Externs

For those who work in a research lab, you know what it is like. Undergrads. Sometimes great, sometimes awful, usually both. They do the minipreps, pouring agar plates, splitting cells – the grunt work you’re not interested in. But then again, they do it wrong. They know nothing and think they know something. True sophomores. They aren’t around for long, and once they’re gone, you wonder if it was worth it. And you miss them.

As then, it is now. Many culinary school programs require a period spent in a restaurant kitchen called an externship. Many last 18 weeks, and it takes place after the first year at school. An important period – you know something, but little, and get a chance to see if working in a restaurant kitchen is something you want to do. It is full-time, no classes, no distractions, so you get a real picture. I wish I’d had to work in a lab full-time for 4 months. Perhaps I would have quit science a lot earlier. And for these kids, some realize they want to quit kitchens.

They range in age from 18-40, many of them from the Culinary Institute of America, the CIA. (It is always fun when they come to the kitchen for the first time – we ask ‘Where are you from?” and they say with a dignified air, ‘The Culinary Institute of America” as if we’ve never heard of it.) Externs always start out on vegetable prep, working on cold apps, usually as part of a team, or sometimes by themselves, depending on necessity.

The First – El Pequeno

It was February, if memory serves me right, when the first extern I’d met came to No 9 Park. By then I was running vegetable prep during the day, and working cold apps during service. John, or as we called him, Little John, LJ, or El Pequeno, worked with me on veg prep, and I trained him on how to work cold apps. Actually, LJ wasn’t our extern – he was supposed to work at Menton once it opened, which he did after 6 weeks or so at No 9 Park. They were a long 6 weeks.

Staying focused during prep can be difficult. And learning to move quickly is the hardest part. For me, working with someone who isn’t moving fast enough and doing things right the first time brings out a temper I had previously worked hard to calm. Then again, LJ brought out such anger from a lot of people. When asked about something he had prepped, or if had done something correctly, he would lie. And get caught. He did it so often that Chef Patrick set up a jar into which LJ had to deposit a nickel of Chef’s money every time he lied or said, “I’m sorry.” Because each time he did that, he was wasting Chef’s money. When the jar filled up, we would transfer the nickels to a sock, and beat him with it. (Of course, that was just a joke and never happened… too bad).

Needless to say, we didn’t get along. When he tried to work the line, he almost always got kicked off and I would replace him. I yelled at him nearly daily, and eventually gave up trying to be encouraging and build him up. He left for Menton after 6 weeks. And wonderfully, succeeded there. He earned his stripes, worked garde manger, and did a fantastic job working the broom and mop. As I told Fransisco, “I wish him all the best of luck in life, I just don’t want anything to do with it.”

The Second – Mac Attack

Understaffed moving into restaurant week in March was an intimidating proposition. Thankfully, I thought, we’d be getting a new extern right at the beginning, who would help me on prep and during service. Just like when I was in lab, I’d get to give them the jobs I hated doing, I just hopefully wouldn’t have to redo them. Mac was unlike LJ in many ways. She came from a culinary school that focused on alternative health foods, nutrition, holistic approaches. They spent a week on bean/legume cookery. They spent one day on all meats. She was also a career changer, which I understood. She was formerly a coach for competitive yoga, independently wealthy, and was hoping to one day open her own restaurant and spa/yoga studio. (Please don’t ask me what competitive yoga is, it hurts my head to think about it). Mac was also much older than most externs.

A long story short, we did not get along. She took a long time understanding the calls during service, which while quite tricky, should be picked up after a couple of weeks. Her prep was well-done usually, but too slow, which is true for all of us at some points, but then we must come in the next day and time ourselves, pushing to go faster. She often got upset when I told her to try to go faster. Admittedly, I was usually not nice about it. Then she would cry. And I would take her aside and calm her down. And then it would happen the next day.

Eventually, I think she realized that working at No 9 wasn’t for her. She gave notice after 2 months and left her externship early. She surely had good intentions, and loved food, but she and I had difficulty working together.

The Third – Rusty Butterfield

Rusty is my favorite. He was an extremely goofy kid, but was respectful and polite to a fault, and took the teasing and jokes better than most. He started before Mac had left, so the three of us did veg prep together for a while, and then two of them worked cold apps, while I had moved on to hot apps. And he did very well. Rusty had his difficulties with service, learning to move fast enough, build up muscle memory, understand all the calls. But he was doing as well as one might hope from an extern who just started out.

But he always seemed a little sad. He’d gone from high school straight to the CIA. He didn’t really seem to love food the way others did. His favorite food was beef stew and mashed potatoes, or shephards pie with the mashed potatoes on the side…. His favorite hobby was doing flips on a trampoline. And just like one needs a deep love for science to survive the constant failure and bullshit, one needs a deep love for food to survive the long hours and demanding pace of kitchen life.

Two months in, Rusty gave his notice. He wasn’t just leaving No 9, he was leaving the CIA and the food industry all together. Off to state college, he wanted a degree in business and a different career path. I think we all still miss him a little.

The Fourth – Dearest David

David just started three weeks ago. Without a doubt, he’ll finish his externship at No 9, unlike the three previous externs. While I haven’t learned much about his food passions, it is still early, and he is busy getting used to the kitchen. And thus far, he is the most successful of the externs. His prep is good, and his service is much further along than any others after 3 weeks, including mine. Also a goofy kid (but who wasn’t at 22), he takes the joking well, and plays along.

My goal – convince him to quit school. And don’t get all huffy as if I’m trying to do it because I quit school and think everyone should do what I did. Shutup. “Double D” already has a degree in culinary arts from a community college. Now he is a year into his associates from the CIA (the Harvard of cooking schools). Then he plans to continue two more years to get his bachelors. At least three more years, 6 total of culinary school. He’ll be 26 by the time he gets his first full-time job. You know where all that extra schooling will get him? No where. Perhaps a false sense of knowing something. He’ll start at the bottom and need to work his way up. I couldn’t learn what it was like to work in lab by taking science classes, and you can’t learn what it is like to work in a kitchen by going to school. School is great for a lot of people, and hugely helpful, but 6 years? No. Got to start.

Yeah yeah, I’m probably projecting my own frustrations with having started in kitchens so late. I don’t care. In the end, you just hope he is happy with the choices, and making awesome food.

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