Friday, June 1, 2018

PMQ Taste Kitchen Experience: Before

"Food is so good that you should open your own restaurant!" – any amateur cook who hosted dinner party at home must have heard compliments like this from time to time. While I believe in my case many of those comments were made only out of appreciation for the effort rather than merits, it does made me wonder what it is like working in a kitchen in a real restaurant other than my own home's. And that random thought, plus an unplanned meet-up and chat with my friends J and D one afternoon led to myself taking over a pop-up restaurant for a few days in May.

PMQ Taste Kitchen is a brainchild of J with his twin brother C (of Twins Kitchen), and along with the venue partner PMQ and D (who went by his handle @deeseebeaucoup on Instagram) handling the PR matter of the project, operating as a restaurant incubator/test kitchen concept out from a space at the heritage site near Soho, regularly bringing in new chefs for brief stints with resources and support provided, including a fully-equipped kitchen plus a dining area with up to 30 covers. Essentially this project provided a great platform for aspiring chefs to explore the possibilities of operating an independent restaurant for a short period of time to test the market.

And as for why I ended up doing this, to make long story short, I was eating there one afternoon in April with J and D, and learning that they were constantly on the lookout for new people to cook there during our conversation, I casually mentioned I wouldn't mind giving it a shot if they let me. So with a few Whatsapp messages exchanged after, we fixed the dates for just that, turning this into reality.
I was pretty excited about this project that let me run an actual restaurant for a few days and see what this is like. Well, I have been approached to do something similar before at a different venue but at that time I thought I wasn’t ready to throw myself into the hot kitchen. This time however, I felt the timing is right and I felt I didn't have much to lose with a little more confidence than before. I have more free time now to prepare and do this on a full-time basis temporarily, plus I did add a few new dishes in my repertoire recently that would be suitable to deliver in a restaurant setting. And such experience is going to help refine my kitchen skills, stepping up from serving 6-8 at home in one night to serving over 100 people during the week-long “residency”. And I thought it benefit my writing as well and widen my horizons as a food lover. Whenever I write about food or meals, I always try to step into the shoes of the chefs, reading into their minds of how the idea of the dish was conceived and how it was prepared, and the actual experience of “working as a chef” would definitely put me in a better perspective for such.

Well, the excitement soon gave way to a time of anxiety once I got into the planning stage, quickly realizing how complicated running a restaurant, amid a short-lived one, could be. I was given total freedom in what I could do during the week at PMQ Taste Kitchen, so that means I need to plan the menu, source the ingredients, do all the preparation and of course, actually cook during all the meal services for that week. The team provided tremendous support including staffing, resources and useful advice, but still, a lot of work need to be done on my side. Wanting a full-on restaurant experience and for better utilization of ingredients and time, I made the decision of opening for both lunch and dinner services each with a separate a la carte menu, and I soon knew that means extra workload in terms of time and effort, as compared to say, a single prix-fixe tasting menu served only in the evening which would have made my life a whole lot simpler.

For the menu planning, I relied mainly on a few tried-and-true dishes I have created at home before that I am comfortable cooking in a larger scale, and I wanted to be something not commonly found elsewhere to give people an unique dining experience. I consider Maryland Crab Cakes one of my signature dishes and one that we have made with some success when we did the booth at Island East Market a few years ago, so that became one of the appetizer dishes for dinner (with a slight twist to make it more interesting using the pungent Cantonese fermented clam sauce 蜆介醬) and for lunch as well, when I served this as a burger with spicy mayo.

The rice paper “raviolo” was one dish I created a few years back and one that I cooked regularly with several iterations of changes over time, and I think that’s one dish that best captured my typical cooking style of combining classic western techniques and local components – in this case, lobsters and prawns served with a ginger-infused bisque sauce plus scallions pesto (my rendition inspired by the Cantonese dish of sautéed lobster with ginger and scallions 薑蔥龍蝦) So that became one of the main course choices for dinner as well.

Along with the same theme, I also included my Fu Yu Mac n Cheese in the lunch menu, combining the Cantonese Fermented Tofu (Fu Yu 腐乳) in the American classic Mac n Cheese with Chinese liver sausage, plus the chicken roulade with Shanghainese mustard green for dinner appetizer, turning the textbook way of preparing poultry (roulade) into something new, based loosely on a classic Shanghainese dish of pickled mustard greens and edamame/broad beans (雪菜毛豆)

Part of my cooking was inspired by our frequent trips to various parts of the world – I consider it part of my travel experience being able to learn the different ingredients or cooking methods used in different cultures – and so I wanted this to be part of my pop-up menu as well, trying to give diners a similar experience as they were eating at my own home. We were in the Middle East last fall so on the menu, there were dishes taking reference of the unique cooking style in the region, plus a few ingredients that I bought during that trip that’s hard to find locally. That included couscous, za’atar spices, halva and tahini sauce, and the appetizer roasted cauliflower dish that came straight out from the textbook of Middle-eastern cuisine. Desserts were more straight forward and traditional, most of them made well ahead (so I don’t have to worry about them too much) and I asked CYY to make a chocolate cake as one of the choices to serve a la mode, but I also attempted a few new ice cream flavor to see how others thought of them, including one made from sake kasu (the residue rice after the fermented "juice" became sake)

All together 2 dishes were available for lunch (plus the optional dessert of homemade ice-cream) and 8 for dinner with choices of appetizers, mains and desserts. I made some fine adjustments after the initial tasting session a week before the event based on the feedback received, and added a few more dishes as "daily special" to better utilize the ingredients on hand - that included a BBQ Beef Rib Burger with a homemade gojujang barbecue sauce, and an "oriental huevo rotos", mixing sauteed potatoes, a soft-boiled 64-degree egg, and bits of Chinese salted fish into this twisted version of a classic Spanish tapas dish.

And I also decided to create a few small bites as “amuse-bouche” that were served before dinner courses – I couldn’t resist the temptation of presenting a few new dishes that I have been experimenting, with one being the a small cube of grilled pork belly topped with 72-hour, miso-cured egg yolk "jam", the seasonal candied young ginger root and sauteed apples, served in a small espresso cup packed with umami and subtle play of savory-sweetness, or the dashi-clam juice in a shot-glass with a dab of raw yuzu-kosho hidden at the bottom for that kick at the last sip. I also needed to set the price, something that I don’t normally have to worry about, and at the end I went for something that's in the fair market level (I don't want to compete with price) yet taking into the account this is an experimental setup (and the customers were essentially my guinea pigs)

Turned out fixing the menu was fairly easy I would say, but the sourcing of ingredients and preparation were the much more challenging parts. Once the menu items were confirmed, I spent the next few days scratching my head assembling a shopping list and taking my best guess at how much ingredients I would actually need. I wasn’t good at planning to start with, plus I have no idea how many people would actually turn up - that made this an extra difficult task. Last thing I wanted is ending up not having enough to serve, or left with way too many leftovers to deal with afterwards – at the end I thought we did better than I originally expected with minimal wastage. Most of the big-item ingredients (meat and seafood) were sourced from wholesalers beforehand with fresh produce bought from the wet market on Graham Street – my poor estimation skills meant I needed to make extra trips up and down the market regularly because I always ended up running short of stuff - I must have lost a few pounds just by doing that for 2 weeks. I asked my friend G (a proud owner of the hottest bakery in town right now plus a wholesale division supplying to hotels and restaurants) a big favor to supply me the brioche buns for my crabcake burger (something they don’t normally carry at his retail shop) and actually troubled him a couple more times during that week to re-order as I kept running out of them.

I was relieved somewhat once the ingredients began to arrive and the work began to take shape the week before. One aspect I enjoyed working in this project was the opportunity to spend considerable amount of time “playing” in a fully-equipped professional kitchen. There were appliances that I would love to get my hands on – including the floor-standing steamer, chamber vacuum sealer, Thermomix and the best of it all, the Pacojet which was just ready on the very last day of the pop-up. Sometimes I felt like subconsciously I designed the menu such that I could play with as many of those "toys" as possible. Of course, there's never enough service pans for mis en place or pots than one would love to have - that applied to every kitchen and to every cooks I am sure - and for a few items that they don’t have, I was happy to supply my own, which included the old-fashioned ice cream machine and an additional sous vide circulator to supplement the one they got for double action. Given some ingredients took a while to be cooked in advance, some as long as 72 hours, I quickly worked out the time-table for the week prior to the event so I could start the prep work on premise.

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