Three more stages

6 October – Hamersley’s

I rang the doorbell a few times – turns out that Gordon Hamersley hadn’t yet told anyone that I was coming. I told the sous chef I was there for a stage, and he gave me a jacket and apron and set me to work, rough chopping mirepoix for amirepoix-for-veg-stock stock, chopping onions, and cutting up duck confit. The head cook (the highest ranked line cook, the position just below the sous chef), gave me the recipe for crepe batter and sent me off to find the ingredients and whip it together. Most of it was in the pastry room. The recipe called for 2 oz of butter, but these sticks of butter were much larger than those at the store, and had no guidelines. Two ounces… I was pretty sure I could intuit 2 oz, so I cut a hunk off, melted it on the stove, and figured it would be fine.

By this time, most of the cooks had arrived, including Chef Gordon, and we were all wedged on the line, fighting for burner space. I had two burners and two crepe pans, and made all the crepes that night (they were eventually stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms and served along with a strip steak and broccoli rabe). Every time I picked up my pan to fill it with more batter, someone took my burner. “Aren’t you done with that now?” “Um, I’m still making crepes?” And they would find a different burner.

I moved down the line to the garde manger station, where Andrea handed me a container of red peppers and sent me back to the hot line where I roasted them on the grill. And it was hot, with all the burners going, all the cooks lined up together, the grill roasting hot. And it felt great.

While the red peppers steamed their skin off, I rolled balls of goat cheese, then peeled the peppers and mixed up Romesco sauce, and Muhammara. Service had started and I was helping out when I could, toasting bread, dishing out olives. Gordon moved me back to the hot line where I watched the fish and meat stations. It is an open line at Hamersley’s, meaning the dining room can see the kitchen, so no yelling, no getting angry, though plenty of banging pans around, and plenty of making jokes.

By 8:30pm, Gordon had left with a handshake and a Good Luck. Clearly, there was no interest in having me come back, or potentially work there. I changed out of my kitchen garb and went to the bar for a free meal – couldn’t resist the signature roast chicken. The base of the sauce is made by the prep cook, who has worked every station in the kitchen, turned down the sous chef job, remained the prep cook, and has been there for 15 years. The sous chefs have been there for 8 and 12 years. The head cook has been there for 4, which is a long time in the restaurant business. The staff loved working here, loved working with Gordon, and loved the food. I waved goodbye to all of them from the dining room and walked home.

October 7 – No 9 Park

No 9 Park is my favorite restaurant in the city. I’ve idolized Barbara Lynch, been to all her restaurants, and chose No 9 to celebrate my engagement. This is where I’ve dreamed of working.

Front door was locked, but I had noticed a side door, and walked right in. No indication of “Kitchen, right this way” so I just kept opening doors, which were all open, and eventually led me to the kitchen. I found a cook – the sous chef, actually – and told him I was there for a stage. “No problem, let’s get you downstairs and dressed.” If it is this easy to walk in and start working, why didn’t I do this ages ago?

My father had asked me that question. I had sent my resume and cover letter to No 9 Park only 2 days earlier. They had almost immediately responded, and we’d set up a date to stage. It had been the easiest and professional correspondence I’d had so far. If I had known it was this easy, I would have done it a long time ago.

I changed into my clothes, put on my white apron (blue only for the chefs), and brought my knives to my prep station. The kitchen was immaculate – stainless steel everywhere, the kitchen compact and orderly, the design ideal for efficiency. Most of the line had arrived and we all met in the dining room to discuss the new tasting menu. The head chef was bigger than anyone else – a phenomenon that was true in the last two kitchens as well. Physically commanding, bright red clogs (I was jealous), and a confident, intense, but joking attitude. He read off the tasting menu, indicating what needed to be prepped that afternoon. Prep stations worked differently – you didn’t just prep material for your station, you prepped a certain kind of material – a vegetable station, a sauce station, a meat fabrication station. You prepped for the entire line. In addition to all the usual prep, now everyone had new prep to do.

Back to the kitchen, I was setup picking frisee. Only the white/yellow parts, pick the leaves down to half the size of my Frisee Webfingernail. Do that to 5 heads of frisee. Takes an hour. When you see “Picked (some herb/green)” on a menu, it is a chump like me in the kitchen gently picking it apart. I did the same to a bucket of stellaria, a kind of green. I got to get out my knives and peel and quarter roasted baby beets. Then prep was mostly done, and I put everything in plastic quart containers, labelled them with green tape (just like I did in lab). I put the prep into the walk-in, each container on the shelf corresponding to the station it was for.

We ate family meal outside. It had been prepared partially by the cold apps cook, who was an extern from the Cordon Bleu. It didn’t look like he was doing very well. He seemed nervous, rushed, unsure about being there. He had only worked there for 3 weeks, and apparently didn’t realize what he was getting himself into by joining this crew. The sous chef wouldn’t let him slip for a minute – if a pot was left out, something not done fast enough, the soup too thick, the sous chef was immediately on him, briskly telling him to get it together. Frankly, I loved it – not seeing this kid struggle, but seeing the level of professionality and seriousness that every cook was expected to have.

Out in the alley, eating dinner, the chef went over that night’s reservations, any VIPs, big groups, special dietary requests. We went back to the kitchen, scrubbed down the prep table, covered half of it in cloth, and it was now the window. The cooks prepared their stations. It was like watching a sped-up version of a day in lab. Everyone putting together their solutions, getting everything they needed, reviewing the protocols, finding the equipment they needed, including their own stuff that people had borrowed and not returned (instead of pipettes, it was whisks).

Just as service started, the chef walked down the line, making the new dishes for the tasting menu. No one had seen them before. He made each one once, laid them on the pass for all to memorize, the wait-staff reviewed what eat part was, and each cook took a bite. In addition to the 4-5 other dishes they had at each station, each of them had just learned 1-2 new dishes. And service began.

I stood to the side, watching. The chef called tickets, managed the pace, made sure things were done on time. He checked final presentation, or plated if time was short. No errors were allowed, the chef made sure of it. If you were having a bad day, he would let you know. Expectations were high, and the pressure was worse. I loved it. Surprises from the dining room were also unpleasant. An order for a vegetarian tasting menu printed out. No prior warning? Hadn’t the server checked when they arrived. Chef was not happy, but was ready for the request anyway. He liked to be prepared – it was more efficient.

During the peak of service, chef turned to me and told me to go to the walk-in, look on the shelf right in front, and grab the oldest container of braised lamb shanks. I repeated the request, and ran off. Scott, if you can’t find them, just leave. You cannot go back without the shanks. I enter the walk-in. Check the shelf. No shanks. Check the shelved above, below, to either side. No shanks. I check the shelves again. Shit, shit, shit. The door opens, and the head cook says, “His directions were so bad you never would have found them. They are over on the floor, under the raw meat, all the way over here.” She grabs the container, shoves it in my hand and runs back to her station. She was my hero. I return with the shanks and stand back at my station.

The kitchen is kept clean through service. After two hours, the floor is swept and mopped by the two early stations, cold and hot apps. I also notice that almost no one is using tongs, except for the meat cook who has a slender pair. At Hamersley’s everyone had tongs, and kept them in hand at all times. Here it was spoons, spatulas, fingers, a more delicate approach.

The chef turns to me again – “Go to the walk-in, the meat prep shelf, and grab the container of black radishes.” You know exactly where these are – you put them away. Should be no problem. I pull out the meat prep shelf. No radishes. I check every other shelf, twice. I wonder if I can escape through the ventilation system. The door opens, the head cook is there to save me again – “They already had them out there, you never would have found them again.” And off she runs back to her station.

My tasting started at 9pm. 1. Baby octopus confit, Porcini and Matsutaki confit, aioli, gremolata; 2. Sauteed Rose fish, puree of bouillabase vegetables, carmelized fennel, bay scallop, clams; 3. Prune stuffed gnocchi, Vin Santo glaze, seared foie gras; 4. Roasted lamb loin, braised lamb shoulder, baby turnips, curried squash puree.

Service ended around 10:30pm, and the crew began cleaning up. Chef invited me outside – PBR in the alley, and we talked about food, our families, why I wanted to be a cook, training at No 9 Park, the opportunity to work there. “If you were interested, I would work here in an instant.” “Ok. Keep staging at as many places as you can for October, then if you think this is the place you want to be, keep in touch.” Yes.

October 10 – Sel de la Terre, Long Wharf

The shortest of my days, I didn’t arrive here until 3pm. Tour of the kitchen, changed in the basement, back up to hang out while they prepped for dinner service. The chef wasn’t the physically commanding sort I had seen at the previous 3, but he was clearly a talented manager and cook, and had a wonderful way of interacting with each of his cooks. He introduced me to several, and set me up with the meat cook, and I began by day picking the ends off green beans.

I like these tasks. Not mentally taxing, requires you to be exact and fast, a sort of meditation. During service you need carrotsto be at the peak of mental focus and cleverness, so prep and service provided the ideal combination of efforts. Then I scrubbed a bucket – an endless bucket – of baby carrots. Various people joined me during the scrub, one of the more junior cooks, the head chef. I talked to each of them about the kitchen, what they had done previously. Everyone had glowing comments about the chef, the sous-chef, each other, the food. This was comfort food, French country-side tradition.

The chef moved me over to the garde manger (I didn’t finish the carrots), were the cook there did an admirable job explaining each dish to me, telling me about his experience cooking in school and here. Then service picked up. “Ok, an arugula salad, I showed you how to do that. Get to work.” So I started helping him. My salads weren’t all perfect. Some lacked the height they wanted. Some were overdressed. But I got a feel for how to start moving during service, and enjoyed myself. It was never too intense, never too loud.

I watched the hot line for a while, and then was sent to change and to the dining room for dinner. (Who knew I would get a free meal at each place? I didn’t do enough prep to warrant the ~$300 worth of food I’ve been given). There I chatted with an assistant for Michael Flaherty, who is running for mayor and was sitting next to us. Then the chef came out and he and I talked about restaurants, styles of food, why I wanted to be a cook, what it would be like for me to work in his kitchen.

These chefs love food. Love talking about it. Love sharing their opinions. Everyone has different ideas, different preferences. There is no right answer. Just aesthetics and taste. No one has been dismissive of my goals, or my attempt at career change. Most places have seemed somewhat interested in hiring me. I’ll spend the rest of the month  staging around the city and then pursue those that were mutually beneficial.

Next week, Ben and I are off to California. When I get back, it is straight into the kitchen at Clio, Mistral, and Round 2 at No 9 Park.

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