For all you foodies out there who have ever thought as you stared at your computer screen “I wonder what a day in a professional kitchen is like?” I have offered up myself as the guinea pig and am back to report on my findings…
I worked as a foreign policy and business news TV producer, a challenging and exciting job to be sure but ultimately not what I wanted to do. In my slow moments, I would try to imagine what my ultimate dream job would be. I asked myself all the typical questions: where could I see myself in 10 years? What could I do for 10-12 hours a day, sleep and wake up the next day eager to do it all over again? But most importantly, what do I love doing? And, could I do that as a career? The answer for me is eating and cooking.
Long story short I quit my TV job, agonized over what to do with my life for a few more months, interviewed a wide range of experts in the culinary world and finally strapped on a couple big ones and emailed the chef at my favorite restaurant telling him that I’d decided to change careers and was looking to stage (pronounced “stahge” I’m assuming it’s French for “really short internship” or maybe “kitchen bitch”) somewhere.
The restaurant I was looking to stage at is repeatedly ranked one of the top in the city, and is headed up by a well known chef. A real industry rock star. My husband and I have eaten at his restaurant a few times, but it’s not exactly the type of place you can frequent… unless you have massive amounts of cash. The thing is, each time we ate there I thought to myself, “What perfect food. I could never cook at this level.” But when it came time to pick a restaurant to inquire at I figured go big or go home.
I met Chef on a Saturday for an interview, and the following Tuesday I was standing at the massive front door, knives under my arm and hands shaking. The fashionista in me was quietly sobbing. Instead of a clingy evening dress with a plunging neckline I was sporting elastic waist pants and a white kitchen jacket that buttons up to my chin. Big black oh-so-ugly non-slip shoes replaced my stiletto heels. My heart was racing and my brain crying out repeatedly “DON’T FUCK UP!”
Walk in and I’m handed a blue apron and white cap. Contrary to what you may think these caps don’t serve as hairnets or sweat catchers, in fact I’m convinced that these caps are the kitchen form of a dunce cap. Sous chefs and head chefs don’t wear them. Their sole purpose is to let the world know who are the chefs and who is still in the pit fighting desperately not to be the biggest kitchen idiot.
First task, peel and slice shallots. Easy enough? Not if your little hands won’t stop shaking like a crack head on 12 cups of coffee… and you thought it prudent to spend a couple hours the previous day sharpening your knives. In case you don’t know, to peel a shallot you hold it in one hand and your paring knife in the other. Slice one end off and then most of the way through the other end, keeping just a bit of the last layer attached so that you can pull it off along with the papery skin. I’ve done this a million times before but never with a sous chef and rock star chef standing on either side of me. Shaky hands, sharp knife… And we’re off to the first aid kit. Brilliant!
But this is a professional kitchen. People must cut themselves all the time right? Nope. My mishap provided delightful entertainment all day long for my newest colleagues. “Hey did you guys see her hand?” “Chef, when was the last time you cut yourself? 1982?” “Don’t worry, you can separate the stems from the heads of the morels, it’s a good job for you because it doesn’t involve a knife”.
Laugh it up boys. I’d love to see you try to decipher the stimulus package or predict whether or not the Fed will raise interest rates and if so, by how much. Hell, I’d be impressed if half the guys knew what the Fed was.
Take two. Thumb now safely wrapped in a double bandage, I’m back at my station peeling, chopping, watching and learning the finer points of making consommé and bordelaise. Sweat the shallots to bring out the sweetness. Reduce the wine to a third before adding the broth because once the broth is added you won’t be able to remove the alcohol flavor further. Egg whites were mixed with minced leeks, tomatoes, and carrots, lightly beaten and placed on top of a konbu infused stock and act to clarify a vegetarian consommé.
Check, check, check I’m feeling relieved because all of this is familiar to me. Reading the Joy of Cooking cover to cover at age 12 while all the more normal kids played outside is finally paying off.
Next peel and bundle asparagus. The trick is to peel the asparagus over the back of a saucepot. This allows you to peel more evenly. 15-16 asparagus to a bundle, tie it off with kitchen string. I actually quite enjoyed this chore as my little fingers allowed me to tie off each bundle with acceptable speed.
One thing I quickly learned was that everything you do in a kitchen should be done assembly line-style. Cut all the ends off the asparagus before moving on to peeling. Peel everything before you start bundling. Keep your station clean and everything within arms length. You’ll be standing at your station for hours, so you want to have a method to your madness. And try not to expend unnecessary energy reaching and moving around for things if you don’t have to… you’re gonna need that energy by the 11th hour of your shift.
On to my other tasks. Peel and dice sunchokes and apples for a puree; shuck a crate of peas; strip some thyme for the dessert chef; peel boiled eggs for a deviled egg canapé… No worries!
Ummm… but here’s the thing: quail eggs are not quite as easy to peel as a chicken or duck egg. In fact, I vowed right then and there that I will never eat another deviled quail egg again without empathizing with the poor soul whose job it was to peel those suckers. Don’t believe me? Go out and buy a dozen quail eggs. Boil and peel them. Then remove a sliver off both sides of the egg so that it lays flat when presented. Cut them in half and remove the yolk. Get back to me on how many perfect ones you end up with. I messed up 1 out of 24. If you can do better, I’ll buy you dinner.
As service rolls along I find my spot is right next to Chef, the task: put a thin film of lobster oil on top of a vichyssoise panna cotta, top that with a spoon of lobster salad and a brioche tuille. Second task: spoon the espelette (a mildly spicy pepper from the Basque region) butter sauce onto delicate little olive oil custards, finish with a sprinkling of chopped chives.
Plates coming off the stations all around me were delicate and perfect. Each of the cooks was managing to cook and plate multiple dishes with fine tuned precision. All the while I was focused intensely on making sure the chopped chives I was sprinkling on the custards was falling in an even manner, lest I be called out for failing on this, no doubt the smallest and simplest task of the night.
But at this level details matter. A few plates into service, Chef calls for one of the sous chefs to mince new chives. The ones he has are bruised and don’t fall the way that they should. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s that level of attention to details that makes dining at this restaurant so memorable.
Service goes off smoothly. No one ended up too far in the weeds. If there were mistakes I didn’t see them. By 12am I shake chef’s hand good night and thank him for the memorable experience. I ache all over. My delicate little body is not used to standing for 15hrs straight. One day on the job and I already feel 5 years older.
A few days later we agree to turn my one-day stint into a 3 month stage. And so I wash and iron my whites. Sharpen and pack my knives and repeatedly say to myself “Don’t fuck this up, don’t fuck this up!”