Friday, June 12, 2009

Mrs. Staaaauge

I don't even know how to describe the day that I had yesterday. I am blown away. My mind is racing. I need to take notes of my notes. I learned more in one day than the five years I have been teaching myself to cook. All morning, I have been kicking myself thinking, "Why have I not done this sooner?"

I have been holding my pan with the wrong hand, chopping my chives (and red onions, apparently) the wrong way, not salting my food from above so that it gets evenly coated, scooping sorbet poorly, and don't even get me started on my mise en place.

At around 1:45, I sauntered into the restaurant after getting off of Seattle Metro bus number 1420. I first see a rather attractive, young looking guy in the kitchen and I introduce myself. He hears me say my name is Kelly, I don't correct him, and he shows to me to The Chef.

The Chef, quiet and burly, says a quick hello, and shows me right back to the guy who I first met who I find out is actually the Sous Chef.

The cute one.

Flustered, I quickly get out my polka dot knife bag, which all the guys laughed at hysterically, and found my place at a rather large station to begin the tasks for the day. Already, I was embarrased.

The Sous asked me if I could cut cauliflower. Well, yeah. So, my first task was cutting and blanching cauliflower. What I didn't realize was how specific cutting cauliflower could be. The Sous kept showing me the first piece that he cut for me as my guide, and watched me at a distance, as he also completed his tasks of creating handmade pasta, making a parsley pesto sauce, and mincing anchovies. To name a few.

I blanched the chopped cauliflower and plunged them into an ice bath with a large metal spider. I did the same for the fresh shelled peas. These tasks, although seemingly easy, are harder in mass quantities. I assure you. I burnt my left hand picking up a boiling pot of water. It was a smart choice at the beginning of the shift. Geez, Kari.

Then, I was told to chop chives, finely. After about three swishes of my knife on the cutting board, The Sous stopped me, gave me a quick knife lesson, and told me I was doing it all wrong; I would cut myself; And, it wasn't as efficient. He taught me how to curl my fingers underneath, tuck my thumb in, and rest my knife on my hand so that it gently touched my knuckles. That way, I would never cut myself.

After filling a 1/9 pan with chopped chives, I was then given the task of slicing calamari, scraping the slimy stuff out the center, and cutting them into triangles so that they curl when they are coated in olive oil, and hit the saute pan. This I could do.

Then I was naturally migrated to work with Chef B. Also cute. Also young. Is this like a requirement of being a chef at The Restaurant?

He made a Caesar like dressing, sweated the red onions that I so poorly butchered, and tossed them with a white balsamic, rosemary, and freshly roasted red peppers. He showed me the vacuum sealer for future reference, taught me how to finely mince ice in a food processor, and advised me on how to keep my station clean.

All chefs, I have noticed, are the cleanest cooks I know. It helps them keep order in a world that can so quickly become chaotic.

Chef B and I made small talk. We joked around a bit, and overall, I was feeling incredibly comfortable with him. I listened to him tell me about his history in "the business", what restaurants he liked to eat at, and where he lives.

At around 4:45, The Sous told me to get my Chef's coat on (which was basically still stark white at this point) and get ready for service.

It was slow at first. People popping in and out. Perusing the menu, or getting a drink. I watched Chef B at his station for about an hour. He plated his orders beautifully like an artist, tasting everything in between to make sure it was perfect, and taking his time. When he didn't have an order, he was cleaning his station, saying hello to customers that recognized him, or looking for work in the back kitchen. There is never a boring moment, even when The Restaurant is slow. Chef B is amazing.

Things started to pick up around the normal dinner time, and The Sous looked over at me, and said, "Hey Chef, wanna cook?" He was looking at me! What? I actually get to cook? Not just and chop and watch? Elation aside, the "calling me chef" part had to be taken care of VERY quickly. I told him I was not a chef, so calling me "Chef" had to go. He said, "Okay. I'll call you Staaaauge." It stuck.

This is now my name.

(A stage, pronounced staaaauge with a thick french accent, is basically a kitchen bitch/apprentice).

As I walked to his station, He told me that he is much more strict than Chef B. He expected perfection every time. He mentioned the red onion that I butchered earlier. I blushed.

He taught me one of the recipes on the menu. He talked me through, and gave me pointers along the way: get the oil hot enough so it smokes, then the food won't stick; when browning the butter, lemon juice will stop the browning; always taste the food before you send it out to the customer, etc.

I watched him as he took over the recipe, because I was "too slow", and as he cleaned the plate at the end with his damp rag. He asked me, "Did you get that?"

Shit. I didn't know it was a test?

The next order of that dish came in. The Sous said, "Okay Stage. It is all you". Gosh. I really hoped I was paying attention.

It started well. I added in the olive oil until smoking, tossed in the first ingredient making sure it did not stick, and went to go add what I thought was the next ingredient. The Sous was watching me like a hawk. As I went into the 1/9 pan for the Favas, he told me to stop. I looked at him, doe eyed, and he asked me what I was forgetting. Crap. The garlic and the shallots.

I finished the dish. He told me to plate it, and gave me pointers about tilting my pan, spooning the juice with an angled spoon, and using finishing oil to glaze the protein. I said, "Service, Table 4" and I cleaned my station. I had just cooked for the first time at The Restaurant. He took a picture on his iPhone to document.

Then he told me I had to pay attention, and WATCH. He should only have to teach me a recipe once, and I should get it, and be able to cook it. He is much stricter than Chef B.

I need to practice. Big Time.

But, he kept giving me chances to cook. Teaching me little tidbits of information on the fly. The chances didn't all go so smoothly. I burnt one customer's dish right at the beginning of the recipe. The oil I was working with was not hot enough, I turned it up to speed up the process, it quickly went from brown to char. I had to start again, fast this time, because a customer was waiting for his food. The Sous rolled his eyes with a smile.

After making many more dishes throughout the evening, The Sous as my teacher, Tecate in my belly, I started to feel more at home. When there was a slow moment, I would go over the directions of each dish in my head, like studying for an exam. The Head Chef was alone at his station, quiet and brilliant. When I got the chance, I would peek at what he was doing. I am fully intimidated by his presence.

As the crowd died down, I was taught how to clean up for the night, and told I could leave if I wanted to. It was 10:00 p.m., which was when I was scheduled to leave.

I stayed.

I wanted the FULL experience.

The talented men: The Chef, Chef B, and The Sous gathered in the kitchen and toasted my first day of work. They were astounded that I had never worked in a restaurant kitchen before. They told me I was welcome to come back.

They decided to call me Mrs. Stage. I can't wait to go back today.

And, my coat? Well, it is no longer stark white.


  1. Whenever I read someone's first experience in the kitchen, I get teary eyed. I lived and breathed food, ordering, expediting, grilling, cooking, on the hot line, prepping for what was entirely too short of a time.

    You seem really excited about it all. It's all about making yourself better, every single time you step into your station.

    I'm secretly waiting for them to ask you to make family meal. That, that will change your life. :)

    Don't stop writing! :)


  2. So jealous. Sounds like a fantastic, if intimidating day. Wonderful stuff! Lovely writing too.

  3. I know it's real life, but this is just such a good STORY. It really comes through how much you're enjoying the experiences and writing about them. You've quickly been scooted into my Google Reader "Favorites" category :)

  4. First time to your new blog, though we do frequent Anticiplate. Congrats to you and your decision to do this. Big move, big outcomes. Can't wait to check in again and see what's next.

  5. I loved reading this. You have a wonderful way with words that allows me to picture your experience. It sounds amazing! I can't wait to read more :)

  6. This sounds like such an exciting experience and you describe everything so vividly! I hope you enjoy all your days at the Restaurant, learning so many new skills and recipes!

  7. I'm so glad they weren't mean to you. Intimidating, perhaps, but it sounds like they may really want to teach you, which is SO so cool. I bet you're exhausted! Congrats, Kari!

  8. This is such a beautiful piece of writing, and it makes me so jealous that you get to live this crazy amazing experience. Thank you for letting us into your cooking life and allowing us to share all the ups and downs. I can't wait to hear how every day goes, and I'm rooting for you all the way!

  9. I'm loving your posts more and more. Thanks for sharing your experience and letting us in on the restaurant world. It's so interesting!

  10. Colleen BergsagelJune 13, 2009 at 8:32 PM

    You are having so much fun. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  11. I just got linked back here from your most recent post and I smiled. I just cooked for my first time in a "reaaaal" restaurant two weeks ago. It's a trip! I loved it. Thanks for being an inspiration. Can't wait to see what you get into this year!