Thursday, May 27, 2010

For What It's Worth...

Well Hallelujah! Turns out, cooking all of those dinners for my son’s volleyball team was a good bet after all. Don't get me wrong, I really wanted to cook for the boys and enjoyed the process---mostly. There were times when I'd gotten so caught up in reading thru recipes and testing variations that would travel well, I'd forgotten appointments made weeks, sometimes months earlier. And of course, there are mornings and afternoons of tasting involved, which can lead to regret when you're suddenly reminded of that special girlfriends only birthday dinner taking place that night. Fortunately, the team parents generously contributed to the cost of food, but what was I thinking when I didn't even consider charging them a wee bit more to pay for my time and all that running back and forth with a carful of hot food? And carrying heavy cases of bottled water?

As hoped, the exposure my cooking received from those wonderfully sweet and appreciative boys, led to acquiring my very first client for No Reservations. She's not even family! Nor is she a close friend, in fact I don't really even know her. But her son likes my food and she is hiring me to cook for a wedding shower this summer and I'm delighted.

But get this---after spending time wondering why we women have a tendency to short change ourselves when putting a dollar amount to the services we provide, and asserting I would not become a victim of my own insecurity, I quoted a very low figure to this woman. As a result, I lay awake half the night asking WHY did I do the very thing I declared I would never do?

And it dawned on me. Yes, part of the reason is that I'm still not convinced that anyone would actually PAY for my food. Don't they know I'm just a wanna-be chef? Okay, maybe others don't enjoy cooking with the passion that I have, but still.

The other part of the equation, at least for me, is that I really want to make people happy. I have this urge to take care of others, to rescue them, to give them sustenance. And I really want to make this lovely lady happy. And I don't even know her! Is this an inherently female thing?

When I look at the businesses my girlfriends, strong women all, are running, they share a common trait. They all make people feel happy or safe or secure or taken care of. In fact, my own career history reflects this too--executive assistant, child and family therapist, stay-at-home mom, budding home chef.

So I'd love to hear from you on this topic. Are character traits, like self-confidence, ambition, empathy & a need to nurture, to some extent ingrained in our genetic DNA? Is there really such a thing as "a feminine or masculine side"? Do you think it's nature or nurture that brings out these qualities? There was a time I thought I knew the answer to this, but now I’m not so sure. What do you think?

Friday, May 21, 2010

I Am Woman, Hear Me Whine

An interesting phenomenon occurred to me while setting menu prices for my home delivery business. I struggled through countless hours, recording ingredient prices for each of my recipes and tallying up the actual cost for preparing each dish. When it came to adding an additional percentage to the cost for labor and skill in execution, I was stumped.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my generation of women unabashedly took pride in our feminist power. And yet, having taken a couple of decades away from the work force in order to raise our children, I'm discovering that we have yet to seize ownership of that power when it comes to recognizing our self worth in a monetary sense.

Yes, I make killer cherry cola short ribs that are often requested by friends and family, but how much of their fondness for them is predicated on the fact that I make them? Is it merely the particular combination of flavors in the recipe that they value or my inherent 'flair' in teasing them out and layering them? Do my culinary talents have a dollar value? If so, what is it? How much can I charge before someone calls "foul"? As a born worrier, these questions resulted in numerous sleepless nights, and ridiculously low prices. It was time to call in The Girlfriends.

To my surprise, I learned I am not alone in this predicament. My group consists of several successful small business owners, including a jewelry designer, two event planners, and a project coordinator for charitable giving. In turn, they each admitted initially undervaluing their worth and setting their fees too low. It took time and the evolution of their confidence upon re-entering the work force, to realize they could be charging a lot more for their services and no one would raise an eyebrow.

But here's the rub: why is it that this phenomenon seems to only affect one half of the population--the feminine half. Male professionals seem to have few if any qualms about charging as high a fee as they like. At what point in their lives did they develop this sense of entitlement, and why don't we possess it as well? Is it a result of being male in a patriarchal society? Is self-confidence etched on the y chromosome?

I was allowing these questions to overwhelm me with self-doubt, so taking a deep breath and heeding the words of wisdom from my baby boomer sisters, redoubled my intention to plow thru and just do it. And maybe shoring up my determination to create a satisfying second half to my life, with the help of friends, family, and my new much-appreciated network of readers will be the secret to my ultimate success. I am about to publish the No Reservations Home Page with mission statement, seasonal menus and prices. Keep reading and wish me luck!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ready for My Closeup

Putting together a small business is a lot of work. I've spent months creating new recipes, revisiting old favorites, and collecting new ones from numerous sources, all in an effort to cobble together a seasonal menu of dishes that are fresh tasting, work well together, are seasonal, and reflect the kind of cooking for which I'm known....homestyled, casual yet sumptuous. My husband says instead of using "From my kitchen to yours!" as my slogan, a more appropriate one is "Lots of food and plenty of it!" Okay, I admit it. I tend to make too much food and offer too many dishes. I can't help it; one flavor combination inspires another and, being a believer in instant gratification, I must create it. So sue me.

So that was the easy part. After fashioning a reasonable Spring menu consisting of soups, salads, entrees, sides, desserts, sauces and salad dressings, I realized pricing might be of interest to potential clients. How to go about it? Despite having created this blog---a huge achievement for a technophobe like me---I am a complete illiterate in most things Apple and have no clue how to use the internet as my friend. Thus, it was off to the markets and restaurant supply companies, pen and pad in hand, to record current prices of the hundreds of ingredients I commonly use in my kitchen. Afraid of being apprehended and accused of corporate spying by the otherwise harmless-looking security personnel employed by these establishments, I hid my writings within my bulky purse, perched in the child seat of my shopping cart. And I made multiple trips. Multiple. Just when I thought I'd gotten the last of the needed dollar per item, I'd realize I really needed the price per ounce or pound! Back to the store...

Eventually, I had pretty much everything I needed to launch my business, except advertising. Now friends have been urging me for years to start up something like a Personal Chef career or Home Delivery Business, but I can't really expect my friends, who eat regularly as our guests in my kitchen, dining room, or backyard, to actually start ordering my food and PAYING for it. And word of mouth can only do so much. Although since using them as guinea pigs for the last twenty years, you'd think it's the least they could do.

That is when, as I handed out copies of my Spring menu and business cards to parents watching the volleyball game, another mom overheard me describing my predicament to a friend and told me she had just started a business making homepages for other entrepeneurs--eureka! Now we're cookin'!

Which brings us to the comedy that was last night's FOOD PHOTO SHOOT; it was time for our glamour shot and I needed an audience of willing participants. One phone call and I'd enlisted our dearest friends, a family of four, with whom we've shared too many meals and memories to count. I started planning the menu right away, pouring over old and new recipes, looking for something 'kicked up a notch', that would challenge me to sharpen some long-neglected skills and give me another opportunity to fire up my new deep-fryer.

The dishes had to be indicative of my style so the resulting photographs would reflect well on my soon-to-be new homepage, challenging to produce in a short amount of time, and of course, delicious.

Stuffed fried zucchini blossoms were scratched from the starters, as my produce man told me the flowers are not yet in season. So off to the fish monger, who happened to be having an excellent sale on gorgeous sea scallops (i'll take three pounds, thank you very much), and turn them into Coquilles Saint Jacques borrowing from a recipe by Paul Bocuse, as our first course.

While I was there, I also selected a mess o' already shucked oysters (I mean really, who has time?) that I would soak in buttermilk and hot sauce, dust with sifted flour, cayenne pepper and lemon zest and drop in the deep fryer for our hors d'oevres, along with some ancho chile and cornmeal fried okra (making use of another of those frostbitten baggies lingering in our freezer). These were accompanied by homemade chipotle mayonnaise and devoured as soon as they came out of the fryer basket. It was all I could manage to salvage a few and set up our first camera shot of the evening.

Did I mention we are a group of eight very opinionated people who are not afraid to assert ourselves? Can I just say the camera made the rounds of eager hands as each of us tried to outdo the other with lighting ideas, changing out serving pieces, and climbing on countertops and stepladders. It was a loving chaotic spectacle in progress, as I continued dredging and frying. Here is a picture that made the cut.

Next, it was onto the scallops, which seemed to know their purpose as they simmered happily in the golden butter and sang when the vermouth hit the pan. Perfection! And the photo looks rather nifty too.

Lastly, I tossed the rib steaks in a couple of pans with shallots, onions, more anchovies (!!) and a healthy amount of cabernet, and brought them to just-this-side of medium rare, as one of our revelers wisely removed the casserole pan of Bayaldi (a layered gratin of zucchini, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes and onion) from the oven, with its molten emmental cheese bubbling enticingly on top. The camera recorded the action, someone poured the wine, and we toasted the success of our first pictorial layout.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

No Reservations

So I came home last evening from having a manicure, because my life has reached a point where if I don't schedule meaningless appointments for myself each day, I stay home baking things I never eat or finding ways to cook up small feasts for my son, Adam, and his never-ending supply of endlessly hungry friends.

As luck would have it, I discover our family room is full of large, hairy, sunglass-wearing adolescent males, aka, Adam's gang.

The air is heavy with the scent of boiling oil. Adam is experimenting with my Mother's Day gift, an electric deep-fryer. A Krups, to be exact. It is large and stainless steel, with a nifty window on top, that I'm hoping will add another window of opportunity to expand my culinary horizons thus helping to bring a kind of fulfillment to the next phase of my life.

So far,we've used it to deep-fry pork dumplings and southern-style okra. Adam is presently working on another batch of dumplings, having already emptied our freezer of our store-bought boutique pizza stash, Costco-sized Cheese Balls from the pantry, and a case of Coca-Cola. It is now 5:00 and the group is set to leave for a party of some kind; instead, they decide they are still hungry and are planning to stay for dinner.

Normally, this would thrill me to no end and provide hours of creative activity and entertainment for me, but on this one occasion, I had already planned and shopped for a special dinner for Adam and his older-just-returned-home-from-his-first-year-of-college brother, Zachary.

If you haven't guessed by now, I am a dyed-in-the-wool foodie, passionate about all things F-O-O-D. And with the impending Empty Nest Syndrome of my own (after 20 years of being a stay-at-home mom), I find myself in the midst of starting a small culinary business, although "business" is something I know nothing about. To sharpen my chops, so to speak, I'm taking advantage of all opportunities to cook for anyone who is hungry, and will be offering a 'home cooked meal delivered to your door' as my new mission. (I've just finished a season of cooking for Adam's high school volleyball team, their coach, managers, and staff. That's 20 people, 3 times a week. More on that adventure in another post.)

The recipe I had planned for my sons for dinner was excerpted from A Twist of the Wrist by uber-mistress of all things bread & mozzarella, Nancy Silverton (with Carolynn Carreno), called Egg Pappardelle with Bagna Cauda, Wilted Radicchio, and an Olive Oil-Fried Egg. I hadn't tried making it yet, but skimming thru the directions, knew I was capable of assembling--whether or not it would turn out like Nancy's was another matter.

But my new motto is "Into the Storm"---or face your fears for once in your life. So I was up for the challenge.

Oh, did I mention that one of the young friends sprawled on our sofa and glued to yet another episode featuring Peter & Stewie Griffin, was the offspring of said uber-mistress?

Am I intimidated? Only a little.

I shoo the pack to the back patio to take up a ping-pong tourney under the glowing patio lights, amidst the hordes of mosquitoes swarming 'round our backyard pond, and get to work.

Now I don't know about you, but I have always found that actually using the contents of my freezer, as opposed to letting them crystallize into hard rocks of indistinguishable snow, is deeply gratifying and fills me with a sense of virtue. Last night was such a night....

Throwing together some butter lettuce leftover from a volleyball dinner earlier in the week, with some crumbled up goat cheese and a quickly whisked tarragon vinaigrette, kept the boys at bay while I pondered what was hidden within the crusty, iced-over baggies of protein on my freezer shelves....

While the pasta water boiled and the anchovies, garlic and butter simmered on the stove, I chopped more garlic, whirred fresh bread crumbs in the processor, pounded out veal cutlets, and called for my husband to light the grill for the rib eye steak. Thankfully, the Lakers were not playing, so he actually responded and leaped into action. Okay, he didn't exactly 'leap', but he didn't roll over and snore either.

Calling the hungry herd into the kitchen, we dished out silky pappardelle with a piquant, salty bagna cauda, made even more savory by the perfectly poached organic egg atop each serving, slices of incredibly juicy medium-rare steak with garlic, and crispy, parmesan veal cutlets with melting mozzarella cheese......everyone's hunger was satisfied, and all were content, including your's truly. As for heading "into the storm" and facing my fears, at home, in public, and on this blog, I have no reservations.....