Wok & Roll by Peter Kwong, (Frederic) Inter-County Leader
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I just got an email from an old friend in Milwaukee, John Reiss, a chef and a culinary instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. We have known each other for many years.
When I was looking for employees with culinary skills to assist me with my new concept in Milwaukee, he invited me to be the guest chef, demonstrating Oriental cooking skills for his classes. Little did I know that our relationship would last for decades.
John has a dream job. He heads a culinary program that serves real food in a real setting for MATC. He got to be creative, serving entrees that are comparable to all the top local restaurants.
Yet, all the entrees are served by his master students, who would sign up for his two-year class to earn an associate degree so they can move on in the culinary world.
MATC has created a restaurant environment which I think is totally unique. They have a restaurant called Cuisine, which only opens for three days, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Though it is a nonprofit operation, it works just like a restaurant. There is a typical front-house and back-house operation.
The front house would be in charge of reservations, setting of the room, the cash drawer, the service, and the serving of food (taking care of the guests’ needs). The back house is more challenging.
Even though it is a set menu, the students are in charge of ordering enough food, storing the different foods properly to avoid cross contamination, and to prep them accordingly. Last, to cook each entree with their hearts and souls to create the “wow” results to please the guests.
John would get a new set of students every week, and teach his culinary skills over and over. I love his job, as he gets to lock the door and turn off the lights after the shift is over, while most restaurant operators have to work 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, weekends and holidays to engage in the business!
I remember my good old days working every Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and all the holidays. Ahhh, I could only smile when Brother John (that’s his nickname) complained to me about his problems.
Yes, he still has to deal with the “stuff” from the administration, but unless you work on your own, that’s part of the deal in life. Heaven knows how many years I had to work with corporate nonsense, but that’s life.
So nice these days that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, and still have fun at the same time.
For many years, I was one of John’s official culinary judges. Before his students graduated, they all had to pass a cooking demo, which includes presenting a four-course meal to three to four guests, who would be grading their every dish.
There would be a soup, a salad, a fish entree, and a meat special. The students would serve all these in a timely manner.
There would be judges with grading sheets, rating each course by the appearance, flavor, and color of each entree. It was really a tough test to show your true culinary skill.
But the true test comes when you hit the real market. Customers do not give you a second chance and rate you on a scale. If they don’t like what they’re served, they just won’t come back. Worse, they would tell their friends what they’re not happy with, and woosh, down goes your business.
All the judges are seasoned chefs, some are John’s ex-students who have excelled from his class and now have become chefs or restaurant owners. So, we had our own grading chart and rated each student’s entrees accordingly.
It is a joy watching the relief in each student’s face. It is over, thank goodness, it is over. Yes, it takes a lot to prepare a four-course meal.
The menu, the planning, the cooking and the serving. But what a joy it is when their faces are elated, knowing that all the hard work has paid off.
There were a few that didn’t make it. Instead of asking them why it was a failure, the judges would ask simultaneously, “so what happened.” Almost in tears, the student would let us know what he/she did wrong — steps missed, seasoning omitted, and the timing.
“That’s OK, just remember what you did, so that it won’t happen again.” It’s a comfort to watch each student walk away with a grateful smile. Knowing that each student would be grabbed by a food institution before they even graduated gave me much comfort.
The restaurant industry is a tough business indeed. According to the Small Business Administration, 95 percent of new restaurants close shop after the first year.
We love living in the Northwoods, but maybe one day we’ll go visit Cuisine Restaurant in Milwaukee again. My wife, Colleen, loves their foods. Plus, Chef John would always pick up our tab, as a favor to me for being a guest judge for his classes.
By the way, his restaurant is rated one of the top 30 restaurants in Milwaukee, among all the other top-notch five-star restaurants. Such an honor indeed.
I’m still thinking about his dream job, every day, to be able to turn off the lights and close the door every day and no working on evenings and holidays.
Do I miss those days? Yes, indeed.
Do I want to do it again? Heck no.
I love my pot of tea, watching the sunrise in the mornings. Who knows what kind of birds will show up?