This past Sunday, I went to Stir, Barbara Lynch’s demonstration kitchen and cookbook store. Chef Barbara just published her new cookbook: Stir: Mixing it up in the Italian tradition. I wanted a copy, wanted to meet her, and have the book signed. I introduced myself as she was signing the book, “Actually, I have my second stage at No 9 tomorrow.” “Really? Who are you?” I told her, and we discussed the amazing team there. “Yeah, I’m pretty excited. I just left a PhD in science to pursue a career in cooking.” “Oh my God! Well… I’ll see you over there…. If you work there.”
Not shockingly, I was unusually nervous going to my second stage at No 9 Park. I was convinced they were going to work me harder than usual, test my cooking skills, have me cook family meal (the meal that the staff shares at 4:30). I might have panicked a touch. I got there at noon, got changed into my uniform, and set to work with prep – working with Eric, who took care of all the cold veg prep. He had been at No 9 for 9 months, and had just recently been moved from cold appetizers (salads, terrines, amuse bouches, etc) to hot appetizers (pasta), an important step in moving up as a line cook. I stood at the same place I had last time, and got to work. The sous chef, John, and head chef, Patrick, both came up to me, welcomed me back, and I spoke to them throughout the day about my other stages and my trip to CA. This was still a place I wanted to work.
Using the mandolin (a manual slicer) I thinly sliced fennel, radishes, baby turnips. Using tiny veg on mandolins can be tricky. It is a good way to slice off a finger. I caught my thumb twice, but only slightly, close enough to lose some skin, but thankfully, not enough to bleed. This was my lucky day. I used my veg peeler (I brought my own, a wise idea) to make thin slices of rainbow carrots. I was given a tray of brussel sprouts to pull off all the leaves (which is a great way to eat them; much more delicate and less of the bitter stem; cook them with bacon, apple, and juniper berries). Then I began slicing julienne leeks. “The finer the better,” Eric advised. They can always be finer, I told myself, constantly trying to make my cuts closer together. The kitchen, still being a new place for me, is distracting. I got distracted. And then I cut off a portion of my thumb, enough to leave some thumb on my knife. Actually, it was mostly the thumbnail, given the angle I hit it, and just nicked the flesh below, but enough to cause bleeding. I said nothing. Didn’t say ‘ow’ or make any sudden movements. I walked to the sink, washed out my thumb, asked the dishwasher where the bandaids were. I quickly wrapped up my thumb, rolled on a blue rubber finger cot (a condom, essentially), and went back to cutting leeks. No one said anything. I continued with cutting potatoes for pommes frites, and then the classic task of picking frisee, which I managed to speed up as compared to last time.
I told Eric where I was coming from. “Wow. And you want to start here?” “Yeah, any reason I shouldn’t?” “Tough place to start. Mistakes are a big deal. You aren’t allowed to mess up. Other places, it isn’t as much of a problem. But here it is a big deal.” I momentarily thought about this. Why did I want to start here? Shouldn’t I start somewhere easier? Of course not. Why work at a place where mistakes are tolerated? If I can’t make mistakes here, then I won’t.
The chef and sous chef prepared family meal. My anxiety lessened. We ate a moroccan style soup with couscous and flat bread, sitting in the alley, discussing the night – not too many reservations, but the woman who made all of the restaurant’s pasta was dining, so special dishes were being prepared.
I used a large deli slicer to evenly slice roasted golden beets, then punch out circles from the slices for the beet salad. Service had begun, and I stood in the same position as last time, removing dirty dishes when asked, and fetching stuff from the walk-in when told to. This time, I always found what they needed. Which was good – the head cook who had saved me last time wasn’t there this night.
Service heated up, reaching a peak. Chef John was working cold apps (he fills in where necessary, cause he can work any station perfectly), and had several dishes to prepare at once. Eric, on hot apps, volunteered to help plate the beet salad, but he didn’t have much time either. “Let me plate the beet salad.” “Chef, do you want to let Scott do it?” Eric questioned my ability. No one had taught me how to do it. “Sure, Scott.” I had watched this dish being put together many times. And memorized it. So I’d be ready. And I put it together perfectly. How do I know? No one said anything. I put it on the window, and the chef sent it out. And I was left with the biggest adrenaline rush all night.
Entrees for the party of 22 were about to be plated. They all need to be ready at the same time – that way everyone gets their meals simultaneously, and none of them have been sitting around. There was too much noise, the chef decided, and everyone needed to be focused. He sent someone to shut off the ventilation. It was silent in the kitchen. Food was plated. And within two minutes, the temperature increased 20 degrees. It was unbelievably hot. After 5 or 10 more minutes, the plates were done, and sent out. The air was turned back on, and immediately the temperature fell. Someone left to grab water for everyone.
Service gradually ends, moslty completed by 10:30pm. We broke down the stations, I helped clean up the cold apps station, then assisted cleaning the kitchen. Everything is scrubbed and polished, including the stainless steel walls. The fryer and pasta cooker are emptied, scrubbed, washed, and refilled. Prep lists are filled out for tomorrow, and we all have a PBR. Unlike last time, I wasn’t ushered out early, I was left to help clean. I wasn’t fed several courses (except a prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras that had mistakenly been made with nuts, despite the request for none).
At the end of the night, the kitchen staff met to discuss the night. We discussed how the big push for the party of 22 went, how to improve next time. He asked everyone what they thought of their own performance. Some evaluations are harsh, but are followed with suggestions for how to improve. The sous chef checked the prep lists and announced a time for everyone to arrive the next day based on the amount of work that needs to be done.
“Want to chat, Scott?” Chef Patrick asked. “Yes, Chef.” The phrase I’ve learned is the right answer to anything. “What did you think of your night, Scott?” I tell him how much I enjoy being in that kitchen, and compare it to my experiences at other places. The one beer and adrenaline are making me talk fast? I can’t tell. “Well, Scott, I just want to say, we really like you here.” Good god. Don’t cry if he offers you a job. “You’ve got the attitude we’re looking for, and your lack of experience isn’t that big of a mark against you. Everyone who comes here is retrained to do things the way we like them, and it is almost easier if you know nothing instead of having some basic training that we’d have to unteach.” “And I want to say that whatever I need to do on my own time to catch-up or improve faster, I’m happy to do on days off, and you and the other chefs should feel free to tell me to practice something.” “So when can you start?” “Any time.” “Ok, so I would have you start next Monday, working for a week in the mornings with the prep staff. There you’ll get a feel for the restaurant, how things are done, and basic techniques like stocks, sauces, braises, confits. You’ll get a better sense for product identification. Then you’ll start working cold apps as part of a team with the extern (who I worked with the first time), learning how to operate the stations, helping as you can. Then he leaves in mid-December, and hopefully you’re ready to run the station yourself.” “That sounds perfect, chef.” “Do you want a night to think about it, talk to your fiance?” “No, no thinking necessary. I’d be honored to work here.”
And so begins my career as a professional cook at No 9 Park.