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Dish of the day – crudo

Crudo is the Italian combination of the two culinary concepts sashimi and ceviche. Obviously, it involves raw seafood and it made with some acidic component, olive oil and sea salt. Ceviche differs in that it’s actually a cooked dish, the cooking coming from marinating seafood in an acidic liquid, usually citrus based. It’s usually cut into smaller pieces or is assembled from various raw seafood such as small shrimps, calamari or small, bite-sized pieces or fresh fish. Crudo, on the other hand, isn’t actually marinated in anything other than olive oil. The acidic component is added at the last minute, whether on the plate or drizzled over the fish or actually applied by the diner fresh from the fruit. Any additional ingredients other than what I outlined are usually limited to some sort of aromatic herb such as basil, parsley or fennel. Also, it’s usually presented more like sashimi, with slightly larger pieces. Ceviche, on the other hand, features smaller cuts of seafood, either diced or cubed in order to facilitate the “cooking process”. It also usually features onion or shallots and can also have additional ingredients. Different regions have different variations, including ingredients like corn, chiles, etc. Sashimi is basically just raw fish, sliced to show off the grain of the fish and is served with minimal accompaniment, i.e. a little sliced daikon, cucumber or ginger and usually is served with a dipping soy-based sauce that might or might not include wasabi

Crudo is simpler than ceviche and slightly more involved than sashimi.

As more and more chefs discover crudo as a “new”, “fresh” culinary product, the tendency has been to add additional components, or use crudo as an ingredient in a larger dish. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, but the key to a successful crudo is two-fold, find the freshest saltwater seafood (because, let’s face it, raw seafood is potentially dangerous), and the KISS concept, Keep It Simple Stupid. The star is the seafood, not the things that you might pile onto it. Well, that and the combination of the olive oil, sea salt and acidic component. It’s almost like a very simple, deconstructed citrus viniagrette, or gastrique. Some chefs also use various vinegars in addition to the citrus juice.

If you keep in mind the simple concept that ceviche is actually a cooked dish and sashimi doesn’t have a “sauce”, but a dipping sauce, it’s easy to keep them separate.

Not many restaurants serve crudo, but who knows? You might encounter it some day and I hope that you get the chance to try it at some point. It’s a fresh, clean dish that is almost a palate cleanser.

Traditional crudo

Hamachi crudo with avocado

Culinary term of the day – miso

Miso. A simple thing, this aged, pureed soybean paste. And yet, it is quite complex in its own way.

According to the book, “How To Cook With Miso” by Aveline Tomoko Kushi (©1978, Japan Publications, INC, ISBN 0-87040-450-4), miso “contains living enzimes which aid digestion, and provides a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, vitamins, minerals, and protein”.

Miso is also in integral part of Japanese culture. Not only is it seemingly ubiquitous, it also plays an important role in the harmony that the Japanese follow in food preparation and consumption. It is an important ingredient in the concept of yin and yang in food (that is a subject that is beyond the purview of this article; if you are interested, I suggest that you do some Googling). It also has impact on health, as it can be used as a healing paste, or as a tonic to counteract the effects of too much alcohol or tobacco use.

But we in the West seem to only encounter it as the broth in starter soups at sushi restaurants.

I predict that miso will become a “buzz ingredient” in the near future. We’re already seeing some forward-thinking Western chefs incorporating it in more and more dishes. We’re seeing it incorporated in salad dressings and fish broths. It’s a flavor that hs been recognized as a great carrier for “umami”, the famous “fifth flavor profile” of savoriness. When miso broth is augmented with kombu (a specific type of dried seaweed) and dashi (dried bonito flakes), umami is allowed to bloom, especially when you add mushrooms, another ingredient with massive umami characteristics. Addionally, miso has its own umami flavor components.

This is the form that we see it in the sushi restaurant starter soup, that cloudy, rich broth with a couple of slivers of shiitake mushroom and scallions. This soup usually starts with a kombu and dashi stock, and miso is added to give it body.

But miso is more than just a great addition to soup. In the sushi restaurant, we often see it as a major component of the dressing that tops the simple starter salad that accompanies many meals. Restaurants as mainstream as California Pizza Kitchen and Applebees and high-end places like The French Laundry and Nobu have incorporated miso into their menus. Many mainstream restaurants have an “Asian salad”, and it’s almost a certainty that miso is used in the dressing. It gives that slightly earthy quality that one prizes in Asian dressing. And  Nobu Matsuhisa, chef-owner of famed restaurant Nobu, has a signature black cod and miso dish that has become famous.

So, how do you encounter miso in the wild? It’s normally found in plastic wrapped bricks. It almost has the feel of fresh mozzarella; a sort of sensuous pliability. It’s both soft and firm.

What kinds of miso are there?

First of all, it doesn’t have to be fermented soybean, although that’s the most common type that we encounter. It can be made from fermented rice or barley or several other grains, and any of these grains can augment soybean miso. The two most common types of miso that we find in the US are red and white miso. However, as I’ve said, there are several versions of miso. Miso is often made in Japan according to family traditions and each family has their own way of making miso. Here are the different kinds:

Kome miso (rice miso), mugi miso (barley miso), misozuke (miso with pickled vegetables), name miso (salt and eggplant or melon), Tyougou miso, (mixed miso, or miso made from multiple sources), red miso (aged miso), and white miso (normal miso). Occasionally, you come across yellow and black miso as well.

Each miso has its own flavor characteristics. Most of the time, US chefs and cooks will choose between red and white miso. However, don’t be misled, “white” miso isn’t usually white. It’s a lighter shade of “red”. Actually both kinds of miso usually appear to be red-brown. White miso usually looks more beige than white while red miso is more brick-red. And there are variations in all colors, depending on the type of processing and aging involved. white miso is usually sweeter, while red miso has the earthier flavor and lasts longer in storage. white miso usually has a higher proportion of white rice and is better suited for dressings, while red miso has more soybean content, is aged longer and has a more robust and complex flavor perfectly suited for hearty soups and can be used in sauces and braises.

And I think that it’s in main dishes that miso will become a star performer in the future as Western chefs learn its unique properties. Here’s a good example of miso being used as a glaze for halibut:

How is miso made?

It starts with koji, a “starter” of fermented barley, rich, wheat or soybean. Koji is roughly akin to sourdough starter, or the yeast/grain/carbohydrate combo in alcoholic products. The ingredient that koji is made from determines the type of tofu because soybeans usually comprise the bulk of the miso. Koji is then combined with soaked and steamed soybeans and salt. Depending on the type of miso being made, the levels of the various types of koji are adjusted up or down. All miso is aged to a certain degree because additional fermentation is required. For white miso, fermentation is limited to a few weeks, while red miso can be aged up to 18 months.

So, what is the takeaway from all of this?

Miso is an ingredient that will become increasingly prominent in Western cooking and more and more of the general public become exposed to it in mainstream restaurants. We’re already seeing it happen. As a waiter, you should at least know what it is, what its flavor profile is, how you can use it tableside to market dishes that include it. Many of your guests have heard the name but have no clue what it is. It’s your job to gently educate them.

And I hope that more and more of you home cooks incorporate this lovely and nutritious ingredient in your own cooking.

Famed chef Thomas Keller eats some of the best chicken wings anywhere in Nashville

From The Tennessean:

Chef Thomas Keller braves the heat at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

By Jennifer Justus • THE TENNESSEAN • March 31, 2010

The meticulous French-style chef, one of the most respected in the nation, has intense dark eyes that could sear a sloppy line cook faster than a filet in a hot pan.

But sitting across from him at the lunch table, I watched as a single tear rolled down his cheek.

He dabbed it with a paper napkin.

And then he reached for another bite of hot chicken.

I didn’t mean to make him cry. Really. But I admit that when I heard the famous chef — he of the James Beard accolades, the Michelin stars and the collection of posh restaurants from Napa to New York — was headed to Nashville for a book-signing, I knew Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was where I wanted to take him.

No question, fried chicken is hot right now. Just last week, movie star Gwyneth Paltrow gushed about eating fried chicken in Nashville on her blog, and glossy national food magazines have devoted photo-laden spreads to the humble bird.

But in Nashville, chicken has always been hot. Spicy hot, that is — the kind of heat that comes with a Scoville rating. So I was keen to hear what Chef Keller thought about our version. I also hoped to hear more about his Buttermilk Fried Chicken, a recipe that has its own cult following, and the emotional significance of chicken, which he talks about in his latest book, Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan, Nov. 2009, $50). Chicken, after all, is the last meal he ever prepared for his father, and the first recipe in the book.

Read the rest of the article here:

This article about the famed chef-owner of The French Laundry and Per Se is really a good read and has a nice ending, so I recommend that everyone read it.

Menu loyalty

What does this mean and what does it mean to a waiter?

Basically it means using your menu knowledge in order to build guest loyalty.

It’s loyalty to the menu from the waiter which in turn builds guest loyalty to the menu and, by extention, to the restaurant. while service is generally considered to trump the food in a restaurant (this verified by countless surveys and studies in the industry), the food is still where the rubber meets the road.

When the waiter can communicate the passions of those who create the food through their hard labor, they complete the package. Not only do they represent the Chef and his crew, they also represent the guest in that they can act as a guide to offer the exact meal that satisfies the guest. Too many waiters take a passive approach and this does no service to the guest, the kitchen and the restaurant itself.

By knowing the menu and the components that create the synergy of a meal, the great waiter acts as a tour guide and consultant – the goal is to match the guest’s preferences, biases, and intention with the menu. When you can identify those needs of the guest and pull from an extensive menu the perfect meal, the waiter performs the ultimate service. It isn’t enough to act as entertainer, babysitter and order taker. To put the cherry on top of the sundae, the waiter must discover the perfect meal hidden in that menu.

How does the waiter do that?

By creative and accurate descriptions of the food through “selling the sizzle”, answering questions about exotic ingredients, identifying potential landmines such as allergies, dislikes, and, dare I say it, weaknesses in certain dishes. they do it by highlighting standout performers, using descriptive and mouthwatering adjectives and passing along an enthusiam for the food and talent of those who have created the food.

You can only do this is you have a mastery of everything that goes into each dish. Once you gain this knowledge, you can effortless communicate the quality of your menu offerings, whether it be the humble hamburger or the most elaborate iconic dish. You bring your knowledge to bear in order to bring the menu to life.

Never let your responsibility in this regard lie fallow.

Culinary term of the day – cooking terms pt. 2

In part one, we covered roasting, sautéing,  and grilling.

I can hear you asking, “Why cover such basic stuff”? Well, for many of us, this is kindergarten stuff. But I suspect that many waiters, especially beginning ones, have never given cooking methods much though. for those of us who are also foodies, it’s pretty elemental. But even I had to struggle a little to make certain distinctions when trying to define some of the methods.

Having said that, we soldier on.

Broiling is akin to grilling. You might consider broiling as grilling with the heat coming from the top instead of the bottom. Not only do you cook with direct heat, you add indirect heat to the mix because you’re automatically cooking in an enclosed space.  As in your oven, commercial broilers that you find in a steakhouse provide heat from the top and the item to be broiled is placed close to the heat source. Temperatures are higher than roasting, usually above 500°. One of the main advantages of broiling is that you cook it so quickly and at such a hot temperature that the item being broiled doesn’t have a chance to cook in its own steam. This keeps surfaces crisp and non-soggy. sometimes, the broiler is used simply to add additional color and caramelization to other cooking processes such as roasting. While fish isn’t “roasted” too often, it is broiled quite a bit, especially firm and or fatty fish like salmon and swordfish. for some reason, people have tended to either bake fish or broil it – roasting at an in-between temperature only seems to be now becoming more fashionable. You rarely see it in a restaurant. I suspect that the term “roasted” simply doesn’t sound like it belongs with fish. It’s a perfectly fine way to prepare fish – you just don’t see it very often.

Speaking of baked – seems like a pretty simple thing – it’s what you do to a cake. Well, basically, it’s the cooking range below roasting. Baking usually occurs at 275° – 400°, whereas roasting occurs above 400°. Baking is a slower process and is used for leavened and unleavened bakery-type products, casseroles, things with melted cheese, etc. Baking cooks through the convection of hot air rather than direct radiated heat. It uses the steam producted by the item getting cooked to help with the cooking. As I pointed out, fish can be baked. Generally you don’t bake meat unless it’s in a stew or some form other than in the primal form. When it comes to fish, baking implies a more delicate texture and moisture than other methods.

Braising is the act of using liquid and steam and time to cook an item. In order to get good color, the meat being braised might be seared first in order to bring out additional caramelization. It might be floured first to assist in getting a good outer texture. It’s usually used for tougher cuts of meat like ossobucco, pot roasts, pork shoulders, etc. These cuts are “tough” because they have connective tissues integral to the muscle meat that have to be broken down and this can only be done through long cooking. meat also has collagen, which is released through slow cooking. This adds gelatin to the liquid, which adds a velvety mouthfeel to the braising liquid. Braising uses this very liquid to assist in the cooking and it’s done in a covered vessel which captures steam as well. You might use water, stock, or tomatoes to add to the natural juices of the item being braised. If you are making a stew, then you are braising.

Steaming – pretty obvious, eh? It’s the cooking of an item through steamed. This is a popular cooking method in Asian cuisine and it’s becoming more and more popular in modern Western cooking, although “European cuisines have long used steaming in certain quarters of their cooking. Steaming is considered a “healthy” way to cook since you don’t use oil or stock (obviously both can be added to the final product). Steaming can be done directly over “loose steam” or it can be augmented through a pressure cooker, which multiplies the temperature of steam to speed up cooking.

We touched on frying briefly in the previous installment. Frying is cooking through hot oil. Deep fat frying means that the item to be fried is completely submerged, while pan frying implies frying in a skillet or sauté pan loaded with an inch or so of oil. Frying is considered the unhealthiest form of cooking, but in some ways, the most “satisfying”. Frying is the only way to get a really perfect french fry. Most items have to be protected through flouring, breading or battering before frying. French fries and other fried potatoes are best prepared by blanching them in hot oil until barely cooked, removed from the oil and then fried a second time. Blanching is a cooking method all of its own. It means cooking quickly to a state called “par cooked”. Par cooked means to cook short of completion. The item is cooked to completion at a later date. Blanching can be done in boiling water as in the case of vegetables which are then plunged into ice or ice water to ‘shock” them, or hot oil in the case of potatoes. Blanching vegetables in water preserves the texture and color of vegetables and can eliminate certain odors present in things like cabbage.

Smoking is the application of smoke in a slow cooking environment. Cold smoking is done at very low temperatures, and, as such, has to be done very carefully to avoid food contamination issues. Hot smoking is what’s done in true barbecuing. Basically, you get a grill fire to a fairly constant temperature between 200° – 300° (the pros prefer around 225° – 250°). Wood and other aromatics are added directly to the hot coals, which creates smoke, which infuses the meat with such aromas as hickory, mesquite, applewood, etc. The wood has to be replenished periodically while the meat slowly cooks. Smoke ceases to penetrate the meat any further after about 6 hours or so.  You might call it slow roasting. Smoking is generally not done if meat is finished in less than an hour, with the obvious exception of fish.

Poaching is cooking completely in liquid, usually at a level below a full boil, usually in the 165° range. The liquid can be water or court bouillon, a traditional French poaching liquid which features aromatic vegetables, herbs and an acid component. Poaching meat keeps the meat moist but fairly bland. We all know poached eggs from eggs benedict.One of the newest trendy way of cooking, popularized by Top Chef, is sous-vide. Sous-vide is French for “under vacuum”. this is a poaching method whereby the item to be cooked is enclosed in a vacuum pack and then cooked in water for an extended period of time. You might say, “Well, my mama used this method when she cooked stuff in bags in boiling water”. A contraire, mon ami, sous-vide is a different process entirely. The food is cooked much longer and in a water bath of much lower temperature. A lot of care has to be taken to prevent food borne illness due to the low temperatures. Sous-vide provides a very sophisticated and nuanced texture to meat.

There are also other methods of cooking such as “slow cooking” (crock pots) and “sub-categories” of cooking such as sweating, blackening, coddling, creaming, etc. There are even cooking methods that don’t involve traditional heat such as pickling and marinading. Did you know that a marinade actually cooks food if left on for extended periods? Ceviche is a good example of this “chemical cooking”.

So, now that I’ve painted some broad strokes, how does this benefit you as a waiter? Well, first of all, isn’t it cool to know more about the food that you’re serving? But more importantly, the cooking method can help guide you to ways to sell various items. When you can properly describe things as tender, succulent, fall off the bone, toasty, crunchy, savory, you will have greater success matching people with food.  The style of cooking can help you in this regard. If something is braised, you’re not going to describe it as you would if it were broiled. As you learn more about cooking styles, you’ll learn more and more accurate descriptors. This is your job, after all. You’re not just an order taker.


Culinary term of the day – various cooking methods pt. 1

I see some waiters’ eyes glaze over when they are given daily specials in pre-shift. Sometimes they simply parrot the words that have been told to them – “We have roasted ossobucco with chanterelle mashed potatoes with a balsamic/basil/cherry reduction”. Or “Tonight we have sous vide salmon with braised leeks and stir-fried root vegetables topped with candied walnuts” – you know, the Chef always wants to throw in some sort of word or phrase which describes the cooking process. More perceptive waiters use their knowledge of these various cooking techniques to help them either describe the dishes or actually sell them.  In the event of a food contest, this can mean the difference between first and second place.

Have you ever thought about what these words mean, or are they just words to memorize?

I thought I’d go through some of the words and give a thumbnail sketch of each cooking type.

Grilled – this one most people know because of their family “barbeques”. Grilling is cooking over hot direct heat.  It’s usually done on some sort of wire rack (grill) which adds “grill marks”. Grilling can be done while covered, but usually the heat comes from beneath and from the rack that the food sits on. Grilling is a relatively fast cooking process. It tends to sear the outside of whatever is on the rack and, if there’s a high sugar content in the food such as is the case with carrots, you’ll get some caramelization. It goes past searing though because the food continues to cook on the grill. Grilling is usually done only with firm items due to the tendency of delicate items to fall apart on the grill. Grilled items usually have to be turned and can stick to the grill surface, so the food needs to be able to hang together when turned or flipped.

Sautéing is the cooking of food over a stovetop element in a skillet-like pan using a small amount of oil or other liquid. What Americans call a “sauté pan” is not what the French call a sauté pan, and heck, they invented the word, which literally means “to jump”. An apt description of the process if you’ve ever sautéed over high heat. 

A traditional French sauté pan looks nothing like we are used to here in the States. It is a large pan with straight sides instead of a smaller pan with sloping sides. Here is the French version:

I have one that looks just like this in my own kitchen, although I don’t have the matching lid.

Here is what many Americans call a sauté pan:

In fact, this is what your friendly neighborhood sauté line cook will use to cook a lot of what comes off the sauté line. Any waiter is familiar with stacks of these pans sitting above the stove. They are useful because they have sloping sides and are light which allows for easy tossing of ingredients. It is more properly called a “fry pan” or a skillet, but pans of this shape have been called “sauté pans” by home cooks for years.

Sautéing is a quick cooking process as well. It’s done over medium high to high heat. You can sauté in a small amount of oil as you do when you use a wok, or you can actually “deep fry” in an inch of oil, although technically this would be “frying”. If you are cooking something like a breaded veal scalloppini, it’s considered “pan sautéed”, not fried because the cooking time is short. If you are frying chicken, well, I guess the term “fried chicken” gives it away.

Sautéing is often a prelude for other cooking techniques. For instance, if you are using a traditional French sauté pan to cook a whole chicken, you might sauté aromatic veggies in oil first, then brown the skin of the chicken over high heat, then add some stock, cover and finish cooking in the oven by pot roasting.

As I’ve already implied, we can lump stir-frying into the sauté category. It’s just a specialized version of sautéing.

Speaking of roasting, this is a word that we use all of the time. but what is it really? When you try to define it, one fumbles for words because it’s one of those concepts that “just is”.

Roasting implies oven cooking at high direct and indirect heat. Most roasting is done at 400° – 500°. Any lower and you usually think of it as “baking” (and we’ll discuss this as well). But the key to roasting is the presence of fat, whether integral to the item being roasted such as the fat under the skin of a chicken or the marbled fat in a veal chop or whether you have to add fat in the form of oil as you do when you roast vegetables. Roasting caramelizes and keeps food savory while building flavor. While you can certainly roast fish, especially firmer fish like monkfish and swordfish, it’s not a common way to cook fish. Sometimes you might technically roast fish after pan searing it, especially if it’s a thick filet, but you usually don’t hear the term “roasted fish”.

Speaking of pan searing, searing is simply the application of high heat with minimum or no oil. It’s very quick and doesn’t actually “cook” the item that is being seared. All it does is sear the outside, leaving the inside basically raw. for items like tuna or filet mignon, this is a way to cook ultra rare. sometimes, as in the previously mentioned case of roasted chicken, it’s a prelude to other, slower cooking methods. It’s done to provide color and to seal in juices, although Harold McGee and other “food scientists” question how much this really happens. You can sear on a grill or you can sear in a pan or a flattop.

In the next installment, we’ll cover terms like “baking”, broiling”, “basting” and “steaming”.

Why are we doing this?

As someone who serves food, you should be aware of the different cooking techniques and how and why they differ. This will give you additional insight into helping someone decide between different dishes and, who knows, some people might actually need an explanation of what “braised leeks” means. the more that you know off of the top of your head, the more confident you’ll be tableside. And just because you might work at Red Robin doesn’t mean that knowing this stuff is superfluous. Perhaps you might be ready to move to an “American bistro” type restaurant.  sometimes, managers like to ask questions to determine how much a prospective waiter knows about food in general. I actually had one ask me if I knew the “mother sauces” once. As you move up the food chain, the more you will need to know about food and beverage.

Cookbook of the day – The Cook’s Bible

The Cook’s Bible: The Best of American Home Cooking

by Christopher Kimball

Publisher – Little, Brown and Company 1996

ISBN 10: 0316493716

ISBN 13: 978-0316493710 

Christopher Kimball is the bowtied, avuncular founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and can be seen as the host of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

The premise of his various media is a test, or trial and error approach to solving the world’s culinary mysteries such as how to achieve the perfect pie crust or “how do you create the perfect blueberry muffin?”

To this end, we find the book The Cook’s Bible.

This is a very useful look at not only creating “the perfect dish” but also a quick and dirty comparison of various cooking implements, the type of tests that you find in Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine refreshingly devoid of advertising. Kimball also answers the questions that have puzzled us through the years, such as “What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda?” and an explanation as to how cornstarch and flour thicken sauces.

Many of the trial and error tests include outcomes of various trials, with the results listed sequentially. This is very useful indeed.


I did find two fairly serious flaws in the book. The first is the command that you shouldn’t wash, rince or soak rice first. Well, that’s not the case with jasmine or basmati rice. Basmati rice in particular must be rinsed 4 or 5 times, until the water turns from cloudy to clear. This is done for several reasons – first, imported basmati often has the occasional tiny pebble or twig left in the bag. You want to get rid of those. Also, some basmatis are polished with talc or glucose and you want to get rid of that as well as well as additional starch. Some people say that basmati should be soaked; I’m not one of them. Kimball and his crew outline the various methods of cooking rice, but didn’t hit on the way that I’ve found that works best for basmati – simply put, you put about an inch of water above the rice (I was taught an index finger first knuckle by a very good Indian chef), add some ghee, oil or butter, toss in a bit of salt and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover and walk away for about 12 minutes. Don’t uncover it until at least 12 minutes. At that point, you can check it for small “steam craters” on the surface of the rice (small pockmarks where steam has escaped. Normally, the rice is just about ready at this point (unless you’re cooking mass quantities, of course). To check to make sure it’s ready, you take a chopstick and carefully part the middle of the rice and see if there’s any liquid remaining in the bottom. If so, return to the heat and leave it covered for another 2 minutes and recheck. Normally, by the second check, it’s done. You want to be careful to disturb the rice as little as possible. The great thing about this method is that the “inch of water above the rice” method works consistently for any reasonable amount of rice and any reasonably shaped saucepan (I’ve never tried it for rice for 10 though).  No measuring required. No precise measured ratios between rice and water. Once you get the hang of what “an inch above the level of the rice” looks like, you’re home free. My rice always comes out perfectly and never over or undercooked or stuck to the bottom of the pan. This works with either basmati or jasmine rice.

My second quibble is with his description of barbecue. Well, not so much with his description of barbecue itself, but his “blow by blow account” of cooking a 3.75 lb Boston Butt. First of all, he was waaaay too dainty when it came to air and grill temperatures. Even the most conservative, hidebound, Luddite know-it-all BBQ’er knows that 225 degrees is just fine. Trying to keep the temperature around 200 as Kimball did just slows things down and doesn’t help anything. Also, he found that the temperature had dropped from 145° to 140° at one point, leading him to speculate that he had taken the internal temperature at the wrong place. What he didn’t know, but any halfway experienced BBQ’er knows, is that there’s a plateau point in slow cooking where the temperature either stays the same or even drops for an extended period of time. that’s one of the first things you learn when cooking Boston Butt – that it generally plateaus at around 140° for an hour or two, and oldtimers caution newbies not to panic and crank up the heat – it’s just part of the process. But the final nail in the coffin is that he served the Boston Butt sliced at 145° and proclaimed it “the best barbecue he had ever tasted”! Well, maybe that’s what passes for BBQ in Vermont (or even Boston, where his empire is based), but I can’t imagine a 145° piece of Boston Butt being even edible. You see, Boston Butt is highly marbled and dense. It must be cooked to at least 180°, and that’s if you’re going to slice it. All of the connective tissues and fat must be rendered first to keep it from being tough. And personally, I cook it to the point where it can be pulled, which is a minimum of 195° (I usually like to go to 200° – 205° to assure maximum elimination of solid fat and connective tissue). I guess it’s also hard to find larger cuts of Boston Butt where he’s from (ironic that he claims to mostly only find 4 lb’ers of Boston Butt in Boston of all places – here in the South, the most common size is between 6 and 9 lbs). No, he definitely missed the boat all around on his section about BBQ’ing. He specifically says, “For barbecue, the experts say that the heat should be kept at a steady 200° – not 250° or 275°. This is hogwash. Paul Kirk, one of the most successful BBQ’ers says between 230° and 250° and Ray Lampe goes with an even higher temperature for pork butt (the cooler name for Boston Butt) – 275°. I’ve participated in the most widely read smoking forum on the web and most people talk about 225° – 250°. And I’ve discovered that for larger butts of 6 lbs or more, you can go for the first 2 – 4 hours at 300° without any problem (of course, your bark will be black, but that’s the perfect bark where I come from). Christopher needs to do a little more research. Perhaps he has, since this book is about a decade old. Oldtimers will bust me for the 300° comment, but I’ve done the trial and error thing as well, making notes all along the way, and my 300° – 325° initial temperatures and rendered perfectly moist pulled pork time and time again. the thing is, the last half of the cooking must be done at the more conventional temperatures – I like 225° once I get to the halfway point (I figure about 1.25 – 1.75 hours per pound – every Butt is different due to shape and density – I’ve had it take as long as 2 hours per pound before).

In any case, there’s a lot of useful information in this book, but be careful about some of his proclamations. I guess it would be trial and error for that as well.

Why all of the talk about cookbooks and food…

…on a waiter’s website?

Well, I love a good cookbook and I like food.

But there’s a bigger issue. The more interested you are in cuisine and the better informed you are about food, the more poised and confident you’ll be as you stand tableside and field questions and transmit a love of the dining experience and good food to your guest.

As a conductor must read music, so does a great waiter need to have a command of his or her menu. and that includes areas outside of the menu as well, for you never know when a chef’s special will have an unfamiliar ingredient or cooking technique. If you don’t know what a confit is (or don’t care when the chef explains it during pre-shift), you won’t be able to communicate it to the guest, or you’ll end up hemming and hawing and tap dancing.

And that’s not good tableside bearing.

Diners can smell blood in the water. They can also sense when a waiter knows his or her stuff.  Is a great waiter ever stumped? Yes, it can happen. You might be asked a question that you don’t know the answer to.

The key is giving off the aura that you know everything about food. It’s how you talk about it, it’s how you communicate flavor profiles, it’s how you answer questions on your feet.

Even waiters who serve in restaurants with fixed menus and no daily specials can benefit from food and alcohol knowledge.

And that’s where study comes in. that’s where exposure to different cuisines come in (even chain restaurants have started using some exotic ingredients.

Cookbooks can help you learn about different techniques, cuisines and ingredients.

Reading this blog can help you. Going to culinary sites that this blog points out can help you.

You are in charge of your career. Just coasting through shift after shift won’t help further the career.

I’m just sayin’…

New link added – Chef’s Blade

This is’s “specialty site” for chefs and cooks.

There has a always been a bit of a gulf between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house (commonly abbreviated as FoH and BoH). Waiters should make the effort to learn more about the people who bust their asses in hot and dangerous conditions in order for the guest to get top quality food.

This site can help in that regard, or at least it’s a good starting point.

It’s also good for guests, who sometimes think that the food magically appears from inside a black box.

For any cooks or chefs that might read my blog from time to time, it’s a sueful site because, let’s face it, it’s a site and it’s geared toward networking and career information. Every kitchen person should become a member of this site.

I’ll be adding more kitchen specific links in the future as well.

More about steak temperatures and food-borne illnesses

At the blog, “You’re My Shadow Today”, the subject of steak temperatures came up.

This was something that the blog “In The Weeds” recently tackled

and a topic that I also discussed a couple of months back.

One interesting comment was from someone with HIV who always gets steak cooked to well done out of a concern for health. Patients with HIV and AIDS are usually told to avoid “undercooked foods”, including steaks.

I was going to get on my high horse and say that you can safely eat a medium-rare or medium steak without fear of contamination because of the fact that e Coli and other pathogens that might be transmitted through an intact steak (as opposed to punctured or ground meat) are actually killed in the cooking process because they are “surface dwellers” that are aerobic (they need oxygen to survive and reproduce) and are killed when the steak is exposed to heat above 145º (giving an extra 5º as a hedge). This obviously happens when you cook a steak even to rare, although the USDA says that you should cook the internal temperature to at least 145º because they want to be super safe in these litigious times.

However, as it turns out, there’s a bigger reason why an internal temperature of 145º is the absolute safest way to go (which is what I consider the high side of medium). Turns out that it’s not so simple. Why, you might ask.

Turns out that some lower quality steaks are “blade tenderized” (or “needled” or “pinned”). This is akin to pounding a veal scallopini or pricking a flank steak with a fork or a roller to tenderize it. This damages the integrity of the surface and can drive pathogens into the interior of the steak while it indeed tenderizes what might be a tougher cut of meat.

Fortunately, if you go to the major steakhouses, you can be assured that this doesn’t happen. I’m not prepared to say what kind of restaurants that serve steaks might serve these sort of steaks, as you’re seeing lesser expensive steaks in all sorts of casual dining restaurants these days. It’s unlikely that you will find such “adulteration” of cuts like sirloin, t-bones, strips, tenderloins, etc. even in lower end places, but it’s certainly possible that you might find it in tougher cuts like flank steaks. Fortunately, those are the type of steaks that you want to cook longer anyway.

Here’s an article that lays out the issue, and everyone should read it:

Now, lest you think that I’m going to be ordering my steaks medium well, you’ve got another think coming. But I don’t have HIV, lupus, or any other immune-compromised issue. Mine is a personal decision. I think I’ve got a better chance of getting sick from cross-contamination (which is independent of internal temperature) than I do from some odd steak having a natural fissure in it that allows pathogens to get beyond the flame or running into a blade-tenderized cut somewhere that just happens to be infected. However, those with health issues or personal health concerns should read the above article and decide for yourself.

And, for those of you who grill steaks at home, you should keep away from those long pointy forks that some use to turn steaks after stabbing them. Most cooks know that it’s bad to puncture a steak because it releases juices, but the more important reason is that it sacrifices the surface integrity of the muscle meat. Even if the fork is squeaky clean, it could drive pathogens into the center of the steak, where, if you don’t cook it to the high end of medium (145º), you could give someone e Coli. So don’t do it. I don’t even own a prong like that anymore.