be available on the weekends. I'm going to be working down at the University of Chicago's GSB (Graduate School of Business). This is recruiting season and they were looking for some extra help. Since the hotel could only give me 16 hours a week, Monday through Friday, I used that as leverage to take some time off. I'll be working down at the school catering to corporate suits until the middle of February. Hopefully by then, work will have picked up a bit. I am available to work at the hotel on the weekends. So I could be working seven days a week until the middle of the next month, but I'm taking it week by week.

Something very sad: The University of Chicago pays more than The Ritz-Carlton.

My tea is getting cold.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Finances and Fish

My husband and I spent three hours this morning talking to a financial advisor. Even though I really tried to understand the conversation between my husband and the gentleman on the other side of the desk, I couldn't help but feel like I was listening to the teacher from Charlie Brown.

I drifted off in my thinking a bit and jumped on the band wagon of: New Year, New Diet. At least for dinner tonight. I ran off to Whole Foods and bought some soba noodles, fresh ahi tuna, an avocado, scallions, and some green beans. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat and wheat flour so they're healthier than semolina flour pasta. That advantage, coupled with our desire to take a break from brown rice made them a perfect choice for dinner tonight.

After cooking them, I toss them will some balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and sweet chili sauce. After a taste test, it definitely had some good flavors, but seemed a bit flat. I chopped up the scallions and added the juice of a lime. The noodles woke up and they were the ideal accompaniment to the seared tuna. The amounts of the sauces are up to's a good idea to find a balance between the salty, sweet, and sour.

Would also be nice to add some black sesame seeds to the soba noodles for a bit of color contrast and a hint of bitterness but I opted not to this evening. I think the noodles are best served room temperature with a dish like this.

Make sure to purchase fresh ahi (or yellowfin) tuna. It's so simple and quick to prepare. Just heat a skillet or grill until its super hot. Season the tuna with salt and pepper and sear away. In a non-stick pan, there is no need for any fat. Just lay the tuna down and leave it alone! You'll be able to see it cook up the sides. I like it still pink and raw in the middle, so about 4 minutes per side is perfect.

Make sure to cut against the grain or else the fish will just fall apart. If you don't mind having it room temperature, once you take it off the heat, throw it in the freezer for a bit. It will made it a lot eaiser to cut later. And use a sharp knife!

Seared Ahi Tuna with Asian Soba Noodles
Serves 2

1 lb. Ahi tuna loin or steak
1/2 lb. soba noodles
1 1/2 Balsamic vinegar
2 TB Sweet chili sauce
1 1/2 TB Soy sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1 bunch Scallions
Black Sesame seeds (optional)
Salt and Pepper
Avocado (Garnish)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Guest Blogger: My Husband and His Thoughts

Below is a letter that my husband wrote to "Fortune Magazine." The Four Seasons Company has been ranked by them as a top company to work for since its inception in 1998. My husband disagrees and share his thoughts on why:

"Hello, My name is Doug Kohen, I wanted to write a comment on the “100 Best Companies to Work For” article from January 24, 2005. I noticed that The Four Seasons Hotel is on the list, and am not sure I agree with that assessment. My wife and I moved to Chicago in September (I am attending business school at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business). My wife, Amy, used to work as a sous chef for a caterer in Boston, she is trained from a top culinary school, and was looking for a similar position in Chicago.

In September there were not many such opportunities available in Chicago, and my wife took a position as a cook for the The Ritz-Carlton (A Four Seasons Hotel) in Chicago in the Garde Manger department. In the past two months of her employment there, I have been astounded by how poorly the employees are treated. My wife was forced to join a union, UNITE-HERE, and pay a $100 initiation fee as well as $50 in monthly fees. After asking for her union benefits and other information once a week every week without any success, she eventually gave up. The union is set up such that she is not eligible to receive any benefits until after nine months of employment, but has to start paying for benefits after six months. In addition, the first 100 days she is working there is a probationary period during which she can be terminated without any justification.

The job is completely based on seniority as far as desirable shifts, hours per week, available overtime, etc. This is not unexpected, and my wife understood that she had to work the worst shifts on the holidays and only get overtime when there was a dire need. The rub of this is that employees usually get double pay for working holiday hours, except during the 100 day probationary period, so my wife had to work the worst shifts on holidays without any extra compensation. Now in January, as the business has significantly slowed down, they are only giving her 3 days a week of work, all working in the hotel cafeteria. She is nervous that she could be let go at any time because there is not enough work for everyone.

Aside from these union issues, Amy has had to deal with incompetent, egotistical management. Many may say that these characteristics are expected in the culinary industry, however I am surprised every day when I hear about some of the blunders of the upper management, including calling staff meetings at the busiest, most inopportune times just to show their power over their workers; approving vacation time for someone to get married and take their honeymoon only to renege on that promise a month before the date; staffing Amy’s department with a sous chef who did not have background in that area and had to defer to subordinates on many executional issues. I could go on, however I think my point is made.

At any rate, I guess I’m just confused why the Four Seasons is rated in your top 100 companies list, given my wife and her coworkers’ experience with the Chicago hotel. Perhaps this hotel is an anomaly, perhaps Amy’s experience is relatively standard in the hotelling industry. Regardless, I think that the researcher who put this list together should investigate whether this hotel belongs on the list.


Doug Kohen

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

6 Months of Blissful Marriage

Today marks our six month anniversary of our wedding. Yippee! I'm making a celebratory dinner of brisket and some roasted vegetables. The brisket will be tender and juicy, but neither of us can wait for the leftovers.

As we both had yesterday off, we took a trip to our local grocery store. I'm not a huge fan of it, mainly because it doesn't carry little hot dogs. That created a bias very early on. Not only did they not carry the frozen variety, but they didn't even have the Oscar Meyer packaged little guys to make our own at home. I'm still baffled.

So at the store, we picked up the basics for the briskets and the leftover sandwiches:

4 lb. flat cut brisket (as opposed to point cut brisket, which has more fat)
1 lb. bag of carrots
1 bunch of celery
Bag of small Spanish onions
1 can of crushed tomatoes
tomato paste
chicken livers
rye bread

Once we returned home and vowed to not leave our apartment again, as the weather was dark and rainy, we took to celebrating our anniversary a day early with an afternoon filled with watching bowl games, lighting a fire, and continuing our Scrabble competition. It was a perfect day....

For dinner, I had made some homemade ravioli with a beurre blanc sauce. The filling for the pasta was a puree of cannellini beans, shrimp, garlic, and rosemary. The beurre blanc was pretty basic. I minced a shallot and added 1/4 of white wine vinegar, along with 1 cup of white wine to a small pot. While that reduced, I diced up two sticks of unsalted butter. Once the acid reduced by 3/4th or so, I ribboned in the butter while constantly whisking. Season with salt and pepper and viola! Next time, I'll probably infuse the sauce with a spring of rosemary to bring the two components of the dish together, but it was a deliciously simple dinner.

This afternoon I'll make the chopped liver for the sandwiches tomorrow. Unfortunately, the grocery store didn't carry schmaltz, another knock against them. Frustrating because the schmaltz is what gives the chopped liver so much of its delicious flavor. I love when my mother makes chopped liver when I come home for the holidays. I never wanted to see what it looked like before it was cooked and I only first tasted her final result a few years ago. Now I'm hooked. My husband is the same way. He doesn't want to know what it really is or where it comes from, but slather that on some rye bread with white onions and leftover brisket and he's in heaven.

So I'll start by sauteeing some onions in a combination of butter and oil. Then I'll add the chicken livers, after I've picked them over and removed the veins if there are any. After I let the livers cook until they're about 80% complete, I'll deglaze the pan with some brandy. I think its add a nice subtle sweetness to the savory dish. Once the mixture cools a bit and some salt and pepper is added, I'll pulse it in my food processor just a bit. I still want it a little chunky to give it some texture, but I like the combination of the smooth and the chunky. Then, I'll sneak in some heavy cream (as if this isn't rich enough). Once that's complete, I'll grate some hard boiled eggs on a box grater and add them to the liver. This will add some richness that it lost from the schmaltz.

The resulting sandwich will be of chopped liver spread on rye with leftover brisket and thinly sliced crisp white onions. My husband first had it at Amir's in Ann Arbor, Michigan (GO BLUE!). He raves about this sandwich and I'd like to do my best to recreate it for him.

Next comes the brisket. First, I get my bright red Le Creuset dutch oven piping hot and add some oil. Once it's almost smoking I'll add the seasoned brisket and sear it for about 5-6 minutes per side. Once a decent crust is formed, I'll remove the brisket and start to add my vegetables and develop some depth to the dish. First goes the mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots (typically, its twice as many onions as celery and carrots). I'll also throw in some crushed garlic cloves and two bay leaves and some fresh thyme. Because I want to soften the veggies, I'll add some salt and pepper which will help draw out the moisture. After there is some decent color on the mirepoix, I'll add some tomato paste and stir to combine that. Then I'll return the brisket to the pot and add the crushed tomatoes, some red wine and finally some chicken stock. The liquid should reach about 3/4 up to the meat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and let the magic happen. The brisket is done when it's truly fork tender. !YUM! Fork tender is different than falling apart; you still want to be able to slice the meat.

The beauty of the winter is that these dishes fill the apartment with the most exotic and enticing aromas. Instead of dreading the heat as we do in the summer, the winter oven heat adds warm in both the temperature and scents.

Happy Anniversary.

Monday, January 02, 2006

What Benefits?

We have officially hit the slow season at the hotel. I’m only scheduled to work Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday of this week; all in the cafeteria. On the one hand, I do appreciate that they’re trying to give me hours, but on the other hand, this just isn’t what I signed up for.

My husband does not like the job I have. He practically hates it. He strongly feels that I’m being taken advantage of and that the hotel was not upfront at all during the hiring process about the reality of the job. His reasoning does seem justified but I’m trying not to get caught in the negativity of it all or else it will drive me crazy and somewhat infect my time at work and at home.

My expectations when accepting my position with The Four Seasons were not unreasonable. I expected to be in an environment where there would be opportunity to learn and see something new everyday. I expected to take some classic techniques that I learned in school and finally apply them (terrines, pates, etc.) I expected to be around chefs who were exceptionally professional, intelligent, and creative in their field and excited and eager to share their knowledge. I expected to be working 40 hours a week, no matter what time of year. And without a doubt, I expected that I would earn the name that will now bear itself on my resume.

One thing that is causing some frustration with my job is my requirement to join a union. Not necessarily the fact that I had to join it, but more with regards to what I have to endure now that I’m a member. For starters, I am eligible for health and dental benefits, but only after nine months of full time employment. However, union dues are deducted from my pay check once a month. So I’m paying union dues for nine months with no benefits.

The Four Seasons has a one hundred day probationary period for all new employees. Within that one hundred days, the management has the right to fire that employee with no reasoning at all, while the employee has no protection from the union. For example, just yesterday, on the day that our holiday season ended, an employee who did prep work in the cafe restaurant was let go. Apparently, it was because he didn’t work fast enough, but obviously other rumors spread like wildfire once he was behind the sous chefs closed doors. This employee was hired in the beginning of November. He worked his ass off for the hotel for two hard months; the hardest of the year and then was let go right at the beginning of the New Year. What are the chances that other restaurants and hotels are looking to hire right now? It seems to me like the café just needed some extra hands for the holiday season.

The instant I heard that he was let go, there was a split second were I was a nervous about my own status with the company. Was I just another body for the holiday season? I’m not too concerned about it now because really, what can I do if they think I’m expendable. Another factor relating to the one hundred day probationary period is that those employees do not receive holiday pay. Scheduling is a result of seniority. So within each kitchen department (garde manger, café, dining room, banquets, prep), who ever has been an employee the longest can request certain holidays off. If they have to work the holiday, they can request a desired shift based on their personal plans. For Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day I worked at my regular pay (which is determined by the union and doesn’t cover our rent—its’s quite sad) and I worked from 12-9pm, the least desired shifts. For New Year’s Day, I work at 7am which is obviously the least desired shift.

I knew going onto this job that I would have to work holiday and I assumed they wouldn’t be the best shifts. I complained and whined a bit about New Years to my husband and my mother because we hosted about 40 guests the night before, but I got through it and now it’s over with.

But what really gets me thinking is that when future employees see “The Four Seasons” on my resume, they will have certain expectations in my abilities. I have learned a great deal about presentation skills, and I’ve learned a great deal about cheeses and some other menu ideas, but our sous chef doesn’t bring as much to the table as I expected someone in her position to. She doesn’t know how to make terrines and pates and the one time she made chicken liver mousse, it reeked of blood because the livers weren’t properly deveined. As a sous chef at a Four Seasons hotel, she should know certain things. Those who work underneath her should expect her to know and understand the techniques that partly define her department. Her management and communication style with her team is atrocious. She does try to relate to each of us, but at the end of the day, I would not look for her for support. It just isn’t there. I think she accepted this position so she can mark it off on her list and continue to move up. I don’t judge her for that, but it’s a shame that I have to be on the other end of it.

Despite the negatives of my experience so far with this organization, I still take a step back and realize that it is a unique experience and will do wonders for my future job searching. I’m not planning on leaving, but I do browse once and a while. Union issues combined with bad management make this position difficult at times, but the truth is that I’ve been at this job for just two months and that isn’t much at all. No job is perfect and many jobs are frustrating at points.