Life in a Restaurant, Week 11: 3 Parts of a Line Cook

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“Cooking requires confident guesswork and improvisation-- experimentation and substitution, dealing with failure and uncertainty in a creative way”

-Paul Theroux

 

 

PART 1: FAILURE

I’m holding my breath in jittery anticipation as I take the sheet pan out of the fridge.  On top of the parchment lining are six discs of browned butter shortbread cookies, each layered with chocolate ganache and a thick slather of meyer lemon curd, all bound haphazardly by more strips of parchment paper scotch-taped together as surrogate ring molds. We’ve been testing lemon tarts as a new dessert.  I exhale all the air from my lungs to keep my hands steady as I untape the first strip of parchment.

Splooge.

Despite the fantastic amount of european butter in it, the curd hadn’t set up enough.  I scrape the lemon curd from the rest of the tarts, and munch on the ganache covered cookies, half annoyed, but also half content at the surprise midday snack.  Working in a kitchen is very much like working in a fledgling startup: while the hours are long, there’s no structural hierarchy to answer to, no company handbook we must adhere by, and everyone has to dip their feet into a variety of areas, such as pastry.  Working in a fledgling startup also means there’s a lot of trial and error though - I pile the rest of the brown butter crust in a bowl and leave it out for the servers to eventually descend upon like seagulls from Finding Nemo.

I open my lowboy to check on part two of the experiment - meringue. I never realized how infamous it is to make - I mean, it’s literally just egg whites and sugar whipped together into a stiff fluff.  Yet, not a single person in the kitchen has found out how to make it last through a night of service without it eventually separating.  I throw the disposable pastry bag of watery meringue in the trash, and in retaliation eat another cookie scrap, while making notes on a legal pad.  Perhaps tomorrow I’ll have to try the Swiss Meringue method vs the French method.

 

PART 2: CONFIDENCE

“I’m having someone stage on pantry today”, chimes The Chef.

I still don’t like having someone shadow me for the day - I’m not sure what a twenty two year old who has only worked at a restaurant for two months can teach someone about cooking.  I briefly introduce myself to Jose, a 6’4 breakdancer with lip piercings and one on his nose bridge.

Meanwhile, Cheyenne was given the opportunity to run her own special with some abalone we received. I’m not sure if it made her more excited or more fearful - she’s walking in and out of the kitchen at a frantic pace, juggling prep for a large in house catering event later while pureeing leeks in the VitaMix for her abalone.  I walk back into the kitchen after showing Jose around, and am greeted by black smoke and an acrid, burning smell - the VitaMix motor was burning out due to the immense amount of food crammed into its carafe.  Charcuterie bar Kenny is staring at it from a distance, perplexed.

“TURN IT OFF!” I yell.  It’s too late - the workhouse and prized appliance of our kitchen- is dead.

Cheyenne comes back from the walk-in to see the result of her blunder.  Of course no one blames her for it - yet the torsion on her face hides a sea of guilt and shame.  As I’ve written before, many of us stake everything on our ability in the kitchen - our livelihood, our self worth, our confidence.  I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, but as a result I’ve come to the belief that people in the kitchen are much harder on themselves than anyone else.  But a broken Vitamix and viewing yourself as an idiot doesn’t stop dinner service from approaching - tickets start buzzing in.  The hot line soon is getting slammed with tables as the private party starts arriving.

“Andrew! We’re going to need you to take care of the private event!”

Taking my apprentice for the night, we set up an assembly line of plates and get to work.  We spoon fig leaf custard on a plate, and I show him how to fold prosciutto on a plate so it’s voluminous and airy versus rumpled and flat, and then we pick leaves of thai micro basil, where I gently remind him to avoid using the ones that are bruised and wilted.  Each plate is finished with bruleed figs.  We then sear heads of cauliflower in copious amounts of butter, before plating them with italian salsa verde laced with green olives, before crowning them with a dusting of breadcrumbs.  I plate each cauliflower, and Jose follows - it’s uncomfortable taking the lead, but also wildly exhilarating.  There’s a primal kind of energy that flows through being in the kitchen - a combination of intense heat, vigor, and artistry you have to carefully balance.  Taking charge even though you know you haven't mastered that balance yet - that to me, is confidence.

“I knew I could trust you,” The Chef cheerfully remarks after service.

 

PART 3: HUMILITY

I’m carrying my second tray of semifreddo into the freezer.  “Now I’ll be ready for the entire upcoming week…  What a clever little shit I am,” I grin to myself, opening the freezer door.

CLANK!

Before I can comprehend what just happened, I look down at my beat up black Nikes, now covered in the sugary remains of the first batch I haphazardly shoved into the freezer just five minutes before.  Sure, it didn’t cost a $500 Vitamix, but a lesson in humility is a surprising, but necessary part of being here.