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Archive for October, 2009

Efficiently Exhausting

This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

My job is entitled Forager, but could also be referred to as Food Procurement Agent, Food Cost Tracker, Inventory Taker, Food Source Researcher, Food Purchaser, Market Maiden, or maybe just Errand Runner when We’re In the Shit.   At one point or another, I must act as all of the above.  While it can be frustrating to tackle tasks for which I feel unprepared, it is satisfying to maximize my usefulness, and I‘ve found that nearly everyone at the restaurant must be capable of many things.  This fact fits, really, into a certain principle of minimized waste.

The restaurant seems to require a sort of waste policy, whether in the kitchen, the front of the house, the walk-in, the dry storage, or the office.  Regardless of environmental priorities, we minimize waste because of money, space, and time.  I must be able to fill in various roles so that we don’t waste time delegating a task to more people than that task requires.  Just as I must be able to choose produce, call purveyors, pick up orders, know prices, know the content and source of every item in the walk-in and in dry storage, be able to cost out recipes, and be able to fly to the ends of the earth for an ingredient when necessary – so must all the people at the restaurant be able to fill in every nook and cranny that may need filling for the restaurant to roll.  It is an exhaustingly smooth machine when everyone willingly and quickly accomplishes everything they are capable of doing.

Avoiding food waste is of course a familiar priority, but the restaurant works on a very different level from that of the individual who takes only as much as they can eat and keeps freezer-size compost bins.  The kitchen and prep room don’t even have trash cans.   They have recycling bins and compost bins.  While the quality of food is paramount, the size and shape of meat, fish, produce, and dry goods contributes to waste management, particularly considering yield, space, and time.  Round shallots take longer to slice than torpedo shallots, long-necked butternut squash yields more seeds and less meat, smaller fish have a greater bone-to-flesh ratio than larger fish (but you also pay for the weight of the cleaned-out guts, which are larger on larger fish), and certain cuts of meat arrive with much more bone or fat or skin than others.  Many of these calculations don’t even refer to “waste” per se, as the seeds on squash are used in certain dishes, and the fish bones are used for stock.  The fat on meat is practically gold.  It’s barely about what goes in the trash bin – as I said, we don’t really have those – and more about waste of time and space.  The smaller squash also require more cleaning and chopping.  Smaller fish might be served whole and so don’t need to be filleted (which takes time), the different cuts of meat might be sold for more, so paying more for fat you’ll cut off and use for flavor is ok – you can charge more for the plate.  We get our fry oil picked up by Tristate Biodiesel – they make it easy, they come at the right time, and hell it needs to go somewhere.  Everything’s a calculation, and often a calculation made to avoid waste.

Space management is an incredible thing – the kinds of containers used, whether they have handles, have tops, can stack, can seal, hold smells, are easily cleaned, are easily labeled, can handle heat, can slide through doorways, can fit into ovens.  Products arrive in boxes, cans, bags, and crates, and different sizes and shapes fit on shelves, last the proper amount of time, keep things fresh, can be reused.  All these things are considered to avoid waste, and to avoid wasting time, money, and space.

In the office, all the printed menus from one night are used as scrap paper the next day.  Messages are sent by email or text or intercom.  Recipes, menus, programs, and schedules are on an idisk that can be accessed by every computer, so rarely do they need to be printed.  The office doesn’t work this way because the restaurant is environmentally savvy, but because this is efficiency – time-wise and money-wise.

Plastic bags are an interesting issue.  I have learned that saving plastic bags from the farmers market is a bad idea.  Moisture is ever-present, and one-day-old moisture makes for a bad container for freshly foraged food.  Since I’ve started using the tricycle, I can use two sturdy bins for much of the produce, and the shelves inside for cases of apples (reusable cardboard boxes), pints of tomatoes (I return the pints), and the zip-loc bags we use for herbs in the restaurant (which I do use new, but at least the herbs go straight into the container they’ll need for the walk-in).  I have not found a solution for arugula and watercress.  They go into a plastic bag at the market, and go out of it ASAP at the restaurant, to be washed and stored in a dry container that gives the greens space.  I would need a cabinet three times larger to have the proper containers inside it for those.  But in general, I am gradually minimizing waste – and saving time in the kitchen, and saving money on the cabs.

So I feel like there’s a certain waste policy.  Maybe this is just what it’s like to work in a restaurant.  I simply know I’m impressed.  The energy of the building may not be perfect, but the use of the energy of the people, and of all the things we buy and cook, is pretty damn good.

 

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This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

When I bike to the restaurant from Brooklyn in the morning, and as I ride the tricycle from the restaurant to the market, distribution trucks are the main traffic on the road.   It ‘s as though I’ve put myself in the running, an incredibly small competitor, rather laughably defiant, beside the titans of a certain race.  I ride beside Dairyland, Baldor, Agri Exotic, Pat La Frieda.  I get stuck behind Dairyland: The Chef’s Warehouse! all the time.  My head is right about at the height of their wheels.

Transportation, as one of many elements in distribution infrastructure, is a more complicated topic than I can tackle in one sitting.  The moving of food requires the coordination of space, labor, transportation, refrigeration, consolidation, packaging, communication, and sanitation.  One has to consider speed, cost, flexibility, scheduling, environmental effects, technical failures, returns, distance, and national, state, and city policies.

The food system has evolved as transportation has allowed, especially as boats gave way to trains, and trains gave way to trucks.  When trucks took over, most urban wholesale marketplaces left the heart of cities, often for peripheral neighborhoods where the 24-hour pollution, noise, and traffic of legions of trucks could be installed on a grand scale without facing any powerful voices of opposition.  Yes, there are now many farmers markets, CSAsurban farms, and community gardens throughout the five boroughs of New York.  Yet nearly all the food in this city, in all the supermarkets, delis, bodegas, gourmet shops, restaurants, fast food chains, and street side trucks, goes through the New York City Terminal Market in Hunts Point in the South Bronx.  That market is set up to be physically and financially efficient, and as the movement for sustainable agriculture begins to grow, we must remember to remember where that market fails.  It fails to respect the neighborhood where it is located, it erases the names of food sources and producers, it shields the public from the gritty reality of how a food system works.   The new Wholesale Greenmarket in the Bronx may only improve upon a few of these faults; the New Amsterdam Market at the Seaport may correct a few more.  The challenge now in New York is to build a system for a growing number of small farmers, and for the entire urban community, that draws what it can from the current system’s infrastructure, but does not mimic it’s faults.

I think of the wholesale markets that work by night, of all the trucks that drive by day, of all the food that fills these trucks, as I fill the cabinet on the back of the tricycle I use for work, in Union Square, in New York City.  I am no remotely significant fraction of New York’s food system.  The food I buy, the wheels I turn, don’t even represent the needs of a whole restaurant.  It is the fact that I am not the only one pushing along with a slow and steady movement…that drives me. 

I write now only because I happen to use this rather unusual vehicle, in the center of Manhattan, which is an interesting place to be.  It is a place where all at the same time, I can ride a heavily loaded tricycle too and from a farmers market, and feel barely noticed, and yet feel that a glimpse of the wheels, the open door, the inside racks…has gotten everyone’s gears turning.  When glimpses become gazes, when the middle school boys snicker, when the farmers laugh at what city people do, when the chefs wonder whether my work is made easier, when the cars honk and the bus drivers wave…it seems a glorious, hilarious part I have to play.  At least, it’s somethin.  I can fit two flats of strawberries, two flats of tomatoes, ten pounds of arugula, six pounds of watercress, a bus tup of summer squash, ten pounds of cipollini onions, and a whole case of eggplant in that cabinet.  So I do it.  And I do get stuck behind Dairyland all the time, but at least I’m in the running.

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