Patty & Coco Bread with Big Small Moments

At the beginning of June, I was in the process of readjusting to life at home: finding new things to eat on a daily basis, new products for my hair and skin, new ways of getting around. In short, I was familiarizing myself with a new, old way of living. It would be a slight understatement to say I was finding my adjustment difficult (my previous post made that pretty clear). Yet, routines are made and broken every day when we choose to push through frustration and annoyance and discover something new, find a better way.

I have been finding my own better way in very small, seemingly insignificant moments, and I hadn’t realized it until I was *dun dun dun* eating a patty :-).

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For those who are Jamaican, you know the distinct and unique pleasure of a well-crafted patty and warm, well-buttered coco bread. Patty and coco bread (please note, it’s not good to have one without the other) is everyday food, “a delicacy for all Jamaicans,” as my brother says. A hot flaky meat, seafood or vegetable pie – curried chicken is my favourite – surrounded by poofy, sweet butteriness. Heaven :-).

I sat in my mother’s car savouring every bite, reflecting on this delicious privilege of being Jamaican, and I realized something. In many cases, our challenges are not as difficult as they seem to be. Our emotions and associated mindsets complicate our challenges and we end up feeling overwhelmed, incapable, and miserable. However, the age-old advice applies: breathe, and for the believers out there, trust where and how Your Daddy is leading you. Some new advice of my own to my future self: eat a patty and coco bread while you’re at it. 🙂

As to my current ambitions and exploits, I no longer want to be a chef! I know that may be shocking considering my previous determination to work on the line. However, after Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I’ve realized that restaurant culture is not for me. I may change my mind at a later date – sooner rather than later maybe – but for now that’s where it stands. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with where we are as a nation in terms of our food system, and where we are aiming to go. I am making different connections across the island and trying to find out where my talents, abilities, and passions would best fit as we navigate our way forward. Shout out to the Ujima Natural Farmers’ Market and the Source Farm Foundation & Eco-Village! Some great people doing great work that I’m becoming more involved in.

Till next time, walk good!

Back to Jamaica Confessions

I am so grateful to be home in Jamaica. Yet in the midst of being home, a few unexpected challenges have been vying for my attention. To summarize – I graduated from the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Front of House Apprenticeship in Restaurant Management and Service (FARMS) in March of this year. For those who are unfamiliar with the restaurant or the program, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is an award-winning, fine dining restaurant in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. I feel I should mention that we recently won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Most Outstanding Restaurant, and we’re the 49th best restaurant in the world i.e. we’re kind of a big deal 🙂 . As to the FARMS program, candidates are trained in every front of house position, learning to communicate the connection between food, farming and service to our guests. It was a rewarding, difficult, tearful and joyous journey. My time at Stone Barns was absolutely precious and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat – the tears notwithstanding. I stayed on at Blue Hill until April, but alas, I had to leave. I came home thinking I’d spend a month here, relaxing and doing a bit of research, before my next endeavor.

Cue the unforeseen challenges vying for my attention: the start date of my next endeavor was (understandably) pushed back to October. I have to support myself in the meantime.

Now, that’s a very simple sentence; the execution of that idea is a bit more troublesome than it might seem. Big things, like editing my American resume to look like a Jamaican resume and learning to take Jamaican public transportation (the bane of many Jamaicans’ existences), are difficult. Little things, like finding all-natural products for my hair and making nutritious wholesomely grown/ sourced breakfast decisions, are also difficult. Almost everything I expected to be easy is now difficult. So, I end up running around in circles of complaint and frustration. Most times I eventually get back to the ‘grateful to be home’ part. Other times I just fall asleep way too early and hope for a better day tomorrow.

Truthfully, in spite of all the difficulty, annoyance, frustration, awkwardness, and discomfort, I am so grateful to be home. Patience in the process. It’s also time to stop running around and get to work! 🙂

from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, N.Y. to St. Catherine, Jamaica

Absurd to think that two weeks ago I sat curled between raised beds of rainbow chard, turnip rabe and carrots. I was harvesting those carrots, Mokum carrots; it seems a lifetime ago. The soil damp and rich, crumbling and falling between my fingers, giving up those babies quite contentedly. Quality control – I taste one, two, three, it’s easy to eat them. That, I remember. I harvest two hundred because, well, I’m a volunteer on a farm – in a greenhouse to be precise. This farm shares the property with a fine dining restaurant, and this restaurant needs baby Mokum carrots to serve up (with a bit of dressing) on a fence.

Image courtesy of thisguysfoodblog.com
Image courtesy of thisguysfoodblog.com

I once heard the vegetables served on the fence compared to heads on stakes – apparently a reminder of the vicious nature of agriculture.

We eat, eat, eat voraciously, insatiably, consumers we’re called after all.

Anyway, I harvest two hundred carrots, making sure their verdant tops are together in the same direction in a large green bin. Weigh them, place them in the cooler, record the weight and grab another green bin. Back to the soil, my favorite part of the entire job. She smells of life and plenty and beauty.

Today I am without her. Today is the first time in seven months I am not on a farm. I am home, encased in concrete walls and heat and humidity. Jamaican sunshine reigns outside, though it shines through a dirty purple haze made of Saharan dust. Jamaican breeze makes the coconut trees wave in my neighbour’s backyard. I am happy to be home and I am sad missing the soil. As I said, it is absurd that I was so many miles away just two weeks ago. This farm was in Pocantico Hills, NY 10591, exactly one thousand six hundred and six miles from my home.

Peach Shortbread Mini-pies and Sourcing Dilemmas

If you’re anything like me, it’s almost imperative that you know where your food comes from. 

You want to support your local market so you buy from local farmers and producers. You want to know that your veggies and fruits were grown sustainably (momentarily disregarding the uselessness of that term according to Wendell Berry), and that your meat was raised and put down with dignity. You want to eat wholesomely sourced food because it benefits your local economy, and you can feel the difference it makes in your body.

So what happens when the people around you, good friends and nice neighbors, serve you food that you know was not wholesomely sourced? I’m talking CAFOs, synthetic-pesticide drenching, GMOs and modern slavery immigrant worker conditions.

How do you smile and eat that plate of food that you might not even call food at all?

I’ve had to ask myself this question on several occasions, and making these Peach Shortbread Mini-pies brought on similar anxiety. I used commercial white flour and commercial castor and ‘light brown’ sugar in the recipe for the crust and the filling. From the moment I considered making these mini-pies, I knew I’d have to use these ingredients along with all the other local and organic ones I had on hand. I immediately felt the nasty weight of compromise. I was settling, supporting the system, perpetuating the very values I stand against.

I made these mini-pies anyway. And so-help-me-God, they were delicious.

photo (5)Moreover, they made me happy, they made the people I shared them with happy.

Where our food comes from matters, how we prepare it matters, and how we feel when and after we eat also matters. I’m happy I made these mini-pies (special thanks to Laura in the Kitchen for the shortbread crust recipe). Of course, that doesn’t negate the fact that I have no idea where some of the ingredients came from, and that I hate that I don’t know. However, being happy about making and eating these is nothing to feel guilty about.

As much as we may try to not support this broken food system, we still live in it daily. Sometimes, we just have to balance our food choices and habits as much as we can while still asking ourselves these hard questions. And when we can’t make the decisions we would prefer to make, we should at least try to enjoy and be happy about the hopefully delicious outcomes of those uncomfortable decisions.

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Shattered: My Candyland Fantasy of a Restaurant Kitchen II

The rush of orders built like the exercises in a ballet class.

One or two orders at a time, plies and tendus – straightforward, familiar, hard work. Then jetes, rond de jambes, frappes and fondus, four, five, six orders to be filled in quick succession – all burners hot at the saute station, the grill searing off tenderloin, the oven finishing chicken parm, the frier bubbling with soon-to-be crisp sweet potato chips. It was an organized sort of madhouse. I had known the rush was coming, but I didn’t really know what to expect so I wasn’t quite prepared for it –  like I sometimes feel unprepared for any exercise beyond jetes in my ballet classes. It sprung upon the kitchen silently, with no particular pomp or circumstance, and all the staff just worked through it, quickly, efficiently and not without a tad bit of colorful language.

It seemed like the bottom line was not creativity, or pride, or joy, it was efficiency. Each dish had to be made in record time: started by one chef, finished by another, garnished and taken out to the guests by the servers. I don’t know if the chefs even thought about the diners outside, other than when the servers reported that some were being picky or impatient. A muscle-memory, tunnel-vision focus seemed to take over, especially when the orders were coming in quick succession. Chefs just did what the had to do, olive oil and garlic, shrimp, white wine, tomatoes, cream sauce, linguine, next dish.

I must have sounded so naive on my first day. One of the owners had asked why I wanted to be in the food industry and in reply, I had explained how right the process of food preparation and creating in the kitchen feels to me, how much food intrigues and excites me.

After the rush, everyone relaxed substantially, there were more laughs and teasing, drinks of water or iced-tea, snacking on a ruined creme brulee or a pizza that was sent back for one reason or another. The rest of the evening was fairly simple, one, two or three orders at a time, nothing too hectic.

The entire experience was not what I’d expected, or fantasized about.

None of it seemed creative to me. It seemed methodical, removed, compartmentalized. Again, a couple of the chefs told me I was crazy to want to do this. But if they wouldn’t encourage me to do this, why were they doing it? Didn’t they enjoy this job?

Maybe the restaurant industry itself is to blame for this seeming lack of creativity? That is, if we must play the blame game in looking for reasons… Diners expect food quickly, they expect it to taste the same if their companion orders the same thing; they expect fast, friendly, delicious service and they, we (because I’m included in this), more than likely don’t think about how.

Or maybe kitchen culture itself is at fault? I read the first chapter of Chef Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and I could see remnants of that culture in this kitchen – the macho chef, who can have the most orders going at once? Or maybe it’s just not kitchen culture to care about where the food you’re cooking came from? Or maybe the long hours and fast pace just slice the caring out of you so that all that’s left is the cooking?

Maybe you don’t really have time to care…

Maybe it’s just a different kind of creativity…

Maybe, maybe, maybe… Well maybe, it doesn’t matter. Isn’t it enough that the wonderful staff of this restaurant welcomed me into the their kitchen to watch them crank out dish after dish of delicious, beautiful food, providing their guests with a great evening?

I have no idea how to answer any of these questions and I’m (obviously) still very VERY new to this industry. I’m not comfortable with what I’ve seen, but when is anyone ever comfortable with having their expectations shattered? I am however, very intrigued. This was just one shadowing experience in one kitchen, and every kitchen and restaurant is different. I’m looking forward to other experiences, at this and other restaurants.

And yes, I still want to be in this industry. I still want to know what it’ll feel like on that line. It is not without some trepidation, that I look forward to finding out.