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. 

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Owner

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?