Which is to say, I’ve been working at No 9 Park for a year as of November 2. It was an important milestone for me. So far I’d worked two prep stations (vegetables, and purees), and 3 service stations (cold apps, hot apps, and middle). Middle station, where I moved to in September, is responsible for game birds (pheasant, quail, squab, partridge, wood-pigeon, chicken, duck) and foie gras. After 3 months there, I feel comfortable with cooking birds, managing the pace of the entree line, keeping up with picks. I miss cooking pasta a lot, but have been excited to move on. In a few months, I’ll hopefully move to fish station.
To mark my first year, I thought I’d share 5 things I’d learned working in a kitchen, that I thought most useful to other cooks, as well as anyone else (most apply to being a research scientist, in fact).
1. Keep Organized: Always. Have a routine. Setup the same way every day. Have everything in the same place. Keep your prep and service station clean and throw away any clutter. Constantly be re-evaluating what you need or don’t need. Setup can always be improved. You may feel like you don’t have time, but the 30 seconds it takes to remove shit from your work area will make you more clear headed and help to go faster.
2. You can always move faster: But it takes a certain level of familiarity with what you’re doing. Once you’ve built muscle memory for a task or station, you’ll have a certain clarity of mind. And that clarity allows you to evaluate what you’re doing as you’re doing it. And then you can tell yourself to go faster. Move your hands faster. Use a bigger spoon so you don’t have to take as many scoops. Use both hands instead of one. Just move faster. You are never going as fast as possible. Go faster.
3. Be calmly urgent: Constantly feel a sense of urgency. But stay calm. Don’t panic. Panic feels urgency, but doesn’t do anything. So stay calm. I think of the people I most respect in the kitchen. They never run. They never look hurried. But they get tasks done faster than anyone else. They’re efficient in movement and in mind. Stop panicking and worrying. That is not efficient. Just focus on the task at hand, do it as fast as possible, and move on. There are some cooks who seem to always panic. They start yelling back calls, spinning around, getting in your way and their own way. Calm down. Focus. Move quickly and calmly. This is, without a doubt, the hardest thing to accomplish. It is much like meditating. Quieting the mind waves, staying focused on nothing, calmly mindful.
4. Be honest: Also incredibly difficult at times. Sometimes being honest means admitting that you messed up. Which will slow you down. So it might seem that lying will make you go faster, which is a goal of yours. But in the end, someone will catch you, and you’ll slow everything down. Or worse, no one will catch you, and you’ll screw over the customer. Which ultimately, is who it is all about. These people come in to pay a lot of money for the best meals and experience of their lives. It isn’t about you. If the customer is all you think about, then the honest decisions are easy to make.
5. Stick with the classics: Coming up with dishes is hard. I used to make an amuse-bouche, a pasta midcourse, and now put together vegetable assiettes (an optional vegetarian entree that consists of 5 mini-dishes, with non-overlapping ingredients, pulling together vegetables from every station on the line). What I’ve learned about making a dish – stick with classic food combinations. They are classics because they are delicious, and we want delicious food. You can rethink how you put those ingredients together, or add different levels of complexity, but the basic idea is still relevant. We see it every week when Chef Patrick and Chef John present the new tasting menu. Classic food, rethought. One of my own favorites was a pasta midcourse I did during the summer. Ben had grown a thousand cherry tomatoes, so I took some to work. I torched them quickly, peeled off the skin, and marinated them in shallots, sherry vinegar, salt, and olive oil. Then I made a puree of Bibb lettuce (shallots cooked in heavy cream, pureed with the lettuce and vitamin C to preserve the color). When an order was fired, I cooked some brunoised bacon until crispy, added a knob of butter and olive oil, emulsified with pasta water, tossed in some tagliatelle. Bottom of the plate was the green lettuce puree, the twirled pasta on top, bacon, three cherry tomatoes, and Parmigiano cheese. A BLT. I made it at home for Ben with other pasta (less dramatic looking, but still delicious).
I have only my wonderful mentors and chefs at No 9 Park to thank. This has been the best year of my life, without question, between the year I’ve spent in the kitchen, and my marriage to Benjamin. For my friends, forgive me for all the time I haven’t been able to spend with you, but at least when you come over for dinner, the food is better.