I got dressed in my new outfit early so Ben could see how it looked. It all looked genuine, but the hat could be worn different ways: pulled to the side like a french beret, poofed out at the top like a russian cap, pulled in front like an english flat cap… I guess I could tailor the style to the type of cuisine I was cooking.
Radius is rated as one of the best restaurants in the city. Located in the Financial distrcit, right next to the Federal Building, the restaurant has an impressive amount of space: a spacious bar area, reasonable dining room, and several function and private dining spaces. I arrived just before 11am and introduced myself to the hostess. I waited at the bar until the Chef retrieved me and brought me through the swinging doors into the kitchen. “These are convection ovens where we bake our bread and other pastry items, pastry room, garde-manger station, the line for fish and meat, the walk-in fridge, prep space, ice-machine, office…” and he introduced me to people as we walked through. Throughout the morning, front- and back-of-house staff would walk up and introduce themselves, all friendly and seemed happy to be at work, and have me there, too.
“I know we may not have discussed it on the phone, but this is my first experience in a kitchen,” I warned. “Yes, I noticed on your resume. Seemed a little academic heavy. We’ll discuss that more later.” He gave me a jacket, apron (white for the interns and stages, blue for those who work there), and side-towels (for grabbing hot pans…and not burning myself again). I grabbed my knives and went back to the kitchen.
“First thing we have everyone do here is the chives test.” Chives. No problem. I can use my knife in a rocking pattern to cut chives into tiny pieces pretty quickly. No problem. “Now, you’ve probably been taught to use a rocking pattern to cut chives into tiny pieces pretty quickly, right?” “Uh, yeah…” “Well, we don’t do it here that way. You end up mushing the chives and losing a lot of the flavor. Here we slice them by not bringing the knife down, but pulling it like this.” He showed me the technique: with the knife at a constant angle, he slid the knife back and forth along the board, just skimming the chives, slicing off the tiniest little rings. It was like using a mandolin, except moving the blade, not the food. It was my turn to try. I wasn’t terrible, but the pieces were too big. And I was starting to rock the knife. A couple others around me offered advice. Try smaller bunches. Don’t go fast, try to be consistent. It still wasn’t going well.
Then I cut myself. Just the tiniest nick on my knuckle. Idiot! Cut yourself on your first task that you’re not even doing well? Hide it! It’ll stop any minute. Wrap that paper towel around your finger. Wait, it’s getting in the way. Oh God, it’s bleeding a lot! Is that blood on the chives?! You are so fired. I put my knife down and calmly walked to the Chef. “I cut myself.” “No problem, people here cut themselves every day. We have a well-stocked first-aid cabinet.” Turns out, the chef is a saint. Or at least in a very gracious mood.
I went back to the slicing. Still not great, but better. I got to work on a second bunch of chives, this one better than the first, but still not consistent. Chef came and checked my knife. “May I?” he asked before picking up my knife. Such respect for each other’s knives… I was impressed. It was sharp, he thought, but could use some quick honing to polish off any burrs. I went back to cutting the chives. And cut myself again. Different knuckle. Quickly bandaged. Back to slicing. Lunch service had started and I watched as Chef called out orders, stations got them together, and delivered them to the window. I was impressed with the calm, the quiet, the harmony of the kitchen. This was a well-run kitchen (not that I have much to compare).
I finished the chives. One of the cooks gave me tasks throughout the day (and others did, too, when they saw I wasn’t busy). He offered advice on kitchens, knives, cookbooks, recipes. He had been there for a year, and it was clear that others also looked up to him, asking advice. Anyone who walked by would offer some help if they could see I needed it, in order to go faster and be consistent. I removed stems from bags of pea tendrils. I picked leaves off of herbs. I peeled and deveined shrimp. Lunch service had ended and the kitchen was prepping for dinner.
“Now that we’re done with lunch, let me tell you what the rest of the day looks like,” Chef told me. “At 3:30 we’ll have family meal, and at 4:30 we all roll bread together. Then dinner service starts at 5, and we’ll set you up for a tasting at 6, so don’t eat too much at family meal.” Tasting? I get to eat a tasting menu? I’ll get to sit down and eat a tasting menu? This is amazing.
Family meal time arrived and quiche, rice, pasta, and polenta were set out for everyone. Front and back staff tucked in. I had been generously given a bowl of the braised rabbit gnocchi earlier to try, and there was a lot of food coming, so I didn’t indulge, despite the kitchen staff encouraging me to participate.
I continued prepping whatever I was told to do – peeled 6 potatoes and using a tiny scoop, made potato pearls. Then I diced basil – each square the exact same size. I was taught two different ways to do it, trying to find what worked fastest and consistently for me. At 4:30 the staff joins the pastry department and shapes the sourdough that the restaurant serves during lunch and dinner services. This was a good time for me to chat with the different cooks, especially the most junior members, see what they thought of the kitchen. One pastry cook was on her second day. But everyone only had compliments about the chef, the mentoring, and the work environment.
After bread rolling – I had eventually managed to make perfect, smooth balls, rather than rough pears – I was taught how to cook mushrooms on the stove. My first chance on the line. The advice was detailed but brief, and gave me a chance to try tossing them, adding the various components, deciding when they were done. I asked my more senior friend if he thought this was a good training kitchen. “We don’t train here. We just put you on the line and help you figure it out.”
I went back to my prep station and pulled cooked mussels and cockles out of their shells. It was then 5:45 and Chef told me they would set me up with my tasting in a moment. I poked my head into the pastry room to see what they were doing. When I came out, at my usual spot, there was a white tablecloth, napkin, and silverware ready for me. But of course, no chair. I was crazy if I thought I was going to sit down. I’d get used to it.
Dinner service had begun and orders were being fired and sent out. I could hear my food being fired, and when it was ready, the cook who made the dish would bring it to me and describe it. Each one of them were professional, calm, clear, and offered the meal with a smile, as if they were truly proud of their work. It went like this:
Smoked halibut quenelle, yuzu-marinated watermelon, pistachios
Potage, green bean salad, truffle oil
Scallop escabeche, avocado mousse, citrus sauce, brunoise red pepper, pickled corn, sea beans, orange segments
Slow-roasted salmon, marcona almond puree, lobster mushrooms in brown butter, crispy duck confit, meyer lemon emulsion
Gnocchi, baby heirloom tomatoes, kalamata olive puree, calaminth, chives, sherry, snails
Miso marinated pork belly, ginger sweet potato puree, edamame, candied pecans, soy jus
Slow-roasted muscovy duck breast, eggplant puree, fresh garbanzo puree, zuchini
Slow-roasted rib-eye, Robuchon potatoes, red-wine demi-glace, parsley oil
Goat cheese cheesecake, huckleberry sauce, jam, sorbet, buckwheat tuile, lemon-chai
I could have kept eating, but they stopped serving me. I would finish a course, and then could just bring the plate to the dishwasher myself. It was an impressive meal, even moreso given that I hadn’t seen any of this stuff prepped, and most of it wasn’t on the menu.
I stuck around after the tasting and watched dinner service, poking my head into the various stations, asking questions when I didn’t feel like I was breaking someone’s concentration. At 8:30, Chef brought me back to his office. I told him what a day I’d had, I’d never felt so energized after a day of work (of course, most work days don’t have a 10-course tasting, but still…). We discussed what kind of food I was interested in, my other scheduled stages, what the opportunities would be for my coming back to Radius. He discussed his career, the Radius staff, his goals for the crew.
It seems promising. After my other stages, I’ll be able to reevaluate my experience at Radius. But even before them, I’m confident I’d be honored and humbled to work with that crew.
I changedout of my jacket and apron and left, only after shaking the hand of everyone in the kitchen, as Chef had told me to do. I walked out the front door, found a bench nearby, and sat down. I made a noise somewhere in between exhaustion and laughing hysterically.
This is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.