My very first professional cooking job was at one of the top French restaurants in Tucson, Arizona. It took me over two weeks and hundreds of applications before I was finally able to convince one of the head chefs to consider me for the position of Chef de Partie. He was weary of taking me under his wing –
“You? Girl? You want to work in the kitchen? This is no joke, it’s very hard work, are you sure you can handle it?”
“Yes Chef, I will not disappoint.”
Mind you, after 95% of the restaurants I applied to turned me down, having a top restaurant to even consider me for a position with absolutely no professional kitchen experience is what I call pure luck. He did not say yes right away however, but I was determined. That day, I went out and purchased the Jacque Pepin’s Complete Techniques and made the best damn Tarte Tartin my little heart could put out, sent him a slice attached with a note. He finally considered my plea.
“Ok. Be here tomorrow morning at 6 am.”
So begins my journey through a real professional kitchen.
I show up bright and early and stepped foot into the small 10’ x 12’ kitchen, it was literally big (small) enough to fit 4 people snugly. At the end of the table I see Chef kneading the dough for the fresh baguettes they make for dinner service, without even looking up from the task he points to the walk-in cooler –
“Grab 10 heads of lettuce and start prepping the salad station.”
It took me an hour and half to prep that station that day, Chef later informed me it needs to be done in 30. Every single morning for 6 months (except Mondays) I met with the Chef and worked closely by his side – chopping, filleting, frying, sautéing. I learned everything I had ever dreamed of and more: how to make the perfect pastry cream, pate chox, and the most beautifully risen soufflés. I even learned how to properly fillet, tie and wrap a beef wellington, tips on how to never over cook fish, and how to keep your béarnaise sauce from breaking.
But my favorite recipes I remember to this day weren’t really so much the Classical French recipes I had learned (Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it) but the traditional Mexican salsas and breakfasts Chef would make for me each morning. Oh, did I forget to mention the head chef wasn’t French? Yes, about that, everyone that worked in the kitchen was from Spanish speaking origins except me — Chinita Loca was my nickname: the Crazy Chinese Girl.
By the end of my stint in the restaurant kitchen my Spanish was superb, I was able to work 14 hour shifts without crying afterwards from being so damn tired, and I had enough burns and cuts all over my arms to be considered a “bad ass.” Okay not really, but it was intense – by far the most vigorous working experience of my life both physically and mentally. I wouldn’t have made it through those hard days without Chef by my side egging me on, pushing me to achieve my best.
One weekend I had worked two 14-hour shifts in a row, I was near exhaustion to the point where I felt delirious. The kitchen was a blistering 114F during the summer and I was convinced I was going to die, every single muscle in my body hurt not to mention the idiotic two 2nd degree burns I had on my arms because I dropped the pan of baguettes that morning. I slumped over the counter and rested my head on my arms, hoping to take a short break before the dinner rush.
“CHINITA LOCA! WAKE UP!” Chef shook my arm and popped me across the head with a dish rag – he slid me a heaping plate of freshly fried tortilla chips and some ceviche he had whipped up out of the blue. “Here, eat.” I sluggishly scooted towards the plate as he shoved a heaping chipful of ceviche into my mouth. My eyes widened: it was glorious – the sweetness of the shrimp paired with the tangy brightness of fresh lime and cilantro, instantly I felt my mood elevated. It was like a punch in the mouth, but in a good way, a happy way, a reenergizing way. I smiled warmly – “Thanks Chef, this was awesome.” “Of course Chinita! I made it! Now go prep your salad station.”
I prepped my station in 30 minutes that day, the first time since working there. I’m convinced it was Chef’s ceviche that made it happen. He taught me speed, accuracy, timing. He taught me the importance of planning, execution and presentation. He taught me no matter how different we may be from each other, at the end of the day we’re all the same: we cook because we connect, we cook because we love, we cook because we inspire. Thank you Chef for inspiring me and I hope this recipe will inspire you. You can use just about any combination of seafood for ceviche: shrimp, various fish, scallop, lobster. For this recipe I chose shrimp and grilled red fish and paired it with an avocado mango salsa– a nice contrast between textures and flavors this would be a great appetizer for a dinner party or bbq that’s quick, healthy, easy and delicious.
Ingredients for Grilled Red Fish and Shrimp Ceviche (serves 6-8):
Prep Time: 20 minutes; Total Cooking Time: 60 minutes
- 1 red fish fillet (about 1 pound)
- 2 teaspoons Seasoned Salt
- 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 to 2 tablespoons Tabasco
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
- 1 cup diced mango
- ½ cup red cherry tomatoes
- ½ cup yellow cherry tomatoes
- 1 large avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Several limes for garnish
- Tortilla chips
Prep the grill.
Pat fillet dry with paper towel and evenly coat with seasoned salt. Place red fish fillet in a wire fish basket or a buttered foil packet. Place in the center of grill for 15 minutes then flip and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool. To make sure fish is fully cooked, the meat will be white and easily pierced with a fork.
While fish is cooking on grill bring a quart of water to a boil. Place shrimp in the hot water, cover and let the water return to boil. Immediately remove from heat and strain and run under cold water until cooled. In a large bowl mix ½ the lime juice, honey and Tabasco and mix with shrimp. Refrigerate for about an hour.
Meanwhile prep the salsa. Mix chopped cilantro, mango, tomatoes, avocado and remainder of the lime juice in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until ready to serve.
You can either serve ceviche in small glass cups or martini glasses for an extra touch of elegance. Layer with salsa, shrimp and grilled red fish and garnish with cilantro, shrimp or lime wedge and immediately serve with tortilla chips.