I’m not sure whether I’m being tested or just given the opportunity to learn a new station: The Fish Pass.
At the restaurant, all cooks when hired begin on the garde manger station and rotate through the various duties: salad prep, cold fish plates, canapes, homemade ravioli, and hot appetizers picking up the necessary skills along the way to eventually work on the intense frenetic fish line.
And, if the cook is really good, after working all the other stations at the restaurant he or she will finally become the ‘Saucier’ and run the fish line – a very demanding position. The Saucier is responsible for making 20 different sauces and insuring that the 14 different fish dishes are perfect by the time they reach the pass.
“Medium rare fish, guys, medium rare fish…we’re tasting our food, right? Coming up on a mahi by halibut followed by 3 stripe by snapper, cod, black bass… how long on the mahi? Minute and a half – we go?…”
It’s a smart system. The idea being that by the time you have finally made it to the fish line you can jump back into any station at the restaurant at any time to help out.
We seat over 200 people an evening and as customers eat their way through the menu from cold to hot dishes the sauté cooks come over to help out garde manger and hot appetizers until all the orders rest solely on the line.
But the Fish Pass station is not on the normal rotation. It’s kind of island of it’s own and a very significant one at that.
What does the fish pass cook do? Besides not cook a single piece of anything?
He runs back and forth from one side of the kitchen to the other passing perfectly portioned pieces of striped bass, black pass, skate, mahi mahi, cod, halibut, monk, white tuna, snapper, langoustines, salmon, lobster, lamb, squab, and filet mignon to the sauté cooks while popping oysters to order and keeping a running count of the tickets coming in and all the fish being sold.
Here’s the deal, and I know I’m a little crazy for thinking this way, but I really want to work this station. Not forever – I can barely even type this post right now my fingers are so shredded from the preparation involved – but it’s a great opportunity to actually get to work with the fish itself.
Great position or not, I really f’d things up on Friday night. Everyone got their fish on time and all the oysters were opened to order, but I didn’t follow the executive chef’s request on one small eensty teensy little thing so I was banished for the last hour of service and sent to clean mushrooms alone, upstairs, in the salon kitchen.
I don’t like being banished. And I don’t like messing up. But I definitely understand what I did wrong.
I didn’t communicate. And that is a very important part of my job.
My Friday afternoon preparation started off great. I waltzed in around 1PM and directly asked the chef how many lobsters I should kill. He told me I needed: “20 all day” (meaning that I needed a total of 20).
I looked in the fish pass refrigerator at my station to see how many lobsters were already prepped from lunch and there were 7. I failed to notice however that there were still 15 customers yet to order on the board from lunch. I just sort of assumed that lunch was finished.
I’ve worked the garde manger station during lunch and I know we rarely sell a lot of lobster so I thought it be okay. In France we cook both lunch and dinner so it’s easy to keep a count on what’s selling in the kitchen or at your individual station.
I butchered 13 lobsters for the fish line.
Killing lobsters used to freak me out but now I just take my old Wustov knife (that I don’t care about) shove the tip right between the lobsters eyes to kill it instantly and then rip off the tail and claws.
Breaking down lobsters cuts up your hands because their claws have exoskeleton thorns that pierce through just about everything – five pairs of latex gloves included.
And sometimes, even after I’ve killed them, their tails spasm and clinch up wrapping around my hands and pinching my fingers. Or their claws open and close without warning – again pinching my fingers.
Next I de-shelled and cleaned a box of 40 langoustines. Clearly not enough for a service of 200 people, but they were the only ones I could find in the fish fridge.
Cleaning langoustines is another finger shredding job that sent me to the hospital a few weeks ago for a two night hiatus. My puncture wounds from their shells somehow got infected with Staff and red lines started growing up my arms from the blood infection. Not fun.
Back to my preparation… after cleaning the evil langoustines, and stabbing 15 lobsters, I started stuffing calamari. But I ran out of stuffing. I don’t make the stuffing, that’s another cook’s job, but I had enough calamari prepped (or so I thought) for at least the first seating of 100 people.
And yes, I did communicate with the powers that be that I needed more stuffing and that I didn’t think there would be enough langoustines for the whole evening.
I get my station set up by 5PM and I think I’m totally ready to go. I’m actually excited to start my aerobic workout for the evening running back and forth throughout the kitchen passing fish and popping oysters. God, do I love oysters…
But then the orders start flying in and low and behold they are all langoustines, calamari, and lobster. We’re 8 tables deep into the service and I’m already out of lobster tails. I look into my little fish pass fridge and I’m freaking out – where did all my friggin lobsters go?
I notice that the cook on the canape station is doing a lobster amuse bouche and I go over to him and accusingly ask, “Did you take any of my lobster tails for your amuse bouche?” He responds “No.” I turn to the sous chef and ask him about my tails and he doesn’t know anything so nervously I ask the executive chef about my lobster tails.
He laughs. Thank God. And asks what time I counted the lobsters at before I killed them. “Did you actually look on the board before you killed the lobsters? I told you there was a table of 15 yet to order at lunch”.
This stupid mistake hits my stomach like a ten pound boulder, my face flushes crimson, and I realize that all in one second that my college degree is worthless and that I’m probably lower than a cockroach on the scale of evolution.
“They ordered lobster? The whole table?”
“Yes. The whole table. You better kill 10 more right now.”
So in between popping oysters, running fish, totaling tickets, and freaking out in general – I’m also killing lobsters. An hour hasn’t even gone by yet and I’m already in the weeds so deep I might as well be in the amazon rain forest slashing my way through creepy vines and overgrown bushes.
Weeded. Weeded. So weeded it’s not even funny.
Of course, I’m sure it was hysterical to everyone else. But certainly not to me.
I get the lobsters finished miraculously and breathe a sigh of relief that the rest of the service can return to a normal state of controlled chaos.
But no, how could I think such a stupid thing? The hot apps cooks need more stuffed calamari. And they need it now…
I finally get the stuffing for the calamari and the more langoustines are retrieved from the downstairs freezer.
All langoustines are frozen fresh, they don’t make it to the U.S. from France in any other way. Nonetheless they are outrageously delicious. If a shrimp and a lobster made babies they would taste like langoustines. Depending on how they are packed and shipped, they can either be thawed out and used over a few days or they used that same day.
Quality is closely monitored in all respects at the restaurant. Especially the fish rotation and our langoustines are some of the biggest and tastiest that I have ever seen or eaten – France included.
Here’s where I messed up biggtime: the chef tells me to wrap up the langoustines I have in my fish pass fridge to save and breakdown and serve the other ones first.
This would not have been a problem if I wasn’t also doing my aerobic fish pass workout while finally getting the opportunity to stuff my 80 calamari tubes.
Cleaning langoustines takes time. They are sort of an overgrown crawfish and their shells are almost as hard as a lobsters. The tricky part in cleaning these evil succulent tasting creatures is to not tear the flesh while ripping off their segmented shells piece by piece. After the exoskeleton is removed they need to be gutted and trimmed – again without tearing the flesh.
Did I mention that langoustines are really expensive?!?!
I kept thinking: it is more important that the cooks have the fish they need when they need it instead of breaking down the other langoustines. So I continued to pass the langous in my fridge. I just didn’t think about how important it might be in terms of cost. And, I just didn’t have the time.
The evening begins to slow down a bit with just 60 left to order. I’m exhausted, my hands look like they’ve been mauled by a pit bull. My arms are tired from reaching for fish, running fish, popping oysters to order, butchering lobsters, and stuffing calamari.
I finally have the langoustines cleaned and wrapped up and I’m about to take them to the back fish fridge to store for tomorrow. But the chef sees me and says, “Those are the langoustines I asked you save right?”
“No chef, they’re not.”
There is a brief moment of silence as he looks me over with a mixed lethal concoction of disappointment and anger.
“What happened to the ones I asked you to save.”
“We sold them.”
I start to launch into my litany of excuses as to why I couldn’t get them prepared in time and how the orders of langoustines kept coming in while I was still trying to prepare calamari and lobsters and, and, and…
“I dont want to hear your excuses.”
“It’s not excuses!” I retort.
I wish I hadn’t retorted. Because it’s not my place to tell the man who has run a world famous kitchen for over 15 years with only impeccable reviews whether something is or is not excuses. He clearly knows the difference.
He turns away from me after a long sideways glare and gives his attention back to the fish line. Meanwhile I return to my station heart in hand wondering whether or not I’m going to get fired for such a costly mistake. Isn’t this the time where that big black hole is supposed to open up beneath you and swallow you whole?
The old fish pass cook is called back over to the station and one of the sous chef’s tells me to take two sheets of black trumpet mushrooms to the salon kitchen to clean.
I take the mushrooms and head upstairs to my solitary confinement. An hour and a half passes and I’m still cleaning mushrooms defiantly willing myself not to cry. My punctured hands can barely hang on to their delicate stems because they are swollen. My fingertips are stained black and I start recounting the events of the evening. How could I have made that happen differently?
I couldn’t have. I did everything I could have possibly done. Except the one thing I needed to do: communicate with the chef. Tell him why I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to do what he asked. And that’s 100 percent my fault.
It was my job to make his request happen and if I couldn’t then let him know immediately.
Service is service. And when it’s over it’s over. Tomorrow’s a new day.
And speaking of new days, Saturday the chef greeted me with same familiar “Hi Ms. Glaze”. No altercation hangovers thankfully. Service was fun. We did 240 covers which is record breaking in my short two months at the restaurant. My mis en place was en pointe and the whole evening was a success all around.
“Pass the striped bass Amyyyyyyy!!!!”