Sunday, January 08, 2017

"Make It Yourself" Cooking Background.

This story really does have a point, if you bear with me.  I'm laying the groundwork for some articles on how to cook things for yourself.  I walk through the bakery aisles in grocery stores and see pies, cakes, doughnuts and cookies.  They all look good but I'm really not tempted to buy them.  Mass-produced pastries just aren't as good as the ones I make myself!  The same with dinner.  Why would I buy a pre-cooked and frozen lasagna when I can make one myself, at home, that will be better, in all ways, than the one from the store?  And, I don't even want to get into frozen waffles, pancakes and "breakfast sandwiches".  Yuck!

I started working in cafes, in West Yellowstone, when I was 10 years old.  I was hired as a dishwasher at the Silver Horseshoe Café.  I'd never done anything but deliver papers before that and had never washed dishes in a restaurant before and restaurants in West Yellowstone are incredibly busy in the summer time.  It's "slam! bang!" busy from the time the doors open until the place closes and there's no time for screwing around.

The cook tried to get me to understand how to get dishes done very quickly and I kind of caught on but...not.  I remember him bringing the stove top grates to me and telling me to get them "clean and shiny like new".  Well, they were iron grates with years of crust on them and I spent a huge amount of time trying to actually get all that off.  He came over and saw me still scrubbing the, at this point already clean, grates and took them back and put them back on the stove.

I didn't really learn the whole dishwasher job very well there as I didn't last long.  I mean, come on!  It was summer in West Yellowstone and I was ten years old!  There were fish to catch and camping and swimming to do so I kind of called in sick a lot.  In todays world, I don't think we can even hire kids that young.

As I got older, I learned to do not only the dishwasher job but everything there is to do in a restaurant, including waiting tables, cooking, being "host", bussing tables and washing dishes.  In most of the places I worked back then, the dishwasher was kind of the Prep Cook's assistant so I boiled, peeled, hashed, cut and mashed potatoes, made soups and chili, baked rolls and other things like that.  Dishwashers also were the cleaners of everything, bathrooms, floors, freezers and refrigerators...pretty much any greasy, dirty cleanup that needed done, the dishwasher was the go-to guy.

My Mom was one of the most sought after restaurant cooks in West Yellowstone back then and we wound up working places and shifts together so I learned how to work the grill from her as well as from other accomplished café cooks.  By the time I was 16 I was able to handle any job in the place and often did.  If someone didn't show up, I was the first one they'd call to fill in so I might be dishwasher one day, cook the next and waiting tables another time.

When I enlisted in the Air Force, as a policeman, I told myself I would NEVER work in a café again!  Never say never, folks.  It's too big a word.  I'm right back to being the "floater" again.  Now, I'm not doing it full time but it's not uncommon for my phone to ring and a waitress hollers "Help!" so I wander over to the Mint and fill in wherever they need me.  I've helped out at Parade Rest Ranch in West Yellowstone a few times over the years too.

My point here (Yes, I'm finally getting to it) is that I have a pretty extensive background in the restaurant business and in cooking.  So, a few years ago, I heard that one of our local outfitters needed a cook for his hunting camp.  I'd never done that kind of thing before but figured I could learn by doing.

I quickly learned that the style of cooking at a place like that is very different from cooking "on the line" in a café.  In a café, you are basically heating up and assembling meal components as quickly as possible.  Everything has been portioned out and you just cook it up and throw it together.  At hunting camp, I was making "family style" meals; one big meal for everybody.  How much do you make and how do you make that much all at once?  More like the Prep Cook in a restaurant than the grill cook.

I did figure it out, though, and found that it was a very rewarding and enjoyable style of cooking.  I got a lot more personal satisfaction out of making good, presentable and enjoyable meals for a group as opposed to a lot of meals, fast.  At hunting camp I made my own bread and rolls and provided breakfast, lunch and dinner with a variety of entrees, sides and deserts for as few as 3 people and as many as 14. Rifle season in Montana lasts until Thanksgiving so I actually prepared and served a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner, with all the fixins, for the first time in my life.  I kind of pretended I was an old-time chuckwagon cook and treated the job in that way.  It worked.

A year or so later, Parade Rest needed a dinner cook for the last month of the season and I filled in there; once again cooking family style, this time for as many as 60 people a couple of times (with lots of help).  I really enjoyed it and decided this was something I could do well and still have fun.

Last fall, I cooked for a roundup crew in Nevada for a month.  As few as three and as many as eight people for whom I provided breakfast and dinner every day for almost a month.  Once again, I made almost everything from scratch, including bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls, cookies and pies as well as breakfast and dinner entree's and sides.  It was enjoyable and satisfying and I feel like I might have finally found my nitch, after only over 50 years!

So, my plan here is to provide a few insights I've gained in 40+ years of food service, with an emphasis on doing for yourself what the grocery stores are trying to do for you.  Make your own doughnuts, cookies and pies.  Cinnamon rolls seemed really hard to me the first time I made some.  Pie crusts can be frustrating but you can make your own that will be as good or even better than one from the store and you have the satisfaction of having made it yourself.

Remember, I cooked my first traditional Thanksgiving dinner in a tent in the mountains of Montana.  You can certainly manage to make dinner in your kitchen at home!

Check back here once in a while for a continuation of this theme.  I'll give you an idea of the tools I like and the work-arounds and shortcuts I've learned over the years.  Maybe we can have some fun here together.

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