My Time With McNish
Lessons from a Vegan Chef
Part 1: Getting Back Into the Groove
Have you ever learned something that took years of practice, training, and dedication to achieve only to suddenly have to toss it out the window and start from scratch? 'Cause that's basically what my first couple of weeks working with McNish has been. Actually, I'm being kind of dramatic here. Let me rewind just a little bit. If you haven't read my previous story, "From Graveyard to Sanctuary," I'd suggest you start with that and come back to this one. Here's the link: http://bit.ly/2yWqBED. If you just want to continue here, then I'll give you the abridged version.
It basically talked about my transition to veganism, the struggles I had to overcome, and it ended with me accepting an offer from the top Vegan Chef in Toronto to continue on my vegan journey and jump start my long since retired culinary career. So when I talk about tossing all my years of knowledge out the window, I'm referring to my culinary training. Now, it's not ALL totally thrown away. I mean, the basics are still there: knife skills, different methods of cooking, plating presentations, understanding of how different food production processes work, etc. I mean, food is still food. It all adheres to the same scientific principals. Sugars caramelize, fats melt, proteins coagulate, and starches absorb. Yet this time, it's not as simple as pulling some meat out of the cooler, slicing it up, and tossing a slab of it on the grill, you know, the things we grew up learning. Like, for starters, what do vegans even use instead of meat? And no, the answer isn't just as simple as "vegetables." I mean, what if I wanted to make a corned beef sandwich? Chicken wings? Or even a steak, for that matter? Vegans don't stop eating meat because they don't like the taste. It's more for ethical reasons. So if we can't have meat, how do we replicate those flavors and textures? These are the things I had to learn.
I think everyone's seen some type of veggie burger, usually made from anything such as mushrooms, beans, oats, quinoa, etc. All sorts of vegetation. You can find them everywhere these days, even on fast food menus. But have you seen vegan chicken burgers? Or vegan sausages and deli meat? Ever wonder what those are made out of? Most of them are made out of something call seitan. (Yes, it's pronounced similarly to the name of the dark overlord of the underworld.) Now what's seitan, you ask? Oh, it's just something made out of vital wheat gluten. Vital what gluten? What the f*ck is that!?
You see, these aren't the things you're taught in culinary school. It has a huge focus on traditional foods: heavy on meat, chicken, fish, and dairy, and since they didn't teach me much, if anything, related to a vegetarian or vegan diet, everything I know has to be retaught and relearned to adapt to this new lifestyle and way of eating. This is why I referred to tossing it all aside and starting from scratch. Now, I didn't exactly walk into this kitchen on day 1 as a blank slate, wide-eyed doe, unknowledgeable to any of this stuff. If you read my previous story or saw the pictures in it, you'd know I had done my research and made a number of these vegan foods before. That was all based on my own research and trail and error. Then I walk in this place, take a look at the menu, and find out everything we use is made in-house. I'm talking about sauces and dressings right down to the actual meat and cheese we use. How many places have you worked at that make ALL their cheese in house? I've made a vegan cheese or two, but there's six different ones on this menu, all six of which I've never actually made. And I'm not just making enough to feed my girlfriend and myself. I have to make enough of each to feed a hundred people. To add more stress on top of that, we don't have a lot of time for trial and error. We have to get it right asap then scale it up to feed mass quantities. And that's just the cheese. We still have to make three or four different types of seitan, perfect that, then scale that up as well. This isn't counting the numerous sauces, dressings, marinades and desserts we have to figure out. God, what the hell was I thinking!? It's like day 1 in cooking school all over again with flashbacks to panic, stress, and feeling completely unprepared and overwhelmed. Was this the right decision? I'm 36 and too old to be starting all over again. What was I thinking!?
Yet as McNish told me, professional cooking is like riding a bike, and sure enough things slowly starting coming back to me, and before I knew it, I was fully immersed in the kitchen life once again. It didn't come without it's struggles though.
This isn't just a vegan kitchen, but an organic, ethical kitchen. You don't just grab a bottle of cheap canola oil and go to town. You use stuff like coconut oil here. You won't find any refined white sugar in this kitchen, just raw organic cane or coconut sugar, which doesn't melt or dissolve like you're used to. I had numerous failures that first week, things like my seitan falling apart, my dressings splitting, my sauces tasting like crap, and my cheese curds not setting, getting feed back from some of our tastings that this was too salty, or this didn't have enough flavor added to those failures — things I felt like shouldn't be happening with someone who has over 13 years cooking experience.
But chefs are adaptable if anything else. Every day is different and something is always going to happen so we're taught to adapt and overcome. Failures are just lessons in disguise. You can't succeed without a a few failures in your life. As Winston Churchill said, "Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm," and even though I hated making those mistakes I kept moving forward. Plus, no new job isn't without its ups and downs. I feel like I've had a lot more ups then downs these past few weeks anyways. I've learned a ton of new ways to make vegan food, new recipes for my repertoire, tried new dishes, ate an absolute TON of food (that was all completely vegan, ethical, and 99 percent organic) and even made a few new friends. Plus, some of the things I've created have ended up on the final menu, which is pretty bad ass if you ask me.
Aside from all the culinary stuff I've been learning, I've had the opportunity to add my input to many other things that go with opening a new restaurant. From setting up the line, figuring out what equipment we still need, cleaning and organizing the prep kitchen in the basement, hiring and training staff, to picking out what plates we should be using. It's an unending list. It's never just as simple as fine-tuning a menu. There's an absolute million things that need to get finished, and a lot of that decision making just comes down to experience.
I think that's another reason why I was brought on. Yes, I'm vegan and have a passion for food and animal rights and spreading the message of sustainable living, but I've also worked in all sorts of restaurants, clubs, and hotels. It's those years of working the grind and seeing the ins and outs that become valuable or, if you will, invaluable to someone who wants to start a new venture and needs to surround themselves with the right people. The better the team you have, the less stress and more smooth the sailing will be. Anything I can take off McNish's plate to make his day easier, I'm more then happy to do. Take care of the boss and at the end of the day he'll take care of you.
As of today, it's less than two weeks until opening night and one week until our first official public tasting when we open our doors for a special Friends and Family night. (My girl is extremely excited about that.) Are we ready? Not by a long shot. There's people constantly in and out of the restaurant daily, from electricians and maintenance staff to photographers taking pictures for promotional purposes to vendors trying to sell us on why we should be using their products in our restaurant. Some stuff is done. The line and prep kitchens are pretty much set up. The food is slowly being delivered. Some of the staff are in place, but we need to hire more. The recipes for each dish are standardized and will be fully costed out by the end of this weekend. All the plates and the rest of the missing equipment arrived last night. The place is starting to resemble a fully functional restaurant. Does that mean I have any less stress? Hell no! I still lay in bed at night and go over things that I'm not 100 percent sure about. Should I play with that salisbury steak recipe a little more and possibly make it gluten free? Should I switch the garish on the meatloaf from caramelized onions to crispy onions? (Crispy onions, for sure!) Is that enough aioli on the burger? Is the feta cheese salty and tangy enough?
While McNish is probably being kept up by a thousand other things, these are the ones that keep me up at night. Honestly, though, what do you expect when you try to open a brand new restaurant from scratch in a month-and-a-half? It generally takes people four to six months to do what we're doing. Plus it's not just any ole restaurant. We're taking the typical North American diner that everyone knows and loves and veganizing it. We have all the classics people are used to, just made in an organic and ethical way. What better way to enjoy a steak than not having to worry about any harm coming to an animal for it?
Since it's crunch time, I should probably stop writing and get back to work. This place isn't going to open itself. Oh, are you still wondering who McNish is? Google it.