Friday, January 6, 2012

Kitchen Secrets.

There are some firehouse secrets for proper cooking. Your Mise en Place has to be correct, having everything in place is essential. Not just because it makes cooking easier, but because, at any moment your prep can be interrupted.

If the horn goes off, you have to leave no matter what stage of cooking you are in. Most stations had one large "Kill" switch mounted on the kitchen wall. A big red button, like the easy button in Office Depot commercials. This button when pushed turned off all the power to the stove.

So if you were frying chicken, and a call came in you just smacked the switch on your way out of the kitchen and left everything as it was. Safe yes, handy sure, an enhancement to your meal, not so much. When you returned that chicken was cold, greasy, and saturated in oil. As I became more skilled at dealing with the interruptions some of these things could be avoided.

For instance, if I were making fried chicken (which was every Sunday, because the Chief wanted it that way) I had a emergency plan in place. I would lay out an area by the stove that was specifically designed to save the chicken.

A cake rack over a cookie sheet, the cookie sheet was layered with mounds of paper towels and all this was right next to the stove. If the bell went off, I could quickly yank the chicken from the pan and stack it on the cake rack. It might get cooled off, it might be raw, but it was always in better shape to finish cooking when you got back.

Now if you were making the Chief his favorite fried chicken on Sunday, you would generally get special dispensation to cook and cook only. No taking calls, if the truck went on an average call, a sick person, a car wreck, a smoke investigation any kind of simple alarm, you stayed behind and kept cooking. Chief "Ripper" liked his fried chicken done correctly.

Another thing with "Ripper's" chicken, there were only two guys allowed to make it. "Greger", a good ole boy cowboy type had the needed expertise and "Leery" a smooth jazz singing black man. That was it, they were the only two in the chicken frying rotation.

Then one Sunday Greger was sick and Leery was on vacation. But the Chief was working and there was no alternate menu for Sunday, it was chicken. Fishman looked at me and growled, "you're up kid." "Up for what Fish?" I asked. "Chicken" he said. "Why me?" "Because nobody will expect you to do well."

"That doesn't make sense." I said. "Sure it does kid, when you screw it up I'll just say give him a break he's new. Besides I'll watch you, coach you through it." "Why don't you just make it then?" "Oh no! I'm not going down for jacking up Ripper's chicken."

I was stuck, good news I was young and stupid and had no real idea of just how seriously this fried chicken thing was. "Fine. What do I do first?" "Fry an onion in some butter, use two sticks of butter and grab the biggest onion you can find." 

I've done my fair share of fried chicken, but I had never needed a fried onion to start with. "Do you do that for flavor or something?" I asked. "What?" he grumbled. "Frying the onion? Is that to flavor the butter or something?" "No dumb shit, we're gonna throw the onion away." 

He only looked up from the morning paper long enough to indicate he needed some more coffee. I grabbed the coffee pot and poured him some coffee. "Look, I got no idea if you can make fried chicken or not, so you need every advantage you can get kid. You fry an onion in butter for the smell." 

He pulled a pen out of his pocket and started the crossword. Bold move doing the crossword in ink, but he was the Fishman after all. "Fried onion and butter smells great, it will get these guys mouths watering, get 'em ready to eat. It's a trick, once they smell that and get hungry, well your lousy chicken will be less lousy."

He was right, every fireman that walked by or into the kitchen made a comment. "Smells good kid. Keep it up." Ripper said. I threw that onion away and some how managed to pull off good enough fried chicken that day that I was put into the fried chicken line-up. I was number three on the depth chart but so what, with the Fishman's help I made my mark.

I only found out how significant this was a year or so later. We had received a hot shot new guy at the Big House and this guy ran his gums for days about how great his fried chicken was. He grew up in the south and he had learned some sort of secret method from his grandmother. With Ripper's blessing this big mouth was allowed to make fried chicken one Sunday.

It was horrid, I don't know if his grandmother was a practical joker or maybe just really old but this crap was inedible, bloody raw, oily, soggy, just nasty. Ripper took one bite, slid his plate across the table, stood up and called the captain into his office, right there in the middle of the meal.

Off to the office they went and about ten minutes later Mr. Big Mouth was called to the office, then he disappeared. Turns out Ripper was so disappointed in his meal he had the guy transferred to another station, right then. The guy packed up his gear and vanished.

I was lucky that way for a lot of my career.

1 comment:

Artful Communication - k~ said...

Yikes!!! Who would have thought that a bad fried chicken would get you transferred? Or was it the nasty taste his mouth left on the meal? ;-)

Fun tidbits Tim!