I ate well today. Pictured above are the picked-clean skulls that the Charcuterie Guy had roasted to make his headcheese terrine. It smelled amazing, like Mom’s banh canh gio heo (a soup made from stewed pork knuckle and feet and served with rice noodles). I was busy halving cherry tomatoes when the Fish Guy walked between us, tapped my shoulder, and offered me an eye. I was wary at first; I once accidentally bit into a fish eye when I was a kid and it was hard as a rock. Almost broke my tooth! He assured me it was fine, though I could tell by the tone of his voice that he didn’t really expect me to eat it. I gingerly took a bite (it had just come out of the oven after all) when he exclaimed, “Oh just eat it already!” Charcuterie Guy came to my defense, confirming that it was indeed hot, but I popped it into my mouth anyway and savored the tender meat clinging to gelatinous center. SO GOOD. Definitely garnered an “EWWWW” from Dishwasher-Turned-Pantry Guy, who refuses to try offal, to which the other guys wanted to say “Don’t be such a girl” but then couldn’t quite figure out how to phrase it since, well, I (a girl) went for it.
We had a relatively light to-do list today, so we were able to pick and choose our tasks. I jumped at the opportunity to supreme (pronounced soo-PREHM) oranges (that is, cut them into clean segments without any white pith or peel). I ended up having to process over a dozen oranges, although I had fun and it was quite satisfying to look at the final product. I was also popular in the kitchen, with people sneaking by occasionally to ask for a piece to snack on; it was a give and take exchange though — Fish Guy dropped off a few scraps of Bosc pears for me to munch on for breakfast. My station-mates patted me on the back for my craftsmanship and asked me to do a few more so they’d have nice ones for the next few days as well. Pretty proud of that!
My next awesome snack of the day came from when my station-mate cracked open one of the 63 degree eggs to make sure it was cooked properly. It was perfect. Dishwasher-Turned-Pantry Guy refused to eat it (another “ewww”) but I gladly sprinkled on a bit of salt and gulped it down, oozy yolk and all. A 63 degree egg is arguably one of the best things to come out of an immersion circulator. It’s a slow cooked soft boiled egg with a barely thickened yolk, similar to a poached or onsen egg. So good! I’m not a big fan of foams and other molecular gastronomy cliches, but an egg out of the immersion circulator is delicious.
The four of us knocked out a few more items on the to-do list until finally we were down to the last 4 tasks and figuratively drew straws. I ended up with the brunoise cucumber. Brunoise is a very small dice (about 3mm or smaller on each side). One English cucumber took me about 20 minutes. It was definitely a labor of love, but I welcomed the opportunity to practice. I’m definitely growing more comfortable with my chef’s knife. The guys let me try theirs too; everyone has their own personal favorites — long knives, heavy knives, light (carbon fiber) knives. But mine is serving me well, for now at least.
We finished early so we started setting up our station early. There was also an addition to the menu that would be prepared by our station — steak tartare. The usual station lead was off today so the Sous Chef from last week took over and plated the special for Chef’s approval. I didn’t even have a chance to admire the presentation before it was whisked away for the meeting with the servers. (They get to sample the dishes and specials so they can make well-informed recommendations to the guests.) No matter. It was time for family meal.
On good days, family meal comprises of components from the regular menu that are still good but a bit beyond their prime for serving to paying customers. Today was one of those days. We had shepherd’s pie made from the usual mince filling, extra ground beef and vegetables to make it more substantial, and a crispy potato topping. Pretty darn tasty! My two station-mates took their breaks first but I like to eat quickly and get back to work. By the time they came back to relieve me of my duties, I had already shoveled down my food, sent the plate to the dish pit, and served up the first salad order that came in. Their words — “You’re a beast!”
The same phrase came up later in the evening as the tickets came rolling in. My station-mate once told me that if you like to plate a certain dish, you sometimes just have to insist on doing it. I enjoyed observing the first hamachi crudo so I volunteered to do the next one myself. At some point, there were three on order all-day. I asked my guys to set up the additional plates with the appropriate amounts of fish, and I would prepare the garnish and plate all three at once. It was almost an out-of-body experience as my hands flew over all three dishes, placing each item with careful artfulness. “You’re a beast!” I heard again. I had just sprinkled on the last flakes on smoked maldon sea salt when all three plates where walked up to the window by the Sous Chef. I love the bright colors and intricacy of this dish (I counted ten components), so I claimed it whenever I could throughout the night. The guys obliged with a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” mentality (since I know how to do it and based on the feedback I received, I do it well, why not just let me go ahead!). By the end of the night, we completely ran out of fish and had to 86 this special. I call that a success!
I never really thought of myself as the creative type, but I guess this works out because it’s the Chef’s job to innovate and my job to replicate and execute with precision. Or as Colette in Ratatouille says, “It is his job to be unexpected. It is our job to follow the recipe.”
And follow I did! Check out my mad plating skillz ;)
Another success tonight was the reaffirmation that I’m finally becoming accepted as “one of the guys.” Slowly but surely. Some of the guys still apologize around me when they curse or make lewd jokes. Other guys (ahem – Fish Guy) kick in the back of my knee to make my legs buckle under. But most importantly, I think I’ve earned at least some level of respect from these guys. I ask for timing and hear a prompt callback. When there’s a bunch of lollygagging going on next to me, I tell my station-mates to stop screwing around and they stand at attention. I hear them refer to me as one of their own, and, perhaps most importantly, Pastry Girl (the Queen Bee) seems to like me.
I told myself when I first started this journey that I mainly wanted the kitchen experience to increase my credibility as a food writer (or a career in some other aspect of the food industry). But the more opportunities I get to learn, create, and lead, the more I want to run my own kitchen someday. Not just for the leadership role, but because I love spending time with these guys. I feel at home in the “back of the house,” and 3 months in, I’m still really enjoying The Life. Aside from my time spent with Honey Bunny (which ALWAYS comes first!), I look forward to Saturdays at the restaurant the most. WANTING to put in a 12-hour, physically demanding shift after a regular 9-5 work week — that’s love. How does that saying go…?
Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. –Confucius