“Ready to blow some ducks?” Sous chef asks.
Hold on. Let’s back up.
We have a dish on the menu at the restaurant that’s based on Peking duck, and today I was prepping the duck from start to finish. And I mean start to finish.
Meaning: Step one was using a small scalpel-like knife to literally make a slit through the duck’s butthole (at this point the duck was dead and plucked, but that was about it). Once the hole was enlarged, I then plunged by gloved hand into the rear end of the duck and pulled out the innards, from intestines and liver to heart and whatever else came with it. Perhaps luckily for the duck, this actually took some effort. I hope my innards are just as firmly attached to my insides as the duck’s!
Side note: remember how they tell you in grade school your intestines would span like 100 feet or something crazy if they were stretched out? Well I actually believe it now.
After de-gutting the ducks they got dunked in an ice bath to stay fresh, but, most importantly, to cleanse them of their own blood. Duck cooked in it’s own blood is a thing (I’ve considered cooking it before, much to the horrors of my parents), but we don’t do that at the restaurant.
At this point the less exciting, but less gory, part had to happen, which meant weighing out 6 portions, one for each duck, of spices. In fact, this meant twelve portions of carefully weighed spice mixes, one unique mix for the insides and one for the outside. This task was only made more difficult by the surprisingly poor scales in the restaurant.
Back to the ducks–now Sous Chef is asking me to blow them???? Essentially, the magic ingredient to Peking duck is that before cooking, air is forced in between the skin and the meat, enabling the fat to really come through right at the surface and for the skin to get amazingly crispy. I have no idea what they did in the old days, but today, thanks to the wonder of the machine, I didn’t have to do anything horrendous like physically blow with my mouth right under the skin. Instead, I stuck the point of a large air blower that ends in what looks like a bike-tire filler through the skin of the legs, breasts, thighs, and neck of each duck. An onlooker might look on with horror, as me, a duck-testing mad-scientist, inserted needles into ducks such that the skin at first bubbled, as if covered in fiery acid, and then expanded, like a balloon. Fun. And the key to deliciousness.
After “blowing the ducks,” I spice them with my carefully portioned spice mixes. Each inside gets rubbed in salt and baking powder/soda (yes, there is a difference, I just can’t remember which one we used), and the outsides turn a deep mahogany from the mixture of red spices and lots of salt.
Later in the day I have my second hand-related injury. I’m asked to help prepare the mise-en-place for meat station, which involves the toppings for a tasty taco dish we do. One of the toppings for the tacos is super thin radishes, meaning I need to use mandolin them. A mandolin is one of the scariest kitchen implements out there–imagine a board with a super sharp blade in the middle of it, parallel yet ever so slightly raised. To get thinly sliced radishes you slide the radish back and forth, keeping contact on the board, and each time you slide over the blade a tiny disk is shaved off. You just hope it isn’t your finger.
I get halfway through my first radish before slicing the tip of my middle finger off.
Apart from working at the restaurant, I’ve still been attending class like any college student, and I recently learned in my Brain and Behavior class about the different neural circuits for touch. The pathway for pain, it turns out, is slower than the basic touch pathway, which may explain why I sliced off the tip of my finger, and I think, “Well, that’s not good, but I think I’ll just keep mandolin-ing.” Then blood starts to leak out and I realize I’m not going to be able to keep going. At this point, I’m again pleased by the helpfulness and kindness of the chefs. I wash it up (disclaimer: only 1 inconsequential radish was bloodied in the process, and you can be sure it was disposed of) and Sous Chef helps me wrap it tight with surgical tape and latex.
All set to go, and now I have to make pickles. Like a lot of pickles. Like this many:And guess what? That also means more mandolin-ing! So after braving it out and mandolin-ing all the cucumbers I’m faced with my next dilemma. Mixing a handful of chopped mint and shallot in with this massive tub of cucumber slices, a problem unimaginable to the home cook. In the restaurant, as expected, everything is done on a huge scale, and that tends to complicate things. I end up mixing the herbs with cucumbers by employing a very large bowl. Next is the horrific part of the pickles. One might think that pickles are a relatively healthy food product, you know, vegetables and all. Except for these pickled, I had to mix nearly 2 kilograms (yes, kilograms) of salt and sugar combined with water and vinegar before adding the brine to the cucumbers. Just remember all that salt and sugar next time you eat a pickle.
A side note: See all that butter on the right? Now imagine 10 times that amount, and you can only begin to imagine how much fat is used on a daily basis at the restaurant. One prep work job I had was to beat 5 pounds of butter in a food processor until fluffy and airy so it can be piped onto cured fluke. Another job was beating more butter with equally excessive quantities of duck fat. Twice as bad for you. Again, you don’t go out to a restaurant to eat healthy.
One other fun task I had was mixing the spices for the cure for the short ribs we have on the menu. Again, I was working in massive quantities. You can’t really tell in the photo below, but that was only half the amount. To top it off, all the spices hd to be ground up in the blender, but the blender could only take a few cups at a time. This long and loud process did get better as time went on, however, as wonderfully aromatic and spicy smells began wafting up from the second equally large bowl of finely ground spice. Once all ground, these spices had to be mixed with 2 kilograms of pink salt, which looks just like salt with a fake, cartoonish pink color. Before I began mixing it in I was told that touching it would literally cause my skin to burn. And yet it’s being used to cure food that’s meant to be eaten!