Thursday, September 1, 2011

A day in the kitchen

“Come at noon and bring a chef’s jacket and knives.”

           That line was the entirety of the email I received from the chef of a new and bustling Italian restaurant after asking whether I could spend some time in his kitchen. I had eaten there a few weeks ago and had hidden my bold request within a thank you note for such a lovely meal. I had crafted the email with such precision and had agonized over- what- I’m not sure until I finally hit send. He responded within 5 minutes. It was like ripping off a band-aid. So swift it didn’t sting but it still makes you catch your breath.

I have been contemplating changing my “career trajectory”. The office life, while fine, is just not the life for me. Uninspired and unchallenged at my desk during the day, I turn to cooking and baking in my free time. I have never cooked professionally and this idea of going into a real professional kitchen is terrifying. When I arrive at The Restaurant at the prescribed date and time, the sous-chef I’m assigned to doesn’t know where I fit into the equation.  “Which restaurants have you worked at before?” he asks as he shows me to the locker room in a separate part of the building. I pick an empty locker and shove in my bag. “None!” I shrug. “Any culinary training?” he asks, trying to figure me out. “nope!”

            I had rehearsed my spiel about why I was here but somehow none of it comes out and I leave him in wonderment over how I ended up here for a day. He hands me his access card to get back into the building after I change. I don’t need to change- all I have is my brand new Chef’s jacket which was laundered to mask the worn in folds of a new shirt. He waits. We head for the door and he suggests that I grab my knives. Crap. Rookie move.

            With my knife sack in tote we head back to the kitchen. Sous-chef is talkative, approachable and a little manic. He walks too fast. I chase him around the kitchen as he shows me around: walk-in vegetable fridge, garde manger, wine cellar, oil disposal. At the fish station he grabs a quart of green cherry tomatoes, some celery and carrots. As he rounds a corner towards the baking area he asks me to grab the foie gras. I’ve worked with foie gras before, I know what it looks like but I turn to the table and none of my options look correct. Damn. If I take too long I’ll lose him in the kitchen. I grab a plastic tub filled with vacuumed sealed bits of fat and run after him. The dishwasher points me in the right direction when he sees me look a little bewildered. I catch up to sous-chef before he realizes I’ve fallen behind.

            “I saw your business card on your knife case… do you run a catering company?” He is still trying to size me up. I finally have the mental capacity to clarify: “I’m thinking about going to culinary school and I figured I should spend some time in a real kitchen before sinking all that money!’ My response is acceptable and we operate on even keel from then on. My first task is to slice that quart of green cherry tomatoes. “No, those are tomatillos” he explains. I try to make up for my blunder by saying I’ve never seen them out of the husk before. Sous-chef grabs one perfect tomatillo and places it deliberately on the cutting board with the stem to the left. He takes his knife from the magnetic strip on the wall and in one graceful and long motion slices ¼ inch off the top of the tomatillo. He re-adjusts and slices two more pieces of the exact same size. He discards the top and bottom shows me the slices, throws them in a metal pan and tells me to do the same before running off.

            My dad is a trained chef but never cooks anymore. When I was told to bring my chef’s knives, I didn’t know what that meant. A quick consultation with my dad cleared things up. I should bring a big knife, a medium knife and a small knife. Easy enough. I pick my favorites from home and spend a good amount of time sharpening them that morning. After all, what is a chef with dull knives?

            I grab my first tomatillo and carefully slice off the top just as sous-chef had shown me. I ready myself to make the first slice and stop to grab his slices and compare them for size. If I remember correctly a crucial part of prep work is making sure everything is the same size. If the tomatillo slices aren’t the same thickness, they won’t cook in the same amount of time leading to some slices being underdone or soggy. I take care in making sure all my slices are the exact same thickness. Sous-chef is back with a giant vat of parsley. He grabs a handful and places it on the chopping board. “So you wanna hold the parsley like this and chop it like this. Then I like to give it a once over.” The parsley has been turned into perfect green dust. “wait, are you left handed?” I ask. “Yeah! So do it like I showed you but backwards.” And he’s off again.

            I grab the handful of parsley and pick out the yellowed leaves. I notice the parsley is curly- not Italian flat leaf. Huh. Funny for an Italian place. After a few attempts I figure out the proper technique: I gather the parsley into a tight bundle with my left hand and gently ease the bundle towards the knife in my right hand, all the while keeping my left-hand fingers curled under so they won’t get chopped off. While commending myself on my parsley dust I let one of my left hand fingers slip and I slice right through my nail. I guess my knives are sharp enough.

            Up until this point the kitchen had been calm and mostly empty. They don’t have a lunch service (which I didn’t realize) so for a while it’s just me, the sous-chef and that helpful dishwasher. The sous-chef melts foie gras fat in one pan and sunchoke confit fat in another. The house sauce needs a touch-up and more complexity so he is also reducing 2 bottles of red wine- I don’t catch what kind. The kitchen is starting to smell great and the fact that I’ve only had a cupcake for breakfast is becoming a problem. Thankfully this is a kitchen that encourages you to taste, taste, taste. My next task is to blanch, peel and pit white doughnut peaches. The 3rd one has an unsightly bruise on the top. The garde manger tells me to give it to the dishwasher. “To eat?” I ask. “Hum… yeah.” He responds puzzled. I devour it instead. Next I’m marinating olives. It’s really easy! Chopped dill and orange zest added to a big bowl of green Castelvetran olives. We’re talking about 20 pounds worth of olives. I’m not careful enough when mixing the olives and soon I see some chopped olives surfacing to the top of the mix. I grab them and greedily stuff them in my mouth. Luckily I’m near a trash can- these aren’t pitted olives.

            The kitchen is bustling now. Two men have started setting up at the garde manger and it seems that I’ll be with them for the rest of the night. I wasn’t even sure how long I would be allowed in the kitchen and here I am, a few minutes before dinner service is set to begin. They ready their station with hotel pans filled with ice to hold the dozens of prepared ingredients: capers, toasted almonds, chopped hazelnuts, diced confit tomatoes, sliced green olives swimming in olive oil and I’m please to see my finely chopped parsley. Chef gives the garde manger some hushed instructions which finish with his head motioning towards me. They tell me that I am going to be peeling 5 quarts of cherry tomatoes. Awesome. More peeling! I start cutting tiny little X’s on the bottom of each tomato, tying not to bust them open as they are just so incredibly fresh and juicy. The two garde mangers are working on a new dish for tonight. Chef is showing them how to properly slice a piece of brilliant pink raw salmon. The knife is thin and very long. The cut starts at the tip of the knife and ends almost at the handle. There is practically no pressure applied to the salmon, the knife just slides right through.

            I start to inquire about a pot of boiling water for the cherry tomatoes but I’m told that I should just throw them in the fryer for a few seconds. Huh. Why the hell not? I guess you start to see appliances differently when you have access to these kinds of commercial beasts. The fryer is a monster. “Is this thing even on?” I ask. The oil isn’t moving. “Yeah, go for it” I start emptying the tomatoes into the basket above the oil and at the first drop of water hitting the surface, the fryer jumps to life. I grab the handle of the basket and plunge it into the hot oil. 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… I count in my head. Too long and these tomatoes will vanish and end up floating around the fryer for the rest of the night. I pull them out in time and into an ice bath. The skins look like crackled paper and pop right off. Back at the garde manger I slip the skins off the tomatoes one by one as I watch the guys finish up their new dish: a stroke of mustard mayonnaise with lots of chives is the base, topped with the thin slices of raw salmon, a few perfectly peeled cherry tomatoes (not mine), capers and on each tomato is a leaf of tarragon applied with tweezers. Chef tries it and likes it. “More salt next time.” He hands the plate back to my station and offers it to us for a taste. We each grab a spoon and try to rustle of little bit of each element onto our bite. It tastes great.

            Chef has the first order of the night. “One Cacio & Pepe. Hold the pepper!”  That seems like a weird order. The rest of the service flies by. I watch the two garde mangers assemble the same 5-7 dishes about 5 times each as I continue to remove cherry tomato skins form their ice water bath. One of the first orders for my adoptive station is the raw beef tartar which is made to order. It is served in a parmesan anglaise (which almost made me faint earlier) and topped with an egg, sunny side up. The garde mangers are a little rusty or they just make their portions too small because for 2 orders of the beef tartar, they end up with enough leftovers for another portion. We all grab a spoon and try the raw beef. I’m in heaven. It’s nearly 6pm and this is my first real bite of food. “Would you judge me if I ate the rest of this?” I ask. The garde manger shrugs so I do just that. I eat an entire bowl of delicious raw beef. Raw beef and a cupcake. That’s my sustenance.

            Despite not being a huge fan of fish in general, it is the Tonno dish that captivates me. It starts with marinated rep peppers and colorful cherry tomatoes in a perfect circle in the middle of the plate, topped with raw ahi tuna, expertly sliced and so dark that the slices look like fruit jellies, all of this sauced with a lime ginger vinaigrette with chives and green olives which has enough acidity to cook the tuna slightly. Next are tiny, perfect segments of limes, placed at the cardinal points of the dish with a tuna tartare quenelle made with piment d’espellette right in the middle. The whole thing topped off with a few perfect pink globs of smoked steelhead caviar.  The third time I see the guys make this dish I notice that they have forgotten the caviar. Do I say anything? I can’t help myself and blurt it out. They thank me. The second time they forget and I mention it, they don’t look so happy for my help.  I clearly still have a lot to learn about kitchen politics.

           We are two and a half hours into the dinner service and I am surprised that I don’t start to zone out. I’m surprised that I’m not bored or overwhelmed. I was really nervous coming into this kitchen and although I’m still not at ease, and I’m not really doing anything at this point besides watching, I’m excited. I try to get the garde mangers to let me assemble a dish but I think they are still trying to prove themselves to chef (and maybe to me as well). A bus boy comes over to ask about the elements of a dish. They start talking about lemon basil and the garde manger slips the busboy a few leaves to sample. When I ask the guard manger about the anise hyssop foam, he kicks himself until he can remember the name of the chemical they use to induce all those bubbles. “Lecithin” he says, finally. The dishwashers are all Latino men and the cooks look like bad-asses. I clearly don’t belong here but somehow I feel like I do. And while the staff probably knows I don’t belong here either, by the end of the night they are giving me warm smiles. They all wish me well as I sneak off before the dinner service ends. As I step outside of the kitchen for the first time that day I notice that it has rained. I also notice that I have a massive headache. But I'm still smiling because I can't help but think that I have finally found my people.



  1. You are such a brave lady!! I admire you for stepping in that kitchen, that is not an easy thing to do, good for you!! I know all of your dreams will come true!! your still so young!! Go for it!!

  2. loved reading about your adventure, you have got to keep going on that path if they are truly your people.....follow your heart