After a few pints of guinness, making a video becomes completely absurd to both Giuseppe and myself…however the take away from this video is for sure the pasta loop!!! Perhaps this is anti-Italian technique…but who cares?????? It makes sense. What can I say, It works….I dig it. Courtesy of John.
The Last “Kitchen” Night in Chi-Town. It was Wednesday and prior to heading into the kitchen for my task of fennel frawns, parsley, and chives, I decided to make a stop at the local liquor store. Since it’s been somewhat of a roller-coaster stage I wanted to leave on a good note offer a liquid parting gift…a case of beer. Who doesn’t love beer? I feel as though I’ve come full circle in this kitchen, and my hope is that the crew feels the same.
When I went back and read my Chicago Part Deux experience, I realized I wasn’t being truly honest with my reception. I never even attempted to explain the bumpy road… There were details that were left out, mainly due to my own insecurities. To capture the details I conveniently left out prior, I’m going to jump around here, and then try to be brief, direct, and honest. This may lack eloquence, so again: beware.
Truth be told, I felt a bit spoiled on the west coast at Patina. Although the kitchen was run like a Marine boot camp, the crew was welcoming and right off the back accepting. It was as though they lived in the dirt ditches and were more than happy for me to join them there… Fast-forward to Graham’s, and the first few days on the job were much different.
Welcoming and accepting would not exactly be the terms I would use to describe my initial experience…at least not the first few days. As I mentioned, the vibe in this kitchen is unique. The crew has the right to express ownership. This really is a phenomenal thing, however with this ownership comes the innate need to protect. Looking back, I now see it was evident, they were protecting the kitchen as if it’s their home. It’s not just their kitchen; it’s their family. How many of you have walked into a complete stranger’s house at dinner time, sat down and have said, “Hey, how’s it going? So what’re we eatin’?” Well… imagine the response you’d get…that vision you’re picturing… THAT was the feeling on my first day in the kitchen.
When I thought I had survived the first day, the second day I chose to go in with a more optimistic attitude. I thought I would lighten the load with a joke I tweeted involving the kitchen…really a stupid idea…it was an inside joke which poked more fun at me rather than anything else. NO BUENO. BAD, BAD IDEA!!! Forever to be noted as one of my worst ideas of 2011.
From the second I walked in the door, the Chef De Cuisine greeted me. In short he was kind and patient, however I WAS BUSTED FOR BAD TASTE! (no pun intended). He was not pleased to say the least. Feeling horrible about the situation, I immediately removed the tweet and proceeded to the kitchen. News of my indiscretion had spread faster than a California wild fire. Everyone—EVERYONE had already heard the news by the time I had stepped into the kitchen..
Operation redemption had begun. At this point I decided admitting fault and personally apologizing to everyone was the best course of action. For me, the whole scenario was a well-needed dose of humility. After seeing my attempts to remedy the scenario, the crew chose to give me a chance. They started to appreciate the work I was willing to put in, as well as the dedication I showed in trying to be a part of their team. After another week, the dust eventually settled and the last night in the kitchen approached.
Voila!!! The night is here—— I wake up early in the day, stop at the liquor store, then head into the kitchen… ready to commence fish dish perfection!!!! It was the feisty tournant that originally promised me that on my last night I would have the chance to work the fish line. Needless to say, I would be reminding him of this the minute I stepped foot in the kitchen.
When service begins the orders start to come in. I noticed tournant is working his way to the pans, looking as though he is going to try to cook the first dish of the evening… “I can take care of that for you?” I was extremely polite when hovering over him and trying to squeeze him away from the stovetop. “Remember…just remember, you said I could cook fish tonight.” (Note to anyone out there…if you ever “promise” me, I will not forget. If it’s something I’m really looking forward too…I will hound you until you deliver. Period end of story.)
Tournant smiles, says he remembers his promise, and gives me the go ahead.
Elated, I prepare the pan for the first salmon dish. Tournant is standing by looking rather worried. Fear is written all over his face. I understand the look, he is regretting his decision. I start reassuring him, “Don’t worry!!! I promise not to screw anything up.” I said this a few times…two seconds later, I screw up. I was so over anxious I began to crisp the wrong side of a salmon. He quickly steps in, saves the fish and shoots me a discerning look to which I reply, “Ok, OKAY …that was nerves…I’ll never make that mistake again.” He rolls his eyes and nods…other than that, the rest of the cooking went smoothly.
In the end, I had finally reduced my idiot stigma and proved I was somewhat helpful in the kitchen. I knew that after this night, I would truly miss this special funky kitchen, the people, and of course, the cooking. I never thought that something so bumpy in the beginning would have ended up so smooth in the end.
Thank You Chicago, Thank You Graham Elliot, and finally, Thank You to the kitchen peeps that kicked my ass, then took the time to teach me. I am extremely grateful and know I’ll someday say, “I knew them when…..”
WOW! The windy city has been a whirlwind to say the least!!! It feels like I just arrived at O’Hare, and now it’s time for me to go. Where did the time go??? I’ll tell you….98% of it was spent in the kitchen at Graham Elliott’s. The other 2% was spent having 2 days off in a two week time period. In those 2 days, I had more fun than most people have in a month…maybe even a year depending on how boring their lives are.
Before I get into the “last night in the kitchen” details….I have some stories to share. With the help of Kamila Morisco’s fant-tab-u-lous photos, we’ll take a journey and begin with last Sunday. This post is much longer than my traditional kitchen posts: beware. If you’re going to commit, commit…if not…then just check back later for something else that floats your fancy.
So…Tony Scruggs and his lovely wife Cheryl, live out in the countryside of Illinois. Since Tony is a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in months, I’m making sure to swing by his farm before I leave Chicago. Good people and fresh countryside air, here I come!!!!
Scattered and disorganized from a late evening the night before, the Morisco’s and myself are trying to get out the door and on our way. We’ve decided to aim high and shoot for 9:30am train. It’s 9:00am. We’re nowhere near the train, and we’re on foot chasing after taxis, who, for some reason refuse to pick us up (the five of us probably look like loonies so they decide to pass by us— they’re probably thinking we’re not worth the fare). We have an idea of where we’re going, but no clue what we need to do once we get there… really it’s beyond hysterical. We’re like the 3 stooges plus 2. Once we arrive at the train station we’re completely out of breath from hustling. It’s 9:20—-we’re excited, we’re thinking we made the train. Nope!!! No such luck. There wasn’t even a 9:30 train!!!! We read the schedule wrong or we read a schedule for an entirely different train. Seeing as we have an hour before the actual departure, we walk around outside then in the train terminal…
I guess it’s a posh little train station? Not sure, I have only been exposed to the L, the T, and Amtrak… I’m drawing my assumptions from Giuseppe’s reactions because he can’t help but declare his deep feelings of love regarding this station. With his Italian accent my friend throws it out… “Kamila, maybe we should come here one Friday night…you know to hang out?” Kamila, shakes her head. She knows her husband. She throws on a smirk, then rolls her eyes…the look of absurdity on her face says it all.
(Giuseppe describing the loveliness of the train station. Me, in awe over the fact that he seems serious about the station…jaw dropped and all)
We’re now on the 10:30am train with one hour of travel until we reach our destination. Halfway through our ride I burst out with my daily “WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE????” Today, it’s a small outburst…the morning hustle was dramatic enough. Like always the Morisco’s try to help me answer this very serious question.
(Giuseppe pondering the proper strategy for my future success.)
Giuseppe’s pretty sure he has the answer!!! He is going to promote the lesser-known parts of Italy…travel, lodging, restaurants, craftsmen… basically explore Italy the way it should be explored and then share it properly with the world. He thinks I am a decent writer (keep in mind Italian is his first language when it come to speaking and reading), so he tells me I can just follow him and Kamila around Italy and write. I can just write about him! Giuseppe is pleased as he is sure my life’s quest has finally been answered: Tracy Kontos will be Giuseppe Morisco’s personal writer.
Ok, I should share that Giuseppe and Kamila are two of the funniest people I know. Writing about their journey would undoubtedly lead anyone to a best selling comedic novel. With that said, I think I need to start with my own US adventure… one with a little more grit.
Finally the train has reached the last stop. We’re all still immersed in conversation, not even realizing we have reached our destination. In fact the conductor comes to our car, and pleasantly reminds us that this is our stop, we’ve been sitting there for 5 minutes, and we should now get off his train…he was polite, I’ll give him that.
We’re so excited to see TONY!!!! He’s waiting right outside of the station…I’m lucky enough to get a gi-normous hug, then we’re off to his house in the farmland…
On the way to his house, he stops on the side of the dirt road. Tony mentions seeing some wild asparagus growing around the area. We hop out of the car and into the overgrown bush. Voila, wild asparagus!!! We harvest the stalks and off we go back to his house…ahhhhh the country. (While in Chicago the only wild nature I had seen were the alley rats…so this really is a treat for me.)
When we arrive at Tony’s house, we’re greeted first by a goat…she’s right out front and not easy to miss.
The day is freezing cold, blustery, and damp….Cheryl, (Tony’s wife: aka sous chef extraordinaire) is indoors helping to prepare the feast we’re about to have for lunch.
If you don’t already know Tony Scruggs, let me help you out. Tony is an Illinois BBQ champion, a grand prize, first place, lean mean (ok not really mean) smoking machine! If someone is looking to master the world of BBQ, then Tony is the man they’re looking for. His knowledge on everything BBQ ranges from the special types of woods, ingredients, techniques, etc…it blows me away. I am wayyyyyyyyy out of my cooking league here. Our discussion moves from BBQ to life.
Inside the walls of his wonderful home, there are trophies and ribbons to commemorate his talent in the world of BBQ. There are also trophies of a different kind…his family pictures. He and Cheryl have amassed a wealth so great, others can only hope to find something similar or even close in their lifetime. They are rich in love with one another and their family. Tears are brought to my eyes when I see their pride in showing the pictures of their children, along with the pictures of their grandchildren. It’s beautiful and to be honest, I have no words to describe it. I think with a little luck I might be able to describe Cheryl, however I may still not do her justice.
When I first met the tiny Cheryl Scruggs I instantly adored her…then, throughout the day, I couldn’t help but like her more and more. She’s just a phenomenal woman with personality larger than her physical size. She and Tony have been together since their teenage years. Over the years she has been the sous chef to Tony’s BBQ conquests. We joked that she is the true kitchen manager running the line…I don’t doubt this for a second. She is a caretaker and it’s evident the moment you meet her.
So lunch is ready…Tony started smoking ribs at about 5am, and they’re just now tender enough to now be pulled out of the smoker. With a plate of ribs, some sweet potatoes dressed with a bit of blue cheese…we’re ready to lose ourselves in BBQ heaven
After lunch we decide to continue our conversation in the garage…everything Tony has in there is a conversation piece. From stuffed porcupines, to antlers, to old bait cans…being in that garage made me feel like a kid again, discovering little pieces of the past.
While digging through the treasures, I had a chance to tell Tony how much I loved the goat outside…he shared an interesting and perhaps one of my new favorite stories…It’s about the Goat and the Hen.
The Goat lives outside, a good distance away from the hen house. Months ago this Hen started keeping her distance from the main hen residence…Tony swears she just didn’t feel comfortable around the other hens. She didn’t fit in. She wasn’t happy with the other hens. So, this Hen would always be hanging around the goat. Next thing you know, the Hen has eggs that need to be laid. She utterly refuses to go to that hen house to lay her eggs. Instead she moves into the Goat’s house, completely unannounced, and lays her eggs. One chick survived, and now the Hen, her chick, and the Goat all live together in the Goat house. In fact, the Goat is protective of the Hen and would not let me even enter the house to take her photo. They’ve become a family despite the fact that it is Completely unorthodox. Guess what… it works.
So friends, after a fun day in the country side, we now come to the after-school special/moral of story: Should you find yourself in a situation like the Hen, take action…and what the heck, screw the hen house. Life always works itself out.
It feels as though it’s been a decade since my last note…in actuality, it was just last week! Sorry for the delay. Honestly, as I am trying to maintain some sort of life outside of “kitchen” life, I realize it’s nearly impossible. Everyone in the back of the house works a 12-14 hour workday (myself included). Most of the time they work 6 days a week. I know there are many of you out there that might snicker…perhaps you too do this everyday and you’re thinking “get over it!” Let me just say this… what makes these 12-14 hour days unique is that the job of a cook is surprisingly physical.
Again I’ll say it, cooking in a professional kitchen is nothing like cooking in your home kitchen. Between standing the entire day, to the constant running, lifting, bending, chopping, whisking, etc., it is a constant workout. When you’re enjoying you’re luxurious dinner whether in NYC, San Fran, Chicago (wherever)… pause for a moment and think about the passion on that plate. I’m not naïve in thinking every plate is conceived by passion…however, so far what I’ve seen shows me that the love of one’s craft can create perfection.
The cooks that I have met, live in their kitchen. They sacrifice the normalcy of their life for their passion, their true love. Most of them make $10-$12 an hour. There is usually no health insurance, no 401k, no “security”…do they complain? No. They do their job and they shoot for excellence every time. How many people out there can even come close to identifying with this???? Not many. After living in this environment for a month now, I know from now on, I’ll keep my mouth shout and complaints to myself. Really, there is no bitchin’ in the kitchen!
So, to get back to where we left off… The answer to the lingering question that is out there…”How were the Raviolis?” (To refresh your memory, I made fresh pasta raviolis for the staff meal…again, all eyes were on me to see whether or not I would screw it up. Smiles, smirks, and chuckles from al the cooks…the entire time. ) Honestly, they were delicious! I worked the dough as though I was a semi-pro pasta maker. The tournant (the cook in the kitchen who provides help to all the different cooks) showed me a ridiculously awesome technique when rolling the pasta through the machine. I know that if I attempt to describe this method, I will confuse the shit out of everyone. Therefore, my solution to this will be to post a video the next time I make pasta…that way you’ll be able to see it for yourself. This new little technique was a life changing moment for me!!!! I felt like I was let into Pandora’s box…
I’ve been learning more than I thought possible, mainly because I’m choosing to throw myself into any scenario. Reflecting back from the beginning of this journey, I have noticed my comfort level and knowledge growing. I’m still prepping fennel, parsley, and chives…however, now I have moved onto sauces, fish, pasta, etc. Do you have any idea where I’m going with this???? That’s right, for me I’ve hit the big time. You’ve guessed it. I’m on the line….and I’m cooking fish!!!!!!!!!!! WOOOOOHOOOO!!!!!
So this is the point in which I can hear you saying, “So what? You’re cooking fish. Tracy, you should be cooking something…you’re in a friggen’ kitchen!” Hah!!!! IF. YOU. ONLY. KNEW. I am a stage. A novice. In essence, I’m a non-paid stranger in their kitchen. On top of that, I am a female…a woman…strike two. In this male dominated industry I have to work twice as hard, show that I am twice as good, show that I want it twice as much, only to realize that most likely, I will only receive half, if any credit compared to a male counterpart. Needless to say, to get a line cook to allow a “stranger” (a female still proving herself worthy) to prepare their dishes…well, it’s just not that easy. Here’s why: when something goes wrong on the line, it’s the line cooks ass under the burner, regardless of the person at fault. Naturally the line cooks need to protect themselves from idiots in the kitchen. Oh yeah!!! I forgot to mention that…everyone in the kitchen is an idiot unless proven otherwise. This too is something I’ve just learned. Very valuable piece of info—take note. I guess in some way I am ecstatic to cook fish, as I know it must mean that I am less of an idiot from the time I had arrived. The other reason I am excited to be working in the sea station: the tournant.
Fiesty, knowledgable , perpetual perfectionist, and life long learner…this kid at the age of 24 knows some good stuff. He doesn’t have a shiny culinary degree. Instead he has experience. He makes it known. It’s easy for me to dismiss the arrogance, especially because he has knowledge for which he has earned and worked hard for. I respect him and in fact, find him humorous. I decide to learn from him, ask questions like crazy, and I finally adhere myself to him as though I am a starfish suctioned to a rock. After days of working hard and idiot shrinkage, he has let me cook fish…if I am lucky, he mentioned he might…MIGHT, let me take over the entire station tonight.
I’m heading into work for my last night and it’s a mix of emotions. Right now I am scared and kind of thinking “What happened to the days of peeling carrots all night long??? Am I ready to take off the training wheels???—Am I ready to work the line?” The answer: …. God… I DON’T KNOW! I think so. I hope so…like the first day at Patina, only one thought is echoing in my brain…. Do. Not. Fuck. Up.
Just when I think I’m running out of excitement and zest… I head to Chicago and realize that it’s all still there…in fact, I’m getting even zestier!!!! Really zesty. I arrive in Chicago on late Sunday afternoon.
Truth be told, I’m excited to be here for so many reasons, both personally and professionally. Personally, I love Chicago. It reminds me of a big Boston and that makes me miss home. I’m a diehard Red Sox fan, with that said, I do like, or shall I say “pity” the Cubs…I think they’re up to 102 years of not winning a World Series. As a Red Sox fan prior to 2004, I have complete empathy for the city… Ok, moving on to reason #2 as to why I’m in love with Chi-town: some of my favorite people reside in this city. For instance, my friends the Morisco’s, an Italian/Polish couple who lovingly stuff me with food, espresso, and grappa, are perhaps the funniest people I know (rivaled closely by the Kang’s in L.A.). It’s hard not to love a place when you’re getting the royal Italian treatment from your hosts! Then there is the part of Chicago that tickles both the personal and professional feather… the Chicago food scene….ooooooohhhhhh.
Chicago is INSANE (insanely good that is), when it comes to the food scene. The city is loaded with some of the country’s top restaurants: Alinea, Charlie Trotter’s, Blackbird, NAHA, The Girl and the Goat, and of course Graham Elliott. From Michelin Stars to James Beard awards, Chicago has major clout.
So, Monday was my first day at Graham Elliott’s. A friend of mine had spent a week in Graham’s kitchen prior to my arrival. While I was at Patina in LA, we had a conversation via phone…a chance to dissect the differences in both places. Patina as I mentioned was run like a traditional and classic French kitchen, minimal ingredients executed with perfect technique. Graham Elliott the opposite of traditional…it is funky, cool, unique, and authentic…Just like the man himself.
When I get into the restaurant I have a chance to meet the crew. I am again, blown away by the noticeable differences. Instead of traditional white chef coats, the line cooks sport trendy fitted tees and jeans. The chef coats are reserved for the Chef De Cuisine and Executive Chef…so in my opinion, everyone looks awesomely cool. Another first impression… it’s noon, and everyone is in the kitchen.
Intros are quick, and immediately I get to work dicing mushrooms…after the dicing I did the two weeks prior, I actually feel pretty confident. The environment seems like it has a perfect flow to it. During prep the crew puts on a varied play list of phenomenal music…it’s blasted nice and loud (shut off prior to service) Don’t be fooled, even though it sounds like a party, everyone is working their ass off and if anything the music is motivation to keep them going.
When I start asking questions about the line and execution of the dishes, I realize another difference from Patina…there is no brigade. Basically a brigade is a breakdown of who handles what in the kitchen. In some kitchen they may have one person handling the fish, another prepping the side components of the dish, and then there is someone else plating that dish. At Graham Elliott there are 5people on the line cold app, hot app, sea, land, and dessert. Each person handles every component and aspect of his or her dish…from prepping, to cooking, and then of course plating. I find this utterly amazing, as the restaurant is nearly double the size of Patina. So really, I can’t wait for tonight and tomorrow (Saturday night). With just these 4 people turning out a hundred plus dinners I am anxious to see how they’re going to do it…imagining it seems impossible to me right now.
It’s not that I imagined every kitchen to be the same, in fact, the reason when I decided to stage in 3 places was really to see variety and expose myself to a world I was not familiar with prior. I appreciate diversity and it’s another reason why I have grown to love kitchens. Everyone I’ve met has a unique story as to why they decided to pursue this tough and at times, less than glamorous path. Regardless of how they started, even in two very opposite kitchens, I have found one common thread…PASSION. The individuals I’ve met in these kitchens are ALL passionate. They not only cook, they eat, sleep, and breath—food. Inspiration oozes out of these kitchens, infecting all those that are nearby. Really it’s that contagious.
If I were to try to describe the kitchen atmosphere at Graham Elliott’s I would probably compare it (slightly) to Charm City Cakes/”Ace of Cakes”…let me explain. I make this comparison in the sense that you have “creative people doing what they should be doing…creating”!!! The encouragement to explore, develop, and create new dishes, comes from the top. Empowering their crew to think seems to produce a more knowledgeable environment. In Patina the executive chef was (mainly) the person doing the teaching. At Graham Elliott, everyone in the kitchen is teaching one another. When this type of creativity is nurtured through this type of environment, expect unlimited amounts of success.
Last bit of inspiration I picked up…well, it’s inspiration for me, maybe not as much for you. Everyone at Patina possessed some sort of culinary education. At Graham’s half the kitchen has an “official” culinary education, the other half has life/work experience. Why is this inspirational?… Because I’m 33 and when considering whether or not to pursue culinary school, I take notice in those that have bypassed it. Their level of creativity seems to shine through a bit more compared to that of their peers. Are they any less capable without a degree? Absolutely not. In fact, when I see their level of knowledge and their commitment to developing their own education, I am in awe. For me it’s definitely food for thought.
So between the time zones and the hours in the kitchen…I’m officially pooped. Even though I’m learning more than I ever imagined, I am exhausted.
Today I am continuing a task from yesterday…finishing fresh raviolis for a staff meal. That’s right another staff meal and I’m making fresh pasta. Not my call this time, however I am looking forward to it.
It’s Friday, there are 5 people about to handle a busy night of service…I’m not sure whether to be scared or excited. I guess I’ll go for a bit of both.
It’s 5am in the morning. As I sit in the airport, awaiting my next adventure (Chicago), I can barely keep my eyes open. Last night I couldn’t sleep… I stayed awake until 3am, then, attempted to take a nap for at least an hour before heading off to LAX. The nap idea was a complete “no-go” as I literally stared at the ceiling and thought about the 2 ½ weeks I’ve spent in LA and the 2 weeks I’ve spent at Patina. Retrospect.
Truth be told, I’m really emotional leaving California. I’ll do my best to explain with the help of a few words: familiarity, comfort, and engaged. When I’m in LA or let’s just say southern California… I just feel as though I have always been here…it always seems familiar to me. Weird right? Even though most of the time I haven’t a clue as to where I am, it still feels familiar. While I’m here, the people that I know (and meet along the way) seem to provide an overwhelming sense of comfort. Californian’s, (at least the ones I know and love) are the least judgmental people I’ve ever met…knowing that I can be honest and open without a crowd of people cocking their head sideways and thinking that I’m bonkers, well, that’s comforting to me. Lastly, I am engaged beyond belief while I am in California. I feel as though there is something under every stone, and it’s my sole responsibility to lift every one of them. With all of this said, I will humbly admit …there were tears during my staring match with the ceiling. Through the tears I did find solace in knowing I was off to another fabulous city…Chicago!!!!
Going back to my stay and incredible learning experience at Patina…I had the opportunity to meet so many talented young chefs. At 33 I was the oldest person in the kitchen with the exception of the executive chef. Despite my age and lack of professional kitchen experience, they allowed me to bother them with questions, and took the time to train me on numerous stations. I learned the basics, as well as some great techniques I had never seen before. I learned how the line works and how it’s important for them to have constant communication. One funny thing I noticed, here in particular…you know how people sometimes look like their dogs? Well, I think some of these line guys look like their position. For instant the guy on the fish station is soft spoken and a bit delicate in stature; the guy on the meat station is tall, burly, and robust; the guy on hot apps, is slender and well put together just like the mosaic dishes he sends out. Coincidence? I think not! I wonder if this is the same in most places…we’ll see.
So what happened after my day of artichokes??? One day last week, the exec chef actually asked me to prepare the staff meal!!! The staff meal is the meal that is provided to the crew (usually for the wait-staff and kitchen staff) prior to dinner service. Basically the staff meal utilizes the leftovers or unused goods and creates a meal to feed everyone. Most of the time it is an annoyance for those you get dealt this task, therefor they throw together some awful concoction and call it a “meal”. For some reason…I was so nervous to make this meal…you would have thought I was feeding the food critics of the New York Times!!! I really had no idea what I could and could not utilize, I was nervous to cook for these chefs in a kitchen that has earned a Michelin star, and all of the guys in the kitchen were razzing me on my level of seriousness over this meal. Okay, I will say, I took this task very seriously…but let me ask you this, when the executive chef asks you to do something…wouldn’t you want to do it well??? Exactly…..so you ask “What did you make Tracy?” I made pasta with a tomato, Italian sausage, and basil cream sauce. The pasta was al dente and I thought the sauce was pretty good for what I had to work with. (I will say, had I known—yeah, I know I should have asked—I could utilize other ingredients, I would have made something lighter as it was 90 degrees that day and the meal was a bit heavy. The final feedback from the staff was that it really tasty. The pastry chef (who barely spoke to me the entire time at Patina) made it a point to thank me for a great staff meal.)
Let’s see, what else went on? Well, during my stage there was also another stage, a young Japanese man, who speaks little English and has the funniest laugh/cackle I have ever heard (haaaahaaaa hahhhhh yehhh!!!). He took a ton of notes and a ton of pictures and video. The exec chef adamantly tried to explain that photos were not allowed, however, my new Japanese friend pretended not to understand, nodding his head in agreement but continued his photo/video montage…he had a camera with him at all times (I swear I am not making this up). What is really mind blowing is that he is spending 6 months in the US just to learn techniques and skills to bring back to his restaurant in Japan. I think about how he must feel— out of his element in our foreign country— and despite the fact that I find him hilariously goofy, I cannot help but see is his bravery through everything.
Patina taught me the best practices in which I should begin my culinary career. It taught me that even if you think you’re doing a great job, you can always do better. It taught me not to expect a pat on the back for a job well done…that a job well done is expected of you. So now I’m heading to Graham Elliot in Chicago. I feel confident, more knowledgeable, and ready to step out of my box.
Here’s my last note regarding my LA stay…. On my way to the airport I drove by the Radisson in Culver City…the place that started this whole adventure…U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” came on the radio. Even though this is one of my all-time favorite songs, until this point I had never really heard it. I get the goose bumps at that moment as I couldn’t help but see some irony in the first couple of verses:
I want to run.
I want to hide.
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.
It’s off to Chicago.
Did you know that the leaves on an artichoke have a natural breaking point? (I just figured this out yesterday) If you know how to bend the leaf correctly, you’ll know that when you bend it ¾ of the way backwards then straight down, the leaf will naturally break where it is meant to, keeping the artichoke heart intact. The leaves, on their own accord, know when they have been bent enough and know that they cannot take it any longer, therefore breaking when they are ready.
Why not just pull the leaves out vigorously: —because you’ll damage the heart of the artichoke. The artichoke’s heart is its prized possession. Protected by thorny fibrous leaves, it takes careful work to get to it’s heart…if you’re not careful, the heart could become damaged or you yourself might be inflicted by thorny little pin-pricks.
Saturday while at Patina, this was my first job of the day…carefully breaking the leaves of artichokes to get to their hearts. While I’m working, I notice that the kitchen is full of people, yet no one is speaking. Everyone is in their zone and focused on their tasks at hand. All that is heard is the symphony of the kitchen: chopping, peeling, sounds of sautéing, the low rumble of water boiling, whisking, etc, etc. Anyone that knows me knows that I am a talker, however everyday I have enjoyed the silence and solitude of prepping in a kitchen… I guess it’s the calm before the storm.
During this calm, artichokes in hand, I begin to think. I start with my life and my state of mind from this past December/January reflecting on the months behind. I am always the one to throw on a smile, so this may be a shocker to some of you reading this…I was unhappy. Unhappy with a few things, (such as my overall health, work, where I was living, etc) but a large part of it was that I felt like I was not leading a life that was true to who I am as an individual. It seemed as though at one point, I decided to get on the high speed train, and at some point, forgot where I needed to get off. By the time I realize this, I am WAY beyond the point of my destination and become saddened knowing I’ve dropped the ball. All in all, while trying to get to the heart of the artichoke, I got deeper into mine.
Since February my life has underwent a major renovation. I had the opportunity to partake in a life changing experience. The experience, the people, my love for cooking…It brought me back to who I am and what it is I want in life. It was crystal clear. It was through this clarity that I have been able to find happiness again.
So after losing my job in corporate America, I decided that heading into the world of tough kitchens (Patina, Graham Elliott, Del Posto) would help expose me to a world that I love. Really for better or worse, I knew it would open my eyes and help me figure out my destination, a destination that speaks to my heart. I know I love to cook, but really, where is it that I want to be? And most importantly…how the hell do I get there? These are just my daily thoughts….
Something to keep in mind if you’re not already aware of it: being a chef/cook in a kitchen is far from being a glamorous job. The days (which seem to vary from 5-6 per week at 12 hour increments) are long, the job is highly physical, there is a need for perfection that inevitability leads to verbal abuse of the staff for their mistakes, at times the kitchen is perfectly calm and controlled, other times it is complete and utter chaos…It really takes strength, adaptability, and talent to successfully turn out a product that is consistent and delicious. My advice to those of you who are considering a career change, get in a great professional kitchen, see how it works, works hard while you are there, and then ponder if this is your life’s path. When you can, make sure to talk to the line cooks, the sous chefs, the executive chef…if they invite you out for drinks—GO! While you’re there ask a ton of questions.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend this time figuring out my life…I know I am blessed beyond words and everyday I feel grateful that my situation is what it is. I am blown away with gratitude and feel thankful for my special loved ones… my family and friends who are utterly supportive of my endeavors.
So I head in today, another week at Patina, and I ‘m still excited to see what’s in store… So far I have been able to help in a few stations…Seeing as I am a visitor without a particular area of expertise, I have helped prep and execute the amuse (for most evenings), as well as the hot and cold appetizers. This week I hope to spend time observing the true “line”: the entremetier (veg/soup/starch cook) poissonier (fish cook) and rotisseur (meat cook). What I have seen so far is mind blowing…the dynamics are incredible: the communication, timing, speed, execution, etc. It has given me a greater understanding of how hard it is to put the perfect plate together… Once you see it for yourself, I guarantee you would have a greater appreciation for the dish you’ve ordered.
In the meantime, I leave these questions out there for everyone to ponder…How happy have you been in your life? When was the last time you followed your heart? …When was the last time you pursued a dream? When was the last time you took a risk for the good, not knowing what the outcome will be? How long will you wait until you may something happen………..?
“Learn from the best”…this advice amongst other things, is what I’ve learned over the last 48 hours. To begin, I think I need to set the tone…Patina’s kitchen is run by a 3 star Michelin chef (if you are not familiar with the Michelin star, see below). His life and career began in France and in Michelin star restaurants. After a few years he was trained further by Alain Ducasse and eventually moved to New York to run Ducasse’s kitchen at the Essex House. The Essex House won their 3 stars in 2006.
So, now as executive chef at Patina, the lovely Frenchman (who could be a brother to George Clooney, yes the obvious is that he is good looking) runs his kitchen with a meticulous eye for all details. What is impressive to me is that despite the accolades, experience, and his “French-ness”, he truly is unpretentious. He takes the time to teach his people. This does not sound like a big deal…but it’s a HUGE deal. His staff comes from famed restaurants such as Bouchon, Craft, Le Cirque, etc…overall the consensus is that from all of the establishments they have worked in, he is by far the most hand’s-on executive chef.
Patina’s sous chefs are in charge of directing me during my stage…thank god!!! It works perfectly for me seeing as I have the most difficult time understanding the executive chef through his heavy French accent. (On average I understand 30% of what he is saying, the other 70% I swear he is still speaking French. I stare intently at his mouth trying to make sense of his words. I know for sure I’m freaking him out and he is wondering, “What the hell is she looking at?”). On my first day in the kitchen he pulled me aside to have a quick cup of coffee and to discuss my future plans. (He thinks I am younger than I am so his advice is tailored to a 25 year old rather than someone who is 33). Needless to say, I make it known that I am an at-home cook with aspirations of someday being a chef and business owner. His words, which, thank goodness this time I could understand…were simple, “Learn from the best.”
So, what else have I learned in the last 48 hours? Here is my simple breakdown:
-#1: First and foremost: Right now I suck! There is so much I don’t know about working in a kitchen and it is not anything like cooking in your home.
-#2: There is so, so, so much I need to learn, however, I am great at prep, I work fast, I jump in when ever I see a need…a hopeful sign.
-#3: I have already learned simple valuable techniques that have been burned into my brain…such as taking 3-4 ingredients and executing the dish in a way that creates layers of flavors while keeping the integrity of the ingredients.
-#4: I get frustrated easily due to my lack of knowledge…this frustration makes me work harder.
-#5: Most important life lesson learned…is that the ONLY way to eat an elephant is by eating it one bite at a time. I have learned that everyone—EVERYONE—needs to start somewhere, and that this is my start.
(The Michelin guide awards one to three stars to a small number of restaurants of outstanding quality. One star indicates a “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-star ranking represents “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. A three-star Michelin ranking is rare. As of late 2009, there were 26 three-star restaurants in France, and only 81 in the world)
Like the first day of school, I woke up hours before my alarm went off. Thoughts of prep were the first to run through my brain: peeling potatoes, washing lettuce, chopping those damn carrots…what the hell am I going to be doing today? I guess if I knew, the anticipation would not be as fun. The great news is that they are completely unaware of the kitchen disasters that I have been affiliated with…(mainly the disasters from the last few months)…. PHEWWWWW! One positive start for the day.
As you may of guessed my adventure and pursuit of a new career begins today!!! It’s officially my first day in the kitchen at Patina—highly regarded Michelin Star Restaurant. If you know me, you would know that I am a nervous wreck!!! I hate to fail and I am a perfectionist. Being brand new at something, inevitably means that failure will be a part of the journey…scary right?!? It’s not to say I’m not beyond exhilarated to be in the kitchen, it’s that I have no idea what to expect. I’m sure it’s the same for everyone…not knowing what lies can be frightening…so, I spent last night trying to focus on what I could control: Organizing and Drinking. I organized my necessities for the following day after having numerous carafes of sangria with good friends. Whomever says alcohol does not help, must’ve never had a drink!!!!!! A few glasses of tasty sangria was just what was needed to help me wrangle my chef coat, pants, shoes, copy of their menus, knife kit, note pad, and pen. Everything is piled neatly on my suitcase awaiting my day ahead, much like the first day of school, when one lies out their new outfit for the next day. I’ll admit it, the thought crosses my mind….”Will they like me?”, again, much like the first day….
All in all it’s not going to make a damn difference whether or not they like me, or whether or not I look the part in the kitchen… What will matter is my drive, my character, my persistence, and most importantly, my ability to minimize MY fuckups in THEIR kitchen.
So, I’m off to get in a few more hours of menu studying prior to my noon showtime….one thought in mind: do not fuck up.
- 2.5 cups heavy cream
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 vanilla bean (slice down the middle and scoop out the seeds)
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar
- capful of vanilla
- 1 ripe banana
- light brown sugar
- Preheat oven to 325 /have your ramekins ready by placing them in a deep baking pan/have a a good amount of boiling water on hand.
- In a saucepan, heat the cream, maple syrup, and vanilla bean over medium heat. Add the beans of the vanilla and the entire bean pod. Take off heat right as it starts to simmer. Remove the bean pod and discard.
- In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar until the mixture for approximately 2 minutes.
- In a very slow light stream, whisk the cream into the egg yolk whisking very fast. (You must go slow with the hot cream otherwise too much cream and you might scramble the egg).
- Once everything is whisked together, pour mixture into ramekins and carefully pour boiling water around the ramekins.
- Bake for 45 minutes, then remove and let cool. Once cooled place in the fridge for 2-3 hours.
- When ready to serve, remove the brulee from the fridge approx 30 minutes prior. Then thinly slice banana and place on top of creme, then sprinkle with approx 1 tsp of brown sugar per ramekin. Either melt the sugar with a torch, or broil in oven with the tops of the ramekins 1 inch from the broiler for approx 1 minute. Remove immediately once browned and caramelized.