Posts Tagged ‘Gutekanst’

Weasel

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This is a story about my first job at Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant in Chicago when I was just 14, (above).  It was an exciting time for me to get paid  for my work- a particularly new concept which gave me pride and self-worth. Bimbo’s was as old-school as they get. We washed dishes by hand, and every item was made in-house and cooked ala-minute. Each night, the steamy kitchen hummed with controlled chaos as the plates, pans and silverware piled up equaling the beads of sweat that fell to the worn wood floors but no one complained or quit because this was the house of a great Italian chef from Lucca- Chef Bimbo Bianchi.

Weasel

John Gutekanst

Let’s face it, there are no celebrity dishwashers.

Those of us who carry this wrinkled torch of honor in our hearts and memories, are hard pressed to admit that those nights of stale smells, steam and never-ending piles of goo-covered china were the best of times. My service as a porcelain pirate started when I was fourteen years old at Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant in Palatine Illinois and continued for years to come. I will never forget that sweltering first night of my first job.

The stench of the dumpster bloomed under the sunset as my mom pulled up behind Bimbo’s in our Dodge station wagon with faux wood siding. Mom squinted suspiciously at the building through the soup of gravel dust and leaded exhaust that crept through our open windows.

“Hon, are you sure you want to do this?” My mother asked.

“Mommm.” I responded with a head roll while grabbing the door handle.

A kid in ninth grade told me he earned a whopping $1.60 per hour here and I was enticed by the allure of adventure and cash that this job would bring.

Mom smiled and tried to slather spit on my red curls as I jumped out of the car. I edged to the screen door at the back of the restaurant and gazed in, gasping from the meaty wind that blew through the gray mesh. Stepping in, I froze, suppressing the internal panic that only an adolescent can feel.

Sweating men in white shirts moved noisily behind stainless steel shelving. Screams and demands in short monosyllabic bursts, combined with flames and metal-on-metal clanking, added to the pandemonium. These loud men shaped the overwhelming aromas that assaulted my eyes, pinched my nostrils and crushed my psyche. Twitching with anxiety, I gave up my dream of a job and easy money and turned to leave before anyone saw me.

“Hey, Beembo, keed at the back,” the nearest cook yelled over his shoulder as he poured liquid into a pan, shooting fire into the air.

Bimbo came at me like a killer, pushing cooks out of his way. He was tall and dark, a combination of a young Abraham Lincoln and Gregory Peck. His kind eyes were soft but menacing, waiting for trouble. I stood, shaking, three feet below those eyes.

“Wattayouwant?” Bimbo snarled as he looked down upon me, his brow dripping. His arms were splattered in dots of red and his hands were covered in cuts and burns. Red knuckles at my eye level turned to white as he snapped the greasy tongs in his hand repeatedly.

“Uh, my friend Jimmy told me to come,” I stammered, focusing on the tongs, “and apply for the dish washing job.” I stared at the floor. “He said you had…” Bimbo cut me off as I waited for his tongs to pluck my eye out.

“You start a-now. Mooouuuse!” he roared, turning back through the line of cooks, who straightened up at attention and moved out of his way. Down the wooden alley in front of me came a bull of a man, scowling and mumbling as he waddled towards me like a bowling pin that refused to drop. His white wiry hair was peppered with flecks of food. A cigar stub, swollen with saliva, stuck out between his vealy lips.

“You ever wath dithes before?” he asked, removing the cigar.

“Huh?”

“WATH DITHES, ARE YOU DEATH?” His heavy sea-smelling breath blasted me.

“No,” I muttered, answering both questions.

“Aw thit, a rookie. C’mon.” He looked down; shaking his head, then waved his hairy arm for me to follow as he continued his rhythmic waddle to the dish area. I raced outside to tell my mom and ran back to my new job.

“Dis is your plate station tonight, punk,” Mouse spluttered his lisp, reigning saliva on me as he pointed to a triple-compartment sink. “You clean ‘dem plates as fast as you can.” Mouse filled one sink of water for dipping, one for washing, and one for rinsing. “Dip da plate in heaa, wash da plate in heaa, rinse da plate in heaa, then stick da plate heaa.” This completed Mouse’s training program.

Bimbo’s wasn’t just busy, it was slammed every night and the kitchen reached a level of pandemonium not unlike trench warfare. Without air conditioning, the steamy 8 by 8-foot dish area I shared with four other kids and Mouse reached over 100 degrees. The soupy heat made me feel like a wet lizard as I dipped, washed and rinsed plates to Mouse’s lispy cadence of “Faster kid, faster.” A cloud of thick food smells bombarded me, along with something else far more foul. “Hey,” I covertly asked another kid, “What’s that stinky-egg smell?”

The kid wiped the sweat from his forehead and whispered, “It’s him,” nodding horizontally toward Mouse.

“But why does he smell like that?” I whispered.

“I don’t know why. Ain’t you got a grandpa? Old guys smell. He’s just worse.”

That first night, I learned that the guy at the end of the tunnel of overhead glass racks and a stainless steel table had the gravy job in the dish area. The “slot guy” was the point man as the waitresses brought trays in from the dining room and tossed them on the table. With the dexterity and speed of a heroin addict rummaging through an unlocked car, the slot-guy picked out the lipstick-stained linen napkins and then separated the plates and glasses to clean, throwing the silverware into a bus tub to soak. This left items coveted by Mouse: cigarettes, rings, cash, bracelets and even dentures (a great reward item.) I watched the conspiracy of rat-like behavior as the slot-guy showed his respect for the dish hierarchy by stealthily passing these things on to Mouse thus ensuring his future as slot-guy. This meant that Mouse curbed the usual verbal abuse and treated him with a modicum of respect. More importantly, Mouse allowed him to bus tables in the cool bar with an ice-cold Coke as a reward.

“Ya gotta work your way up to slot work,” Mouse informed me.

Mouse only put dishwashers in the slot who weren’t prone to do the “Steak ‘n Shake;” or eating meat from the plates coming in. It was Mouse’s law that plate meat ended up in his coffee cans. We all speculated that Mouse fed himself from dining by-products he packed into bags at the end of the night. He never said the meat went to feed his dogs, and no one had the guts to ask.

On the windowsill above Mouse’s station, next to his full Folger’s cans of plate meat, sat a small black and white picture of him in the 1940′s. On that first night, Mouse grabbed the picture, thumbed his chest and grunted at the photo. There he was, tall, skinny and cocky in his leather jacket leaning on a shiny Harley Davidson. His full hair was slicked back above a world-be-damned smile and gleaming eyes. He must have been proud to show me his best days on this earth. His time; when he made a difference, had a future, was a threat. But as I looked at this smelly old man, the picture seemed more like an excuse or just an apology for what he had become. I nodded in fake admiration; I knew Mouse was my boss but I couldn’t take my eyes off Bimbo, an old school chef who expedited and worked the broiler all night, making sure every plate was perfect for every customer.

“Hey kid,” Bimbo called to me. “Get me dat water.” He pointed to an icy glass a waitress had left on the other side of the heat rack. I hustled over to retrieve it.

“Hey,” Mouse yelled. “Get back over here!”

“But, but, I was getting Bimbo…”

“You was tryin’ to weasel your way outta work.” Mouse smiled. “I’m gonna call you Weasel from now on.”

Mouse never did call me by my real name. He had nicknames for everyone except Bimbo. Our crew included Garden Snake, Trash Rat and Chicken Thief. I never knew if Mouse had any other name because he only referred to himself as Mouse.

After a while, the cooks in the kitchen called me Donnola, a name I liked better than Weasel. I even started to refer to myself as Don Donnola until one of the Italian cooks broke it to me that donnola was Italian for weasel.

At the end of that first night, Mouse produced an iced pitcher of Coke and waddled outside with us in tow, a mother duck to our gaggle of lowly dishwashers. He guarded us as we stood near the dumpster with the cooks already on break, smoking cigarettes, talking and laughing loudly about botched orders, waitresses and Bimbo. We dishwashers, sweating in the moonlight, were relieved to get through the night and chugged our Cokes silently, luxuriating on the fringes of the cook’s culinary force field. After work, Mouse gave all the dishwashers a ride home in his green Buick Le Sabre. The passenger seat was reserved for the bags of his plate-meat booty so we disappeared in the huge back seat, windows closed. The car smelled like chicken cacciatore, old meat, onions and Mouse. “Now dis is da life,” Mouse said with his first grin of the night as he lit up a fresh cigar. The acrid smoke from his White Owl was a welcome respite from the way we smelled, and one of the reasons my mother made me strip naked in the garage after every shift.

Over the next several months I adapted to the rushes, the smell, the heat and the excitement of Bimbo’s. I found myself sucked into the irresistible rhythms of a brutal but rewarding restaurant life. It was a whole new world and I ate it up. From the giant free dinners of crunchy chicken parmesan that Bimbo thrust upon me to the mom-like waitresses in their brown nanny dresses fringed in white lace who swore like truckers, it was the first time I really belonged to an adult team. Bimbo treated everyone with respect and always worked harder than anyone else. He was the chef and no one crossed him, not even Mouse. Bimbo taught me how to peel potatoes, de-vein shrimp and de-seed large quantities of Italian tomatoes when I arrived early. He also showed me that hard work was a gift that rewarded me more than anyone else.

Six months later, my work world came tumbling down and I was forced to quit the restaurant. My grades were suffering and mom pulled the plug on my dishwashing life. On that last night, Bimbo said, “You a good man, Donnola,” and was the first large male besides my dad to shake my hand like a man. Mouse avoided me and didn’t say good-bye. I couldn’t tell whether he was sad or angry to have “his” Weasel leave. I would have hated to see him cry so I avoided him also. Later, I learned that the rotten smell emanating from Mouse was a gangrenous leg, amputated shortly after I left. Twenty-eight years later, in 2003, Bimbo’s Restaurant was also chopped up and replaced with a bank.

After a long career in restaurants, I now own a high-volume pizzeria in Athens, Ohio. Every now and then after a busy night, I’ll take an ice-cold Coke, go out back to my own putrid dumpster and look at the moon. Then I’ll breathe in deeply and toast Bimbo and Mouse for taking a chance on me, a scared, freckled kid who didn’t know how badly he wanted to get into the restaurant business.

 

In the 1950’s, three Italian brothers named Narciso, Frank and Joseph emigrated to the Chicago area from the small Tuscan village of Lucca. Narciso was a young man when he first arrived and people couldn’t pronounce his name so they just called him “Bimbo,” which means young boy in Italian. In 1971, they opened Bimbo’s Italian Restaurant. Narciso became the restaurants’ namesake chef while his brothers Frank and Joseph worked the front of the house. This story originally appeared in Alimentum food journal.

 

 

Insider Baking, Summer 2014

IMG_2578iii My definition of insanity is to make the same pizzas and breads with the same recipes and the same ingredients in the same oven for years and years and years!

Even the glory of a “authentic” wood-fired bake, the prospect of bakers asthma, and the accolades of being a true “Artisan” by smarmy award-winning bloggers and critics isn’t much of a turn-on. That’s why nine years ago, I decided to do a professional zig-zag by baking some amazing bread and pizza-bread variants. (I call them “varmints” because that’s what some old guy thought I said whilst I was referring to my bread “variants”… and I like it better.)

The schiacciata above is made with a dough at 55 percent hydration, ramp pesto topped with La Grande Ruota, “Fioretto” fine polenta, roasted fingerling tips and finished with white truffle.) So, as I started the “Zig”….and just kept zigging along with breads stuffed with ribs, garlic pudding and even other breads that I have recorded in this fantastic pizza blog. Every once in a while, I do ‘zag” and feature some northern Italian pizza recipes, southern Italian pizza recipes, fruit pizza recipes, pizza dough recipes and just plain every topping under the sun but now… I present to you my pizza and bread “Varmints” I’ve been making this summer.

 

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Above are two “Cornetti” which are over 80 percent hydrated and aged for three to four days under refrigeration. The left is a vegan variety stuffed with a cashew-tahini-sweet miso pudding, fresh spinach, Peruvian purple potato, roasted beetroot at carrot and baked at 700 degrees. On the right is a cornetti stuffed with gruyere, broccoli roasted beetroot, kohlrabi, and fresh spinach. It was cooked at 550 degrees and spinkled with sesame.

 

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Here’s a good look at a long tall sally of bread using beetroot again. This fougasse has a great sweet and spicy flavor profile of mango and some mid-summer ancho chilies that I roasted for a spicier, charred effect.

 

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Because it is summer, the heirloom tomatoes keep coming. I try to bake them on pizza but because of their juiciness, I prefer a low-highdrated dough like this fifty percent hydration dough. These are German Pink, Carolina Gold and Mr. Stipey heirlooms with fresh spinach and authentic English Stilton. Massive food love!

 

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And while we are on the subject of beets in bread… here is a fougasse that I have paired with some great Amish carrot and my homemade mustard seed caviar.

 

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This balzy combination of Italian polenta and toasted pine nuts is on a vegan schiacciata with all my loves; toasted pignoli polenta, roasted fingerling potatoes, oven dried tomato, (tomato confit) and a nice slurry of ramp pesto from this spring. All the lusciousness of a princess with the intense sweet and tang of a WWF wrestler.

 

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Here is fluer di lie in the style of a Turkish pide of dried pear, cinnamon, pecan and blueberry with a balsamic-blueberry glaze, all in a local spelt bread.

 

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Here’s what a 85 percent hydrated, naturally yeasted dough bakes up to after almost four days under cold fermentation. I baked these schiacciata at 630 degrees with a fabulous topping of fresh spinach, Shiitake, portobello, porcini, cremini and button mushrooms, Fontina, (DOP) and Teleggio, (DOP), there is Parmigiano Reggiano underneath and I topped this after the oven with white truffle oil and a killer balsamic glaze.

 

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I’ve been using sprouted grains and legumes in my breads for years now but none is better than the Puy, or Green French Lentil because it sprouts fast and has a fantastic toasty, savory quality in breads. Here I did a crescent shaped fougasse filled with the sprouted lentils, local King Family Bacon, Amish carrots from Chesterhill, Ohio, what a great combo!

 

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I love working with 80 percent hydration dough and even higher. Above left is a vegan schiacciata with a pudding made with raw cashews, tahini and sweet miso and on top of this is vanilla-cinnamon roasted butternut squash, beet and carrot. On the right is a crazy-delicious schiacciata of curry roasted sweet onion, fire roasted corn, re-hydrated raison and topped with Gruyere cheese.

 

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Now for some less hydrated Mediterranean breads. This is Man’oush bi Za’atar, a quick baking flatbread with the brownish Za’atar from Aleppo (left pic, left on bread) featuring a sweet cumin, anise taste and (right on the same bread) is a za’atar from a Palestinian woman’s cooperative with that great thyme, sumac tingle of a green za’atar.

 

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This simple schiacciata takes advantage of these candy-like cherry tomatoes that farmers are practically giving away now. I paired it with some aged mozzarella and provolone, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil with coarse Trapani sea salt.

 

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Above is a celery, leek and ham disc with calabrian chilies and whole roasted cumin seed.

 

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This pizza will blow your face off and send your intestines to the old folks home before puberty. I used some summer habenero’s and Calabrian chilies and made a paste with San Marzano pizza sauce and some aged mozzarella and provolone and topped with a pickled jalepeno. My customers said this is hotter than my ghost chili pie. (go figure)

 

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This is my sea salt and herb fougasse that Joel Fair and I make deep into the night. It is our customers most favorite; an airy and savory treat.

 

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What to do with a boatload of local okra? This time I pickled it then paired it with balsamic caramelized onion and Gruyere on this schiacciata.

 

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This fougasse I call the Purple People Eater. She is a sweet and spicy charmer with chipotle roasted onion and dried blueberry!

 

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Above is a mix of cashew, Cowdery Farms ‘Cherry Bomb’ chilies, cilantro and dried papaya that made this spectacular bent fougasse, (right) very popular.

 

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last week, I was back on the beet with 40 pounds of this purple gem so I killed it with a vegetarian schiacciata topped with fingerlings, roasted Amish Brussel sprouts and beetroot on top of Italian polenta and English Stilton.

 

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Here is a crunchy, airy ciabatta. I have been experimenting with this loaf for years and love those large, irregular cells produced from natural fermentation and a long proofing time followed by high heat.

 

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We can never forget to bake hundreds of baguettes each week. The crunch, the airy crumb and light digestibility make these a crowd pleaser. Torrey cooked these and has become a real master.

 

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I made a cool split batard with this loaf of dried peaches, cinnamon, pecan all nestled in local spelt milled here in town by Shagbark milling.

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Above is a fingerling potato disc with some quick dill pickles I made from Cowdery farms cukes, sun-dried tomato, onion, dill, Asiago and local cheddar curd.

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This dual-holed fougasse contains our old friend the sprouted Puy lentel, this time paired with roasted leek, bacon and roasted celery, key lime zest, cumin and key lime slices. Very Bright!

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Joel Fair, Torrey and I did a special event this summer called Bounty on the Bricks which was a tremendous effort by the Athens Foundation to help local food pantries. Master Chef Alfonso Constriciani and all the Professors and Chefs at Hocking College put on a great dinner featuring our Epi rolls, (above left) and some airy Fontina bombes. The event was a success with thousands of dollars donated to the pantries.

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On top of lots of airy breads with high hydration, I back a lot of these Afghan Snowshoe Na’an that feature, horseradish Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh dill and lemon zest.

 

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I just realized that this post is huge and I have so much other “Varmints” to highlight but I have to go…bake. I’ll leave you with a delicious ciabatta topped with Nutella and banana and a pizza box made by a customer. Remember, don’t eat that yellow snow!

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