Sunday, November 27, 2005

Restaurant Confidential #1: First Day of School

Long posting. Please bear with me.

Friday night, I went over to Westwood Village to enjoy a night of lonerness. Equipped with my Professional Chef book, I grabbed a slice of pizza, two actually, at Enzo’s and sat in Starbucks. Tomorrow, I would be starting my first day at The Restaurant and wanted to be prepared for the unexpected. I figured that reading my book to familiarize myself with stocks, herbs and meats might save me some face and embarrassment. After all, I was Mr. I work 9-5 and am voluntarily working here out of passion without a culinary degree guy. There was a higher chance of error on my part, but I was ready to get hazed and reprimanded.

I walked into The Restaurant with my cheapie Calphalon Chef and Santoku knife I got for $25, after the Bed, Bath and Beyond 20% off coupon (those do come in handy), black vato-dickies pants and Payless, slip/oil-resistant shoes around 12:30 and met with the Chef. If you read the last posting, the chef forgot who the hell I was, so I re-introduced myself. I was then paired up with a girl who recently graduated from some school I’d never heard of. We’ll call her ‘Tiny’ for now, to protect her identity. An experienced line cook gave us our coats and aprons and showed us around the kitchen. As I put on the double-buttoned coat, I couldn’t help but smile, looking down so that no one would see my flash of excitement. If you guys remember Ben Stiller in Something About Mary, visualize the reaction he got when Mary asked him to go to the prom. Yes, I had a stupid look on.

As a pantry cook, I was responsible for garde mangre, pronounced ‘gar-mun-jay’. It’s French for the cold food station and includes soups, salads, appetizers and desserts. To me, it was French for bottom of the restaurant food chain – a culinary peon. What did I care? I was here to learn, not hope for a chance to stand side by-side-by with that arrogant Bobby Flay. The fact that they were paying me didn’t interest me at all. I initially thought they would just give me an internship. I guess that means more money for me to go out and get trashed and add more ninja-like knives to my collection. The pantry station took about 2 hours to prepare and as soon as I was done I proceeded with my Q&A with all of my experienced coworkers. Notebook in hand, I fired away with questions and jotted every juicy bit of information down. This was like gold to me. There’s a lot you don’t see behind the cookbooks and tv shows. All the shortcuts and secrets that go into making your restaurant experience enjoyable.

What goes into lobster stock??

What the hell is a remoulade??

Can you actually eat that??

The more and more I asked and annoyed them, the more they knew how interested I was in jumping onto their ship. Everyone was surprised that I was doing this on my own leisure in addition to my full time job. They probably thought I was crazy too. A few people told me that they’d rather work with me than with a recent culinary grad with an ego the size of an air balloon.

It was now 4 pm and dinner was to be served in an hour. All restaurants partake in a ritual dinner called “family meal”. In addition to the food prep, every cook is responsible for conjuring up some kind of dish for the whole staff to eat. Usually with older foods and scraps. I was in charge of salads, naturally. I looked over at Tiny and asked if she wanted to make something. Surprisingly, she said no. The whole day, Tiny was helping me out with the proper way to do things, which i appreciated. When she asked me where I studied culinary arts, I said “I’m studying here at The Restaurant Academy.” She gave me a slight look of concern and confusion, as if I had no place in here. Which is true. But it helps to know people that can get you in.

And back to the family meal. The meat cook came by and was like, “Hey man, please make some kind of new dressing. I’m fucking tired of the Caesar, House and Walnut Vinagrette dressing. Fucking tired of it.” I hate salad, but the only decent salad I can make is a Chinese chicken. So I grabbed soy sauce, orange juice, sugar, sesame oil, Sriracha hot sauce (I like mine spicy), water, shallots and chives. I had to do without the Hoisin sauce. As I whisked the dressing up, my hands trembled, for I was deeply worried. Now for the taste test. About four cooks came by to test out my monstrosity.

“Add some sugar.”

“More O.J.”

“I want it spicier.”

“Too much vinegar.”

It’s amazing how these people would come by and quickly dip a finger in for a taste. Everyone was so on the dot, and when it was finally done, the dressing tasted WAY better than what I had originally thought was satisfactory. Even over the wilted, brown romaine/endive salad. I liked my new coworkers instantly. For dinner we had a nice smorgasbord of goodies: butternut squash ravioli with cream sauce, garlic/mustard roasted chicken, sun-dried tomato frittata (an Italian omelette), roasted pumpkin soup and corn chowder. With a lineup like that, who the hell was gonna eat salad. I sure as hell didn’t.

5 pm. Showtime. I had forgotten to bring some kind of hat so I was stuck with wearing the 10” chef hat made out of paper. It was so lame. I felt so embarrassed since we were right in front of the window. I made sure that the next time I came in, I had my own hat with me. I’d rather wear one of those 10 gallon cowboy hats instead of that paper hat. Anyway, the first ticket came out and of course Mousy snagged it before I could even read it. I looked at it and completely blanked out. I had already forgotten how to make the dish. Good thing Tiny had a description of how each and every dish was made and plated, taped up to the wall. After about 2 hours, I got the hang of things, eventually making each and every single dish we had prepped for. I even did desserts, which I have no interest in because of my heavy smoking.

In addition to Tiny, I had a few coworkers around me, all from the Pasadena Culinary Institute. Next to the pantry, we had the dessert, grill, meat and fish station. The desserts were handled by a sweet, Korean girl who’d been working for almost a year. I’ll call her Sweetie. She made awesome chocolate cake, bread pudding and Crème Brule. She had worked pantry before and was very helpful. Over at the grill station, stood a small Mexican guy, no more than 4’14”, that everyone called Man-Boy, because of his boyish looks and deep voice. Man-boy took care of pastas, stocks and anything fried. Man-boy was constantly dodging this gay waiter that totally had a crush on him. For snacks, Man-boy made some awesome salsa nachos from scratch and was happily complimented by the gay waiter, who said they were, “So ammmmmmaaazzzzzzzzzzing.” I don’t know if he was referring to the nachos or to Man-boy. Maybe both. Over on the meat station (pan-fry, sauté, oven), we have this other Korean guy who’s been working for 6 years in San Francisco and the Caribbeans. I’ll call him Rivers because of his black, thick-framed glasses – similar to Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. This guy was so knowledgeable and had MOVES in the kitchen. His arms were full of cuts, scars and burn marks. True symbols of culinary war. I once saw him cooking 7 courses at a time, flames flying, kicking oven doors closed, etc. I want to do that. He gave me a piece of Kobe steak to try and boy was it delicious. I don’t think I can afford more than 3 ounces of that because it’s $12 an ounce. And over on the fish station, there’s an awesome chick who looks like she’s in her 20’s but already has two daughters, 20 and 14. I'll call her "Mami". She’s gotta be at least 36. She also had moves and was constantly calling me over to watch her cook fish and foie gras. She was my new-found smoking partner.

After work, we headed over to a bar in downtown and met up with cooks from our sister restaurant. As we all drank beer, stories about the day in the kitchen were told and were hilarious. A few people took themselves to another mental level and most of us, drank the night away.

As I drove home, I couldn’t stop wearing a smile because I had a great time this weekend. My hands were tired from obsessive chopping. My Achilles tendon was sore from trucking up and down the stairs, holding stock pots. My back hurting from constantly bending up and down to reach for things. So what? It was all worth it and I couldn't wait for next weekend when I can go in again and ‘play’. I’ve made some new friends and gained new knowledge. And all of a sudden, I felt alive again. Completely alive.


Professor Salt said...

Attaboy! As much as I look forward to your posts about your new job at The Restauarant, ain't a good idea to blog about work. Ya might get dooced! Love her site and read it every day, BTW.

e d b m said...

thanks for the heads up. i just learned a new word today haha.

s'kat said...

Wow! What a wonderful post! Your passion really screams right on through. I'm totally jazzed just from reading about your awesome night!

Anonymous said...

Interesting point of view of this particular kitchen. Mahalo

joanh said...

wow! so cool.. i am reading through your archives and found this post so inspiring, especially knowing that in real time you are kicking off a catering career! hope you don't mind the backpost comments.

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