Musings of a Chef....
The answer is that I learned a lot, but most of the lessons were not the ones I’d expected. The one that hit closest to home was that I was taught well by great chefs, and that I’m truly fortunate to work with some very talented and dedicated cooks, servers and bartenders. I feel, in all humility and with a lot of respect for the restaurants Angela and I ate at while traveling, that the food we produce at Pastiche, and indeed the food that many of our chef-owned and small local restaurants serve every day in Milwaukee, could hold it’s own over there if compared to similar venues.
I learned that we’re more old school that most of the bistros we visited. It seems more common to see hamburgers than steak frites on the menus. Fish quality was only really good as we got closer to the Mediterranean. Which makes sense in the “local produce” context, but in the bigger picture, France isn’t that large of a country; they have a lot of coastline and a very good transportation infrastructure. I get fresher, better tasting fish every day but Sunday from New England and Hawaii and they are many times the distance than Brittany or Marseilles are from Paris. Our beef is much tastier and better marbled. Their produce blew me away. The fresh markets are stunning.
The best thing I learned, and the one thing I’m trying to be committed to keep doing, is the wholly sensible and civilized practice of beginning each and every day with strong coffee and a glass of Champagne. A croissant and a little fresh fruit was the perfect bridge between the two, but lacking a live-in pastry chef to make me fresh croissants every morning, I’ll make do with toast.
Try it sometime. Just take a minute in the morning to sit on the deck or patio and mentally go through your day, watching the little bubbles drift heavenward…
New dinner menu starts this weekend; lots to do to get ready…
Hope to see you soon,
-m.Updated: May 9, 2013 6:29 AM
To someone like me, who comes from Milwaukee, France is a fascinating culture of contradictions and ironies; of things you aren’t likely to encounter anywhere else and other things you find everywhere. High-speed bullet trains blow past Roman ruins at speeds of up to 200mph; the country that invented laissez-faire now seems to have the government involved in almost every facet of daily life; they have a 32-hour work week and I heard anywhere from 3-5 weeks vacation per year yet compete for prestigious awards each year called the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” that celebrate the country’s best workmen…
Most of the places we traveled to, we heard of the economic woes befalling the people of France set against the long list of entitlements the citizens expect and receive. Most things were very expensive, and people were struggling to get by. While in Paris, we stayed at a beautiful old hotel that had, for a few years, according to the people there, been the military headquarters of the Nazis during the occupation. In every direction we walked, there was history. Major history (museums and monuments). Minor history (Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery). Bullet holes in the facades history… and there were, of course, the protests.
Each day, around 6:00, a truck with speakers mounted on top would park in the square just kitty-corner to our room, and soon a large group of people with pink signs would assemble. The protest would start with techno music, then the police would arrive, and then they got the party started, voicing their opposition to a gay marriage bill that was currently being considered in the national assembly. More music, then shouting, and eventually, after a while, it would all kind of dissipate into the neighborhood cafes and bistros because, well, everybody has to eat and drink, you know.
Speaking for myself, I felt I was treated well by most of the people I ran across and poorly by only a few. The same as here or anywhere else.
We had a mix of good and average meals in Paris, as we would in any other city. There were waiters who treated us like well-heeled American rubes, and others who bent over backwards to make sure we had a good time. By the second day, I realized that I had harbored a somewhat romantic and naïve illusion spawned by the innumerable cookbooks and chefs’ stories I’d gathered and cherished over the many years I’ve been cooking French food that Paris was some kind of food paradise of hard-working chefs and proud waiters taking care of appreciative customers in tiny bistros, sidewalk cafes and grand restaurants. The Paris restaurant experiences I had were more down to earth. One was spectacular, most were average, and one was just downright bad. Again, the same as here or anywhere else.
We enjoyed the meal of a lifetime at Restaurant Paul Bocuse in Lyon. It was better than I ever imagined it would be. Perfection. We were with another couple from the tour group who proved to be the most delightful dinner companions you could ask for, but what made it really special was that I got to share it with Angela, and that she got how good it was (perfection is expensive, though, so I’ll be eating PB&J’s for a while…) The markets in Lyon are amazing, the people are really nice, and the food is spectacular; lots of stories for another time.
As we traveled further south, things quieted down, history took over, and we finally started to relax a little. Burgundy country, the upper and lower Rhone, and finally the Provence area; truffle farms, lots of castles and cathedrals, great wines, good stories, and yes, dog poop in the streets… the same as anywhere else. –m.Updated: April 29, 2013 1:56 AM
I was at MATC on Monday, working with the culinary students in the Cuisine Restaurant. As a guest chef in the alumni chefs series, I was demonstrating a couple of our Pastiche dishes and answering questions. The chef instructor asked me to give the students some advice to help them get their careers started on the right track. Here are a few of my thoughts…
To young cooks-
You may think you know a lot but this is a lifelong career of learning. Once you master one thing you must move on to another or you’ll stagnate. Learn everything you can about food, then management, then wine, then business, marketing, refrigeration, and everything else you can because you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding if you equip yourself with the knowledge that is available to you. Be patient. Build a solid foundation. See the long-term goal; understand that everyone has talent- and everyone’s talents are different.
Find the best chef who will let you work with him or her, and don’t think about the money you may be able to be making down the street. The knowledge and connections you gain will put you in a position to make a lot more in the long run.
Be honest. Don't steal. If you make a mistake, own up to it, correct it and learn from it.
Be punctual and reliable. Yes, it really does make a difference.
Be respectful. You are there to learn, remember that. The other cooks and chefs have knowledge to give you, and they’re less likely to do so if you behave like you’re on some food network program. Leave the drama for outside of work.
To young managers, sous chefs and chefs-
Remember that the people you supervise are the ones you count on to make you successful, and treat them accordingly. A little nice can go a long way. A little mean goes even longer. Both come with a price, so it pays to know the difference between the two, and apply both with caution.
Be a good example. People look to you for many things, and it’s important to be positive. Be humble. You’ll screw up every once in a while; it’s how you recover that makes all the difference in how you’re perceived by others.
Always check to make sure your trousers are zipped before you walk out in the dining room to talk to customers.
Always try to see and focus on the big picture. You are a young leader, learning new things. Be patient, it’ll come.
And of course the very best piece of advice I’ve ever received… came from the wisest man I’ve ever worked for. He was in his seventies when I met him, an engineer by trade, and I think he understood me better than anyone else who’s ever employed me.
He had the rare ability to size you up in about five seconds, and if he made up his mind that he liked you, you were treated like family from then on. If he didn’t like you, well, he was still polite and respectful because that was just the way he treated people.
We’d recently opened a golf club in Madison, and there was a grand staircase with a beautiful chandelier right in the middle of the clubhouse. A few light bulbs had burned out in the chandelier, so I was trying to figure out how to replace them. Because it was over a staircase, the height was something like twenty-five feet above the bottom, with nothing at all to lean a ladder against. I was standing there, contemplating options, when I heard him walk up behind me. He looked up, then told me to call the electrical contractor to come in and change the light bulbs. “Make the person who created the problem solve it…” was all he said.
Simple advice, indeed. If you extrapolate that a bit, you find that people try to make their problems into your problems because they are often either too lazy or incompetent to solve them themselves. They want to avoid the responsibility so they try to put it, directly or indirectly, on you, as a manager. Put it back on them, was all he was saying. Give them the opportunity to redeem themselves, and give yourself the opportunity to do your own job and solve your own problems.
That one piece of advice has served me better than any others, because it taught me that I didn’t need to be able to fix everything myself. I was able to do so much more and succeed to a level I never believed I could. I could also allow others to recover from their mistakes, learn and feel good about it. Now I pass it on to you.
Thanks, Ron.Updated: April 11, 2013 6:21 AM
Not all the time, but enough to need reminders to use his bad leg, which had recently been operated on to place the femur into the hip socket, and daily PT exercises to strengthen it. Found by a farmer in mid-Illinois, he’d been turned in to the Wisconsin Border Collie Rescue, where it was decided that he’d be given the operation, fostered and eventually placed in an appropriate home. How it came to be decided that mine was an appropriate home is a long story, but you could say that since I’d had two Border Collies prior to this, a history with the rescue, and had hit it off with Henry the first time we met, they eventually decided to let me adopt him.
In the months since he’s been here, Henry has been a joy. To see him run back and forth through the yard, jump to catch Frisbees or toys, and generally just be a constant whirling dervish of activity is good for the heart of anyone who loves these incredible dogs. They’re not for everyone, and that’s both why so many end up in rescue and why rescues make it so difficult to adopt them. Quirky and energetic, they have a high degree of intelligence and learn things both good and naughty very quickly. Short of herding sheep, which I think someone knowledgeable and experienced enough could train him to do, I think Henry is everything that, in my experience, defines the breed. Very smart, and with a warm and loving personality, he’s great company and has adapted well to living with me, and the odd schedule I keep.
Dogs are a great equalizer for us. The ultimate icebreaker; no matter who you are, or what walk of life you come from, you can be with someone else who has a dog and always have something to chat about and relate to. Dogs are loyal and forgiving, trusting and cheerful, hard working and eager to please. All traits I strive for, and things I admire in others. They intuitively seem to know everything about us, and communicate everything they need to without speaking a word. Amazing to have all that in a 35-pound package...
Losing that companionship hurts a lot, in a way that never really seems to go away. As hard as it is, it still doesn’t seem to stop us from seeking out another good dog, and starting over.
I feel very fortunate to have found Henry. Or maybe he found me. It doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. Once again, I have a reason to hurry home at night, and to get up early in the morning. I can drink coffee and watch him tear up the yard chasing rabbits and squirrels.
Once again, I have muddy paw prints all over my house.
Over the last couple of years, every now and again, I've approached Angela or one of the other people whose opinions I trust, with the idea of either discontinuing half-price appetizers or restricting it to the bar only. Until this season, I've always been talked out of it. Now, though, I believe it's time to change.
In the beginning, half-price appetizers and glass wine specials were part of a strategy to bring people in and acquaint them with the restaurant. After that, it became more of a thank-you to the core group of neighbors and regulars who frequent Pastiche on if not a daily basis then at least several times per week.
In all humility, I think it's safe to say that people are aware of the restaurant after almost three years, and so that part of the program, as successful as it has been, has also pretty much run it's course. Now, we're getting groups of people who make reservations for half-price appetizers because it's a great deal, then they eat their fill and either leave when the happy hour is over or continue to sit at the table and socialize while others are waiting to sit down and eat. Of course, I have no one to blame for this but myself, because I set it up that way knowing full well that someday I'd have to change it.
Looking at the big picture, though, I know that the restaurant just wouldn't be the same without our happy-hour gang, and that they really are good customers who deserve our appreciation. Simply restricting it to the bar seems to be the best solution, especially for our people who book tables for 6:00 and 6:30.
There are collateral benefits as well. As lunch business has continued to evolve and grow, people are eating later and lingering longer, creating a real squeeze in the kitchen to get the line turned over for dinner service. We'll be able to keep up on appetizers better- now, for example, even if we begin the evening with ten or twelve onion tarts (which take Angela an hour or two to make each day), a busy happy hour can almost wipe us out, forcing us to 86 them to our dinner patrons. All these things will smooth out service, and create a much nicer experience for our customers.
...and for those people who want a little snack and a nice glass of wine, we have the Pastiche Wines shop upstairs. Sample any or all of the wines we feature each day, relax and order a cheese plate or charcuterie sampler- both are excellent to share. If you'd like to wait for a seat at the bar, we'll send someone up to let you know when one opens up. It's been a good run, but at this point, it just seems like the right thing to do.
If I don't see you over the next week or so, have a great holiday and don't eat too much good food! -m.Updated: December 22, 2012 7:57 AM
I haven’t done any shopping, once again, so I guess everyone gets a bottle of wine and a gift card… No one complained the last two years, so I guess that’ll do all right.
This is the time of year when I try to step back a little bit, look at the business with a critical eye, and try to assess what we’re doing well and what we need to improve on.
The things I’m happiest about are the growth of lunch since Andrew has taken responsibility for it (and the improvement in our beer program, which is also his responsibility), and the introduction and popularity of Tapas Tuesday, which is where we showcase Rachael’s skills and creativity.
We’ve had growth in the service staff as well. Frank and Nick have trained to wait tables and tend bar, and have been gaining confidence and capability steadily as the year has progressed. Though we lost a few really good people, we managed to recruit wonderful replacements like Jerome, Bill, Phil and Jess. I’m very happy with the enthusiasm and energy they’ve brought to Pastiche, and our customers have embraced them as well.
In the Bistro, customers have pointed out that it would be nice to have a few pricier bottles on our list, and last month I decided to test the water by adding a couple of nice bottles in the over $50.00 category. We’ve sold through a case of one and a half case of the other, so I guess they were right. I’m hesitant to go much deeper than a few bottles, but willing to move a little bit in that direction if that’s what people are asking for.
Looking upstairs, we’ve started doing parties in the private dining room, with good feedback. The wine shop has done well with tastings and classes, developing a good client base along the way. Cindy has stocked it with a lot of really great wines, most in the lower price range so they can be enjoyed regularly. We’ve taken a look at just when most of our sales are occurring, and have talked about the possibility of changing the shop hours to more closely follow the sales patterns. If we can do that, the efficiency gained will make it possible to keep the prices at a minimum, bring in additional wines, and still serve our customers well. We’ve built the shop around interesting wines at a fair price, and while we’ll never compete with the big boys in some ways, we can give the best in personal attention, order almost anything you can imagine and have it here in a matter of days. Cindy has the connections and knowledge that only come from years in the wine business, traveling to the wine-producing regions of the world and meeting with the winemakers and importers. Between the two of us, we can put our knowledge of food and wine together like no one else in Milwaukee. That’s what makes us different, and where we make up for our small size.
Lastly, I think we’ve benefitted tremendously this year from the positive energy of our customers. I knew the first year or so was going to be rough. People always flock to the new places, and are very vocal about it when they don’t like them. We had our share, of course, and I knew from experience that it was just a temporary thing, that they wouldn’t return, and that they’d probably tell their friends who wouldn’t bother to come and be disappointed. As time went by, the people who got what we were doing and liked it kept coming back, telling their like-minded friends, and enabling our business to grow to what it is today.
Now approaching the end of our third year, I can go out in our dining room and see a great mix of familiar faces and new friends. The people who criticized us for not having high chairs, children’s menus, outdoor dining, fish fries or brunch have disappeared, replaced with others who are coming in for a nice cassoulet and a bottle of Cotes du Rhone. Angela, of course, still runs the dining room. It’s a difficult and often thankless job; she’s the person people seem to take it out on when they’ve had a bad day or can’t get what they want. If they could just once have the experience of running four tight turns on a busy night, I believe they’d be a little nicer. I’m happy that she’s there and amazed at her ability to keep up with everything. I couldn’t.
All in all, it’s been a great year. For all the things we’ve accomplished, I’m grateful to the staff. For the fact that we’re still there, cooking every day, I’m grateful to our customers and neighbors. There’s still a lot I want to do, and still many ways we can improve, but looking back over this year, I couldn’t be happier. –m.Updated: December 18, 2012 11:07 AM
As the wear and tear of almost two years of working double shifts was getting to me, I decided to let Andrew assume lunch duties and make it his own. He’s done well enough for me to feel comfortable in coming in “around noon” every day; leaving me my mornings free to do other things. I purchased a golf pass in May, and began playing my way around the Milwaukee County courses weekday mornings before heading in to more serious business at the restaurant.
Golf has been important to me for as long as I can remember. My dad taught me when I was young, and love for the game has remained something we’ve had in common all these years. Because of our family situation, I think that most of what we know about each other has been learned on the golf course (for example, as a teacher and a Marine, he’s naturally a traditionalist and a stickler for the Rules of Golf; as a chef and a Paratrooper, I am also a traditionalist but have a general disdain for rules of any type).
Anyway, once I learned the fundamentals of the swing, rules and etiquette, I was free to play by myself or with my friends at Lincoln Park, which is a short 9-hole course near our home in Glendale. Growing up, I caddied at Tripoli C.C., played Mondays, and eventually got a job at a driving range picking up balls at night in exchange for $1.00 an hour and all the balls I wanted to hit (and then, of course, pick up). I played in high school for a year, then after graduation played on the team at MATC (yes, the tech schools have their own conference).
I gave the game up for close to twenty years; between the Army, raising a family and building a career there was just no time and little desire to play. Picking it up again at The Legend, I rediscovered many things that I’d loved about the game, and got into it with renewed energy and ambition. Leaving that job to open Pastiche made me put the clubs away again, but now they’re back in my car, hopefully for a while.
To me, golf has always been where I go to get away from everything else. The natural beauty of the course, the challenge of playing, and the camaraderie of the people I meet make it one of the best ways I can think of to spend my free time. I’ve played almost all of the County courses, and met some very interesting and cool people in the process. I’ve lost a little weight, my blood pressure is down, my attitude is better, and I’ve made some friends. I’ve had good days and better days, and learned that the secret to enjoying the game (and indeed, life) is to not keep score- just play shot to shot and enjoy where it takes me.
Having said all that, I guess my answer to the question is this; as long as it doesn’t interfere with the truly important things in life, there’s no such thing as “too much golf”.
...for most of my career, I worked in Country Clubs, where it was always a big day for golf, buffets and, in the old days, fireworks.
I didn’t really mind working; I like cookouts, and the employees were permitted to look up at the members’ fireworks and enjoy them as well. At Tripoli, my crew and I used to relocate lounge chairs from the pool deck up to a relatively flat spot on the roof of the clubhouse, along with coolers of beer and margaritas. When the fireworks started, we’d climb up the air conditioners, onto the roof and, exhausted and thirsty, enjoy the fireworks in style. It was a great feeling.
To get the real feeling for the Fourth of July, though, I had to spend it in another country. In ’85, I was in the Army, and my battalion had been assigned to peacekeeping duties with the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai desert. Because we were one of thirteen different nation’s contingents, working for the United Nations, we weren’t permitted to fly the US flag at our base camp or desert observation posts. After being out in the desert for six weeks, my squad had been rotated back to the main base camp for a few days until our next assignment came up, and the Fourth of July happened to fall during one of those days.
Apparently not wanting to waste a minute of that day, the Commander got everyone from our Battalion that was in the camp up at about two am, had a formation, and told us that he wanted to run a marathon to start his holiday. Anyone who joined him and finished would be given the rest of the day off to do whatever they pleased, while the rest of the troops would be assigned to details and training. Of course, we all ran with the Colonel.
Arriving back at the camp just as the sun was breaking over the horizon, he pulled an American flag out of his duffle bag, and with help from the Sergeant Major, unfolded it, attached it to the flagpole and defiantly ran it all the way up to the top. He had The Star Spangled Banner on a cassette, and played it on somebody’s boom box. By that time, some of the troops from the other contingents were hanging around the periphery, checking out the action. There must’ve been about a hundred or so paratroopers standing there at attention, sweating and exhausted, with tears rolling down their cheeks. No one from the UN or anywhere else would’ve dreamed to ask for that flag to be taken down.
I don’t think any of us will ever forget that Fourth of July. Just a moment in time almost thirty years ago that still brings tears every time I hear the Star Spangled Banner.
Of course, we spent the rest of that day getting blind drunk, playing volleyball, and listening to loud rock n’ roll. We even had a bonfire that night, and I got volunteered to cook some steaks and chickens that someone had relocated from the mess hall… almost like home.
Have a safe and happy Fourth! –m.Updated: July 4, 2012 7:58 AM
...it was good to see him sitting in the restaurant again after a long winter of being away; and he looked great. The last time I’d seen him, he was in chemo after being diagnosed with bone cancer. He’d lost a lot of weight and a lot of hair. He was having a tough time eating his lunch and probably just as tough a time keeping it down.
Asher is definitely a guy you’d notice in a small restaurant: ex-Israeli Special Forces, and roughly the size of an Airstream trailer. Engaging and friendly, with intelligent eyes and the deep smile of someone who really appreciates what he’s got in life, it affected me deeply to see how he had dealt with such a devastating disease and recovered to the point where, save for a deep scar on his right leg, you’d have a hard time noticing any difference. He’s post-cancer now, and I congratulate him both on his recovery and on the return of his appetite.
All of us at the restaurant are so happy to see you back, Asher, and wish you and your wife many more years of happiness and health.
On another note, we had a small fire last night in back of the restaurant. It was never even really much of a fire, barely enough to toast a marshmallow; mostly just some smoldering and smoke thought to have been caused by a discarded cigarette butt that a gust of wind blew into a small crack between the building and the concrete outside of the back door. The Milwaukee Fire Department was on the scene in minutes, and stayed until they were sure it was extinguished. There was some superficial damage, but nothing that would keep us from being open for business as usual. Our heartfelt thanks go out to the MFD, to all of our friends who called and emailed to ask if we needed anything, and to our customers who had their dinners interrupted and, amazingly, took it all in stride. You’re the best.
It was a little hectic, and even though it looked bad, it could’ve been a whole lot worse…
But in the big scheme of things, nothing today could have made me happier than to see an old friend come in for lunch. –m.Updated: May 21, 2012 9:32 PM
When the weather turns nice and my windows are open, I can hear him walking up and back along the parkway, singing arias, in Italian, at the top of his voice. He’s as much a harbinger of spring as the first ramps and morels; his voice is strong and he hits the high hard notes with more than enough enthusiasm to make up for an occasional lapse in precision. I don’t know his name, but for the one or two moments he’s within earshot each day he makes our neighborhood a little more musical. He shares his voice and love of opera with all of us, and when I hear him coming, I turn down the TV and listen… then he fades away and life goes on.
The morels this year weren’t plentiful, but most of the ones I was able to get were pretty nice. Jim, our mushroom foraging friend whose first appearance is also a true sign of spring, has been all over but the pickings have been slim. He’s a fascinating guy, a collector of interesting and unusual things, each of which has it’s own story, which he’ll share with us if we ask. He pops in out of the blue, usually with a couple of red Sendik’s bags stuffed with beautiful mushrooms, and tells us about his travels to get them. He’s usually only there for ten minutes or so, then he pops back out and we don’t see him again until next time the weather changes.
Because we like to change things up at the restaurant every so often, we’re going to be introducing something new in June- Tapas Tuesdays. Of course, it’s not a new idea; nothing ever really is. It’s got a nice ring to it, though, and since Tuesdays are usually our least busy night (and therefore the night that Angela and I try to take off), I’ve given Rachael the responsibility of working on the menus and figuring the logistics out. She’s always up for a challenge, so, after a few hours of talking about it and a lot of ideas and notes, we’re just about set to go.
You can expect most of the regular dinner menu to be absent, because there would just never be enough room on the hot line to be able to do that plus a selection of between 18-24 different tapas. We’ll keep two or three appetizers (yes, they’ll be half price from 4-6), two or three salads and entrees, and all of Angela’s desserts. Prices for tapas will range between $4-$12, and the tapas themselves will be a mixture of traditional and modern Spanish (think Patatas Bravas, Frittata, etc.) alongside more creative, seasonally-inspired dishes that we can make with more local products and things we have banging around the cooler after a long weekend (Warm Morel Flan, Risotto Cakes, Soft-Shell Crab, Bolzano Charcuterie, etc.).
I think it’ll be a lot of fun. It’s always good to be able to stretch a little when you work in a restaurant like ours that has certain parameters. For me, it’s also very rewarding to be able to allow someone like Rachael to take on something that will enable her to grow by challenging her creativity and organizational skills. I’ll be around, for sure, at least in the beginning, if for no other reason than to nosh and help out. But then, we’ll be back to our nights off, heading out to our friends’ restaurants to enjoy their great food. It’s going to be a good summer. –m.Updated: May 11, 2012 8:15 AM