Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Vocation Vacation, and Paella for the Masses

I looked up from my computer screen to see my boss standing in the doorway of my office, and jumped about three inches.

"Sorry, didn't meant to startle," he apologized.  I waved it off, knowing that I do the same to him, what must seem like twenty times a day.  "Sooo ..." he continued, trying to sound nonchalant, "... do you have a favorite food?"

"Umm .." that's random, I thought, wrinkling my brow, wondering why he'd be asking, fleetingly imagining that someone was going to throw me a party for some reason I wasn't privy to, and then wondering if I did actually have a favorite.

He wasn't actually waiting for an answer, though: "Ah! Your blog.  Of course you do.  So you know about these chef's dinners ..."

Well, sort of.  I'd heard something about the college Master being the center of attention at events featuring passion fruit chiffon pie and Spam, menu items of his choosing (he hails from Hawaii).  But what I didn't fully appreciate is that this is a yearly event, at which someone in the college is asked to be a Master Chef for a night, and choose a dish for which they provide a recipe and which they then cook at an assembly station in the dining hall for the entertainment of students, wearing a personalized embroidered Dining Services chef's jacket.  Apparently, everyone in the office had collectively decided, without my knowledge, that I would be the willing victim honoree this year.  My boss explained all of this, a fait accompli.

"You can't really say no," he admitted.  "You're being set up.  But just think about how great this could be for your blog."

Right, I thought.  The blog I hardly maintain any more.  "Well, if I can't refuse ..."

"Good.  It's all settled, then.  It's an honor!" he assured me, retreating to his office before I could protest further.

The truth is, I've always thought it would be fun to be a chef for a day.  Years ago, there was a company called "Vocation Vacations" that would let you (for a fee) play at another career for a few days, shadowing someone who was well-established in their field.  I remember browsing the vacations, imagining myself as an artisan chocolatier, or a sommelier, or a chef.  (Unfortunately, there were no writers to shadow; that work was apparently too solitary and serious to share with a mere "vacationer.")  I've baked for friends on and off over the years, and when I was home with my daughter, I briefly entertained the thought of opening a cafe, but I happen to know some people who work or worked in the restaurant business, so I never took that option seriously.  Besides, I really do love what I do for a living.  But a day to try something else, with no strings attached?

Because I take everything too seriously, I pored over my blog and scanned foodgawker for the next few days, having a semi-existential crisis.  How could any self-respecting foodie blogger (notice, not "food blogger") not have a favorite food?  I needed a main course: what could I propose to make that would feed a dining hall full of several hundred hungry college students?  It had to be scalable, not too time-intensive, reasonably priced.  It couldn't be something they make regularly.  I didn't want pasta.  Finally, I lit upon paella.  Rice was the answer to the problem of scalability. Not exactly my favorite food, even if I did have one, but a childhood throwback.  I built a menu of possibilities around it, and sent an email off to the head chef.

Later in the week, I was invited to an office in the bowels of the dining hall (past the largest tins of tomato sauce I've ever seen) to discuss the menu.  I offered a few ideas, not knowing how much they wanted to undertake (they prepare the vast majority of the meal in the back while the Master Chef cooks it in the front, channeling the magic of Food Network), and they decided to make three dishes, the paella, caldo gallego, and a kale salad with a maple cinnamon dressing.  They sounded excited, and said that I shouldn't worry; they'd make me "look good."  I wouldn't even need to do much cooking, beyond providing them with recipes.  That was worrisome enough: what if they were a flop?  These were professionals.  What would they think?

On the day of my debut, I showed up in the dining hall just before the dinner hour, where I donned my personalized chef jacket and Cordon Bleu hat.  The chefs showed me what they'd prepped, and what I'd need to do to make it look authentic.  I got to taste everything they'd made; it was all perfect.

And so I spent the next hour sauteeing vegetables, adding rice and broth and protein to the pan, and serving up heaping spoons of beautiful yellow paella and soup to the undergraduates, who kept coming back for seconds.  (The sous chef told me, privately, that he thought it might have been the first time a ham hock had entered the building, and that he loved the soup, and the chef confessed that he may have bought $120 worth of saffron for the occasion that he had to keep locked in his desk.)  The university photographer took lots of pictures, which they posted on Facebook.  Friends told me afterwards that I look entirely too comfortable in a chef's jacket.

Would I do it again?


Just don't tell my boss. Yet.

What would your Vocation Vacation be?

Paella Mixta
(It doesn't spend hours in a Valencian oven.  But it works, and apparently, can feed a cast of hundreds.)

1 ½ lbs. chicken, skinned
¾ t. salt, divided
¼ t. fresh ground black pepper
3 t. vegetable oil
1 c. chopped onion
½ c. chopped red bell pepper
1 ½ c. Arborio rice
½ c. diced plum tomato
1 t. pimentón (smoked paprika … sweet paprika also works, but is a little less authentic)
¼ t. saffron, crushed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 ½ c. chicken broth
1 ½ c. clam juice  (I’ve also made it with only chicken broth in a pinch)
¾ lb. large shrimp
1 c. diagonally cut asparagus
½ c. frozen green peas, thawed

Preheat oven to 400.
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper, heat 2 t. oil in a large oven-safe pan and cook 3 minutes each side until lightly browned.  Remove chicken from pan and keep warm.
Add 1 t. oil to the pan, and add onion and pepper; cook until translucent.  Add rice, tomato, paprika, saffron, and garlic, and cook until fragrant (1 minute or so).  Return chicken to the pan and add broth, clam juice, and salt.  Bring to a boil, and cover the page; bake at 400 for about 10 minutes.  Stir in shrimp, asparagus, and peas; cover and bake another 5 minutes, or until shrimp are done.
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  1. Oh my god, that was entirely too cool. How absolutely fun that must have been and I do see that you would make a wonderful chef (minus the deep emotional issues and chemical dependency I've witnessed in all the other chefs I have known). I'm so thrilled you got to do that.

    My dream menu? Oy vey. Lamb Tikka Masala, cucumber and mint salad with coriander rice pudding for dessert. Or maybe your pistachio rosewater cupcakes. That's not so scalable or practical, but DELICIOUS!

  2. I find it fascinating that people PAY to follow someone else around at their job. That person much feel really good about their line of work, to know people pay to give it a try.

    Someone how I doubt anyone is paying to shadow a teacher...

    It's so cool that you got to don your chef hat for a day, in a professional capacity. Looks like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing the experience with us.

  3. Justine, THIS IS SO COOL!!

    I'm very proud of you, and very jealous of the students who got to eat your creations.

    You do look good in that getup.

  4. Yay for you and your boss and your school and the chefs and students!!! How fun! I remember seeing bits and pieces of this on Facebook and love knowing the full back story. Your post made me smile and laugh out loud, especially as you shared your internal thoughts and dialogue. This part especially cracked me up, not because you haven't been updating your blog as frequently as you have in the past, but because your supervisor thought it could help you (how sweet is that?!)...

    "You can't really say no," he admitted. "You're being set up. But just think about how great this could be for your blog."

    As for what my vocation, vocation would be? Maybe a producer for a television news program, either local or cable? Or possibly shadow a journalist for a big newspaper, like the New York Times?

    Great post! xoxo


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