Yesterday I did my first trail (also sometimes referred to as a stage) at an upscale restaurant near where I live. It was an amazing experience! I arrived early, found parking, entered through the back door and asked for the Chef. Passing through the door was interesting as it was a reminder of how things are different as a cook. I had previously been to eat at this restaurant as a guest for my 1 year wedding anniversary last May. They had recently opened, had great reviews. I liked the food, service and atmosphere so much, that I immediately applied when I saw a job posted and was super excited to be invited in for a trail.
After being greeted by the Chef, I was taken upstairs to change and then given a tour of the kitchen. The restaurant’s focus is farm to table, sustainable food. They source many of their ingredients from their own farm when in season and many of their food purveyors are local keeping in spirit with their mission and reason for being. It is truly an impressive operation and I was so inspired by everything I saw. I couldn’t wait to get started.
I felt calm as I knew how to do each task that was asked of me. I can thank school for that and yet being on the line for service and working was so different than school. The day started off with doing some prep work to get ready for service, in contrast to my school experience where you start from scratch and build a recipe from ingredients to food on a plate all in one go. Clearly in a restaurant, you assemble, cook and serve for speed, effeciency and consistency. School was more like home cooking where you get to see every component whereas at a restaurant, you see your little world and there is a whole team executing on that one plate and several plates at once to provide a meal for your guests. My hope was to get to see the whole world even while doing my tasks and I would find out that the Chef wanted that for me too.
At first I wasn’t sure if the tasks I was given were mere tests or if I was doing actual work. It became clear that my final products would be used in the night’s recipes. I wasn’t nervous about it like I thought I would be, and yet I moved a bit slower than I would have liked to ensure my cuts and work were the best I could do. I wanted each guest to enjoy their meal as much as I had when I was on the other side. Tasks included cutting orange and lemon segments (supremes), brunoise apples (very fine dice), dicing sweet potatoes, dicing tomatoes, and whipping cream with some herbs and seasoning with salt and pepper to name a few. I thought the whipped cream assignment was a bit of a kitchen joke as I was given a huge bowl filled with heavy cream and herbs and a whisk and asked to do it by hand. It seemed to me that a machine was better suited for this, my arms agreed with me as well, given the size of the bowl and the amount of cream there was to whip. Obviously we were making enough for the night and the volume I was making was greater than anything I ever made at school. Looking back at it, doing it by hand required fewer tools and setup time. Time is everything.
Dinner service was minutes from starting and one of the cooks showed me how to complete the recipes for Garde Manger, the cold appetizers including beef tartare, salad niscoise and a hamachi dish. She showed me her method for assembling and garnishing while also giving me an overview of where to find ingredients, find the refills, and last minute prep that needed to be done like pealing more eggs, cutting up fingerling potatoes and refilling some of the garnish containers. With that, she was off! I was left there to figure it out with the help of other very busy cooks of course. I half wished the ticket machine would not push anything out while also being excited about getting tickets and learning. I had never worked with a ticketing machine and sharing it with another cook was challenging. I had no clue about what to do, but was quickly shown the ropes. Service picked up and things were humming along. I was really starting to enjoy myself. This was it. This is where I needed to be.
During service I got to sample a lot of the food, see the chefs interact with each other and got a great feel for the team and the restaurant. The chef was great about making me little tasting dishes for what was going out which I devoured. One of my fears of working in the food industry is going to work at a place and then never wanting to eat there either because of how I know how the food is made, sanitation issues, the team or a myriad other reasons. I can’t wait to go back and eat more of this food. It’s my style of cooking, plating and atmosphere. At different points the Chef allowed me to move around to get a sense of other stations like expo, pastry and observing the rest of the line. I got to see the whole operation humming along and how the pieces fit together. I knew I was being sold, and enjoyed every moment of it.
I definitely had moments between tickets where I thought to myself that “What am I doing here? I am being selfish and crazy” for enjoying or evening wanting this lifestyle, especially when I considered the hours and shitty pay. I guess this means I haven’t “committed” to this life yet. I have already done so much selfishly when I consider starting my own company, Media Armor which sucked up countless hours and interrupted many events, personal and family alike with “emergencies” and long days at the office or working at home. My wife Elizabeth and I also made a huge financial investment and sacrifice with me going to culinary school. I am not sure if this is the right step personally and wish I had worked nights in restaurants when i was younger to have a better sense of what I’m getting into. Ah hindsight!
The chef and I met at the end of the night to talk. I was offered a full-time position and a lot to think about! They want me nights 2 to 11 Tuesday through Saturday. This would be a major change for me personally and financially. I’m thrilled for the opportunity, especially for working with such a talented team and for learning from such an accomplished chef. This is very much a teaching kitchen. I got pointers the entire night that will make me a better cook. When I was asked what I could have done better, the answer was essentially have “a sense of urgency”. An astute comment as I am very laid back and it takes a lot to get me stressed out. My posture was not one of an experience cook ready to be attacked or one that has been chewed out by a chef or scarred by a crazy night of service before. I’m clearly green and yet have an opportunity to grow with a chef who is invested in training and seeing each of his team members grow. I’m very lucky.
One of my classmates, Karen sent us all a link to a video. While it relates to writing, you could easily substitute cooking for the subject matter. I am at the point where I still have so much to learn and so many mistakes to make. I’ll always have a lot to learn as I strive to become better and better.