Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Prep Cook, Day One: Self-Starting, Sidelined

Tuesday afternoon, round 1:00, I slip into my sneakers, pin my hair back, and walk into the kitchen to receive my working orders. I haven't felt this nervous since my first days at Random House, where the question "Can you send this priority FedEx?" would send me into a sweaty panic. I had all Monday off to write, read, and do a bit of practice cooking, and though the salsa-based gazpacho was tasty, I'm feeling suddenly far out of my depth.

Luckily Annie's there to walk me through the details of the kitchen. She introduces me to the walk-in refrigerator, where we keep all the fruits and veggies, meats and seafood, and dairy, as well as the pantry. I get a tutorial on the baking station, the entrĂ©e stations, and the procedures involved (where to grab my apron, where to put dirty dishes, where and when to wipe down my station—constantly, and with a towel soaked in bleach water.)
The cold station, where we make desserts and salads and where I’ll be learning tonight, is what customers can look into as they’re entering the restaurant, so it’s vital that we keep our station clean and our behavior immaculate (i.e. no eating, no drinking, no picking noses) while we’re standing there. As I set up the prep station—unloading tubs of fruit, herbs, and salad dressings into the refrigerated bins—I can feel the sun beating down on my neck and small of my back. It’s a hot day, and we’ll be standing in the kitchen until the sun goes down.
Annie sets me to work making cobbler dough and cutting out biscuits—the rhubarb cobbler is the most popular dish in the restaurant, so we don’t want to run out. I cut about 12 rounds before black residue from the cutter starts working its way into the dough. (I also realize that I’ve neglected to ask if they care about using different measuring cups for wet and dry ingredients, and whether ingredients need to be leveled off before adding. For such a relaxed kitchen, it’s easy to forget that there are preferences and rules to be followed.) Annie sweeps the dough away and sets me to work chopping rhubarb for the cobbler. I nearly cut myself twice, once slicing off the tip of a long fingernail. Though they might save me from losing fingers, I can’t risk a customer finding my nails in the food, so I quickly run home and trim them short. Once the rhubarb is diced, I throw it into a pot with lots of sugar and heat it until it becomes so soft the fruit melts in your mouth. “If you’re not sure you’ve done something right,” Annie says, “Grab a spoon and taste it. Taste everything until you’re happy with how it’s come out.”

Once the rhubarb is stewed and put away, we break for family meal. Every day a different chef uses the kitchen leftovers to prepare a group meal prior to the dinner rush. Today it’s a kind of Mexican chicken and spinach casserole, which we top with housemade chicharĂ³nnes (crispy bits of duck meat) and lots of hot sauce. It’s a good stick-to-your-ribs protein-filled dish, which will hold until we close the kitchen round 10pm. I gobble it up.

After lunch, Annie sends me to the garden to collect borage flowers, which we use for decorating various desserts and salads. (Each chocolate truffle ordered comes in a tiny ramekin adored with a blue borage blossom.) She mentions that she wants to show me where to get mint, but she doesn’t know that I’ve been exploring the garden on my own, so I collect extra mint for her from the garden as well. But when she sees me, she says, “No, I have a special place I want to show you for the mint.” I can see in her eyes that she’s readying herself to deliver some criticism. “I know you’re eager to help, and a self-starter, and that’s a good thing! But…”

“…It’s not so useful here,” I say. I knew I should’ve waited for my orders.

She laughs. “No, it’ s not so useful here. It’s OK, let me show you where the good mint is…”

She walks me out of the kitchen and to a little garden hidden near the dining room. She shows me how to pick the tiny clusters of mint leaves that are ideal for garnish—they should be small, but with just enough stem to tuck under a slice of cake or into a cluster of ice cream. We gather up a new batch of mint (we’ll use the old one for making simple syrup for the bar), and fill the cold station with fresh herbs and flowers for garnish, leaving them floating in bins of cool water.
There’s more dessert prep to do—mincing strawberries with a super-sharp Japanese knife for fruit sauces, spreading chocolate into delicate rounds for tuiles, and pulling dishes out of the cold room and arranging them on the speed rack, just below our convection oven. As the night goes on, this is where we’ll be reaching for our various desserts, instead of constantly running to the walk-in. Annie shows me how to use a blow torch to close the cracked surface of the chocolate cashew tart, so that each slice looks perfectly glossy and smooth.
All at once, we start to hear the whir and splutter of the receipt machine—tickets are coming in, for salads and oysters, for special appetizers. Wally, who’s manning the salad station, hands me a bucket of fava beans to shuck, and then he walks me through the basics of salad preparation. Some ingredients and dishes we have to wait for--for a charcuterie plate, we can plate everything except the tiny quail egg, which Chris has to fish out of the sous vide machine for us. He showed me the little eggs at his station--they look like marbles, and when cooked, they provide a little burst of extra buttery fat on the plate.
 For the blue greens salad, we toss a combination of greens (checking each one for any renegade bugs or brown spots), fresh Maytag blue cheese, roasted hazelnuts, salt, pepper, and red wine vinaigrette. The last ingredient before tossing is a dash of mixed herbs—fennel fronts, chopped chives, minced tarragon, and torn chive blossoms and nasturtium flowers. Every bit of garnish and color in these salads is edible and there for a reason.
I toss the salad in a bowl, then pile the leaves, crisscrossing them like I was playing Jenga, until they make a little tower of salad. A final sprinkling of chive blossoms, and the salad is ready to go out. I have to make myself shout the server’s name as I put the salad and its accompanying ticket up on the counter. I’m quieter than I think I am, and suddenly my summer of waitressing makes itself useful once again. I remember how important it was when my ticket was called, so I could run the food out as quickly as possible.

A few orders for oysters come in, and Annie walks me through the basics of holding the oyster in a towel against the table as I jam my knife in and twist until it pops open. It takes me quite a few tries to get the hang of it, but Annie’s patient. All night she’s been correcting little things I’m doing—helping me stand up straight as I chop, rather than hunching over the cutting board; bringing ingredients to my station before I start any process. As I start whipping together egg whites and sugar for meringues, she corrects how I hold the whisk so it puts less strain on my wrist. It’s so precise, and she spots it so soon after I started, that I start to laugh.

“How on earth did you learn this stuff?” I ask, stirring the egg whites with my arm now, rather than my wrist.

“Well, years of practice,” she said, “and other people showing me how to do it.” I appreciate her candor when it comes to showing me the right way to do things—there’s so much room for error here, I’d rather confess to knowing nothing than assuming everything and doing everything wrong. I need to learn how to shout as I’m coming around corners, especially if I’m carrying something hot. I have to remember that, if an order contains both oysters and a salad, I need to make the salad first so I don’t risk cross-contamination. I need to be sure to keep the ice cream in the mini-freezer as long as possible before I have to scoop it, and then to return it immediately so it can harden up again. All of these things are logical steps, and unlike so aspects of my day job, there’s nothing I’m doing that seems to be merely procedural. Everything has to be clean, has to be accessible, and the system that the chefs have developed in this tiny kitchen makes it possible for things to run smoothly.

By the end of the night, I’m fielding tickets on my own. I know how to prep the cobblers—a biscuit and its cobbler go into the convection oven while I prepare a plate. The cobbler comes out, gets a sprinkling of powdered sugar, candied ginger, and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, and once a spring of mint is in place, it goes out. Wally, my station buddy, picks up whatever I can’t—he first started cooking at a casino, so he knows what a rush night looks like, and while this is far from it, I think he’s happy to get the extra help. Annie is schooling him even more than me, reminding him about folding his clean towels so anyone who’s looking in can see a neat station. “Wally’s great,” she says, “But I’m reminding him to remember the little stuff, since he’s covering this space on my nights out. I need to know that he remembers everything I do.”

Nate emerges from the dining room to take our drink requests—the dining room is closing up, and we’ve all earned a drink to go with our dinners. I order a glass of white wine, gratefully, and prepare my last cobbler of the night. Over family dinner (roasted chicken thighs, leftover polenta and potatoes, salad), Annie walks us through the cleaning steps—moving dishes to the “low-boy” fridges beneath our station, clearing out those last ingredients we can’t use. She’s taking her lemon semifreddo off the menu—customers don’t seem to be going for it, so she offers it up to everyone in the kitchen. I steal a forkful—it’s light and fluffy, the airiest ice cream I can imagine, but I can see why customers would be going for the cobbler instead. It’s still too cold out to want a full-on ice cream dessert. She whips up a sample of its replacement on the menu—a lemon angel food cake, served with a lemon ice cream and topped with candied rosemary and a rosemary-olive oil reduction. (Since we’ll need to consult this sample for presentation purposes, she scoops out lard instead of ice cream to demonstrate the plating. It’s a good thing she tells us this, because I would’ve gone in for a big taste.)
She draws a little diagram of the plating and ingredients for us to consult tomorrow and Thursday, her nights’ off. I’m immensely relieved, as I stumble to my bed, that I’ve had such a patient and thorough teacher tonight. It’s been a massive education over the last few hours, and I can’t help but feel a little proud that I’ve emerged without any demerits. I collapse into bed, dreaming of plating, aprons, and tomorrow’s set-up.

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