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.