Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Restaurant Three

This is just a tease....for fun...to let you know I AM still writing.

I’ve dreading going to Restaurant Three since the owner and I made our deal. Maybe it is because The Sous and Chef M, had been so negative about it, telling me the restaurant is slow now, and a “boys club” because no women work there at all except for the host. Regardless, I didn’t wake up excited to that first Friday in December. Actually, it was more like dread.

Restaurant Three is the restaurant that started it all in the owner's empire. It won his award for best chef in Food and Wine magazine, and it is where all of the chefs in the company, that I admire, got their start. It is more of a fine dining restaurant than any of his other establishments, with dark orange lighting throughout the dining room and linens on every table and an excess amount of plates for every dish. In its prime, there were five cooks on the line: one on protein, one on pasta and warm starters, one of the vegetable station, and two at the garde manger. There were also two dishwashers, two bussers, three waiters, a bartender, and a bar back. Not so much anymore. Seattle doesn't seem to get Restaurant Three anymore.

I walk to the restaurant, like I have with all of them, from my house downtown. I have been to Restaurant Three twice. Once for a work party when it first opened hosted by the owner’s parents, and the other time for a retirement party for the former chef du cuisine who left at the end of the summer.

I walk in to the door that leads in to the bar, praying as I pull that it is not locked, and am relieved when it gently pulls open and I step inside. I peek through the whole in the swinging brown kitchen door and see nobody in site. Male voices can be heard from a distance, and a Kelly Clarkson song is playing on the radio. A little different sound than my first moments at The Restaurant. Chef E, the sous chef at Restaurant Three, looks at me, shocked, and says, “Hi Stage. What are you doing here?” Chef E and I had met at The Restaurant a while back. I cooked a couple of dishes for him. “Didn’t the owner tell you? I am here for December. Actually just six shifts. Friday and Saturday nights. But obviously not Christmas and New Years....” I ramble. All the boys at this point, three to be exact, have their mouths slightly opened, and are staring at me.

Chef E graciously stops what he is doing and tells me to follow him as he gives me a tour of the upstairs where towels, dry storage, aprons, the office, the freezer, and the lockers are. There is no dressing room. There is no women’s bathroom. This is a boys club. For sure.

I come downstairs after finding a white bistro apron, putting on my chefs coat as they all wear to prep in, and folding my seven blue towels: one for underneath my cutting board, another to wet as a “sponge” to clean everything up, another to tie at my right hip, and the other four as extras. I head downstairs, Chef E motions me with his hand to work next to him, and gives me a huge celeriac and three giant carrots and says, “medium dice.” That is it? No question like, “Do you know what a medium dice is?” Even breaking down the vegetable to show me a trophy piece? I am obviously not going to be babied here. It’s about time! I medium dice a celeriac, a carrot, chop a deep 1/9 pan of shallots (which I have gotten down to 25 minutes from my time at Tavolata), a deep 1/9 pan of chives, and juice 15 lemons.

My knife is sharp, because I finally learned how to properly use my steel. My whole time at The Restaurant, I would have The Sous or Chef M steel my knife until Chef M showed me how to do it one afternoon. Then, I learned how to use a wet stone at Restaurant Two, which changed everything. My knife feels brand new each week, like breaking in a brand new pair of pointe shoes. Everyone in the Restaurant Three kitchen is quiet, you can hear the focus, and things seem to be going smoothly. Surprisingly, I am impressed by my work. To be honest, It is some of the best prep I have done. But, then the soup happened. The celeriac soup, to be specific.

“Sweat two white onions. Add three celeriac. Water. Drain. Puree. Cool,” is Chef E's instruction to me. Easy enough, or so I thought. I do as I am told, sweat the onions, and add the celeriac. Chef E tells me that the celeriac is probably shouldn’t get too much darker so I should add the water now. Yet, the celeriac isn’t cooked. My brain starts to malfunction. I remove the pot with the half-cooked celeriac and the translucent onion over to the area where the vita prep is located to, I assume, blend the half-cooked celeriac and onion with water to make the soup. Sometimes, I just don’t use my skills as a cook. I rely way too much on people’s instruction instead of my own natural cooking instinct. Chef E comes over to me, and tells me I need to cook the celeriac and onion with the water, so that it finishes cooking without getting brown. Yuck, I hate the feeling of humiliation. My ego shrinks a bit.

Oh, right. This is when I remember that I am not a professional cook, and just a Stage. I am working with amazing talent, and I have been doing this for, oh, six months. I laugh at myself, to lighten their mood, and mine, and add the water and put the soup back on the stove. Once the celeriac is cooked, I bring the large pot, now much harder to maneuver being filled with gallons and gallons of water, and bring it over to the Vita Prep. I pack the vita prep full with celeriac onion and a little bit of water so that it will blend. Chef E has told me not to use too much liquid because it is easier to add liquid then take it away. I press on the rubber lid, cover the hole with one of my spare blue towels, and turn the machine on. A wretched sound comes from the machine, and I quickly pull the plug from the socket to make it stop. “Can someone teach her how to use a Vita Prep?” the garde manger cook, J, says to nobody. I turn to him, offended, and say sarcastically, “I know how to use a Vita Prep.” “Well, first you need to turn it down to low, and on interval rather than high speed” he says after ignoring what I had just told him. He begins to take over my project, telling me to get the heavy cream from the walk in as the liquid in the soup. Chef E didn’t tell me to add cream during the blending process. I take over what J has started, slowly adding batches of white onion, white celeriac, and white cream to the vita prep, blending, and repeating. After it is all done, I begin to strain the mixture through a chinoise.

J, looks at me and says, “That is not a chinoise. That is a China man’s cap.” I look down, and he is right. I do know the difference, but honestly I couldn’t find a chinoise. I mean, we are talking about a ridiculously pureed soup here that probably doesn’t need to go through a chinoise to purify it further. He finds me a chinoise, dumps the soup into it, and lets me begin pushing it around in a circle to strain any large lumps that have not gotten perfectly blended. It is taking longer than it should. Jim looks over at me, and takes the large metal spoon from my hand and uses the tip of the spoon to chop at the center of the chinoise. The soup gently flows through. I have always swirled my spoon around the chinoise, but his method is much faster. I will be doing it that way from now on, that is for sure. I put the soup in a large metal hotel pan and season it with salt and pepper and more cream. I place it on the speed rack in the walk in and the chefs will serve it in a bowl with a sliced green apple salad and roasted chestnuts.

Again, like every other restaurant, 5:00 rolls around and everyone is frantically trying to gather up the last of their tasks for happy hour that goes from 5-7. I take my place in the back, with J who runs the garde manger. The place I am taking used to be a line cooks spot. I am told that I will toast all the breads for the bruschetta, cheese plates, shuck all the oysters, and plate all the desserts. This sounds manageable.

Mistakenly, I should have read the menu before I started working at this station. I do not know any of the sets, and because I didn’t prep for this station, I don’t even know what most of the ingredients are. I read all the tickets that are printed, but don’t know the difference between a bar bruschetta and a regular brushcetta. I just slice the bread, drizzle it with olive oil, and season it with salt and place it on the panini press. The first bruschetta got topped with a duck liver pate and a watercress and pickled shallot salad. The second bruschetta was topped with meyer lemon ricotta with the same salad set. But, which one was which?

At this point, I still have not seen the owner emerge from the upstairs office. One of the main reasons I was so eager to work here on Friday and Saturday nights was to get to learn from him on the line. Yet, I don’t even know if he is cooking tonight. Just as I am thinking that, he emerges from the upstairs office. Dressed in all white, with a light khaki pant and clear rimmed glasses, I always forget how young he is for having four restaurants. He nods at me, and takes his place in the front of the kitchen at the pasta making station.

That night, I shucked many oysters. Probably one hundred. They were topped with an apple, chili, chive, and olive oil set or a grapefruit, celery, and lemon juice set. And, my elbow did not hurt. Oh yes. I guess my elbow is in shape enough now to not be susceptible to oyster elbow.

I am also supposed to be responsible for the desserts, but there is one problem. I can’t do a quenelle for the ice cream. An order for a pecan tart comes up. J gets the plate out from his side of the station and drizzles dulce de leche in an asymmetrical line across the plate. He tops the round tart in the middle, and asks me to scoop a quenelle of whiskey gelato. I pull the quart container of gelato from the small freezer, and give it to him. “You can’t do a quenelle?” I could have made up an excuse like “I didn’t work this station at Restaurant Two” or “at The Restaurant we used a standard ice cream scoop”, but decided to say, “I’ve never tried.” He quickly pulls his spoon in a J-shape up the side of the frozen container and pulls his spoon to the lip on the side swirling the gelato until it is in a cylindrical egg shape.

He moves on to a meyer lemon mouse with vanilla meringue and pickled huckleberries as I try to experiment with the whiskey gelato to create a quenelle. Being a lot harder than it looks, I make two attempts, and then smash the gelato back into a smooth shape and return it to its freezing home.

The owner only speaks to me once that night. Sort of. As I am brunoising bacon for a duck confit and frisee salad, he says, “What is J making you do? A brunoise of bacon?” And then he walks away, laughing. I put my nose and eyes as close as I can to my brunoise, making sure it is as perfect as I thought it was, and it looks good to me. Phew! I know he looked right at it. Everyone looks at each person’s knife skills and mise en place. It is a resume, of sorts, of your ability and technique.

I toast bread, shuck oysters, and I can’t do a quenelle. Welcome to Restaurant. A boys club where nobody speaks to me.

The next day, I come in at 2:00 again, and who do I see? My friend Chef B, who actually spent Thanksgiving with me that year and seared of a lobe of foie gras and made an amazing stuffing, and the cook who worked with me on the first day at The Restaurant. He tells me he is helping the owner with a catering, which means another day that owner will not be there to teach me anything. Frustration starts to set in. I mean, it is not like I think the owner needs to teach me. He is a busy man. Stressed, I am sure with four restaurants to maintain. A little “stage” is not on the forefront of his mind. But, I have been there for six months. And, I have only worked with him twice!

I get ready for my day, steel my knives, and make my way to the same place I worked the day before. I start with the usual suspects: shallots, carrots, celeriac, chives. But, then I start to help the owner out. I supreme one 1/9 pan of oranges, and a deep 1/3 pan of shaved brussels sprouts. The only thing he says to me is “That’s probably enough” as I get to the top of the 1/3 pan. i almost cut my fingers off twice on the mandonline.

Then I am told to roast chestnuts. Oh wow. I am actually going to learn something today! I have never roasted chestnuts before! Unfortunately, though, I have to admit this to the chefs when they tell me to roast them. Chef E tells me to put them on the grill. Another cook tells me to put them in the oven and cover them with foil. I chose the grill. I enjoy burning my hands and arm hairs off. I am told to score each chestnut at the tip, and drop all of them all over the grill. By the time I am done, the light downy arm hair on my right arm is completely gone and my fingers ache with heat. I even used long tongs to rotate the chestnuts, but it was unsuccessful. The burning is inevitable.

That night, I do the same tasks as the night before. Toast bread. Watch J do quenelles. Shuck oyster after oyster. The only wrench in my boredom is that Chef E makes me cook family meal. At first, it is gonna be sloppy joe's, or meatloaf. But, I settle on spaghetti and meatballs in red sauce. I make my meatballs from prosciutto and beef chuck with fennel, red pepper flakes, parsley, ricotta, egg, and parmigiano reggiano. The sauce is spontaneous with San Marzano tomatoes, a load of garlic, sugar, sherry vinegar, lots of salt, and tons and tons of basil, thyme, and leftover scraps from whatever needs to be re-prepped the next day for service.

I cook five nests of spaghetti and reduce my sauce as much as I can until the spaghetti is cooked. My meatballs are baked in the oven. I toss the pasta with the sauce, that need to still be reduced, and then stir the meatballs in the mixture. I take a very large, almost unmanageable hunk of parmigiano reggiano and grate it on to a plate, struggling from the first grate on the microplane. “Want a bigger hunk of parm, Stage?” one of the cooks says to me. He peels the hunk of cheese from my hands, and shows me a more efficient way to grate the cheese. Regardless, his hands are bigger and he is stronger, so it will always be easier for him.

I plate the pasta on a large platter, and let it to be devoured by the staff. I get insecure, at first, knowing that this is not the best representation of my cooking, but at the same time, what am I supposed to do with the elements I have to work with? I am not going to plate a seared duck breast with fingerling potatoes, salsa verde, and a roasted Brussels sprouts for ten people. Pasta is perfectly suitable for family meal. Right?

After scrubbing almost everyone’s station so I could get the hell out of there, I leave at 11:45pm, fifteen minutes before everyone else. As I exited the building, and felt the crisp air on my face, I decided I would walk home instead of cab it. I needed to cool off at my waste of ten hours away from my husband and my life to toast bread and shuck oysters and make family meal for ten people who don’t say thank you, and scrub the entire kitchen. For everyone’s information, I quit my successful ballet career to learn how to cook, not to be a slave. But, I remind myself, step after step, that I am just at the beginning of my new career and I am not going to get the respect I deserve. Not yet.

My second weekend at Restaurant Three reminded me a lot of the first, except this time I got to work the position that J worked all last weekend. It isn’t intentional at first, the Pacojet is broken and it can’t whip the ice cream. So, I take over the station making salads that have slightly changed from the week before. But, before that I have to run out in the freezing cold Seattle winter and pick up more celeriac and a 1/4 lb. of mint at Frank’s, the local restaurant purveyor. My chefs coat and my clogs are a dead giveaway that I work in a restaurant, but when I tell the man at the counter to put the produce on Restaurant Three's account, the worker looks at me like I am some kind of crazy person. “What do you do at Restaurant Three?” This is my least favorite question. I mean, how do I respond? Well, I work for free so that I do not have to pay for cooking school and can get a job as a chef fifty-five hours a week at next-to-nothing for pay. But, I keep my irritation inside, and tell him politely that I am a “stage” for Restaurant Three today. “He treating you good?” the guy says to me. I smile, “Of course!”

When I come back, J is still working on the Pacojet, and I begin to take over the tickets that come to the station. I ask J questions, and he tells me I need to get in the habit of reading the menu and knowing what is changed. “Didn’t you do that at the other restaurants?”, he says. “Yes,” I say curtly, “But at the other restaurants, I always prepped the station I was working.” The ticket read Endive Salad, and I scanned the menu to find the salad, panicking because my eyes couldn’t scan the paper fast enough. I assembled the salad with chunks of pears, crushed hazelnuts, shallots I had chopped earlier in the day, and a huge handful of freshly washed arugula. I make a dressing in the bowl and toss it with my hands, lightly, as if I am picking up egg shells. I find a stark white square plate, the only plate used for this salad, and place three endive leaves face up and two stacked on top of it, face down. Then the hazelnuts, pears, and arugula are tightly mounded in my hand, and then mounded on top of the endive platform.

J looks over and says to me, “higher and tighter.” I try to manipulate the salad with my hands, which doesn’t really work, and I decide to re-plate the entire salad. “That salad gets arugula now, not watercress, too.” I remake the entire salad, saving the large chunks of pear and the endive. Chef E comes in to help J with the Pacojet, and I continue to plate every dish that comes out of the garde manger, as they curse at the broken machine.

It is definitely more interesting than last week, that is for sure, but the garde manger at Restaurant Three is the rookie spot. I have been lucky enough to cook at both Restaurant Two and The Restaurant on the line. Most chefs at Restaurant Three don’t even get to touch a burner until after a year, or so. At least my arms will have the ability to heal this month.

The next evening is much the same. J steps to the side to let me plate salads. I can’t practice my quenelles because the Pacojet is officially broken, and J has had to whip all the ice creams in the Kitchen-aide mixer with the whisk. I feel like I am living in ground hogs day. Doing the same task, and feeling bored and underwhelmed with this restaurant. To top it all off, the owner is still not at Restaurant Three. He has another catering, which has taken him away from the line this evening as well.

As the evening slows down, my legs start to get tired. Nobody drinks at Restaurant Three, and this is about the time where I would be downing a beer to make the pain in my legs stop. I hoist myself on the mini freezer and let my legs dangle, with my clogs half off the back of my heels. One of the line cooks walks by and says to me, “Counters are for glasses, not asses.” I open up my eyes really wide, and much to my surprise, I back talk him. “He doesn’t plate anything on here,” I say. The line cook comes back around the corner, gives me an evil stare, and walks back to the line. Where did that come from? Why am I back talking chefs that I want to respect me? Stupid and snarky. What am I thinking!

Chef E comes around the corner and says, “Stage. Family meal,” as he points to me. I take it as a punishment for my back-talking explosion. I ghetto gourmet some twice baked potatoes, and again, nobody says a word.

That night, I leave at 11:20 after cleaning everyone’s station. Again. This is the one thing about being a chef. You clean just as much as you cook.

The next day doesn’t get much better. Ice explodes all over the kitchen when the top flew off of a broken food processor as I am grinding it for the oyster platers. I drop a 1/3 pan of watercress all over the ground after I explicitly remember closing the refrigerator door. It must have not closed all the way, and the 1/3 pan slipped out, cascading the frilly lettuces all over the hole marked brown kitchen map. It is almost worst than wearing a blue finger condom after you cut yourself. Almost. We have tons of dishes to go, and I can’t sweep my area. So, I am just stepping on watercress repeatedly, reminding me of my klutziness. But the worst mishap is when I heat up two hot chocolate desserts on two of the burners on the line in two small eight ounce copper All-clad pans. To get them hot enough, you have to turn the flame on high. Well, the flames are not even in heat, I learn. One of the pans starts to bubble over and the smell of burnt chocolate starts to permeate the room. Instinctively I grab it from the flame without a prep towel in my hand. Oh. My. Gosh.

It is as if I had stuffed my hand in a fireplace and closed the latch. It burned and burned and burned. Long past when the server came to pick up the warm hot chocolate with the vanilla bean marshmallows bobbing in the thick chocolate. Long after I scrubbed the burner that night where crusted burnt chocolate lingered from my mistake. That night, after I was home, as I brushed my teeth, my hand still burned from the hot metal handle, reminding me that I should hold on to humility, and be receptive of what Restaurant Three has to teach me, no matter how disappointed I feel that I am not working intimately with the owner and getting to work on the line.

Maybe I should just stick to the cold station for now. It might be safer for me, more at my speed, and can help me heal my poor little arms and hands that are slowly starting to look like my former wounded dancer feet.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Groove

I am feeling irresolute as this summer Staging is coming to an end. As I start work today, I feel empty, wishing that I could dance all day and then go to The Restaurant and cook all night. There are just not enough hours in my day. I stop by to pick up my knives that I left at The Restaurant over the weekend, and The Sous asks me if I am going to suit up and help them today, or “am I over it?” Ha! Yeah right. I am so tempted to stay. But, I know that staying up until 12:30 on a “school” night will not serve me well tomorrow at my real job. 

My former artistic directors from the ballet came into The Restaurant this weekend to finally watch me in action. Any time someone comes into The Restaurant that I know (which has happened countless times this summer), I have this weird feeling like I am not being the person that they think they know. Sometimes, like I have told you before, I feel like I am living a double life. I am not quite sure how to handle people observing that I have this other love that is not ballet; A love I have only ever felt while cooking. I feel weird as I walk out to greet them from behind the Boos Block in my Chef’s jacket and apron, exposed and uneasy, which, if you know me, is not my personality at all. I feel the most confident when I am in my kitchen cocoon, having my own personal experience as I cook food for married couples, best friends, the uncomfortable diners, and first dates. It is the same feeling I have being on stage with the ballet. I don’t have to talk, but just move my body and produce art for people who are watching me, without interaction. 

On Saturday, The Sous calls me to tell me he will be late, and to start a couple of tasks like putting the Russets in the oven for the gnocchi, taking the butter out of the walk-in for the biscotti, and defrosting the prawns that had just been delivered that day from the East Coast. When I get to The Restaurant, there is only one potato so I can’t start the roasting, I cut up the butter to soften it but I am blanking on the amount of sugar that goes into the biscotti recipe itself, and my drip system to defrost the prawns is a little precarious. 

So, the only tasks I have left are to just chop, and chop, and chop, and chop. I am horrified and alone with just my knife skills to keep me company. And let me tell you, I don't like their company. This leaves me quiet, and irritated as 5pm rolls around and I begin to cook.  

I had been working with Chef M on Thursday and Friday of that week. He works much differently with me than The Sous.  He always has a lesson to teach me, and he likes to work with me on many of the projects, rather than letting me fend for myself. The Sous is different. He lets me flounder a bit, and then comes in for the rescue, having probably watched me struggle the entire time. I love these two juxtapositions at The Restaurant. They work together beautifully teaching me how to be independent, but also allowing me to know I have some support when I feel like I am sinking. I am disappointed, though, because Chef M has Saturday nights off, which means because I am working only Saturdays this coming year, this past Friday night was probably the last time I will cook with him. He is a brilliant teacher that will be missed. 

Overall, I feel like I really took a huge turn in my cooking this past weekend, though. On Saturday night, after quickly getting out of my quiet mood,  I basically ran the whole pasta station by myself. The Sous is observing and coaching, and helping me out by warming my plates in the salamander, or completing a finished plate of pasta with a drizzle of olive oil and pangrattato. 

Originally, last week, they told me I would be running the whole station by myself without someone their to assist me. I knew I would not ready for this. At all. It is not the cooking that I have anxiety about, but the Mise en Place that would take me hours and hours. I would probably have to bring my sleeping bag, and sleep on The Restaurant's floor the night before so that I could wake up at the crack of dawn, and start my prep work. I would probably still be prepping at 9pm that evening, thinly slicing garlic and dicing anchovy filets to order. 

But, luckily I have had two days of Chef M’s pasta training to prepare me for Saturday. Besides one of my dishes being slightly too lemony, and everything always needing just a pinch more of Kosher salt, I thought I did a pretty good job for my first Saturday night almost alone. At around 10, there is an order for gnocchi, and The Sous asks me if he can cook the dish to see if he “still has it in him.” 

Ha! I have this odd feeling that he still does. 

Their is this sensation that Chefs get, The Sous calls it The Groove, when you mindlessly, yet passionately, cook and create food for hours and hours. I finally experience this on Saturday night, as sweat pours down my temples and I create dish after dish as if I am dancing choreography that is only known in my muscle memory. It is a rush; An addiction. I have only ever known this feeling while performing on stage. 

After this summer, I have decided I am probably not going to go to cooking school. I hear mixed reviews, and I have asked EVERY Chef their opinion that I have met over the summer. But after a conversation late Saturday night, after The Restaurant closes, the Chefs tell me to just work with as many Chefs as I can and learn everything possible from each one. I won’t learn how to butcher a Hamachi at cooking school, or be quizzed on how to wipe cheese off a knife I have borrowed. Yes. I actually forgot to wipe off a Chef’s knife after I cut a soft cheese for a cheese plate, and then they used it to cut into a sashimi grade Ahi Tuna. He was not happy with me. 

I won't learn those kinds of lessons in cooking school. I will learn, however, how to perfect my brunoise, and julienne, and know the recipes to hundreds of sauces, stocks, and reductions. But, is this not also something I can learn on the job? 

Some Chef’s will teach you to clean your station as you go, while others will want you to clean your station after you finish a dish. Some Chef’s will want you to bring your pot you are cooking with to your 1/9 pans, while other’s will want you to keep the hot pan away from their Mise en Place so that it doesn't get spattered with olive oil and butter. Some Chef’s believe you are the artist, while others want you to do exactly as they tell you, word for word.  

The most important part about being a Chef, and learning from a Chef, is humility paired with hard work. All of the Chefs that I have met this summer are the most humble, brilliant men, who work harder than anyone I know. I am honored to have gotten to know them, and watch them get into The Groove. 

I want to thank everyone at Anchovies & Olives, "The Restaurant" for the most amazing, life changing summer: Especially Head Chef Charles, The Sous Chef Manu, Chef Matt, Chef Brandin, and Ethan Stowell, The Owner. Thank you for teaching me this foreign language that I now feel like I can communicate with just a little better. I am elated that my stark white Chef's coat now has stains of olive oil, blood, and parsley. 

I will be Staging there on Saturday nights throughout the year when I am not performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. 

And Readers, Thank you so much for going on this journey with me of Summer Spoon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Chefs Are The Exception, I Am The Rule

When a night is slow at The Restaurant, I look for odd jobs to fill the time. I change out all of the ice beds for the fish, re-wrap items in clear film until they are airtight, organize the walk-in, condense produce from 1/6 pans to 1/9 pans, or prep extra cauliflower for the next day. But, I got worked last night at my new station at The Restaurant. There was no down time for me. 

I know I have worked hard at The Restaurant when I come home and my feet smell like a teenage boy, my skin is sticky from either sweat or olive oil splatter or pasta water evaporation, and my back aches. Last night, I was tempted to have Chef M crack it in the open kitchen, but I thought that was pushing it a bit for being a Stage. 

I made gnocchi yesterday for the second time since that first weekend. I work in tandem with Chef M, meditatively rolling the gnocchi out in AP flour into long, snake-like shapes, and creating square pieces with a pastry cutter. I roll the squares down on my wooden gnocchi board, creating little lines for aesthetic. As I look over, I realize that I am half as slow as Chef M and he is diving into my pile of little potato squares. He throws the gnocchi onto the board and rolls them with his palm like a machine. I am slightly more careful (surprise, surprise), which The Chefs would simply call slow.  

I chop my daily task of shallots and chives for The Head Chef. I get a compliment on my chive chopping from Chef M as I clip my knife through the little green tubes as if I was mowing grass or cutting someone's hair.  But, I still have can't get the hang of those damn shallots. As I hold my knife before I chop them, I feel like I am actually wearing Freddy Krueger's bladed glove in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I am looking for my next shallot victim to shred and tear apart. And, when I finish chopping the shallots, I am sure they feel like they have been one of Krueger's murder victims.  

When the service starts, we are consistent, but slow. But, in the blink of an eye, we have five pots on the stove at once, juggling the timing for each. Chef M teaches me how he would make each of the pasta dishes on the menu by reciting them aloud, usually as I am making another dish. I try to concentrate as he lists the ingredients in their order and how he wants each dish to look. He gives me pointers along the way over my shoulder: add pasta water to the prosciutto and the green beans after the saute for a bit; make sure you use enough white wine to steam the clams and have a sauce remaining; add more green beans than you think for the malloreddus pasta dish; the gnocchi can use a couple of grinds of black pepper; don't put the zucchini pesto in over the heat for too long or it will brown; make sure you add enough pasta water to the compound butter so that it is saucy when it reaches the table. 

With five pots on the stove, and tickets coming out of the till in two's and three's, I can not imagine being at this station all alone, yet. I would be drowning in sea of yellow and white tickets, desperately trying to stay afloat, and begging The Chefs's to throw me a life preserver into my ocean of paper. But, I love the adrenaline rush and multi-tasking that this kind of night requires. 

I burn garlic. I burn red pepper flakes. I forget to add squash blossoms to one of the dishes. I leave pots in the salamander too long, and they are too hot to handle. I accidentally deep fry a pea. Just one. But, I am not the only one. Even the best Chef's mess up. 

Chef M forgets to taste the malloreddus pasta for doneness before he tosses it into his pancetta, green bean, and chard mixture. He has to start again, which I have never seen him do, or any of The Chef's for that matter. But, I have to admit, it makes me feel just a teensy bit better. I have tasted the pasta just seconds before, knowing it isn't ready, but my brain can't trigger to my mouth fast enough as he was pouring the pasta into the sauce that the little shells are not ready to be taken out of the water. Maybe a Peronni would have remedied this? Also, one of the new chefs in training nicks his finger on his knife. This also makes me feel a smidgen better. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one who constantly makes mistakes. Oh, yes. That's right. Because I do constantly make mistakes. The Chefs are the exception, I am the rule. 

But, my night is not bad. At all. It is actually probably the best night I have had in a long time at The Restaurant. Thanks to Chef M's coaching, I finally get the hang of flipping the pasta ingredients, with just my left hand, in the All-Clad saucier. This makes everything faster for me because I don't have to reach behind me for a spoon to stir the pasta, or use tongs to toss it around and break up the elements of the dish. I was worried I would never get the hang of flipping. Chef M tells me, admittedly, he was worried too. My hand does get a cramp once, under the blue towel, and I have to pry it open with my other hand. I hope it is going to be in the permanent shape of a fist, like a cast iron sculpture, as a tribute to my success at flipping. No luck. 

At the end of the night, I feel like I have just completed a really hard show with the ballet. I have tons of adrenaline, and I am smiling ear to ear. Starved for sustenance, and I can't wait to drink a little (a lot), eat a five dollar happy hour pizza with The Chefs, and go to sleep to wake up and do it all again the next day. And who says these two worlds, ballet and cooking, aren't similar? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Last Weekend

This is my official last weekend at The Restaurant. It is bittersweet because although I would love to stay there, my bank account is screaming at me to deposit a paycheck from Pacific Northwest Ballet. 

It has been intense these past two weeks, juggling working at The Restaurant with my routine "get your ass in shape" ballet workout: a 1 1/2 hour ballet class, a 45-minute run, and an occasional curl with an oh-so-heavy eight pound dumbbell. Last Thursday, as Chef M hands me my nightly warm vodka shot, I use the excuse that I am not going to drink it because I have to get up early and work out the next day. I must be kidding myself? After working at The Restaurant the normal 12 hour shift, I stay in bed long enough to ignore my phone alarm clock, miss the morning class(es), leisurely take my time getting my tall Americano at the corporate coffee shop, and all of a sudden, poof!, it is 1 p.m. Oops! It is obviously not sustainable to be a Stage and a ballerina. 

So, I am wondering to myself, what I am going to do when I work there every Saturday I can when I am not performing this coming ballet season? 

Yes. I am staying at The Restaurant. I must be temporarily insane. 

Monday, July 20, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

The comments have been made, and suggestions have been offered.  And, yesterday, on a whim and maybe a homework suggestion from The Sous, I bought $23.46 of produce at Whole Foods, and decide it is about damn time

I lock myself in my kitchen (even though it is an open kitchen), and for two hours I get to know the characteristics and personalities of the likes of white onions, shallots, fennel bulbs, long bulk carrots, cantaloupes, and navel oranges. I chop, and chop, and chop until my back hurts and my knives are dull. My job is to teach myself, by shear will and practice, how to mince, dice, julienne, and brunoise all of these vegetables. It is time. 

My goal is to figure out different approaches, like pulling through the length of my Chef's knife blade when mincing onions, rather than just pushing down on the bulb with my Santoku. Or to finally create a consistent 1/8 inch brunoise out of a carrot, and dice a melon into the same size pieces as The Owner and Chef M did this past weekend for the Escolar crudo. 

I became insecure about my knife skills on the first day at The Restaurant, when I butcher a red onion unrecognizable. They are in shapes that not even a Geometry major could attempt to describe. I obviously am also using the wrong technique to cut the onion, as well, hence the abiding scar on the tip of my ring finger from a battle with a peach pit and my paring knife. 

You would think after a couple of weeks I would catch on. But even this past weekend, I am mincing chives for The Sous and The Head Chef, and The Sous looks at my knife work and says, "Stage. What are you doing? Is this your first day of school"? I whine, telling him that my fingers are curled, and he retaliates by reminding me that my knuckles are not resting on my blade like he showed me that very first day, and that puts me at risk of cutting myself (which we know I do), even when my fingers are curled.  I have to admit, having that security of your knuckles on the blade helps me to guide my knife where it needs to go, with both hands, not just one. I also hate to admit that it helps me with the consistency of the chop because I know exactly where the knife is going. I see that I am not going to win this battle. 

He also explains to me that I have to be methodical in my cutting technique. Cutting chives, for example, is a rhythm, like the breaths and strokes of a swimmer. Each time your blade finishes swooshing through the chives you have given it, you then re-adjust your hands, so that you can cut more of those chives in that same rhythm, using that same technique, and having those same knuckles on your left hand gently resting on your blade. 

The same goes for a brunoise, or a dice. You square your produce off, be it a melon or a carrot, cut that shape into planks, cut the planks into sticks (julienne), and then rotate the sticks so that you can create a fine dice (brunoise). Just as consistent as those long crawl strokes of a swimmer. 

I also learn this past weekend that when you mince parsley, you pick the leaves all off of the hard stems (which I would have never done before). Then, you take a bunch of the large dark green leaves and bunch them up into a small ball in your fingers. Then you chiffonade the parsley so that it creates small, fluffy ribbons. Once you are done chiffonading all of the parsley, then you go back and run your knife over the parsley so that it turns into tiny confetti. It is much easier than just running your knife all over the cutting board trying to find the miscellaneous pieces of parsley that you didn't get the first time around. I have been chasing damn flat-leaf parsley around my freaking cutting board for the majority of my cooking life. 

I also have to work on efficiency in my knife work tasks. Last weekend, I was supreming three oranges and two grapefruits for The Owner, yet, I was just working on one piece at a time. The Sous points out that he would take those five pieces of citrus, and cut each of the fruit's tops and bottoms off, all at once, then cut around each one, back to back, and then work on supreming them individually. 

So, after being cooped up in my house for two hours on one of the most beautiful Summer days Seattle has given us, and knowing I could have been laying out on Lake Washington listening to the clinking of sailboat masts in the wind, and reading some of my new A-16 cookbook, I felt pleased with my attempt at anal retentive, and methodical chopping skills. 

From far away, like an impressionistic Monet painting, the mise en place came together, and I could have been mistaken for Eric Ripert. But up close, there were inconsistencies which I will one day improve. I just have many, many, many more hours of homework ahead of me with those pesky vegetables, and my knives. Sharpened like a razor blade, of course.