I leave my heated cozy apartment this crisp Saturday morning and head for work in what I think is an appropriate outfit. But no. I’m stopped at the front door by the conceirge:
“Amy, Amy, Amy – you cannot wear that, you’re going to freeze”.
“Really? But it doesn’t look that cold?”
“It’s going to snow today.Seriously, put on a heavy coat at least” he says shaking his head at my obvious lack of common sense.
“It wasn’t that cold yesterday…hmmm…okay…I’ll be back…”
I change quickly piling on layers and, this time, pass the inspection test. But now I’m running a little behind so I hail a taxi who immediately takes me the way I tell him not to take me. It doesn’t matter, his taxi is heated and I’ve already committed. Besides I want to get to work early. And the conceirge was right. It’s freeeeezing.
I love being first in the kitchen. Love it.
I’m never truly first in because Pastry is always set up way ahead of us. But, to be first in on the cuisine side of the kitchen is magic. To own all that shiny stainless steel and be the person to light up all the burners and fuel all the ovens. I love that. Love it, love it, love it.
I suppose in some ways it’s like walking into Notre Dame or the Sistene Chapel and having the whole place to yourself. Just for a second of solitude in a place of worship.
Before the continual fight for burner space starts up, before the stress starts to trickle into my veins over being set up in time, before chefs come by tasting my mise en place and giving their opinions, before tickets fly in and orders are shouted out and plates are rushed to the passe and, and, and…
Just alone in the kitchen.
But this Saturday is special because it’s my second to last Saturday. I have finished my contract to stay through the busy holiday season and given my official notice. And we all know that when you give the mandatory two weeks notice everything changes: black looks white, frowns turn to smiles, pain turns to bliss, weeds come up roses. And you wonder why you decided to leave.
C’est la vie.
But I have decided to leave because I’m missing something: friends and family. I love cooking. I can’t imagine life away from the kitchen. But I think there has got to be a way to balance it. Perhaps that means running my own kitchen and creating the environment I want to work in with the team I want to work with. Perhaps it means being able to foster people’s talents while learning with them and from them at the same time. Or perhaps it means something else. I’ll know more in a few weeks…
But it’s Saturday, the second to last Saturday, and now the other entrée cooks have started to trickle in gathering equipment and ingredients. Sleepy hellos are exchanged. One of the other entrée line cooks slips me some homemade Christmas cookies, a pastry cook leaves me some tasty petitfours on my cutting board, the barista has made fresh coffee and I’m back in business. Sugar-caffine high galore.
I breeze through my morning mise en place. We don’t serve lunch on Saturday so setting up can be stressful without the morning team to prepare everything. But since I’ve worked the Monk Station in the morning the routine comes back naturally.
I grab two hotel pans from the dishpit, one large bain, one small bain, several mixing bowls, five 6-pans, two 9-pans, a rondeaux, a small sauce pot, a large stock pot, and a cutting board.
I put my potatoes on to simmer for my senusously smooth pommes purée, I get my water on to the boil for my halibut poaching liquid, I cut ten heads of garlic and three nubs of ginger and sweat them for my daikon braising liquid. I cut romaine lettuce tips to blanch, trim tiny honjumanji mushrooms, chiffonade mint and parsley, clean mini radishes and turnips, slice green onions two different ways for two different dishes, cut corn off the cob and clean leeks for my corn canolloni, and slice daikon on my mandolin then punch it out into perfect circles with a ring mold.
After I’ve finished all my cut work I start to put everything together. I peel the potatoes and pass them through a ricer then through a drum seive. I make a large batch of roux and mix it into my boiling water with a hand mixer that’s half the size of me (I call it ‘The Beast’) adding orange juice and vermouth for a little extra kick.
I blanch my romaine lettuce, leeks, radishes, and turnips. I purée my fresh corn and mix it on the stove top with butter and parmesan, let it cool, add herbs, and pipe it into my blanched leeks rolling it up like cuban cigars. I strain my daikon braising liquid, add the daikon rounds, and let them simmer until tender. I make ponzu sauce and truffle butter. I gather plates for the line. And Finally I’m set up! It takes me five hours.
It takes me five minutes to write about it and five hours to actually complete it.
Saturday is always pizza day and the new sauté cook has been more than appeasing the hungry masses. In fact his family meals have become too good – there is hardly anything left over for the people who can’t wait in line.
He puts the pizzas on the passe and a swarm gathers around ready for the offical “Food’s up everybody!” call before they dive in. Within minutes the pizzas are demolished. But, he has saved a few slices for the entrée line. Call it senior cook privilege or whatever, I don’t care, we don’t have time to stand in line. And why should we? We’re the senior cooks.
I know, that sounded awfully pretentious…
The first seating starts off and it’s fun. When I say fun I mean we’re getting our asses kicked but maintaining a humorous positive outlook. With two sauté cooks working the fire, I’ve got my girl Kendra next to me slinging heavy cast iron pans like they’re cotton candy on sticks. And I know she’s going to time it right so I don’t get all the fish at the same time.
She knows if I’m plating a monk fish and a striped bass if I get both at the same time then one will end up over cooked. I can’t slice the monk and simultaneously finish the stripe bass plate. I love her for it.
But orders are piling up quicker than I can get the plates ready. With two sauté cooks on the line the fish is coming out faster and faster and I’m still only one person slicing, poaching, and plating. A sous chef arrives to the rescue and we’re running up and down the line to the passe with plates and sauces like two people walking (running) on hot coals.
One hundred covers flies by and finally it’s the lull between the second and first seating. Great, I can replenish my mise en place that is completely wiped out…
Mais non! The Chef – I mean the Chef – wants to change an item in my mise en place. One that is time consuming. He wants the hand cut wedge potatoes that go with our Kobe beef dish to be changed from Idaho spuds to Yukon gold. This is not normally on my mise en place list, but there is no way in hell I’m going to say so. The only answer to the Chef’s requests are: yes, Chef!
Of course my inner thought is: really? Are you sure you don’t want to make that change on Monday when it’s a bit slower and the morning cook has the time to actually cut them? And I don’t have a thousand things I really need to do at this particular moment? Going to the bathroom being one of them!?!?!
I run down to the dry storage room and begin punching out wedge potatoes. But the puncher is not properly oiled and it’s been reassembled badly. I half want to kick the blasted thing across the room, but fear I’ll loose a toe in the process. To make matters worse the yukon gold potatoes are small and I’m only getting one good wedge per potato. No matter, I cut thirty potatoes and get thirty wedges. I save the scraps for City Harvest, a company that feeds the hungry in Manhattan.
I get my wedge fries on to simmer – and they must simmer gently or they break – and the second seating starts up. I’m still trying to roll more corn canolloni, blanch more romaine lettuce, and generally clean my station in between the first few orders. Not fun. I hate playing catch-up on a busy evening.
But the second seating is not as bad as the first. The tables are timed better and the rush is hard but not impossible. Word gets out that tables have cancelled because of the weather.
The weather? What weather?!?!? What’s going on out there?!?!? Servers come back with the news: it’s snowing! It’s snowing!! It’s snowing!!!
An hour passes and my wedge fries are cooked. The Chef (the Chef) tastes one after I pop it in the deep fryer and salt it. I place it, like a golden orb, on a porcelain plate for him to cut into. The thought of handing it directly to him would be unthinkable. He cuts into it, thrusts his fork into a bite size morsel, holds the morsel up to inspect and study rotating his fork slowly to catch all angles under the fluorescent lights, pops it in his mouth, and chews slowly.
He begins to nod his head while still in the process of chewing and swallowing. He points to the remaining morsel and says, “Yes, this is it! This is it!”
Relief. I have passed the wedge potato test.
Who knew a wedge potato could cause so much anticipation? It’s a potato for crying out loud. (But a damn good one.)
The third seating always takes me off guard. I look at the clock and we’re still sending out amuse bouches at 11:00 P.M. How can this be? I’m personally closed for business (mind shut down, exhausted, delirious from the heat, total mush pot) but somehow these people are hungry enough to order tasting menus at this late hour. Who are these people and don’t they know the evening is over?!?!
My mise en place is, once again, seriously depleted but I play the game of Russian roulette than all cooks play at the end of the evening, the: will-I-have-enough game. And no, it’s not because I’m lazy and don’t want to make more, it’s about not wasting product that will just get thrown out at the end of the evening.
Okay, you’re right, maybe it’s a little bit of laziness too.
The other game at our restaurant (we have so many games we play) in order to avoid being blamed for running out of something is to make sure one of the chefs knows about it. Then it’s their decision over whether or not to make more. I have found through trial and error if you skip this step you always get burned. It’s the: pass-the-responisbility game. Also called: passing-the-buck.
We play this game throughout day. It goes like this:
“Chef, can you taste this?”
“Does it taste good?”
“I think so, but I’m Californian and you know our taste buds are different….”
“Add more salt and then I’ll taste it…”
He tastes, approves, then if the Executive Chef doesn’t like it I get to say: “But the sous chef tasted it and liked it…”
Or for my mise en place I”ll say:
“Chef, I have 45 corn cannelloni rolls, do you think that’s going to be enough?
And he’ll say, “I don’t know, let’s roll with the punches and see what happens.”
Then if I run out, we’ve already had this little conversation about it, so I don’t get yelled at – or worse – sent home for making a stupid error. All the cooks have become expert at this game.
Two tables are left on the board and I’m running low on my turnip ginger foam. This foam is shot through a canister loaded with nitrous cartridges so it’s impossible to actually see how many orders are left. I lift the canister and give it a shake trying to judge just how many pumps I might be able to get out of it. Not many.
And the third seating rush makes it impossible to quickly whip up another batch. The garde manger staff is finishing for the night and I ask one of the cooks to set up a blender at my station and cut some turnips and ginger to quickly cook off and purée.
He cuts the wrong turnips – the small white ones – and I send him back to find the big purple and white two-tone turnips. This time he returns with a watermelon radish that is expertly peeled and diced.
“No, no, no…” I say, panicked “This is a watermelon radish – it’s pink! The turnips have purple and white skins….”
The Executive Sous Chef comes down the line and in his French accents asks, “Amee, what ahre you do-ing? Focus on your dishes s’il vous plaît.”
“Desolée (sorry) Chef, I think I’m almost out of turnip foam and I don’t know if I have enough to cover the board.”
“Forget it, there are two tables left, we’ll use the turnip purée from the Saucier station if we have to and blend it with some blanched ginger…”
And sure enough two monk fish tasting plates are fired. I slice the monk, plate it, and garnish it with tiny mushrooms and micro chives. I run the hot plates to the passe. Then run back to pour my sake broth into one gooseneck and squeeze my turnip foam into another.
The foam canister sputters it’s last breath. I’m screwed. With fish on the passe and a server ready to carry the tray into the dining room I feel as if the boat has begun to sail away and I’m still at the dock with my luggage…
The whole entrée line pitches in. The Saucier gets some of his turnip purée on to simmer, I take the blanched ginger I’ve prepared and throw it in, we quickly dump everything into the vita prep mixer and buzz it, the Executive Sous Chef tastes it, I pour it into a fresh canister and the sauté cook recharges it, I squeeze the foam into a gooseneck and run it to the passe, and the server whips away the finished tray.
The boat has sailed and I’m on board…
It’s 12:30 A.M. and the kitchen staff is polishing the stainless steel, bringing loads of pots and pans to the dish pit, and throwing away left over mise en place while the entrée line is finishing the very last plates. Everyone is exhausted. We have all worked 6 days this week and finally our minds are starting to switch off and relax.
Paper hats are thrown in the garbage, we pack up our knives, punch out on the clock, grab our complimentary ice cold beer, and pile into the elevator to head back to our respective changing rooms and transform into everyday people in everyday clothes.
I pound my beer in the dressing room, thirstier than normal, and the alcohol hits me instantly. Dehydrated but happy (drunk) I leave with the other female chefs and we climb the stairs back up to the real world.
It’s 1 A.M and New York is quiet. The streets are covered with a thick blanket of pristine white snow. Not a single taxi in sight. The normal hustle and bustle of tourists and traffic in Times Square is silenced.
The ravioli cook picks up a handful of snow and starts to pack it into a ball while snowflakes fall lightly around the cooks exiting from the restaurant. He’s Southern Indian, I can’t imagine snow being a regular sight for him – nor is it for me. Other cooks take the cue and pack snow into hard balls.
I run for cover. Grab my iphone and distract the cooks from pelting me with snowballs with the suggestion that we take a photo instead – it’s the first snow of the season.
They bundle up for a quick photo then part for an afterwork beer. I’m too tired to join, and with no taxis in sight I walk through Times Square ankle deep in snow and head for the train station.
The snow is glittering with the reflection of all the enormous lighted billboards. The pavement looks like millions of tiny rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds. It’s beautiful.
I know tomorrow this snow cover will melt and turn black and messy but, for now, it is truly a New York winter wonderland…