Excerpts from a book I hope to write some day
“OUI, CHEEFFFFF!....ÇA MARCHE!”
We cried out through the ensemble of copper pots, chopping sounds on boards, shoe shuffling, and body bumping. The head of my station, a small whippy and stressed 23 year old Japanese man with short gel-spiked black hair runs his eyes over the entire fish station and everyone in it as we all receive the new order and perform our specifically designed tasks in order to get the order out perfect, on-time, and in harmonious sequence with the other dishes from the garde-manger and meat stations for the same order. “Go-time”.
The sweat gently trickles its way down my face and into my chef’s coat collar. I wipe the fresh trimmings of fennel, chives, and shallots left my small cutting board into the special trimmings container for use tomorrow in making the stock. Automatically, I clean my area in a few strokes while then in one fluent movement opening the (lower fridge), spinning and holding the fridge’s door open with the edge of my shoe as I gently place a new copper saucier filled with fresh ingredients necessary for the dishes on line in pick-up. The smell of a properly seasoned fresh fillet of rouget gently sizzling in fine olive oil with tomato confit dances its way towards one nostril, the fillet of St. Pierre and basil finds the other. I continue the spin grabbing what is needed for the new orders with my right hand while harmoniously closing the door with my left hip as I begin to organize and get what I need lined up so everything else can flow smoothly and we can keep up with the orders. Trimmed baby fennel, tourneed baby radishes, and winter vegetables are gently making their way to just underdone in our signature bouillabaisse cream reduction so they can be “just right” when the dish is placed on the guests table.
It could be culinary heaven except for the problem. There is a new guy on our station. As everyone knows in the kitchen, “the new guy” can either win his spot with honor and glory or get kicked off his spot because of failure to perform. As is the criterion with our modern women. Unluckily for him, he got the short end of the stick ça soiree. The dishes that passed through him for finishing touches just aren’t up to par. Through the flames, heat, smoldering sweat, and mirage of constantly moving bodies in what is known to be the “hottest” Three Michelin Star kitchen in Paris, using my peripheral vision I notice the chef leave his “captain’s” post. This, in any kitchen, means that it’s hit the fan and that it’s time for the very big heavy duty “open up a can of whoop-ass” trouble. At that moment, as in the twilight zone, everything stops.
He pivots to the right, leaps and makes a run for it. He is quickly met by a hurling crème brûlée
saucier, courtesy of the Chef himself, which barely shaves the top of his head and smashes against the door as he literally sky-dives through the back doorway into the prep area. Physically unscathed, emotionally shattered. Whimpering sounds are heard from a distance in the back. Still, someone’s gotta take the hit. It’s our stations responsibility. Why? Because whether or not it’s our fault personally, the customer only sees what is presented in front of them. That dish is from our post and we should have more control and supervision over “the new guy”. Whoever said chefs are selfish creatures and don’t take one for the team?
Ironically, I know this guy from when I worked in the Alps, in Chambery, at a one Michelin Star place, L’Essentiel. We didn’t know each other very well but close enough that when I first saw him in the kitchen in Paris we both had a big unexpected smile to greet each other. I still didn’t speak that good of French, moreover having the American accent, and since we worked about 13-16 hours each day, when it was time to go home, everyone pretty much just went back to rest. Others hit the bar. What you’d expect? We’re talking about Chefs.
Never-the-less, when working in a kitchen that demands perfection, everything has to be compulsively in order and anal-ly consistent. The Poulette de Bresse rôtie à la broche for 2 costs over 150 Euro and a bottle of wine can be as pricey as 2,000 Euro for a not-sooo-special label. Simplified: that’s a whole lot of quarter-pounders with cheese. All in a beautifully and very sophisticated old Parisian building that used to belong to a relative of Napoleon. The restaurant is known for its outstanding service and re-innovative haute-cuisine scene. To boot, last year it was voted the Best Restaurant in the World by leading culinary critics. Even the celebrities come to check out our grub. Ask Brad Pitt and Angelia-Jolie.
As you can imagine, the demand for perfection, pressure, and expectation takes its toll on the Head Chef, who, by the way, eats his staff food like a bear does a newly snatched salmon. I really can’t blame the man. Anger and pressure can be hard things to control in the heat of the moment, and believe me, this is “in the HEAT of the moment”. After our kitchen acrobatics has just ended, the owner himself, Monsieur Vrinat himself, comes back and says the Veal dish for 2 that just went out (over 250 Euros a pop) wasn’t cooked to the right degree of doneness. Very no bueno. So as the Head Chef grabs the next person closest to him by the coat-collar, explosion barking at him to “Hurry the …….. (you know) up and do it perfect” while simultaneously appearing to have invoked a real-life demon (of which is perfectly justifiable in our kitchen culture due to our recent cook-victim is on the lower side of the chain-of-command), everything whirlwinds back to the present moment and everyone gets the point, continuing on. As you might already have imagined, I have by now gotten used to witnessing some horrendous physical abuse as well as the most foul, coarse, and insulting language possibly known to mankind. It actually frightens me more that I didn’t even flinch. There’s consistency.
Right now, nothing else matters at this moment other than me preparing what vegetables, garnishes, pots, butters, utensils and other mise-en-place is necessary to complete this “culinary perfection” along with all of the other ones in line as the constant wave of orders rush in. All this happens now without thinking but by second-nature reaction and all while somehow keeping my station immaculately clean and organized; a skill I now realized has benefited me for what is to come later in my life.
As if from a distant memory, “the new guy” shadows his way back with his tail between his legs. The rest of the kitchen is just too busy to react or care, but a few wry smiles are seen. In the soaring heat, so much that you want to shield your face from it even 5 feet away, we sequentially hack away at the orders, all kept mentally by our poisson team, until the night grows late and we can begin putting ourselves full-time into the mandatory storing and clean-up chores that are the light at the end of the tunnel. We can then make our way home, or, to the night life activities.
I rank open the door and walk over to my closet-size shower area to open the hot water tab for de-frosting the old metal pipes. It takes about 3 minutes to even begin to see water start drizzling from the shower faucet, a sight that reinforces a hope that I will be able to go to bed after a warm shower, shave, and some fresh clothes. Meanwhile I glance at the corner of the room to the refrigerator, I see the remnants of my lunch: a quarter of a French baguette fresh from the bakery downstairs, some Beaufort cheese, and an apple. Today’s 3 hour lunch time off was spent in the apartment. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out and home is warmer than the park.
I feed the bad habit of snacking before bedtime as I get into the shower to clean my shoulder length brown and wavy now-oily hair (which I wrap in a net for work if you were wondering). The warmth of the water massages my body, relaxing me before bed-time.
This night seems to need a little more power and depth that Harry Potter though. That’s the problem with people who are truth-searching, especially young western ones with not yet enough guts to really follow the calling, and who are adept in thinking instead of just simply doing. We all have our own problems I suppose. The kicker is having these thoughts and feelings yet knowing you have to wake up the next day to go to work in order to “get your career moving”. That’s the norm our society seems to plaster on media and advertisements anyway. I say my prayers and fall asleep in reflection of myself and my situation. Anybody know what I am talking about?