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What I Learned From Working in the Food Industry

So, in 2012 I worked in the food industry. As a cook. In a vegan kitchen. Before that I worked as a pastry assistant. In a bakery. I woke up early all year long. Was on my feet all year long.

Here’s some of what I learned.

1. “Organization is the key to success.” This is actually a quote from my mother. But, it also is the only way to be efficient in a kitchen. It is impossible to be safe and clean and timely and work with others if you are not organized.

I wrote a little bit about organization (aka PREPPING = SANITY) for the home cook in this article about how to throw a dinner party. If you want more specifics, I think following the thread to Ronna Welsh’s Purple Kale Kitchenworks can definitely show you just how organized you can get.

2. Is waste really waste? Much like I mentioned in an early Ballymaloe post, professional cooking teaches you to be more resourceful. Just like how we candied our citrus fruit peels after juicing them for lemonade, in a kitchen you do try and use every bit. Where I worked, I loved how we used our organic produce leftovers and turned them into the delicious vegetable stock that was the basis for our soups. What we couldn’t re-eat, we composted. What does this mean to you? Darina advised us to look in our trash. Her point was that if you are starting a restaurant, you can see what foods, ingredients, packaging are being thrown out. Therefore, you can clearly see what is being under-utilized, what is not successfully executed, or even just track down who is throwing out so much! And, probably the experience of looking through the trash — with all its smells and textures — will make an unforgettable impression on you!

Also, I feel like potential waste equals potential fun. Unless an ingredient has seriously gone off, why not experiment with it? For instance, when I was at the bakery, we had a ton of stone fruit that was starting to go bad. My pastry chef cooked them up (I prepped them) and made a lovely peachy-plummy jammy topping that then got swirled into ice cream and delighted everyone. Super success! As I have mentioned before, mistakes in the kitchen are often worth eating.

3. Tools. Having the right tools is key. I don’t mean you need to go out and buy some fancy gadget to cook an egg or mince garlic. I just mean, have those knives sharpened always. Use those tea towels and wet rags. (Remember to put a wet rag or paper towel under your cutting board so it doesn’t move around). Use cast iron skillets whenever possible. Use appropriate size containers. It does matter. A difficult task can be made so easy by a small change to a better tool.

4. What are the ingredients trying to tell you? I have been reading and speaking to people in the food world lately, who say things like that. In general, I love how working with food helps you delight in the details of what is in front of you. It reminds me of what Georgia O’Keefe said of flowers. “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”

Bu-ut, there is something that strikes me as also rather precious in letting your food be your guide in that way. It means you have to be in conditions where you can spend time paying attention and getting to know your food like that. It seems more like an ideal, then what someone rushing home from work to get food on the table could muster. Oddly, having lived in both cities, I feel like that cooking at home in super awareness mode was much easier in Berkeley than in New York! In New York, rather than channeling Georgia O’Keefe, I mostly find myself on deadline with the ol’ Project Runway Tim Gunn line blaring in my mind — “Make it work!”.

Still, on my best days I do think mindfulness is the best way to cook (and eat). It goes along with the idea of not wasting. You simply cannot throw something in the trash if you realize it is a treasure in its own right.

One small example: the ancient prunes that I used for my Hunger Games stew (I made a stew that I thought was what Katniss loved in the book and had some friends over to try it. You know, the lamb with dried plums one…) Anyway, I made that months ago and then one day, found a bunch of leftover prunes I had bought but not used for the occasion. They were totally hard and seemingly unedible. But, instead of tossing them, I soaked them in water (which plumped them up) and stored them in a glass jar in the fridge.

Fast forward to today, where – yes, I ate them for breakfast on my oatmeal! I threw them in a pan with a little honey and water. After the mixture bubbled, I poured it over my oatmeal. My version of stewed prunes and a testament to not wasting.

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