Wiggle Room

imageThis past weekend, we pushed through another cold food practice (i.e. more gelatin). It was a long night but the finished result was better than the first time around, as it should be. For me, the road there was a bit rough. I had to restart 3 of 4 dishes because they just wouldn’t set up right. You can’t just dump gelatin into something and call it done. Some things had too much gelatin in them and some didn’t have enough. One dish in particular, something like a custard, just didn’t have enough wiggle room. The display must mirror the conceptualized dish as closely as possible. For example, if you sit down to a panna cotta you expect to be able to scoop through the smooth, creamy delicacy with a spoon. I mean, if you just tap it with your spoon, it should jiggle but it won’t lifelessly fall over on its side.

It reminded me of my middle school science fair. That cold uncomfortable morning in the school cafeteria, the judges walked by and pointed out things that could’ve been done better and then later reminded me of those as they informed me that I would be representing the school among my peers at the district’s science fair. But between the school science fair and the district fair, something came over me. I can’t quite recall what had happened but I think there’s some fancy name for it- uh, procrastination. The day of the district fair, I woke up and ripped things off my original board, trying to rearrange them as suggested, only to arrive at the district fair with headings of empty sections. This wasn’t quite as bad but the changes that were made, didn’t work out as imagined, or even as practiced.

Earlier in the week, we had practiced for another event, the Military Hot Food Kitchen Challenge. Teams are required to produce 50 fine dining portions of a 3 course meal- restaurant style, from within a Mobile Kitchen Trailer (MKT) (pictured above), a workspace of about 211 sq. ft. Not much wiggle room.

Monday morning, we rolled onto what looked like a campground: tents scattered about, wind tickling the leaves, trees peaking into our kitchen. It was a refreshing change of setting. Nonetheless, as I later straightened up, relaxing my reach and stepping away from the stainless steel table where I was slicing my granny smith and golden delicious apples, I instead knelt beside the capricious flow of cold water spouting from the brown 20 liter canteen tilted by my left hand. I was washing my rag. I remember looking up to CS2 Haughton to say, “Hey, Haughton, I knew there was a reason I joined the Navy.” We laughed.

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The first day behind us, the rest of the week was stolen by Brother Wind and his tornado warnings. We arrived at the field grounds at the end of the week following the tornado conditions to find the MKT compacted and spent half the morning watching our gracious host reassemble the kitchen. While we were enthusiastic about getting back to the grind, preparing for next weeks competition, Brother Wind was even more energized than we, slapping pans out of my hands, tossing my ingredients off the table, scrambling my recipes- sorta bullying me around. During the last moments, I crawled into the tent to finish and plate my dish. I’m glad we prepared and pulled through such conditions because it gives me confidence that we’ll handle the staged, temperature controlled conditions within the indoor field house.

imageI certainly walked away that day with a greater appreciation for the work of the other branches and the environments they endure, granted, I haven’t yet seen all that the Navy has to offer. We were cooking army style; our kitchen, the centerpiece of a mobile kitchen trailer. There was a removable flat top grill, a pretty large open flame, two small ovens that doubled as cook top, a worktable atop cabinet storage. My pastry domain was outside the tent. I had my folding table mostly to myself but I felt a little estranged, walking in and out of the trailer to tend to my dessert sauces as I worked on my mise en place. It was tight in the kitchen. There was maybe two feet between the cook tops and the exterior curtain; never mind the interior. Reach down to grab a towel from your side and you were digging your elbows somebody’s back. You had to be in and out of the oven quickly because not only were you letting heat out into the flaming hot kitchen as the oven cooled, but you were otherwise hogging up all the space.

The mobile kitchen trailer thrives on efficiency- organization, no wasted movement, teamwork, and communication. Neglect those tenets and meet your downfall, especially before the hungry crowds. (Remember, each of the events is open to the public.) The thought of preparing my dish right before our guests is thrilling, while at the same time chilling. I’ve always liked the idea of cooking before the diner that would consume the dish, sort of preforming on stage, especially because I enjoy bar seating at restaurants whose cooktops are just feet away from the counter. Honestly, I am thus far inexperienced in this environment and feel a bit of the pressure. I am nonetheless looking forward to it. Day one on the MKT site was a bit exciting and was sort of a wake up call. To see what was meant by the word kitchen here.

Sorry I can’t stay and chat longer but we are right on the heels of the competition!