How I Learned to Cook – A Response

I can still taste the dish; still see myself plating it.  Oven Roasted Salmon Fillet, Champagne Beurre Blanc, Riesling Braised Savoy Cabbage, and Roseval Potatoes.  I’m pretty sure that’s how it would have read on Chef Louise’s menu, and I had no idea what I was cooking.

I moved to Vermont in the middle of the September, three solid months before my first day at New England Culinary Institute.  Everything was new for me.  New state, new people, new career direction.  I arrived early so I could feel settled in my surroundings before the coursework began.  Thankfully, the school had a kitchen position for me in the meantime.  After an orientation and tour of the facility, I was asked to report for my first day of garde manger at the Tavern restaurant.

The Tavern served uncomplicated dishes, pub fare, and home-style dishes.  The Tavern shared it’s kitchen with the fine dining a la carte kitchen, Butler’s.  The Tavern was one side, and Butler’s was the other.  Actually the Tavern on less than one third, Butler’s everywhere else.  Though the Tavern wasn’t a teaching kitchen, the atmosphere was still very much a model of the ‘learn by doing’ mantra that N.E.C.I. championed.  Chef Daniel was very mild and patient with the group of (sometimes) misfits who found their way into his kitchen, myself included.  Having very little formal training, this was a blessing.  I also learned a lot just by staring across the line into the Butler’s kitchen; watching their plates being put together, their brigade pushing out complicated presentations and delicate finishes.  This voyeurism was a priceless introduction to the craft.

Three months passed, and I moved from the garde manger (salads, cold presentations) position through the saute, and onto the grill station.  For those who are unaccustomed to the kitchen ‘hierarchy’, most people start where the ingredients cost less, so their fuck-ups don’t hurt quite as badly.  Hence, garde manger moves to hot food as the chef feels more comfortable with the cooks ability to execute dishes properly.  I learned vocabulary, techniques, attitudes, and the posture of a professional kitchen very quickly during these weeks.  I also learned to ask a lot of questions.  Of course, I was still green as shit, but feeling more confident.

Shortly before my term began, a weekend shift opened up in the Butler’s kitchen, and the Tavern staff was asked if there was anyone who would like to fill it.  I volunteered first.  I knew Butler’s kitchen and all of those guys cooking over there were way beyond my skill level.  But, I had been watching for three months.  Actually, I had been salivating, watching jealously, grinding my teeth to try cooking like I was watching Butler’s cook; and I jumped at it.

It took me a few years to get some perspective on my cooking that first night.  Until I was in a position to watch someone who didn’t know how to cook (like I didn’t know), struggle and try to own a station (like I struggled), I didn’t know how awkward I must have looked.  I didn’t know a lot of the techniques that Chef Louise was asking me to employ.  “Braise the cabbage in champagne, make a beurre blanc with this Riesling, skin the potatoes; but only just the very outside so that the rose color stays on the flesh…”  I was responsible for my entire mise en place.  I also had a scallop appetizer pick-up.  I don’t remember anything other than searing the scallops, so I must have passed them off to be finished by someone else.

After our pre-shift meeting where Chef delivered the menu for the evening, and detailed how product should be treated and handled, we went upstairs to get our mise en place together.  At 5:30, service started.  Everything seemed fine, and I was putting together dishes with the rest of the brigade.  Then I distinctly remember getting lost in the verbal ordering system.  It sounded like this; “Ok!  Order Fire: Two Scallop, One Sweetbread, Two Soup du Jour, Ordering in One Salmon, One Steak Medium, One Pork, One Vol au Vent”.  I would make the scallops timed together with the sweetbreads and the soup pick-up.  Then I would start prepping the salmon dish; searing the fish and flipping it out on to a little sheet of parchment to be finished in the oven, sear some of the potatoes to get a nice color on them, and have a pan hot to pick up the cabbage.  So far so good.  But then we were picking up scallops, ordering in scallops as a second course, picking up salmon, ordering in salmon, plating fish, passing dishes, timing everything to come up together, and before I knew it I was in the shit.  Chef Eric (the co-chef or T.A.) jumped onto my station with me and gave me an ‘all-day’ or a complete list of what Chef Louise needed from me, with the most pressing items at the top.  With the help of the whole kitchen I got out of the weeds.  I still remember the one exasperated look that Chef Louise threw back over her shoulder at me…(it’s was a good look, chef!)  I saw that same look given to students while I was her teaching assistant a couple of years later.  The sense of failure, and the fact that everyone was helping me to be a better cook was humbling and prodding all at once.  I got in the swing of my station, and caught up as quickly as possible.

That was Friday night.  I came back the next night and owned my station.  I ended up helping out the entrementier position (vegetable cooking and plating), and helping out where ever else I could.  I was making up for taking peoples time and energy the night before.  My regret is, though I redeemed myself, Chef Louise wasn’t there to see it.  It was her kitchen after all, and I wanted to leave it with her blessing, not a sour experience.  It was nice to hear other guys on the line cheers me on, though.  They were calling across the line to the Tavern Chef, “Hey Chef, look at your boy, Scott!  He’s really cooking over here!”.  It was a great feeling of acceptance and redemption.  Classes started for me soon after that weekend, and I didn’t have a chance to cook much in the Tavern or Butler’s thereafter.

I still get nervous when I’m getting ready for service.  I want to make sure that all my mise en place is exactly where I want it to be.  Everything is accounted for, every execution is planned, everything has its place.  Being a working chef is an exercise in anal retentive behavior.  You’re luckier if it comes naturally.  I love these memories from my first night in a Fine Dining kitchen.  It was a great experience that solidified my dedication to the culinary arts.  Many dishes and ingredients are steeped with meaning and memories for me (and for you?).  I’ve had so many great teachers over the years, and I stood behind lots of fun and great dishes, full of emotions, and techniques, and stories.  I’ve been blessed.  When I remember this dish, I remember wanting to be a chef for the first time.  I remember the exhilaration of a well executed service, well executed dishes, and the feeling that I would never have all of the answers.  The same emotions keep me excited about food and hospitality to this day.

Thanks for reading-

-Scotty

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