I just learned that the place I started out at is closing. It’s always sad news to hear that a business is closing down. It affects the lives of so many. In the restaurant world it’s never surprising news even when a restaurant appears to be doing well.
I’m thankful for the short time I had and all that I learned. The chef/owner will be concentrating on their first location.
A lot has happened over the past year including the loss of my mother and the arrival of my son. In a moment of clarity what is obvious, life is precious, has an even greater effect on how I spend my time. The age old problem of time working is time away from problem is hard to reconcile.
Although I did not work for long in a restaurant, what has become clear is that restaurant life isn’t for me. If I could, I would be in culinary school forever or I stage at as many restaurants for as many chefs as I could to learn cuisine, technique and about who I am as a cook. A life-long learner, the path to being a chef is not one of glitter and fame for me. It’s simply a goal backed by experience, confidence and a wealth of knowledge.
Over the next few months, I’ll work at teaching at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts while also seeking out events, stages or opportunities in general that are flexible. For now, that’s what is right for me and my family. Anything more or less can’t be considered the right progress for me now.
I filled out my paperwork yesterday to start at Garde Manager at the restaurant where I did my second stage. I’ll be working part-time and be responsible for prep as well and work at the Garde Manger station where I’ll work on cold appetizers, and desserts. I start on March 3rd and am beyond excited to start this next chapter in my culinary career.
Last night I completed my second restaurant stage. I had set this up with a chef that was a guest speaker at my school in the fall. Much like any job interview in the “business world”, this culture, atmosphere and team were very different from my first stage as was the food. The overall experience was amazing and gave me a lot to think about with respect to my career as a chef, personal growth and how I’ll continue to learn about food.
My arrival was a little different from my first stage. I was greeted by the chef as before, but to start off we had a quick chat at a table. He asked about my experience, but more importantly what I was looking for. I was more prepared this time after reflecting a lot about what I wanted to get out of the experience and stated that first and foremost I wanted a place to learn and grow. I had left culinary school with more questions than answers to which he replied, “that’s how it’s supposed to be”. I also let him know that for now I wanted to start off part-time and that I’m looking for a mentor. All sounded good and I think having that grounding set us up for a successful evening.
Initially I was asked to do some prep, starting with a mirepoix for a soup. I started with one onion and showed the sous chef to see if I was on track. Too small he said, as everything would be cooked and then puréed at the end. They key of course was uniform pieces. Oops, I’m glad I asked. I finished the rest of the task. I thought it would take me all day, but I was done sooner than I had expected.
My next task was to cut up some squash for the soup. A fairly easy task, although they were large. Thankfully I have a 10″ chef’s knife that I had recently sharpened. It’s so important to keep your knives sharp!
The next task was a bit more involved. I had to scrub purple and green radishes that were going to be used for a pickle. The task wasn’t hard, but it took a long time. Nature doesn’t produce the perfect food we find in supermarkets. It really gives you a lot to think about.
I was next invited to the menu rundown. Chef went through the menu and changes. One of the things I really like about his approach to food is to truly use what’s in season and available from purveyors. Everything is made from scratch which I find amazing, but the quality of the food shows it. Chef also prepared the staff meal, a hearty combination of foods and plenty of nutrition to keep everyone going for the long evening ahead. It was delicious.
During service I was put on garde manger to help and observe the person on that station, essentially trailing them. One of the things I was shown how to make was a delicious spiced beet salad. I was also able to help out making a Roxbury Russet Apple salad and some desserts.
During service Chef came over to me and said I could order anything I wanted. I chose the veal agnolotti. It was sublime. I was truly satiated and was even more convinced that this is the type of food I wanted to learn more about.
The evening went well. At times I still felt like a deer in headlights, trying to study and absorb as much information as possible. While I knew I needed to be fast to get food out, I was also keenly aware that whatever goes out represents the restaurant and the chef. I wanted each and every plate I worked on to be perfect.
As the evening started to wind down, I had an opportunity to catch up with Chef. We had a great conversation about starting and said he hoped to hear from me in a few days. I got similar feedback with respect to my work saying that I need to improve on speed and essentially “go from culinary school speed to restaurant speed.” I want that, and know it will come quickly as I familiarize myself with the menu, the approach to food, how ingredients are cared for and handled and more. There is a lot to think about and also a lot to be excited about.
I find myself wondering “what is it about food that I need to understand? Why am I so interested in sacrificing my personal time, body and potentially friendships because I want to learn more about food, cooking and the kitchen?”
I thought my troubles sleeping after my first stage were an anomaly. I found it equally as hard to fall asleep last night. I was so amped up on what I’ll suppose was adrenaline. My heart and mind were racing as my head hit the pillow and it took a long while to fall asleep. I’m feeling great today. Much more ahead.
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.