Saturday, August 17, 2013

How Bartending Taught Me to Cook

I like to think I was an accidental foodie.  I refused to cook for a long time, I cant remember why, but after talking to a co-worker who grew up on a farm as well-we came to the conclusion that when one grows up on a farm-some of us want to see what else is out there.  We both moved to cities to attend college and stayed for our jobs or friends or the lifestyle.  My job was in a restaurant as a waitress and I went to school to pursue psychology.

A job transfer for my chef-boyfriend lead me 45 minutes away-a big move for me.  There I started cocktailing in a bar and eventually bartending.  After that I bartended and a few places before moving back home and bartending here.

I dont know what the turning point onto cooking was.  I ate most meals in the places I worked, but I remember my mother giving me this little casserole recipe book.  The recipes seemed easy enough and after only a couple successes-I was hooked.  Very quickly I was substituting ingredients and making up dishes, but I got frustrated quickly with casseroles because you have to cook some of the meals twice!  Brown the hamburger and the onions and cook off the noodles, then combine and cook-seemed like a lot of work to me and a lot of dirty dishes.  I knew there were other meals out there I could make which were easier and less fuss.

My mother gave me a subscription to Taste of Home Magazine that year for Christmas (and has every year since).  In one issue, I found a recipe for Mexican Manacotti.  It was amazing and probably very bad for you, as it required an incredible amount of cheese.  More than anything it took about two hours to prep.  It didn't take me very long to eliminate so many time consuming elements, it is now: Mexican Lasagna.

At one point in time I was a bar manager for a franchise restaurant, owned by two of the best people I know.  A husband who has a lifetime of restaurant experience and his beautiful wife who had (at the time) very little, but she was a good worker, a quick learner and incredibly sweet-so we all loved her.  The husband asked me one day to teach his wife how to bartend.  She came in for her first shift and I had an empty liquor bottle of water with a pour spout on it-ready to teach her how to blind pour.  I talked to her about where things were, but the entire shift-all she did was blind pour 1.5oz of water into different glasses and measure her accuracy into a shot glass.  It only took her about 15 minutes to become consistently accurate, but you have to be able to control that hand-so I made her do it until she questioned my sanity and then I made her pour for the rest of her shift.  This method was how I learned and this is how I taught.

The next shift I tested her blind pour and then we moved onto drink recipes.  The best way to learn is to do-so she made all the drinks going off of my directions.  If you're not much of a drinker or a cook (which she was neither) the concept of parts is hard to understand.  People need you to quantify 'parts'.  This is hard because there are a lot of variables to consider, but primarily the size of the glass is the way used most often-at that point you can just eyeball it.  The Wife was having a really hard time with this concept and after the second shift I think she wanted to throw up her hands, but eventually, by the third shift she started letting herself have some fun!  She was splashing Blue Curacao into the shakers and guesstimating margarita portions in the blender like a pro!  Watching her face change from the first to the third shift-from fear and uncertainty to confident and fun was one of the most rewarding training experiences I had ever had.  Until a few weeks later...

The Wife came up to me excitedly with news at work one day.  She had a smile on her face like she achieved the unachievable-with a reason.  "Carmen, when I cook I use a recipe and measure everything exact!  I level everything with a knife and do everything by-the-book.  Last night I made [Husband] dinner and I wanted to make these mashed potatoes I had a recipe for.  But I thought about what you had told me about approximating and using your instincts-and I didn't measure ANYTHING!  I just put a little splash of this and that in the bowl and [Husband] said they were the best mashed potatoes he had EVER had!!!  I cant believe it!  He never likes my cooking!!!" 

While I've known how to bartend, far longer than I've known how to cook-the transfer of skills made the process so much easier-more than I knew at the time.  You get a sense of flavors and portions behind a bar, that forces you to trust the ingredients and the process.  It was something I was happy to share with [Wife] and an important lesson for anyone wanting to learn to cook, or to bartend.

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