Monthly Archives: August 2013

Day 1: Pantry & Cold Appetizers

Summer Gazpacho with Lobster Salad - "my" dish for the evening!

Summer Gazpacho with Lobster Salad – “my” dish for the evening!

Tonight’s shower felt almost as good as a post-rave shower — getting to soak my sore feet in hot water, washing away the grime, reveling in the awesomeness that had just taken place. Today was my first day of staging and, seeing as how I’m invited back next week, I’d say it was a success!

After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal to prepare myself for the long (LONG) day, I headed to the restaurant, arriving bright and early at 10:45. I was greeted right away by the pastry girl who showed me where to find my cook shirt, apron, and towels. I was so nervous but she was really nice and introduced me to everyone as they started trickling in. I started by helping her make pizza dough – huge batches of flour and yeast weighed by the kilo and mixed in an industrial sized electric mixer.

Eventually Chef arrived and he had me help him with some prep work for an appetizer. The hot apps guy was rolling out pasta dough and told me to come over and learn how to fold tortellini (which is pretty exciting considering that Honey Bunny and I have always wanted to try making filled pasta). All the while, it was interesting listening to the banter in the ALL-MALE (except for the pastry girl) kitchen – industry standard, or so I hear. Maybe it’s because I’m new, or a girl, or both, but everyone was really nice to me. No complaints here; it made the transition from amateur home cook to prep cook much easier than expected.

Throughout the day, I hopped around from station to station. Some of the guys learned my name but mostly I was referred to as “the stage”. That was OK by me. There were worse nicknames being thrown around as part of the camaraderie of a kitchen staff. Haha. I sliced the bread to be used as charcuterie toast for service and the charcuterie guy gave me a grand tour of the operation. He (and just about everyone else throughout the night) asked me WHY I wanted to go into the restaurant industry knowing how long and demanding the shifts are. (“Do you like never having vacations and normal days off??” one remarked) But I saw his passion for his trade and the way everyone takes so much pride in their work — that’s what I’m looking for in my life.

I finally found my “home” in the cold apps / pantry station. “Have her prep the herb salad” Chef said. Famous last words — I soon found myself faced with the daunting (tedious) task of picking frisee. I also learned that a petite herb salad means that someone (me) goes through the bag of herbs on a mission to find only the teeniest leaves to pick. Sigh. But still – the guys said I was doing fine and I was just happy to be contributing.

I was just about to feel a bit discouraged by my seemingly apparent slowness in picking herbs (even after their reassurance) but my spirits lifted immediately when my station lead asked whether I was planning to stay for service. I told him I would be happy to if he would have me, and his response was to look at the menu, pick a cold app, and he would put me in charge of that dish for the night. I was stoked.

I had been working for hours straight without a single pause until the lull between prepping for service and the start of service. Family meal time! I knew I would have to eat quickly and get back to work, so I only had a few bites of the (spicy!) Spanish rice, spicy chicken, and arugula salad, and slurped down the latte my station lead made for me. Fueled on caffeine and pure enthusiasm, I was ready for service!

I was put in charge of the gazpacho, although I also observed and learned how the salads were prepared as well. Our mise en place is insane and every dish had so many components it was hard to keep track of it all. But I was happy to be on cold apps, for a few reasons. I always wanted to improve my plating skills and since cold apps was mainly salad tossing and plating, it was perfect for me. And though the entire kitchen was freaking hot, our station was the Arctic compared to the main line where the fish, meat, and hot apps stations were. That was smoldering.

According to the other guys, the flow of tickets was fairly slow tonight, much to their dismay. I did feel a little awkward since we ended up standing around at times, but I was also grateful for the slower pace as it allowed me more time to take it all in. It was my very first dinner service, after all. I also was able to stay on the station and plate up more dishes than I probably would have otherwise. I hoped that I would get to continue working, especially now that I was somewhat “in the groove,” but my station lead had said straight up that if it got too busy, I might get “phased” off the station to stay out of the way. Luckily (for me) it didn’t come to that.

Happy hour flowed into dinner and before I knew it, the hustle and bustle had slowed and it was time to clean up. Every item in our mise was packed into plastic containers and organized in the walk-in refrigerator. Finally, around 10:30pm (essentially 12 hours after I first arrived), my station lead gave me the go-ahead to go home but not before asking when I would come back. The sous chefs seemed pleased with my efforts today so I bid them adieu until next Saturday, fetching my knife bag and almost skipping with joy to my car.

Today, on my first day ever in a professional kitchen, I learned to eyeball ingredients in quarts or pints. I befriended the guys in the dish pit (and always had plenty of clean dishes and mixing bowls). I got the hang of the extensive list of ingredients that go into each dish that’s topped with what garnish and which dressings are tossed into each of the salads. I learned to wipe down my counter often. Seriously often. Saying “behind” and “under” and “sharp” and “hot” and “between” has already become second nature. I blended right in with my black pants, cook’s shirt, black non-slip shoes, and bowler hat. Yup – a bowler hat. ;) And this is all just the tip of the iceberg.

I came home and, in my excitement, relayed just about every detail to Honey Bunny, who seemed equally excited to listen as I regaled him with my tales. My feet were sore and I (apparently) smelled like a winning combination of food, grease, and smoke, so I hopped in the shower and MAN did it feel good.

A few of the most important things I learned:

– The advice in this article is spot on (I had found it weeks ago, but I’m so glad that H linked it to me for a refresher yesterday!)

– Bring a Sharpie (for labeling prep items for the walk-in)

– Keep your station clean! Just like Colette says in Ratatouille.

– I love this. So. Much.

I feel exhausted but I feel so incredibly proud of myself for taking this leap. This is already proving to be an amazing experience and I can’t wait for next Saturday to come!

The Specials board on my first night

The Specials board on my first night

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Saturday

Pheasant Liver Mousse with Truffle Butter and Pickled Wild Strawberries

Pheasant Liver Mousse with Truffle Butter and Pickled Wild Strawberries

After the crazies of trying to coordinate a time to meet with Chef, and more than a little anxiety over how to phrase my question, I finally sat down with him today at the British gastropub (let’s call it BG for now).

I was a little early, so I stood around observing the kitchen for a few minutes while my connection went to find him. The kitchen is huge with so many moving parts. I was nervous and excited at the prospect of being a part of it. FInally, the Chef emerged.

He seemed very busy, so I cut to the chase. I told him that I really want to get into the restaurant industry and I asked him if he was willing and/or able to take me on as a stage one day a week.

And guess what?

He said yes.

Well, he said “if that’s what you really want to do, then sure! You’re welcome to hang out with us [in the kitchen].” It felt like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.

He started to explain that the hours are long (12-hour shifts!) with a lot of hard work involved. I told him that I was prepared with my food handler/manager certificate and that I had even bought the right shoes. He chuckled at that last part and remarked, “I hope those non skid shoes are comfortable!” He asked when I could start and we agreed that I would come in this Saturday for my first ever shift.

He also said something else that was interesting and that I will have to remember when times get tough. When I started to ask him if I could stage, I mentioned nervously that I had never worked in a professional kitchen before and he calmly replied, “Well, none of us had when we first started out, so you have to keep that in mind.”

So. I start Saturday… and I can hardly contain my excitement! Every job I’ve held so far has been a cushy desk job, sitting in front of a computer in an air conditioned office (well, except for my high school stint at Forever 21 – but let’s not talk about that). And now I’ve gotten this incredible opportunity to stage at my first choice restaurant.

This is going to be so different but different is exciting. And terrifying. Very terrifying.

T minus 3 days.

Shopping and an Appointment

Pâte à choux (cream puffs)

Pâte à choux (cream puffs)

A brief update.

Shortly after we last left off a few weeks ago, I logged onto Amazon to pick out a few necessities for my new double life. Nonskid kitchen shoes (luckily Skechers had a decent-looking pair so I could maintain my resolve to never buy Crocs), a roll-up knife bag, blade covers/sleeves, fish boning tweezers, and a vegetable peeler. Oh, and a copy of Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a memoir of his experiences in the restaurant industry. The good, the bad, and the ugly, so to speak.

The items have since arrived. Not gonna lie, having my own knife bag makes me feel a little badass. The shoes are a perfect fit despite having bought them online. And I started reading Kitchen Confidential which has so far been amusing, insightful, and just the teeniest bit horrifying. I can’t wait to get started.

I also emailed my contact at a local restaurant to inquire about the Chef’s availability. I made an appointment to come by this week and ask my first choice restaurant if I can stage there on Saturdays. I have no idea how the conversation will go, or whether he will even have a decision for me the same day. It’s a bit scary and intimidating. You would think that asking to work for free would be less nerve-wracking than walking into a traditional job interview, but I find myself feeling anxious and nervous and excited all at the same time.

Here’s to hoping.