The Desk Job

February 20, 2010

My preferred workplace in my early twenties

Roadshow Stop: Growing Chefs!
Roadshow Mentor: Helen Stortini, Executive Director

After University, wayward and unsure of how to get a real job, I decided to go treeplanting in Northern Ontario. It was hell. I would spend 10 hours each day clawing my way through the churned up land of a clear cut block, trying to get pine seedlings into non-existent top soil. Each time I thrust my shovel into the ground, it would smack hard against the unyielding rock of the Canadian Shield and reverberate back up my arm. With 40 pounds of trees strapped to my hips, I waddled around overturned tree stumps and razor sharp brush to try and plant my trees–worth 6.5 cents each. Swarms of black flies and mosquitoes relentlessly buzzed and attacked–sometimes biting so close to my eyelids that I came home with tears of dried blood streaming down my cheeks. At 6:00 pm, a rickety old school bus would ferry me back to camp, which consisted of a small pup tent, cold showers, and crappy food.

My desk alternative

Sitting on the back of the bus, I would pull off the duct tape that I wound around my fingers to protect the skin on my hands. It only helped a little–most of my skin was rubbed raw from jamming my hands into the ground all day. As we bumped along the dirt road, exhausted and filthy, my friend Guy and I would discuss our futures. We would declare adamantly that we never wanted desk jobs. The idea of a desk job seemed like a form of imprisonment, as though taking one would be selling out and succumbing to the rat race that was responsible for so much evil in the world. Somehow, the 10 hours of physical torture I endured six out of seven days seemed better.

Those anti-establishment attitudes ended with the nineties. Thankfully. And while I avoided the ‘desk job’ for sometime–working farms in Australia, teaching kids in Japan, and two more seasons of planting–it eventually caught up with me.

Without me even noticing.

Pre-Roadshow, almost every job I’ve done in the last six years involved planting my tush on a desk chair in front of a computer. (A few years ago, I had tendonitis so bad it rivaled the case I got while treeplanting.)

Being on the Roadshow has had me re-examine my nineties take on the ‘desk job’. While it is certainly naive, there is still something to be said about wanting to avoid a job that makes you unhappy and painfully aware of the 8 hours plus of each work day–desk or no desk. My desire to avoid this–to find something fulfilling and rewarding–is what put me on the Roadshow in the first place. I wanted to be sure I didn’t take a job simply for the sake of having one. And it’s been tough. I’ve been offered jobs (mostly fundraising positions) that paid well, and in some instances, were high profile. But they weren’t what I really wanted to do. And I knew taking them would mean, after the newness wore off, I would be right back where I started.

People who love their work
Through the Roadshow, I’ve had the chance to work along side a number of people who love their work, who actually like to get up in the morning to do their job. It’s been an inspiration to think that it’s possible to have this kind of relationship with your work and given me hope that I might actually find that.

And the next stop on the Roadshow was no exception. It was with yet another person who loved her job. My mentor for the day was Helen Stortini, the Executive Director of a non-profit called Growing Chefs! Chefs for Children’s Urban Agriculture. The organization’s goal is to teach kids and the community about the food they eat and inspire them with the idea that they can grow their own food, even in the city. It brings chefs into elementary school classrooms, dressed in their chef whites, to plant windowsill vegetable gardens, teach kids about food, and do cooking lessons.

Photo: Hamid Attie

Much like the Executive Director’s position, my role for the day was varied. I worked on volunteer recruitment–going from kitchen to kitchen trying to enlist new chefs. I researched funding opportunities. I developed a communications strategy and wrote copy for a new website. I organized the schools, finding out which classrooms would participate in the program. And a whole slew of other tasks–some administrative, some creative, some strategic.

At the end of the day, while I had spent most of my time at a desk–and still had all the flesh on my hands–I felt great. I wasn’t filthy or covered in bug bites, but I did feel exhiliarated–like I had been part of something really important. Like I could do this every day and feel good about it.

Growing Chefs! in the classroom

The Love Child of Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters
Now, before anyone corrects what would appear to be typos, it’s time for the full disclosure. I’ve got a job. (Gasp!) A part-time six-month contract, but a job nonetheless. And I love it. I found it the old-fashioned way with a resume submitted to an online ad. (Okay, well not that old-fashioned. But it was reassuring to know that it’s still possible to find work this way).

But I never would have found it without the Roadshow. Without the Roadshow, I would have taken a fundraising position ages ago. And my stints job shadowing have helped me realize that working with food, food writing, food education, and food systems was where I wanted to focus. (Thank you Chef Kristine and Chef Robin.) I guess I’ve always secretly wanted to be the love child of Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters–the Roadshow just helped me realize I could be this through my work.

I agonized over whether or not to take this job. Because I felt like it would be the end of the Roadshow. But at the same time, the whole point of the Roadshow was to do exactly this–help me find work that I loved. And it did. But along the way, I fell in love with the act of doing the Roadshow. I was so torn on what to do.

So I decided I’m going to have my cake (which isn’t much, trust me) and eat it to. I realize employment takes away some of my credibility on the ‘Unemployment Roadshow’–but I’m still going to do it. Because 50% of my working week remains unemployed. Although I suppose now I’ll have to re-brand as the Part-time Employment Roadshow or Underemployment Roadshow. But whatever. The Roadshow will continue on. If you’re willing to ride along with me in an exploration of meaningful employment and the work people do, I’m willing to do it.

Besides…I still need to get myself gigs as a flight attendant, stand up comic, adult store attendant, carney, zookeeper, mascot, embalmer, and chicken sexer!

Find out more about my new employer, Growing Chefs! And to see Growing Chefs! on CTV have a watch here.

And check out this great TedTalk by Jamie Oliver on the importance of food education


The Underground Supper

November 4, 2009

My Mentor: Robin*
Details: The Swallow Tail Supper Club


Two-thirds through her sommelier certification, Robin knows her wine

With the commencement of the Roadshow, I’ve had to put one of my favourite past times–dining out–on hiatus. I’m not alone in this–for many, economic belt-tightening means slashing non-essential expenditures like eating out. But as a foodie, I don’t have the patience to wait for my current economic situation to change before I can frequent restaurants again. I want to satiate my culinary cravings with delicious food, too much wine, and the company of good friends. Thankfully, there is a financially viable answer for the fiscally challenged: the underground supper club.

Underground restaurants are burgeoning in popularity. This surge could be attributed to this past year’s credit crunch. But it might also stem from the growing throngs of non-industry food-obsessed. Or the increasing number of people concerned with food security and commercial farming practices. Or it could be these underground establishments can now easily net crowds and generate a meme through social media. Most likely, it’s a combination of all of the above. But whatever the reason, more of these not-quite-illegal restaurants are sprouting up and opening their doors (often of their homes) to hungry, budget-minded diners. It’s become the hot new trend on the culinary scene; like last year’s poached egg, they’re popping up everywhere.

But it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Vancouver’s Apartment 12B, run by Chef Todd, has been open since 2007. My first venture into underground dining was in 1998 at one of Cuba’s paladares restaurants. Underground establishments have existed in Argentina for at least 30 years, known as estaurantes de puertas cerradas, or locked door restaurants. But in North America, pirate restaurants are garnering more media attention, and in turn, more clientele. I wouldn’t be surprised if Saveur magazine named underground supper clubs as the cuisine of 2009.

For this stop on the Roadshow, I got behind the scenes of one of these ‘by-donation’ restaurants. (It’s a legal grey area, but not quite illegal, so I haven’t broken rule number one.) I joined the chef and hostess, Robin, as she prepared dinner for eight for her underground supper club: Swallow Tail Suppers. In her East Vancouver home, Robin serves dinner to groups of 6-12. In the summer, guests dine outside, surrounded by a lush garden and shaded by fig and pear trees–the fruit of which often appears on the menu. In the winter, people sit at a long wooden table in her front room.


Robin cooking in The Swallow Tail's kitchen

Robin started her supper club this past February as an offshoot of her B.C. tour company, Swallow Tail Tours. Focusing on the province’s food and wine, Swallow Tail offers seven to one-day hiking, snowshoeing, culinary, and cycling tours where guests can eat and drink their way through the Okanagan, the Gulf Islands, Harrison Hotsprings, or Vancouver. Robin started Swallowtail Tours about a year ago after leaving a ten-year career as an art director for a video gaming company. She wanted to pursue her passions: food, wine, and B.C.’s outdoor fun. The supper club seemed a natural extension of the tour company.

The kitchen isn’t an unfamiliar place on the Roadshow. I have already worked a day as a line cook. But with this gig, I was to be prep chef, hostess, waitress, and dishwasher. My tasks were pretty straight forward: chop zucchini, zest lemons, wash pots, build a fire in the grill, slice onions. It was a much simpler language than the one spoken in kitchen’s of conventional restaurants. And things moved at a much more relaxed pace. Feeding eight people is far less stressful than feeding 80.


Tiger Blue from B.C.'s Poplar Grove Cheese

Robin bases her menu on seasonal, local ingredients. Like most underground restaurants, she, not the diner, determines what’s for dinner. Her guests send her a list of dietary restrictions and culinary dislikes, but what’s served is her decision. And diners don’t find out what they’re eating until it is on the plate in front of them. She does, however, email her guests a suggested wine to pair with each course. And she can make recommendations with authority–she’s two-thirds completed her sommelier certification. Booze is one of the underground supper club’s big draws for the fiscally challenged. It’s BYO, which means no exorbitant mark up on what you drink.

At 6:50 the doorbell rings. Robin checks her calculator watch (guess the gaming geek still lurks within). The first guest is early. We pour her a glass of her wine–an Okanagan chenin blanc and one of Robin’s suggested wines–and she stands in the kitchen chatting as we work. When the others arrive shortly afterward, they congregate on the living room’s large, mint-condition cobalt blue seventies sectional sofa–complete with a wooden liquor cabinet built into its corner. It perfectly accompanies the wood paneled walls, white-washed fireplace, and taxidermy owls. Behind the long dining table, a huge fish-filled aquarium bubbles soothingly. It’s a combination of crisp modern design and hipster retro kitsch–a genuine personality, rather than one of the handful of predictable “concepts” or “aesthetics” reproduced by consultants all over town.

When the first course is ready, I usher the guests to the table, which is decorated with hydrangea, smokebush, and winterberry floral arrangements picked from Robin’s garden. We ladle and garnish the soup and deliver to the diners. Robin describes in detail the steaming consommé with pork dumplings; each local element of the dish, where it came from, and happily answers any questions as the guests begin to eat. She does this for each course, creating a sense of attentiveness and interaction with the chef not often found in regular restaurants.


Second Course: Zucchini in Balsamic wrapped with Prosciutto

After each course, the guests lounge on the sofa, hang about the kitchen, smoke on the back patio (an underground supper club luxury), and uncork more wine. By the third hour, between the third and fourth course, two of the diners have plopped themselves on the floor in front of the stereo, which happens to be located next to the kitchen. They flip through Robin’s record collection choosing what tracks they want to hear next–records are splayed out on the floor around them. They’re in the mood for a little pre-dessert eighties dance party. As Pat Benetar starts to spin, a few more diners join them for some booty shaking. Robin laughs as she mixes the batter for the pear crepes. As her forty-something diners rock out to ‘Love is a Battlefield’ she tells me that one of her favourite parts about hosting the dinners is how differently each group responds to the experience. Some linger at the table for the entire evening, others crowd just outside the kitchen watching her prepare the courses, and others sprawl about the house and treat it like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

When dessert is served, the guests call us to join them at the table. They pour us each a glass of dessert wine and we quickly fall into the table’s revelry. More wine is poured. And a little more eighties dance party booty shaking starts up.

At midnight, the last of the dinner guests head home, with hugs and thanks for us both.

As we washed up, I thought about how underground eateries are often described as modern-day speakeasies. The Swallow Tail Supper Club, with its quasi-illegal status, living room setting, ‘by-donation’ Mason jar on the mantle, and free-flowing wine, certainly qualified. But since none of the guests actually experienced Prohibition, the truth must be that these supper clubs are tapping our zeitgeist rather than our grandparents’. To me, these underground establishments have become restaurant 2.0–a dining experience that is defined by and relies on user-(or diner)-generated content.

The Swallow Tail’s dinner that night:
Consommé with Pork Dumplings
Zucchini in Balsamic wrapped in Prosciutto with Lemon Zest
BBQ Romaine with Tiger Blue Cheese and Double smoked bacon
Braised Beef Short Rib with New Potatoes
Pear Crepes with Chocolate Ganache and Cream Anglais
Cost $45

Learn more about Swallow Tail Tours or book your own Swallow Tail Secret Suppers.

You can also check out the Ghetto Gourmet, a social networking site dedicated to ‘pirate’ restaurants and underground supper clubs. To try out another of Vancouver’s ‘by donation’ experiences–this one vegan–check out Secret Supper.

To book a dinner at Swallow Tail Suppers or check out a Sunday open house, click here.

*Given the quasi-illicit nature of pirate dining, I’ve refrained from using Robin’s last name.

Day 1: My life on the line

October 2, 2009

My mentor: Kristine Kittrell
My mentor’s details: A chef with 10-years experience in the kitchen. Also happens to be my sister
Office/Organization/Business: A four diamond restaurant in Austin, Texas
Catch phrase: colourful language, but heard with frequency “F*ck a duck.”

‘It’s hot, noisy, and the pay is shit. But you do it because you love it,’ said Dave, the line cook standing next to me. Dave was working the grill, flipping a recently killed soft shell crab for a crab and bibb lettuce salad. I had been the harbinger of death for the little guy–mercilessly hacking off its head and penis with a huge cleaver. It still twitched with its last pangs of life while grilling to perfection.

This was day one of the unemployment roadshow. I had jumped feet first into the kitchen fire as a line chef at a four-diamond restaurant. And I was nervous as all hell. I had seen the battle wounds on my sister’s hands and forearms–the scars and burns mapping out the menu of her career. I didn’t know much about working in a professional kitchen, but I did know that it was hot, fast-paced, loud, and dangerous. For someone who is regularly soft-spoken, slow moving, and clumsy, this didn’t seem like a likely pairing.

The Piracy
Anthony Bourdain once likened the kitchen to a pirate ship. It’s such an apt description. It’s hot. Space is economized. People cuss. People drink. They wield sharp knives and bang around hot metal objects. They break the rules. When things go to all hell, they call it being ‘in the weeds’. And there is a strong sense of camaraderie that these people are in it together. They even look like pirates. They have lots of tattoos and wear bandanas and loose-fitted pants perfect for squash buckling. And the topics of conversation would make a Human Resources Director faint. The most colourful from the evening was an argument regarding what the term Spiderman-ing meant. I won’t elaborate, but it was sexual and nasty.

Of course, kitchens vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some are run militantly, with no allowance for tomfoolery or nonsense. Others are a den of mischief. My sister came home from one job to tell me she had been waterboarded. It had been a slow day so the chefs decided to do it to one another just to see what it felt like. Another kitchen she worked in allowed almost no interaction during dinner service and every morning they had to polish their cookware and plates with gin. Any screw ups, even the slightest in nature, involved a violent 20-minute reeming from the chef de cuisine. Kitchens also have to constantly adapt to deal with whatever crisis is thrown at them. And there are many. Walk-ins break. Dishwashers stop working. Pipes burst. One shift, my sister and her fellow chefs all had to stand on stacks of cardboard boxes because the floor was flooded with an inch of water. But meals still get sent out. And a successful restaurant will ensure that the diners have no clue as to the chaos that ensues on the other side of those swinging doors. Much like the occupants of a passenger cruiser unaware of the advancing band of marauding pirates, the patrons eat in ignorant peace.

The Guillotine
Since I was job-shadowing, I expected to do just that. Shadow. Stand out of the way and watch the culinary mastery unfold. Not a chance. The kitchen was keen to have an extra set of hands, regardless of how blundering and inexperienced they were. I was immediately put to work on a mandolin slicing potatoes for the pomme frites. Mandolins are terrifying. They look like a miniature horizontal guillotine with multiple blades. Chefs make them look easy, like they will save a homecook hours of labour. But they are really instruments of torture designed to remove flesh and bone from the user’s hand. And like all blades in a professional kitchen, they are extremely sharp. This one was missing its safety. The only protection between my hand and the razor sharp row of blades was a flimsy terry cloth rag. I had horrible visions of my fingers julienned, but managed to push through the ten pounds of potatoes without drawing first blood.

From there I was given a list of tasks: slow roast the tomatoes (which I burned), de-membrane and blanche the sweetbreads (de-what the what?), peel the sunchokes (the what chokes?), stack the sheet pans of blanched pomme frites in the walk-in (stack the what where?). I had no idea what I was being told to do. It was spoken in a language that was foreign to my non-chef ears. And there was no time for explanations or demonstrations. Everyone was busy setting up their mis-en-place–preparing the ingredients they would need to cook the foods assigned to their station. They moved with efficiency, precision, and confidence to get the seemingly insurmountable list of things done by only four people. Without explicit instruction, I somehow managed to stay out of the way and still get through my list of duties–with the exception of the tomatoes that were so slow roasted they resembled astronaut’s food.

My last prep task was to scrub and debeard an 18kg bucket of mussels. It took forever. Their beards are securely attached and often have to be pried off with an ice pick. And they are covered in sharp, impossible to remove barnacles that leave tiny razor cuts all over your fingers. It’s a crap job and one that’s given to the person at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, which was me. I felt like I had been told to swab the deck.

The Hot Oil
After four hours of prep, dinner service started. I was given a 2-minute lesson on how to use the deep fryer and was assigned it as a station. I was responsible for cooking all the deep fried items on the menu. And since the restaurant’s signature dish was deep fried oysters, I was busy. The deep fryer is scarier than the mandolin. It holds almost 20 litres of boiling hot oil–190 degrees Celsius to be exact–just waiting to indiscriminately crisp, bubble, and burn whatever slips into its golden bath. But I didn’t have much time to conjure up the worst-case-scenarios involving me and the vat of bubbling oil. I had too much to do. Before I could get one order into the buttermilk, then flour and then into the grease, I had yet another order called out to me from across the kitchen. There was no time to think or do anything but fry. Soon my grease vat was full. Four orders of oysters. A rabbit confit. Three kids of potatoes. A dozen anchovy-stuffed olives. The hot pantry cook called for her pomme frites. The executive chef called three new orders of oysters. The cold pantry chef was demanding her olives. A barrage of ‘need’, ‘now’, ‘what’s the hold up?’s were slewed at me. Waiters hovered impatiently.

Before I could toss myself into the grease to end it all, Sarah, the pastry chef, showed up. She slipped in, refilled my vats of buttermilk and flour, tossed some pomme frites in sea salt and then slipped away again before I could shower her with my gratitude. But I had a feeling this was just what cooks do–they look out for one another so the whole operation can run smoothly. Sarah didn’t just help me because I was the new guy; it was because I was for that day, part of their crew. With just that little extra help, I was back on track. I got the food fried and delivered. I could yell back with confidence that the orders were up and ready.

Cooking attracts all sorts–restaurant cooks are a motley crew of illegal aliens, former lawyers and doctors, transients, teens, ex-cons, foodies. But while their backgrounds might be diverse, they take care of one another. Teamwork is crucial to their success. But with that loyalty also comes an equally fervent revenge when betrayed. One of my sister’s co-workers, who did a no-show for a busy weekend shift, found all of his belongings–knives, clogs, and pay cheque–frozen in a solid block of ice as pay back.

By 10 pm, dinner service was done. I was exhausted and covered in a thin layer of grease and flour. But I also felt great. I had successfully cooked food that was served to high-end diners. And no one sent anything back. They bought it–both in cash and opinion. They bought that their ‘signature’ oysters and other deep-fried dishes had been prepared by a trained professional. I felt like I had duped every single one of them, a pirate in my own right, stealing their credibility as discerning diners. It gave me a bravado and a swagger that lasted all night because Day One of my tour was over, and I felt ready to man the helm.