How one summer at a supper club transformed my cooking.
The summer of my freshman year in college I wanted to find a job near the lake house that my parents were developing. My plan was to work on their property during the day and earn a few bucks waitressing in the evenings. I’d been a server for years in high school at a quaint little place called the Whole Famdamily, sadly closed long ago, so I knew I had the skills.
I took a letter of recommendation and my bold 19-year-old courage to the only supper club near the lake house and pitched the owner to hire me. I figured I’d be a shoo-in since they were always busy during the summer months. He had two waitresses – Helen and Helen. Both had been there since the dark ages and neither found a smile easily. What better solution than hiring a young enthusiast who prided herself on creating the kind of dining experience that inspired nice tips and return customers? It should have been a win/win. Imagine my surprise when he offered me a job as the chef! I told him there was no way, I couldn’t cook – other than the occasional jello and macaroni and cheese, both of which I considered to be a challenge at that age.
He told me that he preferred someone who couldn’t cook because that meant I didn’t have any bad habits in the kitchen. He saw me as being “teachable.” It turned out that his teaching method included watching me carve and weigh prime cuts of meat through a one-way mirror and when I was off an ounce or two, he would calmly come into the kitchen, sharpening his knife, to show me the correct way. Despite his somewhat intimidating methods, I learned a great deal that summer that I carry into the kitchen every day.
Sirloin, tenderloin, and prime rib roasts all had to be cut to an exact weight so that customers had the same portion experience each time they dined. Meats were to be sliced in one smooth stroke, no sawing back and forth which causes little feathers. I learned that good quality, sharp knives are essential with a blade that runs to the end of the handle. We looked at each order in its entirely so that the entrées could be served at the same time. Items requiring more preparation or cooking time were started first.
For most steaks, let the juices bubble to the top and then flip. A well-done steak will have few juices when served whereas a rare steak will color the entire plate. Rotate the steak each time it is flipped to create a crossed grill mark pattern. Cooking prime rib, or re-warming since we pre-roasted ours, was especially challenging because it was done in a hot steel plate, filled with au jus, on top of the grill. When it was ready, the plate was inserted into its heat proof base with tongs. Because of this technique, each prime rib came out looking slightly brown and identical. I’ll never forget the night my family surprised me by coming in for dinner, they were all worried that I had overcooked their prime rib, luckily, that wasn’t the case and I nailed the “doneness” for each.
Seafood was a challenge unto itself. Shrimp, breaded prawns, lobster, crab legs – we offered them all and I learned to prepare and cook them all. Using heavy shears, cut crab legs up one side and down the other, leaving the ends attached to make it easy to access the succulent meat. I’ve since found that wearing cut resistant gloves makes this job much more pleasant. There are many ways to prepare lobster. Our method was to cut the top shell down the middle and gently pull the lobster up to lay on the shell before baking, slathered with butter of course. Even though most of the shrimp that we purchase these days are deveined, I still use a sharp paring knife to slice through the underbelly and pull out the little blue vein. If the shells remain, be very careful not to pull the tail off before cooking. Shrimp can be steamed or sauteed and are done when consistently pink and curled. Don’t overcook or they will be tough and chewy. A frying tip that I still use to this day – bread whatever it is that you are frying (such as oysters) and put them in the freezer long enough to nearly freeze but not all the way through before dropping into the hot oil. This sets the breading and creates crispy results.
Sides were easy because they were prepared by Christy, the sous-chef. Potatoes were previously baked and wrapped in foil to hold the heat. Fries, salads, and soups were all on the ready. She managed to cook a few too many fries with each order and we both managed to gain a few pounds that summer making sure they didn’t go to waste.
So how does all of this apply to cooking outside a restaurant? The irony is that while I rarely, pun intended, cook steak and seafood at home, I apply his teachings daily to prepare regular meals. Plan the menu ahead of time, make sure I have the right ingredients, know how long each item takes to cook, prepare as much as possible in advance and re-warm before serving. Portion estimation is essential. Consider how much one person will consume and multiply by the number of eaters. For instance, when I cook a large breakfast scramble, I estimate that each person would eat 2 fried eggs so for 10 people, I use 20 eggs. But most importantly, keep it simple. A meal doesn’t have to be complex to be excellent.
We know how challenging it can be to manage grocery volume during vacations. Some of our Cherry Creek Guest House visitors hit the nail on the head and others over-estimate how much they will consume. Again, planning is crucial. What cooking accessories are provided? How many meals will be eaten at the home? How many mouths to feed? What are the dietary preferences? Is there a plan for leftovers such as tossing extra meat and veggies into that morning scramble? No one likes food waste, but you can’t take it on the plane so better to make grocery runs as needed rather than overbuy.
I look at my chef training as a metaphor for life. Keep learning, plan ahead, use the right techniques, cut once, and nibble on a few extra fries along the way.
The opportunities for your next Montana adventure are unlimited and Cherry Creek Guest House is ready to serve as your home away.