Back to Writing: A tribute to FOODday

Yes, as I constantly say, I just don't get here as much as I'd like to anymore. I'm finding myself spending the majority of my time back in the PR world doing some freelance work for a local agency. It is good, and what I need to be doing right now, but I've begun to feel a bit blue as I realize I'm just not carving out time to write.

So thank goodness for the editor of WCI's Food Writers' Club newsletter. I promised her a recap of my externship at FOODday. I almost bailed on the assignment, but with a little nudging she got me to turn something in. I thank her as I did enjoy looking back on my 13 weeks at the paper's test kitchen and was able to express what I hope are some entertaining words on the adventure.

I've pasted it below. It's sort of my 'day in the life' at FOODday. This is the version I just handed in, unedited, so we'll see what the in-print version will look like.

Happy reading!


A Day in the Life of an Extern
By Jennifer Fields

As many of my fellow students were gearing up to head off to well-respected dining spots around town to embark on their culinary school externships, I was set to work in a kitchen unlike most kitchens we’re used to. Tucked away on the fourth floor of the northeast corner of The Oregonian building in downtown Portland is a tiny kitchen similar to one you’d find in your own home or apartment. There is no wall full of endless gas stoves, and no 8-foot long, steel tables holding industrial-sized cooking equipment. Instead, this kitchen is designed to most closely resemble the kitchens of the 700,000-plus readers of the paper’s weekly food section, FOODday. The test kitchen at FOODday serves as the place were recipes are tested and retested, and ingredients and instructions are scrutinized and perfected day in and day out for both FOODday and MIX magazine.

So what’s it like in the test kitchen simply following instruction on recipes that come in each day? Anything but ordinary. As I arrive for my shift at 12:30 p.m., my job is to get the kitchen ready for the day’s testing. I turn on the computer, which usually takes 10 minutes to warm up, and then unload the dishwasher putting all the pots and pans and cooking utensils neatly back in their designated spots. I log into the computer and check my email. As usual, nothing of any significance. I’m the extern, why would I have any email? By 1:00pm, Linda, the test kitchen director and my supervisor, arrives with the groceries for the day’s recipes.

“Hello!” she says in her usual, cheery and energetic way. “Ok, go ahead and unload what’s in the bags and I’ll go check in with Katherine [Miller, FOODday Assistant Editor] to see if anything has come up today that we should know about,” she says and scurries off. I unload the bags and try to decipher what items will be washed, sliced, diced, sautéed, etc. in today’s leisurely day of working through cooking instructions.

“Well, it looks like there is a change of plans,” Linda says as she walks back into our tiny space. “Martha [Holmberg, FOODday Editor] is in today and wants to do a photo shoot of some of the recipes we did yesterday for edition.” For edition means for the issue that will come out the very next Tuesday. It is Thursday, which means the photos need to be shot today, placed into the graphics layout, finalized and approved for press on Friday. “I need you to do a quick ingredient list of the items we need and run up to the store to get them. I’ll get working on the other recipes that need to get done today,” she says. Throwing off my apron and putting my coat, scarf, and gloves back on, I grab the list and head one block north and three blocks west to the nearest grocery venue to grab the goods.

Arriving back around 2:30 p.m., I find Linda well into the other recipes. I unload my new purchases and begin prep immediately as Martha wants to shoot no later than 4:00 p.m. “Oh, and Sara (a local freelance writer) will be in today to do a taste testing for canned tomatoes,” Linda mentions as I try to survey the kitchen to figure out where exactly all of this cooking and picture taking and taste testing will take place. As I’m chopping my vegetables for my side dish—something comprised of asparagus, eggplant, and roasted red peppers—Linda peaks over and says, “Now are those one-inch pieces? The recipe calls for one-inch pieces and if they’re off Martha will be the first to point that out.” I look at her expecting a light laugh or something that will resemble that what she just said was meant jokingly, but no, she’s serious. I head over to the drawer located under the computer to reach for the ruler. At this time my mind is hijacked back to Culinary Skills I where my fingers are trembling as I hold my chef’s knife in hopes of finally getting a perfect julienne-sized cut out of my 10th carrot that will make Chef Jackie and Chef Stephanie weep. So we really do use those little rulers tucked in our chef’s coats, even out in the real world; amazing. Back to reality, I grab the ruler and head back to my cutting board. It looks as if my previous eye-balling got me pieces that were slightly over one inch. By the look on Linda’s face I figure I’m good and won’t lose the externship over the fresh-cut stalks. I continue with the eggplant and red peppers, and sauté just as instructed.

By 3:30pm my dish was close to done when Linda asked me to take her two dishes out for “food parade”—the walk from the test kitchen, through the photo department, past graphics, and over to the FOODday section for tasting and judging by the discerning writers and collaborators who develop each week’s issue—while she helped Sara get everything in order for the tomato taste test. “Mmmm, I like it,” Katherine says, “But I wonder if it could use a little more salt.” “Oh wow, it’s delicious, but yes, a bit more salt and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice,” adds Danielle Centoni, food editor. “What’s in it again?” asks Leslie Cole, FOODday staff writer. “Um, I’m not for certain. Linda actually made this dish,” I say with a look as if to communicate, ‘I just can’t recall what’s in every dish!’ “Hm. It’s a bit one-note for me,” says, Martha, possibly the most discerning of them all. “I don’t know, it’s a bit bland, it still needs something.” Mind you, this recipe was provided by one of Portland’s hottest chefs, but that never halts her from making certain the end result that home cooks will receive is flawless, which in the end is the overall bases behind having the test kitchen in the first place.

So back to the kitchen I go with notes of everyone’s feedback in my head. “Katherine liked it, but wants more salt, ditto with Danielle and add a bit of lemon juice. Leslie asked what was in it, but come to think of it I’m not sure whether or not she liked it. And Martha says it’s bland and that it needs something,” I ramble to Linda who is now surrounded by paper bowls full of whole, canned tomatoes. “So do we need to do it over again?” She asks. “Um. I’m not sure,” I say looking thoroughly confused. “Well that’s ok,” she replied. “We’ll just ask when Martha comes back here.”

By 4:00 p.m. we move on to tomato tasting while, simultaneously, Mike Davis, photo editor, is preparing for the shoot of the day. Who knew there could be so many different tastes of canned tomatoes? Some were absolutely horrid and caused a couple of those critiquing to simply spit them out. By my 10th taste, I was certain that I can no longer tell the difference between a high-end canned tomato from Italy and a generic, domestic store brand.

At 4:30 p.m. on the nose, Martha was finished with her portion of the tomato tasting and was ready to move on to the photo shoot. Linda had platted up the dish, which I envied as I had begun to really get into the food styling aspect of the job, but such is life, it was tomato taste test clean-up for me that day. As the photo shoot wrapped around 5:30 p.m. and we began cleaning the kitchen for the day, Martha came back with some prints of the pictures that were taken moments ago and thanked Linda and I for getting all that needed to be done, done. The pictures turned out great and it was fun for me to see food that I cooked stylized and ready for print to be included in the next issue. As we were closing down, Martha looked closely at the items on the plate in the photograph. “Were those one-inch pieces of asparagus or one-and-a-half?” I got out the ruler.

1 comment:

Kelli Matthews said...

I love this piece! Great job. :) I shared it on my twitter feed, so I bet you get a few extra eyeballs. https://twitter.com/kmatthews/statuses/797656611

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