Saturday, January 31, 2009

Scratching the Surface at Lumiere

The first day I walked into Studio 31 at CBC Radio in Vancouver to watch The Early Edition live in action, I had no idea what was going on. The studio director Shiral was super energetic, which I couldn't understand because it was 5:30 in the morning when I got there. They kept throwing to items and Shiral was frenetically typing on a screen while counting down the host to every segment. Phones were ringing...people were running in and out of the studio...I just sat there and watched, dumbfounded.

Perhaps prophetically, that first day I got to sit in and watch an interview with a very intense and talented chef who had just taken over the landmark Vancouver restaurant Lumiere. It was probably his second day after being named head chef. That would be Dale Mackay.

He -- a year and a half later -- would be the chef who would lead me through my first full kitchen experience.

In a previous blog posting I wrote about how I won a day in the kitchen at Lumiere on New Year's Eve. It was part of a draw they did at db Bistro next door. I was thrilled to pieces because I'd been exploring ways to gain experience in the culinary world in my quest to become a food writer.

I finally cashed in my prize this Friday. And man...did I get an experience.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I walked in. My main goals were to absorb as much information as possible while trying like hell not to ruin everything.

Here's everything that I can remember in brief, in as consecutive an order as I can recall. Otherwise I might as well quit my day job to finish writing this:


I step into the kitchen at 11 am. Everybody is working full steam ahead already. I'm change into uniform and am desperately trying to recall every piece of culinary information so I can better process what's going on.

Get introduced to everyone and each position. I pray there's no pop quiz or I'm toast.

First up: time at the saucier station. First question I get asked: "do you know how to hold a knife?" Good question...haven't really given much thought to it. Am able to simulate a good enough approximation. Set to work cutting 1 cm long diamonds of peppers to garnish the mussel soup. It's much, much harder than you'd think. Am shown how to clean mussels and how to prepare the soup. Am told this is the greatest soup ever. It is.

At the meat station I am shown how to break down a duck for the first time. My mother does it by hacking away with a giant meat cleaver. Apparently this is not the traditional way to do things. Also get to try veal tongue.

Then am taken to check out one of the supply trucks that comes by every week. Have never been around that much high end produce before. Have never been around people so enthused about their product. It's awesome.

Off to the veg station. I'm cutting out rounds of sweet potato and cabbage. Am shown the potato cooking away in duck fat and butter. Good thing I hate diets.

I watch Dale painstakingly create what proves to be a beautiful terrine. Elements required include foie gras that's soaked in milk for four days and intricately assembled with truffles. Layered with venison and gelatin infused stock. Note to anyone eating this: value every molecule contained in this dish. You have no idea the amount of work per square millimetre.

Am given a tasting spoon to try the various soups and sauces. Am encouraged to try everything. I do. Keep spoon in pocket. Really comes in handy throughout the day.

Get to assist the only two ladies in the kitchen with pastries. Find out all the detail work involved in creating pineapple chips. Will forever treasure every garnish I'm served.

Am repeatedly asked if I'm a new employee. It's awkward having to explain what I'm doing there. But everyone is super nice.

Am also repeatedly told to ask more questions. My question for everyone is just: what are you doing? Everyone is very accomodating...explains what they're doing, what they're working with and how they're doing it without my having to ask. Questions feel redundant. Prefer to revert to journalism mode and observe.

The calm before the storm: at about 5 pm prep ends and the staff meal is served. Everybody hunkers down in the db Bistro dining room. It's nice to see all the camaraderie.

Then back to the kitchen to the garde manger station. Realize the squares under one of the elements of the butternut squash amuse bouche are square for a reason as I set about squaring them. Apparently they warp after baking. Sounds tedious but I love detail work.

At 5:30 service begins. I find as quiet a corner as I can to stand in. Unfortunately it's right under one of the salamander ovens so I spend much time trying to keep my head from bursting into flames.

Service really starts to pick up after 6. Reminds me of a live radio show in that it's all about timing, teamwork and precision. Anyone who doesn't have their shit together would be screwed. Am surrounded by hardcore professionals so this doesn't happen. Only serious issue of service turns out to be an amuse bouche element wrapped in too many layers of cling film. Takes much time and effort to free it of its confines.

And no...Dale does not at any point explode into an expletive filled rage a la a certain British chef. At least -- not while I'm present.

At one point am brought over to the kitchen at db Bistro. Amazing how you can have a completely different animal just a few feet away. That kitchen never stops. While Lumiere serves on average between fifty to sixty patrons a night, db during a peak period will serve between 180 to 200 people. Different food and a totally different atmosphere.

Imagined that my complete lack of experience would've created a fair amount of hesitation in asking me to do anything. Within sixty seconds of meeting chef Stephane Istel, am asked "Would you like to sauce something?" Immediate internal reaction is "ohgodohgodohgodohgod I'm going to destroy their beautiful food". Actual response: "sure". Did not destroy anything.

Then I'm asked to dress a salad. ohgodohgodohgod. I ask how much vinagrette to add. "So it tastes good". Well, duh Joan.

Why the anxiety? Add in all the anticipation, desire to do a great job because perhaps may actually work with these people in the future, and general terrifying fear of screwing up everything. Dressing a salad becomes anxiety-ridden.

Watch the meat station churn out cut after cut of arctic char, with the occasional steak. End up memorizing all the movements but do not dare attempt any of it.

Stephane gives me several dishes to try. They're so good am cursing myself I'm too full to eat them all. Also feel strange eating at the pass while service is going on around me.

At 9 pm -- head back to Lumiere kitchen. One of the waiters has to correct an order. Everyone in the kitchen is pissed because they have to refire orders. I am sole winner in this situation...and get the butternut squash ravioli dish that is no longer going to be served.

At one point am handed half a giant black truffle to hold and smell. It feels dense, heavy and incredibly expensive. Briefly consider running out the door with it.

Am also given other dishes to try throughout course of evening...including hamachi, duck confit spring roll, truffle risotto, and molten chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream. Akin to some kind of fine dining buffet experience I will probably never have again. Am trying to eat as much as possible but human internal capacity is defeating me.

About 10:45 -- service winds down. Now the pastry chef is serving up her beautiful creations. There's a drawer where all the ice cream is stored. Would happily eat my way through that in no time.

Everything is put away and the kitchen gets a good scrub down. Everyone's so fast. Feel guilty about not cleaning my kitchen for weeks. To be fair: haven't been cooking much lately.


After 11 pm people start to head off. I thank everyone for their help but feel like it's not really adequate. The experience has been more engaging and revelatory than I could have anticipated. I'm still rolling the day around in my head. It's taken me a couple days of thinking to even start writing it down.

I'm asked if this is going up on my blog (which has inexplicably started to be read by people other than my immediate circle of friends). Trevor, I told you I'd write about it. Hope you're keeping your end of the bargain by reading it.

This is all but a fraction of what I got to see and do. There is a lot more I still don't understand but I hope to one day. I managed to break the mystique of the radio world, so I know there's hope there.

Suffice it to say, spending at least a day in a kitchen is something I'd recommend for anyone who wants to know more about what goes on behind the scenes. Not everyone is going to be invited into such an accomodating kitchen. I was lucky because I got to be in one of the best. My sincere thanks to chef Mackay and everyone in the kitchen who guided me through what they do best. They are, indeed, among the best for very good reasons.

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