Beef short rib, cooked sous vide 48 hours at 140F/60C, finished on grill. Photo by Donna

It requires a certain amount of stress to cook for a lot of people. Otherwise you won’t get it done. Too much work, and therefore too much focus and efficiency to both get everything done and also enjoy yourself. You’ve got to like this very peculiar kind of stress.  Or like the release that inevitably follows. And it’s not the same kind of release as it is for the guy who, when asked why he’s banging his head against the wall, responds, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”  But it’s close. You’ve just got to have that kind of love-the-pressure, love-the-release to cook for a lot of people night after night. If you do, you can make a good and happy living as a cook and maybe chef-restaurateur.

Me, I really only liked the release part. During my very brief time as a line cook, I dreaded Saturday night. One of the worst nights of my life, I will never forget it, everyone in the restaurant wanted the grilled strip off my station. I could even glimpse the other two cooks sort of shaking their heads and chuckling as Paul shouted, “Ordering: Eight steak!  Two rare, three mid rare, two medium, one well! Firing five steak.  Pick-up: thirteen steak!”  And then later I’d glimpse the other cooks no longer chuckling but more or less wincing as another waitress breezed in and out and Paul read the ticket, “Ordering: one salmon (my station), one halibut (my station), one pasta, two steaks mid rare, three steaks medium.” At one point, when Paul, disgusted, had to come back and throw wood on the fire—“Jesus Christ, your fire almost went out, don’t let your fire go out, man”—I looked up and all I saw were grilled steaks everywhere and I had no room to work.

This is called having your ass handed to you.

As I was wiping down my station after it was all over, Paul leaned in between the service shelves and stared at me with his lazy bloodshot eyes and asked, “You want to come have a drink with us?”  It surprised me.  I thanked him, but I wanted to go hate myself in private.

All of which is a long winded way of explaining why cooking for twelve to sixteen people is something of a breeze.  A lark, really.  At least once I get going.  Because I’ve already stressed ahead of time enough to be totally prepared.  And I knew some of the sailors loved to cook and would help.  And everyone would be drinking, and therefore, forgiving.  So not only did I have time to write in the morning, I had time to enjoy the cooking and the eating.

And I really love to cook for people.

I love cooking more than eating.  I love cooking more than anything except for writing.  How lucky did I get?

Here’s the Key West Race Week 2012 Menu.  Next up, equipment and strategy.

Thursday January 12th

Yellow tail snapper ceviche served with grilled baguette, basmati rice cooked with onion sautéed in schmaltz and chicken stock, with chicken skin cracklings and red peppers.  Grilled asparagus with garlic and olive oil. Grilled mahi mahi tacos with avocado, lettuce, tomatoes and sriracha sauce.

Friday January 13th

Grrilled chicken with a lime-tarragon-mustard butter baste.  Clean out the fridge scrapple (grits, pulled pork and black eyed peas), fried.  Twice baked potatoes.  Green beans blanched and finished on the grill.

Saturday January 14th

Strip steaks, salted, then marinated in olive oil and course ground pepper, seared on the grill and finished in a warm oven. Sauteed onions and mushrooms in butter and wine.  Pasta tossed with guanciale, butter, parmesan. Caesar salad (anchovy, egg yolk, and garlic dressing), warm croutons.

Sunday January 15th

Eastern Carolina Barbecue night.  Hoppin’ John (black eyed peas with guanciale and chillis). Yellow rice.  Roasted broccoli with garlic. Baguettes painted with garlic butter and broiled.  Jason’s wife Christie made an awesome banana pudding for dessert.

Monday January 16th

Duck night.  Duck bacon included with apps. Duck confit with grilled magret duck breast, all purchased from the excellent Hudson Valley Foie Gras.  Sous vide egg, arugula salad with a shallot-red-wine vinaigrette.  Multi grain bread swiped with olive oil and grilled.

Tuesday January 17th

Pork belly confit, with crispy skin and a mango chutney salsa.  Black beans with hot, smoked paprika.  Multi-grained rice and stuff (will explain later).  Sauteed snow peas.

Wednesday January 18th

Surf and Turf: Maine Lobster tails and claws, grilled strip steaks, mashed potatoes, salad.

Thursday January 19th

Grilled wahoo with mango lime chili salsa.  Lobster pilaf. Maine bouchot mussels. Grilled asparagus with garlic and lemon zest.

Friday January 20th

Lobster bisque with massive chunks of lobster.  Beef short ribs cooked sous vide, slathered with BBQ sauce and finished on the grill.  Hand-cut cole slaw (cabbage, red onion, carrot) with lemon-lime poppy seed dressing.  Brown-butter-sage pasta.

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27 Wonderful responses to “Stress Free Key West Menu 2012”

  • Andie D

    Great Post. I love how u paint that picture of the stress in the kitchen. I’ve always wondered if I being a chef was something I could have done well…then I read your friend’s book (kitchen confidential) and said…maybe not. I’ll stay in Architecture, even though the stress is still there but served in a different tray let’s say. Your menu looks outstanding! what were u doing in Key West though? I thought u were vacationing!

  • Michael S

    @Maria. We were very spoiled by Michael all week. Very fortunate to have had such spectacular food. Amazing thing about Michael is how genuinely humble he is, and how easy he makes it all look.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      OK, ok, just proofed. The rest you’ll have to tell me. I’m all alone here. Dude.

  • Lincoln Marquis

    Ha! Excellent description of the waking nightmare that can be a cook’s life. Your descriptions always arise my commiseration and I just shared it with my students as they were wondering what I was laughing about. Thanks.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      a little of both, mainly plan the proteins tho I see what seafood looks good, and wing the sides.

  • Glen

    Nice description of “the release”. I cook almost every Saturday for friends and family only, so have only a hint of what it must be on the line professionally. There are few better feelings than sharing the pleasure of well-prepared, tasty food at the end of a long cooking day.

  • Baydog

    I can crew for food! Are you going down next year? And please forward skipper’s email address!

  • allen

    You had me at chicken cracklings, genius!
    Forgive me for imagining Cpt John as a snobby Thurston Hoewell III. Limes in plastic red cups? I’d be right at home. Now I need to try a Dark And Stormy.

  • Chefpeg

    Only dinner? When I travel with my employer (all summer) I have to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for anywhere from 8 to 30 people, and add a vegetarian entree every meal (and no one helps). When I’m not traveling I only do lunch and dinner. My home base is just up the road from Key West.

  • cleek

    holy crap.

    i had to cook for SIX (!) last weekend (one dish!) and almost ran out of the house in a panic.

    dinner for two is more my speed.

  • Daniel

    I love this post! Although I’m not a chef by profession, I often volunteer to cook at a homeless shelter for about 30 people. Recently, I’ve been ‘volunteered’ – more like recruited – by my friends to cook for the 16 of us for a weekend in the mountains. But they know I love to cook and if I weren’t officially cooking, I’d probably somehow end up in the kitchen anyways!

  • Matt

    I love the description of ‘the release.” I can vividly picture myself on the line at a former job on a specific Saturday night, the sous chef barking out tickets, when at one point I said, “chef! I have enough lobster for 5 more crostinis!” —”What the f*^k! You better hope you only have five on order!” And he held up an arm’s length of ticket he hadn’t even called. But those were the nights I loved. You would be totally dialed in and your body just seemed to know where everything was and your brain was just on autopilot; the chef/sous needs a little something for a VIP and it somehow comes together in front of you as if by magic. Slow nights were the killers.

    Anyways those menus look awesome,
    All the menus looks great, but Friday the 20th looks the most delicious to me. Sounds like this has been quite an amazing experience.

  • Carri

    Michael, I have always loved that story of yours about being buried on the grill. It is the ultimate fear of any cook, professional or not. The pressure to perform without ever having full control, because in cooking, you can only plan so much. The more your doing, the more room there is for something to go wrong. But, as you say, the payoff is the best. When it goes well, it is awesome! Your menus look so good, I might have to steal some of your ideas. ;)

  • karen downie makley

    hey! you’re the only other cook i know who likes to roast broccoli… (jan. 15 dinner), yet i don’t understand why more people don’t do it. nothing compares to the nutty flavor and wonderful texture of a just-getting-crusty floret!
    as for restaurant work…give me prep ANY day. i have a weird affinity for dull and impossibly huge tasks–i just put my head down and do it. but it’s not so easy to get ahead on the pay.

  • Rich

    Michael would you please let us know what make and model your sous vide machine is. Thanks

  • Max

    I’m hijacking your short rib method on this excellent 60 degree January day in DC. No sous vide sadly, but braising first till a bit under done than finishing low with some hickory chips on the grill.

  • John

    So, that stress you describe is the main reason I do NOT like to cook for a large group of people! Cooking for myself or my wife is much more relaxing to me. I don’t get how you chefs work in the environment every night.

  • Best Steak Tartare in Edmonton

    We made this (or similar) on Monday and it was a huge hit with the family. My daughter had FOUR helpings (small because she’s small). It’s not unheard of for her – she’s a good eater – but she has to REALLY like something to have that much.

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