Generally, when you are working a shift at The Restaurant, you stroll into the doors around 1:00 depending on how long your prep list is from the night before, and get started on your day. The Owner, who is filling in for one of The Chefs this evening, is coming in at around 3. The night before, Chef M gave me the heads up. The Owner told him to keep his prep list small, and Chef M told me I would probably be doing all of The Owner’s simple tasks on his prep list until he arrived. I have never worked with The Owner before, and have interacted with him fewer times than the fingers on my left hand. But, I have heard story, after story, after story and I have no idea what to expect.
I come in a little late, due to a slight moderate hangover from a shot of something “brown” the night before, the Montlake Bridge being up from Saturday’s recreational boating crowd, and running into Chef B and his woman on my walk from the bus stop to The Restaurant.
I get in and The Sous looks at his watch and shakes his head jokingly, despite sending him a text that I would be late, and asks me if I have looked at my prep list. No because I literally just walked in the door. He tells me to do all the things on the list that I feel comfortable with (which is about two), and don’t even attempt to do any of the intricate chopping because, as he explains to me, “The Owner loves to chop shit”. I start with my daily duty of cutting mini pieces of cauliflower florets. I have gotten it down to a fine science, and although not fast, I can definitely get all the pieces consistent. A huge accomplishment on my part, and a menial task The Owner just doesn’t need to do.
I move on to toasting pine nuts, grilling treviso, and supreming grapefruit. After struggling a bit with the citrus, and realizing I probably should have left this particular task for The Owner, The Sous shows me an easier way to desegment. With his pairing knife, he cuts a significant amount of the peel off of the top and the bottom of the fruit, so that it stands stable and upright on the cutting board. Then he works around the fruit, cutting much deeper than I would to remove all of the pith so that you get rid of any white impurities. Then, he holds in his hand and using a pairing knife, cuts into each side of the membrane, creating juicy half moons, flipping it open like a book, and tossing them into a 1/9 pan. It seems simple enough when he does it.
Right around this time, The Owner saunters in with his Vespa helmet in hand. He socializes a bit, and begins flagrantly sharpening his knifes and butchering a Hamachi. If I wasn’t so distracted with all of my duties, I could have just stared at him for hours. Seeing a new Chef in the kitchen is as exiting as going grocery shopping with some one else's debit card. He makes small talk with The Chefs. The conversation stems around people I do not know the names of, and experiences in which I have no reference point. He addresses me once, wondering what jobs I have completed on his prep list. Then he tells me he doesn’t like the aioli I had made the day before because it is too garlicky and too eggy. What he doesn’t know, and what I fail to tell him, is that I broke the aioli yesterday, and this is my doctored version so that I didn’t waste ingredients. He then tells me he always does one egg yolk to ¾ c. olive oil for his aioli recipe. Noted.
I go to the back kitchen and begin to make a new aioli for him in the food processor, remembering to use less garlic, a splash of water which is the key, and to slowly drizzle in the olive oil. My hands are sweating because I always break aioli. Well, at least the only two times I have ever made it before. As I am slowly drizzling in the olive oil, Chef M, although it is his day off, comes into the back kitchen and the first thing he says to me is, “Hey Stage! How many things have you fucked up today?” At that moment, I am just finishing making my first successful aioli. He looks at it, and says, “Well, it’s about damn time!”.
All of a sudden, it is 5:00. I still have about 45 minutes of tasks left, like shelling and then over-blanching peas, and squeezing lemon juice. The Sous tells me this is because I am not efficient or fast enough in my prep work. I agree with him, knowing that I didn’t map out my duties because I didn’t know what I should do versus what The Owner should do.
Seriously. Why do I always make excuses for myself?
At 5:45, the only thing that is left to make is the Fried Almonds, which I let fall by the wayside, and I finally put on my Chef’s coat and apron, and emerge from my lair, which I call the back kitchen.
Although I prepped all day for the cold station, I am actually going to be working with The Sous on the pasta station. He tells me I am going to do the Gnocchi dish, the Tagliarini, and the Bigoli pasta. He and Chef M always show me the how they would cook the dish first, and my goal is to try to memorize and recreate what they have just done.
Maybe it is because pasta is forgiving in presentation, but I really enjoy working at this station. Or maybe it is because I needed a change of scenery? I still can’t cut fish to save my life for the crudo at the cold station, or shuck oysters fast enough, but I do feel a little more comfortable with being artistic with plating food. I just need a break from lemon juice and finishing oil, and I am eager to get back to sauteing garlic and red pepper flakes, and tossing pasta with tongs, and heating bowls in the salamander.
The Owner, although very chatty during his small amount of prep time, is quiet and focused with his head down at his cold station. He changes many of the recipes on a whim. He leaves items out, like not adding cracked black pepper to a dish that specifically says on the menu: Ahi Tuna, Strawberry, Black Pepper. Or randomly adding ingredients not even listed on the menu to a dish, as if it was an pseudo amuse bouche. But, he is The Owner. I didn't get a chance to see anything that he plated because I was too far away, but he is careful and clean with everything that he does.
As the pasta station gets busier, I get an opportunity to cook more, and more. I probably made 20 or more pasta dishes over the night, and it felt good to be back where I was that first day at The Restaurant.
The Owner looks over when he is not busy and watches me work while making little comments to me like, “Is there chopped parsley in that Bigoli?” or “You don’t need to finish that dish with Marula. There is already ¼ cup of oil in the recipe to begin with.” At one point, while making the Gnocchi, I have to separate an egg yolk to set on top of the dish so that when you stir the gnocchi, the egg yolk makes a carbonara-like sauce. With the side of the small bowl, I pressed down a little bed for the egg yolk, and slid the egg yolk over the Gnocchi. As I went to put the bowl away, the egg yolk slid from the middle of the dish to the side. At first, I thought this was okay, because The Sous had put out a dish earlier in the evening when he was first teaching me the recipe that had the egg yolk on the side. I like how it looks like a sunrise or sunset, off center and kind of mock modern presentation. So, I assumed that if the yolk did slide, It wouldn’t be THAT big of a deal. As I went to reach for the Mohama to finish off the dish, The Owner looks over and says, “I hope you are going to put that egg yolk back in the middle.” I am scared that I will probably break the yolk if I was to move in back in the center, which would mean redoing the whole Gnocchi dish from start to finish. The Sous senses my hesitance, and reaches for the spoon and slides the yolk back in the middle. Crisis averted.
Why do I feel like I am back at ballet, and I am getting auditioned for a part?
At around 10, The Owners station is slow, and he decides he is going to go home. The Restaurant closes at Midnight. Guess who gets to clean his station? The Owner tells me I will be taking over his cleaning duties at his station and tells me what he wants me to get rid of at the end of the night, and what he is going to change for the next day. He also tells me he has changed out all of the 1/9 pans and that all I have to do is cover them with cellophane. Wow. I am surprised because I expected to do more work. I mean, I would have changed out all of his 1/9 pans. That is the least I could do for him.
At the end of the night, after cleaning all of The Owner’s station, taking our nightly warm vodka shot, and chasing it with a cold beer, I realize that this entire organization is doing me such a huge favor. I am out of my league with this caliber of restaurant, and with the people that I work with. The Sous is a prodigy, Chef M is a master, and The Head Chef, well, there are just no words. I constantly mess up, probably make their jobs harder than they have to be, yet, they still seem willing to teach me and help me grow. The Owner doesn’t even know me that well, yet he is allowing me to learn at one of his restaurants, learn from his hand-picked staff, and freely spend his money with all the food that I destroy.
How did I get so lucky?