After the Sushi Class @HUB

Catering

After the Hub event, I quit working at Hecho but had no way to generate income. I also quit working at Graphic Design Company. The owner asked me if I would be coming back to help them as a freelance and I told her no, because, I thought having a backup plan would make me think, unconsciously, that I could rely on her, if things didn’t work out. The only way, I thought, I could succeed was to believe in myself and take a leap of faith: no backup plan whatsoever.

I had no client. I had no work. Nothing. No plan for the future income, but I knew, everything would work out fine. I never thought, not even for a second, that I was going to fail.

The first thing I needed to do was to secure an income. So, I applied for unemployment benefit. It was my first and only time I applied and receive $200/week benefit. While I was able to buy some time with the unemployment, I took on some on-call shifts at several catering companies, making $16/hr., or $300 ~ $500/month.

I still had some credit card debt, and my credit score was not good enough to get a business loan. I could not get a business line of credit either because my business was just starting. It sounded strange to me because the beginning of the business is when you need the money the most, and most small business owners don’t have that kind of money, so requesting to have a good credit history or a few years of business history seemed catch-22.

So, we had no money in the bank account. The rent was $1100/month, and after we had paid utility bill and credit card payment, I had no money left for groceries, but I had one credit card with $750 credit line, which I used to buy groceries. The balance was up to $500~$700 range, and I needed to pay as soon as I got paid from the catering companies or unemployment because otherwise, the card would max out and I wouldn’t be able to use it. I could claim unemployment when I had no work, but I couldn’t when I worked, so my monthly income was around $1500, but the whole idea of employment was to help me until I got job, so, I was determined to find a way to generate enough income so that I did not have to rely on the unemployment.

At the catering company, I signed up as many shifts as I could. The work shifts were First-come, First-served, so everyone rushed to sign up online after they got a sign-up email. I did both events and prep work. I also worked as Event Kitchen Manager. Working for a catered event is a whole different ball game from working at a restaurant. It’s lot less cooking when you work on a catered event. It’s half production, organization, and some cooking. Over half of the work consists of loading, unloading, packing, unpacking, setting up the tables, kitchens, tools and equipment and making sure you have all the tools you need and check to see if everything is working properly, all before you start cooking.

At a restaurant, you show up and all of the equipment and tools are there, always at the same place, working just fine. You do need to set up the kitchen, but it’s a lot less than a catered event. There are over hundred of tools, equipment, ingredients and platters at a catered event check up a list to pack out, load into a truck, load out to the room, where you would be cooking, pack out and lay out all of them. Again, all of this before you can start cooking anything.

I learned a lot about the organization, and how important it is because I was at an event where someone forgot to pack salt. You’d think that would be impossible. I say almost, almost anything can happen in an event. Can you imagine cooking without salt?  We had to send someone to buy salt from a nearby grocery store.

Also, similar to working at a restaurant, more or so, time is an issue with a catered event. You are working against the clock and if and when there is a problem, you need to solve it as fast as you can, using everything you’ve got. First, you need to determine what the “real” problem is, then quickly come up with a solution, then decide to act on it, even though, that may not be the best solution. It’s better to do something to resolve the issue than to come up with a perfect and better way to do it because again, time is the key. You must poses and attitude that says, “I will get it done no matter what.” If not, you are not fit for a catered event. I’ve seen so many people blaming on the person, who made a mistake. That does not help to solve the problem at all. In fact, blaming on someone always, always hurt everyone on the team, because it separates the person who made a mistake. Everyone in the kitchen should feel they are the team and one person’s mistake is everyone’s mistake and therefore, everyone should pitch in, do their best, to come up with the solution to overcome the mistake, as quickly as possible. I learned this through working at film production in LA and also for many catering companies in SF Bay Area.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve witnessed was at this 200-guest award ceremony event in San Francisco. It was one of the largest events of the year for this catering company. There must have been at least fifty staff working on this event, out of which, half were kitchen crew. They assigned me to the salad station, so my prep was cutting some vegetables, getting dressing ready, and setting up the stations. The main dish was fried chicken. They loaded in metal electric-cabinet warmer that was about 6.5ft. tall to cook raw Chicken. Now, these warmer do get to about 180F; so theoretically, they could cook fried chicken inside of them, if you give them enough time to cook. The only problem was that most of the warmer did not get high enough to cook raw chicken. Also, kitchen chefs plugged these warmers into the same electrical outlets, and it caused to blow a fuse. To make things worse, some of the warmers stopped working. (Normally, event manager and the executive chef would do an onsite visit to make sure the kitchen would have enough electric outlets, in case they need to use high amp/voltage cooking equipment. judging by what happened, I am guessing they did not do a through check or test.)

So, the executive chef and the sous-chef were both trying to fix the problem, and both of them spent good two hours trying to figure it out by themselves. (I had no idea about this because I was too busy doing my task.) By the time they figured there was nothing they could do to cook raw chicken, it was too late. Suddenly, someone was telling me that, we needed to cook four to six hundred of pieces of fried chicken in less than one hour. I asked one of my coworkers what was happening and they told me about the problem with electric warmers.

The solution they came up with was to use small home-kitchen-use electric fryers to fry 600 pieces of chicken. Now, this electric fryer could only fry five to six pieces of chicken a time, and it took 7-8 minutes to cook them. There were only three of these electric fryers. Now, anyone who graduated from grade school can figure this out that: it would take almost five hours to cook 600 pieces of chicken with this method.

The event manager was informed, and apparently, she did not do anything about it either or maybe she did, but nothing happened in the kitchen that I was aware of. I heard someone said, “Maybe we should go to KFC and get some fried chicken from there,” which actually was not a bad idea, I thought: it would be better than nothing.

The dinner service time came, and the kitchen manager told everyone to form the service line. We all lined up by the tables and started to pass the plates. The first person plated salad, and then side dishes the second, and the chicken. There were about fifty pieces of fried chicken ready and they were still frying some. After we served the first fifty of plates, everyone in the line waited for another batch of fried chicken to come. Remember it took 8 minutes to cook six pieces of chicken? There was nothing anyone could do at the time, except to wait. All the line cooks, waiters, event manager, sous chef and the executive chef waited, waited, until, an elderly gentleman stormed into the kitchen and shouted, “Where is the dinner! We’ve been waiting for it for the last hour and only less than half of the guests are served.” “I am sorry, we are waiting for the chicken,” the event manager said. “I don’t need an excuse. I need food. My friends are waiting and they are hungry.” And he stormed out of the kitchen. No one said anything after that and we all waited for the fried chicken. Finally, when the kitchen manager finally realized that we would never be able to serve rest of the five hundred fried chickens, she instructed us to serve dessert.

To make even matters worse, some of the dessert plates fell off from the table, making a huge shuttering noise in the kitchen.  (We didn’t know exactly how it happened. It could be someone hitting the table, or maybe someone placed them too high.)

The executive and sous-chef asked me to take to tell all the staff to start to clean up and left the kitchen. I was not even a kitchen manager and they never said anything or apologized to the crew but abandoned their responsibility and disappeared from the kitchen. Not only that, they made me responsible for cleaning up the mess they made. I wasn’t angry at that time, but I got angry when I saw the executive chef and sous-chef, smoking and talking outside of loading dock, after we finished cleaning up.

From this event, I learned two valuable lessons. One: Never wait till the last minute, hoping for a problem to resolve by itself. When you see a problem, find out the real issue, come up with a solution, decide and act on it. Two: never leave the responsibility to others, or never blame on someone else. Lastly, always, always, always inform your crew and communicate with them, no matter how small it may be.

The very first “breakthrough” sushi class@Hub San Francisco

Breakthrough HUB1

I was still working at a small graphic design office and was working part-time at Izakaya restaurant in Sunset. Also at a Catering Company, on-call catering chef.

The graphic design company’s main client was Dockers brand by Levis, doing their quarterly print catalogs. Because of the advancement of digital technology, iPhone and iPad, the workload was decreasing every season, and even during the three years I was there. I knew that it was a matter of time that they have no work for me, so I knew I had to find a different place to work before they let me go. I was forty-one, so it wasn’t like there were tons of opportunity for me. I knew I had to start something on my own. I tried to get a full-time designer job, but because I had a ten-year blank period with no portfolio, it was hard to get a job. In fact, I tried a several job placement agencies and got nowhere.

The only thing I had going was my part time sushi class. In November of 2010, Dockers had a massive lay off. As expected, Dockers commissioned fewer projects than the previous year. My hours were cut down, and I was making less money, just enough to make my ends meet. So, I took a leap of faith: To start sushi class business. It was a good idea, many of my friends told me so. However, coming up with the money to start the business was a challenge, so I had to find many creative ways to get things rolling.

I needed a business counseling and a good mentor. “Is there anyone who could give me a free advice?” I asked myself. I did an online search and found Score and SBA, The Small Business Administration, which is a US government agency that provides support to entrepreneurs and small businesses.  I was assigned to a counselor named Peter, who was retired food business expert. I met him every week and got his advice: “Do whatever you can to promote and establish your business. Put up flyers, business cards and get your website up!” I knew all that and I did not money and resources to put up a nice website up. Back then, designing and programming a nice site took some knowledge, and I was not up to learning HTML, nor did not have the luxury of studying it. I was in a hurry.

I did not have much – no business license, no permits, no business address, not DBA, no website, and no client. The one thing I had was an idea. An idea to make my sushi class business work.

I knew I wanted my class to be different. I wanted to my class to be more that just teaching people how to make rolls, nigiri, sashimi and sushi rice.  I wanted my class to be more than food. I wanted people to think outside of a box. I wanted class to be an experience, an opportunity for people to come together, be inspired, be motivated and learn something valuable so they can use it in their lives.

I wanted my first breakthrough sushi class to be a fun and challenging. So, I decided to use the Iron-Chef style sushi making a competition class. Now, all I needed was a venue to host my class.

I found a place called HUB San Francisco, a Non-Profit co-working space in San Francisco Chronicle building. I contacted the event organizer and offered my idea of breakthrough sushi class involving sushi challenge – to create a new style of sushi. She liked it and wanted to do as a community event for the members at HUB. The only thing was the fee. I wanted it to be $100 per person and the event manager said that would be too much. They could only charge $25. Only $25? I thought. It would not pay any fees or I would not make any money at all. But then, I had nothing, no yelp reviews, no Facebook page, no followers, and no news coverage. I was nobody. So, I agreed to do with $25 and asked for ingredients donation. I contacted several local supermarkets, and Whole Foods in SOMA said they could be our sponsors for the event because HUB was a non-profit. I got about $200 worth of ingredients donated to me: cucumbers, rice, rice vinegar, seaweed, sesame seeds, crab meat and smoked salmon to use for the class, as well as plates and just about everything, which cut down my cost drastically.

I got a venue and ingredients, now, I had to find a sushi chef to help me prep, set up and assist the class.  Peter at Score mentioned me about a chef who came in for a business counseling, wanting to start a sushi catering business. His name was Adam, so I emailed him to ask for his help. He had some sushi experience while working at many restaurants doing some pop-ups.

Adam helped me to find a kitchen to prep because at Hub, members were using the kitchen until 5PM and we did not have enough time to prep and set up by 6PM. There was a bar in Mission and Adam knew the owner of the bar. He did several pop-ups there and he said the owner allowed us to use the kitchen since bar does not open until 9PM. The kitchen crew did not come in till 5PM. That was great. The prep kitchen for free. Excellent. It worked out wonderfully.

On the day of the prep, I biked to Whole Foods SOMA to pick up ingredients, carried five shopping bags full of groceries out to the cab, which I called in. I asked the cab driver to go to the bar in Mission to rendezvous with Adam. We prepped for three hours. Adam was great. He knew many sushi techniques and also, western style of cooking and gave me some fresh ideas that I could adapt to my sushi.  After the prep, we packed all our food tightly in the containers, called another Cab and went to HUB on Mission and 5th Street. I had some of the equipment in the plastic storage containers, which I had to put in the cab also. The cab driver looked us rather uncomfortable, as we load all the equipment and food in the aluminum pan.

Upon arrival, Adam set up the food and I set up the tables with cutting boards, knives, and some ingredients. I did not have any aprons for people to wear, because I did not have any money to buy them. We made Tuna Temari Ball Sushi, Smoked Salmon Sushi on Cucumber, and Chirashi Sushi in a cup for people to eat before the class.

There were about 30 people there including Peter from Score, who told me, “You have a great turn out!” He seemed pleased with what I put together. Well, it was all thanks to the event manager at Hub, Calgary.

Guests were enjoying the food we made and socializing. I have to say that I wasn’t so nervous about hosting the class. I think I was more excited for what was to come.

I started out with a California Roll. I explained and showed each step thoroughly, as everyone watched me carefully, then, I told everyone to make one for themself. Spreading sushi rice on the sheet of Nori seemed the most difficult, yet, a fun part of making the roll to them. Many were saying how sticky the rice was, laughing, as they struggle with rice, sticking to their hands.

After that, I divided attendees into a group and it was time to do the Sushi Challenge, or I was calling it “Break.” The format was similar to Iron Chef TV series. I gave one fish to each group as (not so) secret ingredients to use to make sushi in thirty minutes. Because no one knew what the word “Sushi” refers to, I started by explaining what Sushi means. In the US, many people think Sushi as raw fish; however, the word sushi refers to Seasoned Rice, which says nothing about fish or raw fish. So, by definition, the sushi can be any form, shape and ingredients including fish both raw and cooked, as long as you use Sushi Rice, which is seasoned with Rice Vinegar, Sugar and Salt. After I explain this, I told the attendees to be creative and make new kind of sushi the world has never seen it before.

“This is the plate to plate your new sushi. When finished, please bring it to the front table and one person from the group must explain your sushi and the theme.”

After thirty minutes, five groups came up with such creative sushi I would never dream of. One of them made a Sushi Boat – putting sushi rice, some vegetables, and fish on a piece of red bell pepper to make it look more like a salad. The other group made pie-shaped sushi, cut into six pieces with smoked salmon and cream cheese inside, and called it “Sushi Cake.” Brilliant!

Overall, the event was a success and went almost exactly as I imagined. When I got home, I told my wife that the class was fantastic and showed here all the pictures I took during the class. It was one of the happiest moments in my life, as I always always wanted to start my own business since in my twenties and now, finally at forty-two, I knew I had something going. I knew it was the beginning of something fantastic!