Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stir Until Famous

Recently I had a student in a community culinary program assisting me on a job, and when I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation she said, “Get my own TV show.” If you’ve been in the food business you know that is about as realistic as me saying I am going to retire on lottery winnings.

When I inquired what she planned on doing before she got her own show, she told me that having a show was pretty much all she was interested in. This is not the first time I’ve heard this type of career plan. I actually hear it quite often.

In this age of celebrity chefs, it seems that so many are entering the food business with hopes of becoming famous instead of dreams of becoming the most knowledgeable cooks possible. I hope the desire to absorb endless amounts of culinary knowledge is not being lost to the hunger to be famous.

In the search for fame, it is now commonplace for people who simply enjoy cooking to declare themselves food experts, as opposed to the time-honored method of earning that distinction. It seems to be increasingly easy when any and everything can be promoted online. Maybe the days of reaching career goals by gaining experience and soaking up knowledge are over.

I wonder if this is happening in other fields as well? No matter the field, it seems sad to me. A deliberate decision to attempt a shortcut to a dream is to miss out on all the lessons a journey can offer. Reaching the destination also becomes a lot less sweet.

When I started on my career path 12 years ago, I never considered skipping all the tough work and landing at the finish line. Those of you who have worked in a production kitchen know what I mean. And I must say the dues I’ve paid along the way have been worth every penny. Countless times I’ve worked in front of a stove until the wee hours of the night (when my legs and back were done hours before quitting time). I burned the hairs off my forearms on several occasions until I learned better. I’ve run a steamy Hobart so long that my hair was soaked through as if I’d been swimming. Waiting tables for people who considered me beneath them was yet another payment made into my dues account.

I distinctly remember a morning during culinary school when I walked into the building at 5:30 in the morning in the pouring rain. I had parked many blocks away, it was pitch dark outside, and it was already a very warm Charleston day. I was taking meat-cutting class at the time and was wearing 3 layers on both the top and bottom just to keep my knife hand from shivering in the 40˚ classroom. I recall thinking that I was working towards something much bigger, that I was paying my dues.

I will stick with my philosophy even if hard work is going out of style. If you want to reach your lofty goals, you have to do a lot of jobs that you really don’t want to do. And most importantly, learn from them.

To illustrate the food business, think of it as my favorite dessert, a ten layer caramel cake. There are layers of many levels of professionals and amateurs that make up the business that feeds the world. It takes all levels, from start-up home-based businesses resting on the cake plate to those who have invested years to reach the top layer. There is a place for all the layers and each and every one is necessary to keep the cake from collapsing. Talented and hardworking cooks certainly deserve their own piece of the cake.

At this stage in my career, I have written 3 cookbooks and countless articles, taught hundreds of cooking classes, and appeared regularly on national television. I consider myself truly blessed to make a living doing what I love to do. And I don’t believe I could do my job to the best of my ability without a solid foundation of education and experience.

Appearing on television and in the pages of magazines is simply icing on a really good cake. It’s just not the reason to preheat the oven.

To end on a very sweet note, here’s my grandmother’s recipe for caramel cake.

Tom’s 1-2-3-4 Cake

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

Tom’s Caramel Icing

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Grease and flour 3 (8-inch) light-colored cake pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer for about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla extract.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add the flour to the butter mixture, alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter using a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake at 350°F for 23 to 26 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into middle of the cakes comes out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on cooling racks. Frost with Tom’s Caramel Icing.

Makes 3 (8-inch) cake layers

Tom’s Caramel Icing

2 cups sugar

1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup unsalted butter

Combine the sugar and the evaporated milk in a medium heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly until all the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.

Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Boil for 4 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 1/2 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and carefully stir in the vanilla extract and the butter. Stir constantly until the butter is melted.

Let the icing cool for about 5 minutes before spreading on the cooled cake layers. If the icing begins to look grainy as it cools, whisk a few times. Spoon about 1/3 cup of icing in between the layers and spread the rest over the top and sides of the cake. The icing will set as it cools on the cake.


Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Lang Cooks, LLC

Friday, August 6, 2010

If Only a Fork Could Talk

A trip to our family storage building is always an adventure. What could be a chore for others becomes a magical ride back in time as the door rolls up. On a recent trip, my mother removed two boxes of old canning jars, a dusty cookie tin that was oddly heavy, and my dad’s childhood camping skillet. She delivered them to my house and the stack of treasures sat at my basement door, virtually ignored, for several weeks. (So long that I actually forgot the exact contents.)

Yesterday, I dug into the boxes, washed each jar and set them out to dry. On opening the tin (after several minutes of prying on the lid) I found old, scratched, dented, and very much-loved silver plate flatware. I hand washed each piece and enjoyed every minute.

On picking up a fork, I noticed two initials I didn’t recognize. After calling my parents to investigate just exactly who once owned the set, I learned that it probably belonged to my great-grandmother. I, of course, never met her, but now I can wrap my hand around the silverware she used to serve her meals. It’s almost overwhelming.

I picture my grandfather as a little boy complaining about his vegetables while waving his fork around. I imagine my great-grandfather coming in famished from the farm and to devour supper with place setting now on my counter. It’s hard to have never known these people, my people. I’m sure this silver plate could give me a glimpse into their life around the table. If only a fork could talk.