“Make it nice or make it twice”…

Nope, this isn’t my advice to lovers, one-night stands, and people about to get married. But maybe it should be?

In every restaurant worth its salt are the old timers. The cooks who have dominated a station for so long that they are intrinsically part of every dish that is served.

It’s the sign of a good restaurant.

I say ‘intrinsic’ because those of us trained under these pillars of culinary wisdom can’t’ make anything without hearing their words ringing in our heads: “make it nice or make it twice…” or “medium rare fish guys, medium rare fish…” or “tasting our food, tasting our food….”

I’m not talking about the young hot shot cooks who cruise upward through the different stations faster than a heart beat on adrenaline. But those noble few who have given their lives over to one station and have no intention of going anywhere else in the kitchen.

There is one living fixture in the kitchen who I sincerely look up to. He’s probably around 15 years older than me and has run the garde manger station for around that same amount of time.

So while I was studying geometry in high school, falling in and out of love, taking my S.A.T’s, performing in theaters, and doing all the things wild teenage girls do to drive their parents crazy he was building the garde mange empire at Le Bernardin.

While I was reading In the Heart of Darkness for my English Lit AP exam he was concocting fluke ceviche. While I was cutting 6th and 7th period to go see the Pink Floyd concert (even though my parents said I couldn’t) he was pounding out tuna into a thin perfect ovals and placing it ever so gently over croutons spread with foie gras.

While I was sneaking out of my parent’s house after curfew he was training new cooks the art of beautifully prepared food.

And he was doing it in a foreign language: English. People underestimate how difficult it is to work in a foreign country in a foreign language.

Having worked in France, I get it. I clearly remember speaking English to another cook during my first week desperately attempting to get a translation on the orders coming in and being yelled at: “Anglais?!?!? Pas Anglais! Anglais non!

It did help me learn French fast. And I am very thankful now.

And, regardless of my university minor in Middle English and Single Subject Teaching Credential in English, I still struggle to understand half the English speaking people in this country.

Brooklynese, Long Island-ese, Midwesternese, mumble-ese, voice-so-low-I-can’t-understand-ese… yes, English is very difficult to comprehend under pressure. Whoever said that 90% of communication is nonverbal has obviously never worked a service in a 3 Michelin star restaurant.

Having spent six months attempting to master the various stations: garde mange, canapé, raw fish, fish pass, ravioli, and back monk I now truly understand my chef’s quote: “Make it nice or make it twice”.

I’m not panicking about getting my preparation finished or rushing around during service accomplishing nothing very well.

I’m, let’s say, a little more focused. More settled. And a lot more aggressive about achieving the right finished product because now I know exactly what it is.

I don’t want to have to re-do all the work I just did.

I get annoyed when I see newbies working fast and sloppy. And I get perturbed when I know I’ve spent time and love to make a plate beautiful during prep time only to see it destroyed in a mad dash during service and sent back at the passe by one of the sous chefs.

During service is where my chef’s soft but firm words come in to action…

He looks out of the corner of his eye to glance at the dishes being made around him by young energetic cooks and if he catches anyone trying to rush perfection he’ll warn: “Make it nice or make it twice”.

This always has the desired impact. The cook slows down and focuses. The adrenaline ebbs. (If only for a second). But my all time favorite quote of his, is one that I’m sure he’d be slightly embarrassed about me repeating: “I need-a that shit!” Pronounced: I needuh that sheet!

You have to understand my Chef is not the swearing type. Not at all. But if you try and take something away from him, like a squeeze bottle of olive oil or a jar of caviar, he will definitely stop the intruder with: “I need-a that shit!”

Nobody takes anything away from my Chef when he’s about to use it. Or they must suffer the consequences of making “fluke on the plate, fluke on the plate, fluke on the plate” the next day. (Don’t ask, “fluke on the plate” is a whole other story. It’s really a sort of torture that involves cutting fish into perfect rectangles.)

Sometimes my chef says “I need-a that shit!” for fun and we all fall about laughing.

Or other times I tell him, “I need-a that shit too!” and I take it away. Which normally makes him chuckle. Normally.

When you work in a kitchen there will always be those cooks who try and get away with bad prep. It’s often part of the learning process and mostly a side effect of feeling it’s impossible to finish all the mise en place before service. They rush and make mistakes hoping no one will catch them.

I’ve definitely been guilty of it before. I think we all have. And I’ve always been caught which is even more embarrassing especially when the whole kitchen hears it.

There really is no hiding in a kitchen under those bright fluorescent lights. A cook with bad “place” can only get away with it for so long before the rest of the staff calls him or her out.That is why the pillars uphold the quality of a station because they know exactly how to make it nice with a style and flare that only comes from some one who has repeated the same dish over and over. Muscle memory. Like a ballerina doing a pirouette.

Once the technique is internalized then and only then can the art of doing it show through. Trust me, If you plate a dish 10,000 times you will find a way to turn it into a master piece, not a finger painting.

I want the art of it to show through….

Make it nice or make twice, make it nice or make it twice, make it nice or make it twice, make it nice or make it twice…