Last week was my first day at the restaurant where I'm doing a stage (pronounced 'stahj'). I arrived at the restaurant that is arguably one of the city's finest dining experiences with butterflies in my stomach and a naive sense of what a full 11am-11pm day would entail. I should also add that I was petrified of losing a finger after a chef friend of mine told me about the frequent occurence of these type of kitchen injuries.
My first task was to change into chef whites that were provided to me and as I began to change in the locker room I felt grateful that I'd already had a few culinary classes under my belt. While getting changed sounds basic enough there is actually a particular way things are done. For example, I was given two dish cloths with my chef whites and had I not already learned from class that one is tucked into the apron at your back as a back-up and the other hangs off your apron at your right side I wouldn't have had a clue! As I buttoned up my crisp white jacket with the restaurant's name embroidered on it I looked in the mirror and couldn't erase the huge smile that sprung upon my face. I was so excited to be there, and so proud. I couldn't wait to see what was waiting for me in the kitchens.
I was guided upstairs to the beautiful restaurant kitchen: pristine, orderly, and serious. Despite everyone's focus at preparing their stations for the evening service there was a relaxed atmosphere and I could hear a low radio playing some Biggie in the background. I was shown my work area and was again pleased to find that what I was learning in class was relevant to other restaurant kitchens. I was asked to set up my workspace which means getting a cutting board and placing wet paper towels underneath it to avoid it from sliding around. I also took out the knives and tools I'd be needing.
My first task was almost exactly what I'd expected. I thought I'd be peeling potatoes but it turned out to be carrots. After peeling a deep tray filled with colorful carrots I sliced olives, then grapes, then segmented lemons, then shaped more carrots, then soaked morel mushrooms, then shelled fava beans. It doesn't sound that exciting when I write it all out like this but all the while I was standing at my little station I was absorbed by what was happening around me: the French that was being spoken, the techniques others were using, the smells emanating, the sounds of blenders whirring, and the people passing through the kitchen.
As the day progressed it was amazing to watch the transformation of the energy in the kitchen. Approaching service there was a slight increase in people's speed, a greater sense of urgency. Silver was being polished, work stations were being cleaned up to make room for plating, there was no more music on the radio and the sound was replaced with the chatter and clatter of people getting their stations ready for the imminent onslaught of orders. Once it became time for service I went downstairs to the prep kitchen. There was someone waiting for me with new tasks: I had to place perfectly cut square pieces of cooked meat into plastic bags and then place them into a big machine to be air-sealed. As soon as that was done I had another job waiting: chicken.
A HUGE tub of chicken.
It's pretty amazing how much work there is to do in a kitchen. I never had to worry about running out of things to do. I was instructed on how to cut the large chicken legs which I later learned were actually "from the cock." I had to cut them in half right through the bone and then remove part of the excess chicken to reveal the bone so it could be eaten like a drumstick. Then with the other half I had to butterfly it and remove the middle bone. I had to be shown this a few times before I got the hang of it. Even then I saved my cuts to the side to be inspected before adding them to the giant plastic tub in which they were placed. Scraps, as always, were kept to be used for stocks. This task took me several hours – I'd never seen so much chicken before, let alone handle so much! By the end I was a pro at finding exactly where you could cut through the chicken bone at the joint easily.
I looked at the clock when I finished and it was 9:30pm. Somehow I'd managed to miss the family meal and I was starving! My back was killing me too. I was expecting my feet or lower back to hurt but not my upper back. It was as if the muscles were all cramping up – I guess my posture of leaning over a cutting board was the culprit. I was still using the knife of the person who'd shown me how to cut the chicken so I ran upstairs to The Kitchen to return it to him. I'd left my knife kit up there too. It was amazing how much the kitchen had transformed from earlier in the day. It was not a large space considering all the people and things being done – everyone had a place and my being there felt totally out of order. I felt like I was in everyone's way and so took the back-route toward the station where my knives were kept to avoid bumping into more people. I went via the dishwashers but still found myself hopelessly in everyone's way! Finally I located my knife kit, returned the knife I'd used to cut all the chicken, and made my way back downstairs to the prep kitchen where things were way less intense. The heat, the energy, and the precision with which everything came together upstairs during service was such a sight to see and I was glad that I'd been able to sneak a peak.
Things seemed to be slowing down in the prep kitchen, only a few people remained diligently working on various tasks. I figured that soon enough we'd all be going home. Well, it turned out to be a little longer than I'd anticipated. I started helping someone who was preparing all the pastas. He was blanching tomatoes to be peeled. He'd sliced an "X" mark on the bottom of each tomato and working in batches dropped them into boiling water. He then plunged them into an ice bath after about 30 seconds. I then started peeling them and placing them on parchment lined hotel pans. (If tomatoes are placed directly on metal or aluminum they develop a metallic taste.) After all the tomatoes had been peeled, they needed to be sliced into quarters. Once they were sliced into quarters, they needed to be seeded. At this point it was 11pm and I was staring at the hundreds of tomato slices ahead of me and wearily figured out that I wouldn't be home until well after midnight before these were all done.
Fortunately, a few minutes later the guy who'd given me the chicken task came downstairs. He was finished with service and went into the walk-in to inspect all the chicken I'd cut. "It is perfect" he said. (Thank goodness!) He told all of us to stop – we were done for the day. Music to my tired aching back! After cleaning up my station I went to the locker room to change and then went through the service doors out into the crisp night air to hail a taxi. As I cruised down Park Avenue I couldn't hold back the big smile on my face, I'd had a great first day and I still had all my fingers.