Archive for September, 2010
(Part 5 in my Don’t Hang Up! series)
In the culinary field, expect the unexpected. It happens all the time.
My first catering event was a shambles.
Not because of my crutches though they did hamper my actions.
Nor my cook’s sudden announcement that she was getting married the same morning of the event.
Not even because I wasn’t prepared to start catering yet, though a meal for eight in a private residence didn’t seem like a big deal to someone who regularly cooked for dozens.
These factors may have all contributed but what ultimately did me in was not any of them.
After fracturing my hip on New Year’s Eve, my recovery had been startling – due to the unconventional, newfangled operation the surgeon recommended whereby instead of traditional screws, he inserted three rods through the marrow of my upper leg to hold my hip in place. He assured me I’d be mobile within a week and off crutches in four. In a hurry to start my business, I happily agreed, not fully understanding the guinea pig aspects.
How could I foresee that years later, this very operation would prove my undoing?
On the day in question, I was still on crutches and my cook had gone off to get married, promising to be back by 12:30 pm. The delivery was scheduled for 2:00 pm.
We’d pre-prepared some things, but not the main course. This meant toiling over the oven, propped up on crutches, which would have been difficult making a regular meal let alone preparing a gourmet entree. They slowed me down and even with the help of my trusty driver and the cook who turned up at 1:00 pm, I was forty minutes late delivering – a big no-no in the catering business.
A furious hostess greeted me. My crutches did nothing to alleviate her mood. Nor did the assortment of succulent hors d’ouevres.
How could I excuse myself? I could see her point. Seeking to show that I was here on business, I laid out the food on her kitchen counter for her to see and approve. The sight of my masterpiece, the main dish in all its glory was enough to soften her expression: Rust colored sweet chipotle coated chicken breasts surrounded by yellow corn kernels, and red pimento and green poblano chili strips lay on the virgin white surface of my new Italian platter.
I reminded her that I needed to use her oven to warm the entrée while the guests finished the hors d’ouevres and appetizers. Just fifteen minutes. Nothing complicated. “Be careful,” she said, “it’s brand new, never used.”
As the mingled scent of sweet and sharp and tangy filled the air, it seemed that things were working out after all.
The sound was bullet sharp followed by a sizzling and burning smell. By the time I hobbled to the oven, smoke wafted out of it.
The Italian “over proof” dish had split in half. Each side lolled over dripping corn kernels and pimento and chili strips and sauce onto the oven bottom where they blackened into smoke.
No time to cry over a split dish.
Ignoring the hostess’s paroxysms of horror, I shoved aside my crutches and with my driver’s help, removed each section of the dish and re-accommodated the food onto a smaller round platter that I’d brought for the side dishes.
The meal was finally served, over an hour late. As far as I could see, everyone enjoyed it.
The problem was – how to clean the mess in the oven? I couldn’t bend, lean, crouch or kneel. I could only watch as the hostess’s maid and my driver scrubbed up the mess, leaving shiny streaks where burnt food had stuck to the oven.
No question about charging the remaining 50%, which meant in raw terms, that I ended up financing this catering disaster.
Don’t expect to be reimbursed for a product broken after use. The store insisted the platters were oven proof and behaving as if insulted, claimed that an establishment with their reputation would never sell products under false pretences.
Then how come mine broke?
Maybe I was the only idiot to put one in a hot oven. Or to believe that salesman’s spiel. Or to try catering on crutches. 0r have a cook get married on the one morning we had a catering event? But ultimately, it was the unexpected, that imported and supposedly oven proof Italian platter, that ruined the event.
Should I have taken these as warning signs from the kitchen god that my food business was on a disaster course?
Dear readers, do you have entertaining stories about entertaining disasters? Please share them with us.
Blame it on my red pantyhose.
Since leaving work, I’d sworn never to wear them again. Not until I bought an expensive red evening dress and high-heeled red shoes, and as an afterthought, red pantyhose to complete the ensemble. Come on, I could make the occasional sacrifice.
Who knows what direction my life would have followed if I hadn’t worn them to a New Year’s Eve party?
And then I had the slip. Just when I was in a nothing-can-stop-me-now mood, ready to take on the world – or Mexico City – and open my restaurant-deli in the spring. As it turned out, what appeared to be a minor setback had long-term consequences that changed the course of my life. Otherwise, I might not be writing about this incident. I might be … oh, hang it, that falls into the “what if?” category.
It wasn’t what we called in AA “a slip.” All I drank that evening was non-alcoholic fruit punch, but who’d believe that someone eight months sober could resist temptation on New Year’s Eve? To make it worse, it wasn’t the kind of party I’d have chosen to go to if I wanted to start drinking again. But my well-meaning hostess, a TV cooking show personality, assured me it would be an unforgettable evening with fascinating people from the culinary world.
Unforgettable? Definitely. Fascinating people? Fascinated by themselves and what they had to say.
There was I, wedged between a leering, middle-aged food critic and a former academic in Hispanic cuisine who looked like he’d crawled out of his tomb for the evening. They argued the toss about obscure dishes while everyone, except for me, listened in rapt attention.
I missed the alcoholic buzz that made any talk, however dull, entertaining. How would I endure an evening with these fuddy duddies who got together on New Year’s to replay their previous year’s performance?
We sat down to dinner and my pantyhose turned into instruments of torture in my nethers, pinching my inner thighs, and giving me a prickly sensation in the wrong places. To make it worse, I had to pee, but I dared not go to the bathroom because I’d have to squeeze out of the bloody things and squeeze back into them. If anyone had seen what my legs were doing under the lace tablecloth, they would have thought I had the hots for the food critic.
Five minutes after midnight, when I tried to take my leave, I faced an implacable fence of coercion. Even though I wasn’t drinking the just opened champagne, it would be rude to depart before the first toast of the new year. Around one, the Nosferatu lookalike/academic, worried about drunken drivers and muggers mugging people in cars at stoplights – as if the very sight of him wouldn’t have made even the fiercest mugger run for his life – said he had to leave.
At last, relief in sight. I leaped to my feet and bidding a swift farewell, almost ran out the door. Since it was a first floor apartment, I bounded down the stairs. In ten minutes, I’d be home and my first stop …
…was not to be the long awaited bathroom.
At 3 a.m., there I was, lying on a table in the emergency room, with a doctor telling me I had a fractured hip. Ridiculous. All the other New Years when I’d gone out and got plastered and nothing happened. Why now, without a drop of alcohol in me? Who would believe it was just a slip of the physical kind?
And I was still wearing the red pantyhose and still needing to pee – more than ever.
Now, that was a true dilemma.
Do you have any stories like this one to share with us?
A Unique Dish
I started my food business with a splash, preparing traditional chiles en nogada – chilies in white walnut sauce – for a reunion of former co-workers. I had organized the event and volunteered to do the catering. My first foray into the food business.
A chile en nogada is a jewel in the Mexican culinary crown. A large green poblano chili stuffed with meat, fruits, nuts, and spices, partly covered with a pure white walnut sauce, and decorated with ruby red pomegranate seeds and sprinkles of green parsley. This mixture encloses a treasure trove of intermingled flavors – tart, sweet, hot, sour, nutty – that seduce the senses and transport the consumer into an era of rich and sensuous appetites.
The story goes that colonial nuns were asked to prepare a dish for the Emperor Iturbide that would both symbolize Mexico’s independence from Spain celebrated in September and simulate the colors of the red, white, and green flag. Not an easy task, but those resourceful nuns came up with a dish that, because of its seasonal ingredients, was almost exclusive to the month of September. They chose freshly peeled walnuts to make the whitest of sauces and represent purity. Red pomegranate seeds for the blood and sacrifice of the battle for independence. And the poblano chili, child of the fertile Mexican soil, stuffed with fruits and nuts to represent the rewards that add flavor to life.
Sounds complicated? Well, it is. A seasonal autumn dish. Around thirty ingredients (though some recipes use less). Fresh walnuts, peeled individually. But I loved culinary challenges and this was a big one.
Starting in the Food Business
Spoiler: A couple of decades before, I had learned how to prepare chiles en nogada in a traditional Mexican cookery class. Then, I was fortunate enough to hire a cook who had worked in a top restaurant and had filched their recipe for fifty chilies. However, I didn’t out and out plagiarize their recipe; rather, I made it my own by adding a couple of ingredients, and leaving out the egg batter most cooks use to coat the chilies. A good move. A lot of people preferred them with the green showing under the pure white sauce.
For this, my first event, my cook and I prepared one hundred and twenty five chiles en nogada. I should have left it at that.
On this occasion, apart from the substantial chilies, to show a range of what we could make, we also prepared nine other dishes. The regal chile en nogada dominated the buffet table. People just tasted the rest or served themselves minute portions. Sure, my chilies were a great success, but how could I base my business on a seasonal dish that only lasted from August through mid-October when the season for fresh walnuts and pomegranates ended?
What did I do with all the food left over? Gave away most of it. This would happen time and again when I got excited about a new recipe and made too much food. Eventually, I learned to measure amounts though this became harder when I offered ready-made food in my restaurant-deli.
Success with Chiles en Nogada
Every season for years, I prepared hundreds of chiles en nogada. On one occasion, I was asked to make two hundred and fifty for a wedding attended by four hundred people. Since the menu also included a veal dish and there were dozens of American guests, the bride’s mother didn’t consider it necessary to order four hundred chilies. Unfortunately, most people preferred my chilies to the veal with the result that I delivered an additional one hundred and fifty to send to guests who hadn’t partaken of them.
People still ask me if I make chiles en nogada. Quite a compliment. Living in the U.S., it’s difficult mainly because the seasonal ingredients are hard to come by: the type of walnuts required are typical to central Mexico – Puebla area and pomegranates are in season later in the year. The other problem is the time-consuming peeled walnuts. On a couple of occasions when I was able to get hold of the right ingredients, I prepared several dozen chilies. Somehow, they didn’t taste as good. Perhaps being in another country made a difference. I have heard that certain Mexican dishes don’t travel well and the chile en nogada flavor seems to change when they cross the border.
In autumn, you can find chiles en nogada, varying from excellent to mediocre to poor imitations, in many restaurants in Mexico. In lesser establishments, to lower the price as they tend to be expensive, cooks take short cuts, use fewer ingredients or unpeeled walnuts – resulting in the dead giveway of a beige or gray sauce – or bits of cherry instead of pomegranate seeds.
The funny thing is that almost everyone who prepares this dish will assert that their chiles en nogada are the best ones ever. Just Google them and you’ll find several personal recipes with blurbs extolling their marvelous taste. Truth is that with such a gorgeous presentation and incredible mix of ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong – as long as you’re willing to take the time to prepare them correctly. And it helps to be a really good cook.
However, there’s a difference between good and excellent. What those show-offs don’t know is that my chiles en nogada were the best. I’m absolutely certain because that’s what my many satisfied customers told me and keep on telling me to this day.
Sorry, but I’m not going to give away my secret ingredients. Suffice it to say that one of them was my own particular flavor. Nobody can duplicate that.
Losing your job in mid life, especially a good position that you have held for years, can be devastating or to quote President Obama, “Leave you reeling in shock or depression.”
For a while, you need a time to mourn, to shake off your confusion, bewilderment, resentment and/or anger. After all, you have lost an important part of your life.
Then, it is time to move on. At this point, you can follow several paths:
1. Start a job search. Don’t expect to find other work at the same pay or status level as the one you lost. Be prepared to bow your head and accept job offers that you previously would have turned down.
At first, I was too proud to accept my fall from grace and not willing to bow my head to anyone. Several years later, humbled by my circumstances, when I went hat in hand to look for work, it was too late. Nobody wanted me anymore. I was yesterday’s has-been.
So don’t set your sights too high and do seek opportunities further down the scale.
2. Turn your hobby/interest into a business. Many of us are tempted to start our own business based on our hobby, skills, or interest.
Watch out. This path can be tough and littered with unforeseen pitfalls.
I loved to cook, sometimes for dozens of people, and I also had some Cordon Bleu training. Well-meaning friends encouraged me to open a restaurant, and I fell for their praise and heeded their advice. A former advertising-marketing executive, I thought I knew it all, and invested my considerable severance into my own restaurant and catering business. What I overlooked was that I had no restaurant experience or training, and just being a good cook, marketing savvy, and knowing lots of people weren’t the right credentials.
Everything about my restaurant was perfect – the décor, the food, the service, the location.
What could go wrong?
What went wrong was Me.
I knew zilch about restaurant management. Hired an out-of-work friend who knew even less than I did as assistant manager. Sold gourmet food at ridiculously low prices, thus making deep cuts into my profit margin. Overestimated consumption that resulted in left over/wasted food. My locale was too small to service all my eager customers. No parking. Costly permits. Shall I go on?
3. Follow your dream. How about writing that book you always wanted to write? Or painting those pictures? Taking those photographs? Opening an antique store or art gallery?
Dream career paths can be risky and uncertain. It takes time, persistence, a tough skin, and another means of support. Think in terms of the would-be actor who, while waiting for his/her big break, often holds down a menial day job such as waiting tables or painting houses.
I fell into this trap. For years, I toiled away at a book that I knew would make me rich and famous while working at a series of low-paid jobs for a living. My synopsis got me through the first gatekeepers and my manuscript read by big agents only to be told that I needed “line editing” and I was “a talented writer who showed promise.” I put the manuscript in the closet and went to work on starting a new career.
4. Make a new start in a new career. This may be the best way to go. What other skills do you have? Why not train for/study a new career? If I’d taken the time to study restaurant management, my restaurant might still be a going concern.
To coin a cliché, think outside the box. There are opportunities for other jobs that may not be in the same field as the one you held before, but are related. For example, I know of several former ad agency executives, including myself, who made a new start in market research.
Remember, who says you’re washed up, that it’s the end of the road for you? You don’t have to accept that. When you lose everything, there’s only one way to go: Up again. It’s a matter of perspective how you handle this turn about in fortunes. Most importantly, since you have nothing to lose, you can only gain.
Summon back the energy and gunghoism that led you to the summit before and harness them to take on new challenges.
A few years back, a film Fun with Dick and Jane showed the main characters living the good life until Dick lost his job. With money gone, house in foreclosure, they turned to a life of petty crime to pay the bills. Funny, ironic, but showed how desperation can lead to crazy decisions.
Let’s say you’re a midlife professional who has just lost your job/been dismissed/laid off/ terminated/forced to take early retirement. You’re in a state of shock and confusion, unable to think straight. Or perhaps you’re one of those “get up and go” people who, the very next day, is already searching for a new position. I wish you luck. Without an office, job, or title, job hunting can be a frustrating and depressing experience.
So what do you do? What are the pitfalls to avoid?
1. Handle your severance package as if it is all that you have left.
2. Don’t try to keep up your previous lifestyle; rather, cut down on expenses even if it affects your living standard.
3. Don’t make important decisions out of desperation especially with regards to your severance money.
4. Beware of alcohol, pills, distractions, oversleeping, or taking it too easy. You’re not on vacation.
5. Stop pretending you’re doing great and face reality. How are you going to make a new start or a comeback?
I should know, having made all the above mistakes and more.
Here’s the second in my series about midlife job loss and making a new start, with an excerpt from my book Don’t Hang Up!
Two: What Do You Do When the Good Times End?
Our favorite word is: “Salud.” Over drinks and lunch and more drinks, a group of Marty’s victims share our dismissal from Paradise.
Most of us, in shock and disbelief over our situation, have dawdled in our job searches, blaming the delay on elusive contacts who promise and promise, but don’t fulfill. In the meantime, we live off our severance packages, while convincing ourselves, and each other, that we will find work before the money runs out. Some talk about potential interviews as if they were fact, and behave as if they are being pursued with job offers when they are, in reality, the seekers.
We are lost souls wandering through an unknown jungle. Stripped of our trappings, we have few survival skills. We are sinking, drawing down each other under our mutual load of delusions of past grandeur.
“Stop deceiving yourselves,” I tell them. “Once word gets out that you don’t have a job, ad agencies aren’t interested in you, just give you the runaround. I’m not willing to go through that hassle.”
They turn angry eyes on me for bursting their imaginary bubble.
Truth is, for me, the vista is barren. I can’t look for a job in another agency – they would have to call me first. And if I’m not seated behind a desk in an agency, it’s doubtful they will. Nor can I, a former top executive, stoop to lower levels or bow my head before people who have been my inferiors. It would give the impression I’m a failure or have lost my edge – and who wants leftovers?
“I’m going to set up my own business,” I tell my friends. “And I can use any help you can give me.”
I have no clear idea how I can use them – the words came out before I could stop them – but I need my comrades beside me. They make me feel that I’m still someone.
“A restaurant and catering business.” I outline my plans as if they were fact and not being made up as I go along.
Their faces are eager, grasping at this hope I extend to them.
“Call it Pennie’s.”
“Pennie’s Deli sounds better.”
“Everyone in the advertising business knows you and they’ll flock to it.”
They all want a finger in my pie. It will give us a mutual goal, like working together on an ad campaign. The difference is that, in this case, I’m the one who will put up all the money. They assume I got a good severance package, and I did. Little do they know that a chunk went on taxes. Or that I’ve lost my focus and have only a vague notion of how to replace it.
Keeping up appearances and my five-bedroom house is important. I can’t give it up; it’s my children’s home. Their rooms are intact for when my older son, who lives in Dallas, and my younger one, studying in Italy, come to visit. For company, I have a live-in maid, a collie, a rottweiler, two chow-chows, and a floundering relationship with my long-time boyfriend.
After years of devoting my energy to the workplace, it’s hard to sleep at night. I stay up until the wee hours drinking Scotch, sleep late in the morning, and nap whenever I feel like it. No reason to keep regular hours. No kids to awaken, no office to go to. Who cares if I’m half sloshed? I dream of making a splash in a new field, and conduct a (frenetic) search for cooking ideas, scouring recipe books and magazines, and making lists, lists, lists. Nothing will deter me from turning my restaurant project into reality. Not even if I have to invest all of my severance pay in it.
How did you react after job loss? Did you make some bad decisions?
Next: Showing Off My Goodies
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