I didn’t think up the title of this post.
It came to me indirectly from the executive chef. I don’t think he had any idea how meaningful it would be to me but, it’s a damn good title and I’ll attempt to do it right..
I came to New York knowing that it could support me with the energy, dynamism, and happiness that has been slowly leaking out of my life if I could muster up at least a little effort and courage in return.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been on my own.
It’s not fun changing countries, starting new jobs, making new friends, and ending frayed relationships. When I look at other people my age in their mid 30’s who are settled with children and houses and well into careers with nice retirement plans I sort of want to put my face in my hands and cry.
Either that or pick up a cleaver and chop down the chain bone of something twice my size.
I dove head first into a New York 3 Michelin star kitchen culture that perhaps wasn’t the best place for a woman, going through what I’m going through, to be in.
Why? Because your head needs to be in the game and your spirit needs to exude self confidence. But when all you feel like inside is a human construction site, walking into a competitive unforgiving environment is a little akin to smashing beer cans against your head over and over.
How can I organize a station if I can’t even organize my life right now? How can I react to command when my inner voice of doubt and worry is drumming out the chef’s outer voice? How can I cook anything right when everything in my life is wrong?
How am I going to get through this?
I pretty much wanted to quit after the first month. I thought: the executive chef’s a jerk, I hate the people I work with, I don’t fit in here, garde manger is stupid, the sous chef’s don’t do anything beside criticize everything I do, the guys are competitive for no reason, I’m here to cook fish and I’m a year away from getting to the line.
I want to be where people know me and know what I’m capable of – not where I have to prove myself. I’m tired of proving myself. And further more, I don’t have the energy to prove myself.
So I dragged myself and I’m sure everyone around me through a grueling first three months at the garde mange station.
I prepped salads, sauces, gelées, cold fish plates. I diced cucumbers and jalapenos till I never wanted to see either vegetable again. I Plated smoked salmon, raw salmon, hamachi, kampachi, and bluefin till my hands could go through the motions effortlessly while my mind wondered back to it’s dark ‘why am I here?’ place .
I whipped green cilantro foams (still something that never turns out right by my hand) and seaweed soysauce glazes. And the whole time it felt like moving mountains, not like creating fragile art.
I’d be a liar if I said that nobody noticed I wasn’t focused.
It took me a little while to realize, and yes a good long heart to heart with the executive chef too, that really I’m the one who needs to pull it together. I was hired to do a job and do it perfectly regardless of my personal life or the dynamics at work. And out of this conversation I re-found my backbone which had started to disintegrate
that the executive chef is really a great leader, the sous chef’s are talanted, I sincerely like the people I work with, garde manger is perfect for me because I need better knife skills, I can be competitive too without being a bitch, and I do want to prove myself.
And just as I was beginning to feel the cloud of doom clear from my mind the executive chef sent me to the fish pass (which momentarily clouded me again) and then to a sunny short vacation in the salon, and now on canapés…
Where: FOR THE FIRST TIME I STAND ALONE
(you knew I’d weave this back in somehow didn’t you?)
The canapé station, or amuse bouche station, is a little like a life raft bobbing on the tumultuous high seas without a tow in site. In other words you’re all by yourself and you either sink or swim. I have seen quit a few cooks flounder and fall off this boat only to find themselves flung back to the mainland (garde manger) until given a second chance to prove themselves.
I have witnessed several cooks sent home for a plethora of innocent yet amateur mistakes: soup not hot enough, wrong bread used for the croutons, or shortage of mise en place.
So when I got to this station all I could think of was: I don’t want to be sent home. I’m over 30 years old not 12 and if I get sent home I’m going to be very, very, very upset.
But here’s the thing: it’s really hard to cook something right when you are terrified of cooking something wrong. It makes you not trust your own judgement. It makes organization difficult. Ah heck, it just takes the fun out it in general and creates an atmosphere where success seems unobtainable and being set up for failure a certainty.
I kept telling myself: I have nothing to loose. There is nothing more in my life left to loose and there is everything, everything to gain.
And it’s just an amuse bouche for goddsake. It’s not rocket science or quantum physics or computer technology or anything requiring a PhD. Jeez: it’s just food!
Furthermore, I absolutely adore amuse bouches. They are beautiful mini meals in a single bite that set the tone for the menu to come. And anyone who downplays the significance of a canapé or amuse bouche has never truly experienced one before.
They are little suprises. Even when they are expected they are still a surprise because you don’t know what it will be until it arrives. I love that.
My first few days at the canapé station were cake. I got to work with a girlfriend of mine who was on her way out (to move back to L.A.) and she showed me how to get organized, set up the station, hide the pots and pans needed for service early in the afternoon, and load up on extra mise en place.
We had a lot of fun working together. It could have been called the ‘gossip station’ instead of the ‘canapé station’ because that’s really all we did in between spooning lobster into tiny cups, squeezing hot foams, and yelling “pick up canapé!”.
We had good time. Something that had been missing for me.
Then she left and it was all up to me.
My canapé for my first day alone was simple enough: a truffled celriac soup with lobster and a gorgeous bright red sauce Americain foam on the top. I followed the instructions I was given to make the soup, but when I blended it, it was border-line too thin. I got chastised for it, but not sent home.
Had I done the soup the way I knew how to this would not have been a problem. Had I trusted my own instincts this would not have happened. And then getting blamed for not following common sense like: remove the celeriac cubes from the broth before blending and add the broth in little by little until the right consistency is acheived feels even stupider.
Lesson learned: trust instincts. Then you have no one to blame but yourself.
The service went fine. I didn’t run out of anything, I enjoyed talking to the servers as they picked up the plates, and I sincerely enjoyed being responsible for my very own island.
In fact, I prefer to be in charge of my very own island.
“Pick up canapé!!!”