Monday, May 25, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Eight

Things are picking up speed at Lumiere. Lots of diners this week. I guess closing on Mondays and Tuesdays has brought out the diners. Whew. And just when I thought I had brought some bad CBC layoff karma into the kitchen.

This week's lesson: consomme.

I remember in my last year of high school talking to a guy going into culinary school. We somehow got on the topic of consomme and he was like, "do you know what that is?" And I was all like, "yeah...duh...soup cleared with egg whites". He seemed impressed but if he had actually asked me how HOW the egg whites were used I probably wouldn't have given him a great answer.

I know now because the ever helpful meat cook showed me how he clears his pheasant consomme. You mix egg whites with a combination of mire poix (carrots, celery, onion) and pheasant meat. At this point the mixture is apparently called a "clean meat". The proper way to clear your stock is to let it cool down, mix in the clean meat and bring it back up to the boil. However, there is a very effective cheat method where you keep the stock boiling, stir it up ("like egg drop soup") and pour in the clean meat. The egg white boils, and the meat and veg flavours the stock further because the cleaning process takes some of the flavour out. What floats on top (the egg white, meat, scum, etc) is called a "raft". I'm specifically to note that a clean meat and a raft are NOT the same thing. They use this stock in their pheasant, foie gras and prune terrine by dissolving some gelatin in it and putting it between the layers. This is why the cheat method is allowed. Believe me, this terrine is amazing.

**Correction: the meat cook tells me that it's a "clear meat" NOT a "clean meat" as I have written above. Thanks Brad!

Over the weeks, however, I have developed an adversarial relationship. With a vegetable nemesis known as the turnip.

Here's how turnips come into this. Part of the aforementioned terrine dish is a carpaccio of turnip. You peel them, thinly slice them using a mandolin, stack them and cut them into small circles with a ring mold. These get vacuum packed, frozen and then defrosted and put into a pickling liquid.

Here's the thing. Turnips are out of season now, so a lot of them are mealy on the inside and therefore unsuitable. But you don't know how much of it is usable until you have peeled and sliced them and are staring at a useless pile of holey, frustration inducing turnip slices. I can go through a whole pan of these things and come out with just a couple handfuls of useable pieces. I have never felt enraged towards any vegetable, but these turnips can push me right to the edge.

Think about that the next time you eat out and notice a garnish on your plate. Believe me, somebody worked on that thing. Possibly a lot. Please enjoy it.

Being in the kitchen means you're on the receiving end of a diner's comments. I have sent back a dish only once because it tasted rancid. I think that's a pretty legitimate reason. When you're working in a kitchen where quality control is so important, you don't get those kinds of returns.

What you WILL get, however, are people who a) want to seem like they know a lot about food by sending food back unnecessarily or b) are just super uber picky and don't like your food no matter what it tastes like. This was evinced when a diner sent back a half a lamb dish. They had eaten one piece of lamb, took a bite out of the other and sent it back saying it was too tough. In reality, it was perfectly cooked. The kitchen recooked and plated half a lamb dish for the diner (who did finish it to the best of my knowledge). But really...behaviour like this doesn't make you seem cultured. It makes you seem like an ass.

Here's the thing. If there is something legitimately wrong with a dish (too cold, unseasoned, overseasoned, incomplete, etc) believe you me, the kitchen WILL take it very, very seriously. They will hop to it and get you your food ASAP. There's no need to resort to unncessary nitpicking.

Most of all: eat those garnishes. I assure you someone took the time to make sure none of your carpaccio is whole and unsullied.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Seven

It happened. People at Lumiere finally read my blog. So from now on every week's entry will feel like a book report. Oh well. I knew this was going to happen. Now my neurosis about, well, everything, is out in the open.

But that's not why I write.

My six day work week is starting to wear me down. In fact, I went in on Saturday last week because I had to work six days at CBC, so technically it was my seventh day of work.

I don't know what it is but I'm constantly exhausted now. So now I struggle to pay attention to anything. I hate it. Sadly I don't drink coffee (traumatic childhood event where I realized that it doesn't taste NEARLY as delicious as it smells) or do cocaine so all I can do is silently scream at myself in my head. Dammit, there's a job to be done!

Like peeling fava beans and almonds. I spent a great deal of time peeling both of those last week. It's for the new char dish. The old char dish required me to cut perfect squares out of blanched leek slices. This new one has morels, fava beans, almonds and these beautiful little potato croquettes that are apparently shaped, frozen, reshaped and refrozen no less than three times each. But damn, is it ever a gorgeous dish.

Things have picked up. There are more people booking for dinner every night. In fact, the day before I got there it was apparently a madhouse with just over twenty booked at the beginning of the day and ending with fifty people coming in for dinner. Apparently nobody expected it and things were...well...less than calm. I silently thanked god I hadn't been there.

The highlight of this week had to be breaking down lamb racks, or "frenching" them. You know that quintessential lamb shank look, with the teardrop of meat and a bone sticking upwards? That's frenching apparently. I finally did some work on the meat station, something I have never really done because it requires a lot of precision and knowledge and skill, things I do not possess in terms of meat. It was great because a) I had never done this before, b) I got to work at a new station and c) the meat cook is one of these people who is almost overly encouraging because everything I did he remarked by saying "perfect" despite the fact that nothing I did was so.

Who doesn't love a compliment?

Frenching lamb is a series of cuts, tears and scrapings that I think I remember but not enough to articulate into words. I felt like a miserable failure trying to make the same clean strokes that the meat cook was. But, as he says, do it sixty times and you figure it out. It's amazing to me how you can take a thick rectangular piece of meat and turn it into dainty presentable morsels of flesh. It's very, very cool.

After getting closer instruction from the cook working garde manger, I was supposed to go home and practice making quenelles. I've watched many people do it and it still boggles my mind. You take your spoon, get it very hot in some boiling water, scoop whatever heavy cream it is you're trying to get shaped and curl it up along the edge of the container it's in until you get a nicely uniform egg shape. Then slide it onto whatever it is you want to slide it onto. It's one of those things that, once you've mastered, it looks effortless. I have a feeling it's hell to pick up though. I was supposed to go home and get some Cool Whip and practice. I really meant to. Then my work week started and I forgot. Dammit. Will do that next week, I swear.

Meanwhile I'm continuing to watch and learn. Not just about how the kitchen runs but this little microcosm known as the food industry. The people, their personalities and idiosyncrasies. The kind of people who are drawn to this life and why they stay in it. These are the stories that I'd love to get at. Let's see how far I get.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Confessions of A Stagiere -- Addendum to Week Six

I can't believe I forgot to add this to my last post. So I'm standing there, working away doing I can't remember what. I hear the sous chef yell out, "Joan!"

I turn around and there's a hotel pan full of live spot prawns. Beautiful, red with white spots, crawling around, jumping out of the pan. I burst out into a huge smile. They're the most gorgeous things ever.

"These are the first delivery of live spot prawns this season," I'm told.

"They're here for two weeks a year."

This is why I'm a stage.

Then they all get their heads pulled off during prep. The life cycle of the spot prawn.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Six

Normally I head into Lumiere at noon. This week I got in a bit early -- 10 am. The purpose was to learn to set up the amuse bouche station from start to finish.

By noon everyone's there, absorbed in completing their mise en place. Music's blaring, it's warm to very hot depending on where you're standing.

At 10 am, the kitchen was almost totally quiet. It was cold. Only three other people were there, working away in relative silence. Most noticeably missing was the delicious scent of food. That would come later. It was nice to come in and start the day with everyone else, rather than catching up to them.

The first thing I was supposed to learn was how to make the pea soup. Key to this, besides the actual taste, is keeping the peas as vibrantly green as possible. You achieve this by cooking them as little as possible. When it came time to cook them, I noticed the pot we were using was impossibly tiny for the massive amount of snap peas I just had to prepare.

"Is that pot going to be big enough?" I ask.
"Yeah, probably not," is the response.

Which leads to us having to use a bigger pot, with additional water being put in. That is not boiling. Meaning the peas will have to be cooking much longer than necessary. Which means they will turn an unappealing brown colour. Which leads to another cook getting a look on his face like he's just seen a particularly repulsive sexual act being performed on one of his relatives.

This is a very valuable lesson for me to absorb. Learning from other people's mistakes is just as valuable as learning from my own. And less humiliating on my part.

Luckily for everyone there is a bit of a culinary cheat, involving spinach puree. Spinach puree is the colour of Romulan/Vulcan blood. It's a beautiful, deep bright green. And it virtually has no taste. So you can put it into food you want to be greener and no one's the wiser. Well, until now anyway.

After a while the sous chef pulls me aside to make pea ravioli filling. It's a pretty simple set of ingredients: snap peas, leeks, spinach (read above), mint, shallots and fennel. Cook them (not too much) and then puree them. Then pass them through a sieve. Smooth and delicious.

I did learn how to make bacon foam for the pea soup that's part of the amuse bouche. You have to saute bacon with other delicious ingredients, boil it with milk until it splits. Then you strain and blend the milk until it comes together, then add soya lecithin, which makes it foam better.

I've noticed some of the cooks keep notebooks to write down recipes. This is a great idea that I haven't put into practice yet. I really should do that.

Slowly...I'm becoming more assertive. It's funny because in my "normal" life I have absolutely no problem with this. In fact, I'm pretty damn bossy. But when I'm in a situation where I have no authority and no knowledge I keep my mouth shut. When it came time to plating the beef dish, however, I spoke up. I pretty much told the entremetier to give me the garnish I needed, much to the amusement of everyone who was seeing me act authoritatively for the first time. When the expediter tried to take it away before I'd added it, I all but grabbed him and said, "Stop". Finished the dish. "Go".

The sous chef said to me afterwards, "Be like that all the time".

Ha. Just give it time.

On another note, I finally told my boss at CBC about what I've been up to on Fridays after she kept trying to rearrange my work schedules to work Fridays (I currently work Sunday to Thursday). She agreed to try and keep my Fridays clear. It's been very weird trying to explain to my other co-workers what I'm doing. Either they think it's great or they look at me like I'm an alien. I don't really blame them. But hey, when you can't afford to go to culinary school and you want to follow a do what you have to do.

I already can't wait for next Friday.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Five

From May 1

Business is slowing down quite a bit. After Daniel Boulud's hectic visit, weekdays have been slow. Very slow. One night only six people came in for dinner. Today there are only fifteen. They've now opened up a patio for people to dine outdoors. So far no one's actually done it but at least it's getting people's attention. Slowly.

I get an update on Daniel's visit. Apparently he gets filmed just about everywhere he goes, and this trip was no exception. At least one cook was startled when Daniel Boulud appeared out of nowhere and shook his hand in front of a camera. "It was really weird". Having been on both sides, I agree. It IS really weird. This is why I love radio. No lenses.

After the visit also comes an announcement: they're closing the restaurant on Tuesdays from now on -- in addition to the usual Mondays. The recession rears its ugly head yet again. No workplace I'm at seems to be immune.

On the upside, I'm getting to learn how different elements are put together every week. This week: potato lyonnaise. They are delicious coin sized rolls of thinly sliced potato. It's part of the sous vide char dish. I never knew just HOW much was involved in making them until now.

First, you use a hand-cranked machine to spin out very thin strips of potato. Spread them out on a counter. Season with salt and pepper. Layer very thinly with a garlic puree and then a shallot mixture. Then you roll them up nice and tight and wrap them in cling film. Then poke a bunch of holes in the rolls and gently cook them in duck fat for about twenty minutes. Then unroll and rewrap. Saute the ones you'll use for service, then rewrap AGAIN. If you ever wondered where the "fine dining" line lies, it's somewhere in the midst of all that rolling.

Some cooks are hesitant to give me tasks I've already learned, whereas I welcome it. As much as I love learning new things, I at least feel comfortable doing things repeatedly. Seeing as my skill set is very limited, it gives me a feeling of great accomplishment to be able to take something on without a lengthy explanation. I can prepare the micro radishes for the terrine dish. I feel satisfied being able to write that.

Especially because my biggest challenge -- which I have yet to overcome -- is learning where everything is. Here is the typical scenario:

Cook: Joan, get me a pot about *measures with hands* this big, fill it with water and bring it to the boil
Me: Ok. *Goes to where pots are, search frantically, realize there is no pot there of that kind or if it's there I can't see it* Uh...I can't find the one you're talking about.
Cook: Ok. *Goes off, finds the exact pot they need and do the really simple thing I could'nt manage to do*
Me: *feels stupid*

Here's another one

Cook 1: Go get a bowl of ice from the other kitchen (at db Bistro).
Me: Ok. *goes off with bowl* Uhh...where's the ice?
Cook 2: Over there.
Me: OK. *goes off to corner.* do you get the ice out of this thing?
Cook 3: *opens lid*
Me: Oh. *feels stupid*

You get the picture. The next time I do something when I DON'T have to ask feels fantastic.

Because there are fifteen people for dinner, the chef asks several of the staff to take a night off once their prep is finished. He will work the garde manger station. And I'll be working next to him. Gulp. At this point I haven't spent any prolonged time working with the chef and frankly it's a bit daunting. It's like having to produce Peter Mansbridge. Intimidating.

In reality, I actually got to learn more because there was more time to teach me. Like how to plate the crab dish. You have to shape the circlet of crab with your hands so that it's just the same height as the pieces of mango you have to wrap around it. Then you have to oh-so-carefully insert two pieces of tuille in a sort of v-shape to give it some height. Then you take a triangular piece of pickled papaya and arrange it against the tuille. Then you add fingerfuls of herbs, a celery leaf and a parsley leaf. Then you squirt some mango puree onto the plate and smack the bottom a few times to even it out. I haven't mastered this yet, having visions of the plate flying through the air into the nearby induction burner. Then you place the crab on top of that. Arrange two ricepaper rolls (that were conveniently precut for me), each facing a different direction. Then take a squeeze bottle of piquillo pepper puree and randomly dot the plate. You can do this all fairly far in advance. Just before it gets taken out you dot the plate with a green herb oil.

And this is just one dish. There's a lot to remember.

I was also reminded of how it's all a matter of practice. Watching everyone doing stations they're not familiar with was revealing. It also gives me hope that I CAN eventually figure some of this out.

I can now identify which actual plate goes with which dish for the items that are the most popular, like the beef and the duck and the char. I can anticipate which garnishes the chef is going to need from the garde manger station so I have them ready when I see the plates come out. I know which elements are going to come off which station. I'm no longer shy about (politely) calling for what I need. I'm learning the system. So I'm going to push myself even more. Next Friday I'm going in a couple hours earlier to learn how to set up the amuse bouche station from start to finish. One tiny step in the culinary giant leap for me.

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Weeks Three and Four

I've combined two entries into one...from April 17th and 24th

This week I felt a nervous excited energy in the kitchen. Daniel Boulud was coming in a couple days. I mean, you'd be nervous if he was coming to visit in any case but if he's actually your boss...well...that's a whole other story. Apparently he's coming from Sunday to Thursday. I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing would make me more anxious than having to do anything around him in a kitchen setting. As amazing as it would be to watch him in action, I'm just not ready for that kind of scrutiny.

Because they all spend so much time together, the cooks know just about everything about each excrutiatingly minute and descriptive detail. I, however, remain monolithic enigma. So they've taken to asking me questions like, "what do you like to eat?" "where do you go to eat?" "what do you make at home?" etc. etc.

I keep giving these cryptic answers, stuff like, "oh, nothing really..." only because I don't know how to tell a room full of talented chefs that my favourite meal is a giant bowl of mashed potatoes, sitting on the couch, preferably with no pants on (the waistline gets in the way). My brain freezes up as I try to think of something more intelligent to say than "fried rice". It's these rare times I find myself at a loss for words. And it pains me because I feel like I come off as an incoherent moron. Which I'm not. I'm just a glutton who'll eat anything. I cook simple food because I usually eat alone anyway.

It doesn't help that their conversations about home cooking centre around their sour dough starters and litres and litres of stock that they apparently keep stashed away. Of course, this is all par for the course for them and they work on average about 14 to 16 hours a day.

I don't know a single non-chef who does these things. It could also be a Chinese thing where we don't tend to use stock in a ton of dishes. Whatever. The point is: no homemade stock or sour dough starter at my house. Which makes the whole mashed-potatoes-with-no-pants-on thing even more shameful on my part.

I'm also starting to get asked a lot of questions that I don't have answers for...but they are answers I'd like to have. "What's the best thing you learned today?" I spend so much of my time just trying to focus and learn the next task that I don't fully process anything until I go home and write it down. But if I had thought of it, here's what I would've said:

-how to avoid cutting yourself while peeling shrimp
-which way a piece of leek should be facing when you're trying to scrape off the membrane
-that you can control how you split a snap pea in half, but you can't control how many peas there are inside (damn you, nature)
-men gossip just as much as women do and they're just as bitchy about it too
-hazelnuts can burn really fast in butter

I'm also discovering some of my own talents. Apparently I'm pretty handy when it comes to forming ravioli. I guess a lifetime spent helping my mom make dumplings and folding origami shapes was useful after all.

Every cook has this rolled up arsenal of knives at their disposal. I do not. I used to be really concerned that I don't have any knives to bring in with me. I still kind of am. But I never realized how important it was going to be to have a spoon with me at all times. They look just like your regular spoons at home but ideally it's fairly flat, wide enough and a bit shallow. You use it to taste, plate, mix, etc. After a few weeks of never having one, the sous chef finally assigned me one of his spoons. There's actually an "x" on it. I now bring it in every week. It stays in my pocket. I just love the idea that the utensil I use the most when eating is also one of the best tools I can have for cooking as well.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Two

From April 10th 2009

After first day jitters, second days are always easier. I wasn't worried about explaining myself to anyone. I could focus on observing and learning and doing my tasks. After an unsure beginning, my mind was starting to pick up on things.

I noticed that I was starting to see things differently. My fingers for instance. During the week, my fingers are just appendages attached to my palms that are at the ends of my arms. I use them for typing. That's pretty much their main function.

In the kitchen, my fingers are the best tools I have. I use every one to manipulate, wipe, adjust, tear, pinch. Even the oft overlooked ring fingers have functions beyond the decorative. I've started to value them infinitely more. Suddenly they all matter because without them, I'm pretty useless.

The way I look at what I'm doing has changed too. I spent the better part of an hour peeling and dicing butternut squash for quiche that's part of the amuse bouche. After a while I started looking at the pieces in the bowl in front of me. Each piece started out a bright orange at the top and got progressively more yellow at the bottom. It was kind of like candy corn. They were just lovely, all piled up in a mound. It was delightful to look at.

I'm starting to see each different art form within the overall culinary picture. It has to be said that there are no unattractive or unappetizing looking dishes. But for some reason one particular dish took my breath away.

It was a beet salad. Doesn't sound like anything special when you put it that way.

Here's what it looks like though: dark purple, candy striped and yellow beets, quartered and artfully arranged on a long white plate that's been painted with concentrated beet juice, careful attention paid to the angles. Then quenelles of white horseradish cream placed on top with sprigs of microgreens. I couldn't stop staring at it. I remember not wanting to breath while I was watching this. This, I thought, really IS an art form.

My hands are starting to take on new characteristics. Cooks are known for their asbestos fingers. They can withstand temperatures most of us would cringe at. Scars and calluses illustrate a lifetime of labour. Mine are a blank slate in comparison. But they're starting to take a different shape. I can feel the tips of my fingers hardening from heat and more frequent use. I think I'm also on my way to developing a knife callus at the base of my index finger. However, calluses generally start as blisters and my soon-to-be callus is currently a painfully burst one. I discovered it in the middle of my butternut squash chopping. Luckily I wasn't asked to cut anything else for the rest of the day. I'm looking forward to when that part hardens up. I just hope it heals in a hurry because I have a feeling I'll need to use it come next Friday.

With any job comes getting to know your coworkers. I'm the new girl -- girl being the operative word -- and discovered that apparently everyone was under strict orders not to say anything remotely crude around me, possibly for fear I'd run off screaming or sue for harrassment. I learned of this the previous week when I was asked what I thought of the kitchen culture in respect to how, well, crude it can be. I said I hadn't noticed much of anything.

"Well, to be honest, it's really toned down."
"Is it because I'm here?"

The funny thing is that anyone who knows me knows I'm usually the first one to say something profane or outrageous or generally something that has guaranteed me a spot in hell. They don't yet know this about me but they probably will soon. They seem to be getting over it. I won't reveal the general topics of conversation but if you imagine a room full of twenty-something men who are crammed in a small room for the better part of 16 hours a day, you can imagine what those would be.

Everyone has and continues to be very kind and helpful, remembering to call me over to show me things they're doing. The meat cook showed me how to make a hollandaise sauce. More or less it's like a cooked mayonnaise. It was a highlight of my day, because it was a valuable lesson and also because of another hollandaise story I remember.

Months ago I was talking to another chef about working with our head chef, Dale. They were coworkers years ago, before either of them had become the superstars they are now. He said that he had taught Dale how to make hollandaise all those years ago, but that he didn't remember this until Dale had reminded him of it.

Now it seems that I, too, will have a hollandaise memory of my own.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week One

From my first week at Lumiere...April 3/09.

There's nothing like the first day at a new job. You can practically taste the anxiety bubbling up like bile. It crawls up into your throat and chokes you just as you ask the question, "What would you like me to do?"

Once I get in the kitchen there is some surprise at my return but there's always something to do. I learn to start getting into a rhythm of every task: whether it's cutting up the tips of romaine lettuce into "fronds" or picking the tips of chervil.

I've always cooked and helped to prepare food since I was a kid. My mother was always big into making her own food. Whenever we would go out she would inevitably say, "I could make that myself". Money was always tight. But good food was always paramount.

I remember many days sitting in front of the television with a big bowl of snow peas to prepare. It was theraputic, snapping off the ends and taking off the fibrous edges. I always made sure to check them all over once I was finished because there's nothing more unpleasant than eating a snow pea that hasn't been cleaned properly.
There's also a lot of camaraderie while you're preparing food. You're working towards a common goal whose end result (if you did it properly) would only be a good one.

All these "mom" food moments came back as I was helping to make ravioli. Their ravioli consists of a butternut squash filling and shaping the pasta squares into pyramids with square bases...that are also slightly rounded out. I was told to take my time with them.

My mother and I never made ravioli. We made gyoza, a water and flour dough rolled out into circles and filled with a meat mixture. I was never given the responsibility of handling the dough because I was never able to do it to my mother's satisfaction. Whenever I would fill them it was never the right amount of mixture. I was also never able to successfully replicate one of my mother's gyoza. A proper gyoza should be folded in half and crimped by hand so it looks like an elaborately edged purse. Try as I might, I just couldn't get the hang of it and it would always look primitive next to hers. So my sister and I would turn them into barnyard animals and whatever else we wanted, defiantly deformed.

The restaurant had taken a hit since I'd been there last. The number of customers willing to pay top dollar for a world class meal had fallen dramatically due to the recession. It pained me to see the reservation numbers (about half of what the dining room could accomodate). But this also allowed more time for experimentation and invention.

We all got to try the latest invention -- foie gras ice cream. I could see how foie gras would lend itself to ice cream, being pretty much all fat anyway. You could just blend it in. But what would a meat flavoured ice cream taste like? We all found out. The taste was very creamy, and then the foie gras flavour hit you hard and pretty much stayed put. It was cold, sweet foie gras. I didn't really know what to make of it. It was a culinary noodle scratcher. Others seemed thrilled and thought it could've been more savoury. It was definetely one of the more unique food experiences I've ever had.

Another new item being tested was a pheasant and pear terrine. "This terrine is going to be off the hook", one cook commented. I'd never heard a terrine described this way.

I had to ask: what draws people into this very specialized, exhausting, exhilirating road to food?

One was a pre med student in Victoria before he realized he wanted to work in food. He quit school, travelled, then came back and got a job as a dishwasher. I asked him what his parents had thought. "They were horrified." He went off to culinary school and is three years into a promising career. But to this day his family isn't completely convinced. His stories about 16 hour work days has not helped.

Another was studying math and training to be a bioengineer. How does an engineer wannabe go into cooking? "I was always thinking about what I was going to have for dinner." His mother's horrified reaction did nothing to stop his plans. His response is: "I can be an engineer when I'm forty, but I can't cook when I'm forty".

I'm feeling particularly self-conscious because I'm very aware of my position as outsider/interloper. I'm a radio producer who's in the kitchen...performing small tasks...following and observing...for what? People whose curiosity has finally gotten the better of them will ask me, "what are you doing here?" Good question, I think to myself. I'll get back to you when I have an answer. For now, I just reply, "I'm here to learn". It's cryptic but most are not curious enough to inquire further.

Last time during service I stood against one corner of the kitchen trying desperately to stay out of the way and stop my hair from catching fire on the incredibly hot salamander oven above my head. This time the chef looked at me and said "you're going to take care of the amuse bouche so you'll be involved with the service". Great, I thought.

One of the garde manger cooks showed me how to plate the amuse bouche. It consisted of three parts: a crab roll cut into thick coins and placed on top a small pinch ("just what you can hold in your fingers") of spaghetti squash, a squash soup with parmesan foam and a squash quiche cut into a square with yogurt and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. It all had to be assembled at the right time. It was easy enough to organize: you could prepare the bed of spaghetti squash and arrange the quiche ahead of time because they could be served at room temperature. But you had to time the soup just right. The foam came off another station so you had to yell out, "parm foam down" so the person with the foam would know when to pass it to you. The first time I had to do this I couldn't bring myself to yell out the order. "I'll do it next time," I said. And I did. Preparing the foam is fun: you buzz it first and then scoop it off, then drop it vertically from your spoon.

It feels great to be part of this team. All of them work together seamlessly, anticipating, communicating, and watching this culinary ballet up close is a thing of beauty.

At the end of the night, I head over to the office to talk to Dale. I thank him for letting me come in and ask if I can make this a weekly arrangement for the foreseeable future. He has no problems with this, doesn't ask any questions. I leave feeling great, with more skills and revelations and promises of more to come.

Confessions of a Stagiere

It hasn't exactly been a secret -- but not something I've written about either. I think it's time.

You can tell by scanning through my blog that I love food. Well, a few months back, through a series of food related incidents, I figured I should put my love of food and my love of writing together and do food journalism. This after I would tell people about stories on food I was working on. Finally someone asked me, "why don't you do this for a living?" Good question. Because I'd never considered it as a career possibility? Plus there really isn't any training to be a food writer. Everybody eats. But that's not enough to make you an "expert".

So what does make you a food "expert"?

Some people go to culinary school and become chefs. Some just go straight to work in a kitchen. Some travel the world, eating their way through the timezones. Some grow up on farms. Sometimes you're just a loudmouth that gets picked up by the Food Network (you'd like me to name some names wouldn't you? Pick one). In other words, nothing and everything can qualify you as an authority on the edible.

Having expertise to draw on is important to me. So I set about finding ways to do that.

I had originally thought about going to culinary school. In fact, I had applied and been accepted at the Art Institute in downtown Vancouver. It's a long story, but turns out due to recession related money matters and other things, this wasn't going to be an option after all.

After my day long stint at Lumiere back in January, I talked to the chef about my failed culinary school plans. He suggested I work as a stagiere (working for free) in his kitchen and learn that way.

Well, I took him up on it. Every Friday for the past few weeks I've been heading over to Lumiere, putting on whites and spending anywhere between 10 and 12 hours in the kitchen. What am I doing there? I help with prep for the first part of the day and assist with service during dinner, mostly plating the amuse bouche.

I've been dying to blog about this but there are reasons why I haven't. I don't want to make the chef and the staff uncomfortable in any way by making them feel overly scrutinized, especially when I have to work with them every week. Initially I wasn't sure what to do with the whole experience, but I've come to take it for what it is: insight into one of Vancouver's top kitchens, working with some incredibly talented people and doing one of my favourite things: working with food.

I figure if I want to be a food writer, what better time to start? At the very least I'm an expert on my own journey.

My fridays as a stagiere have become the highlight of my week. Whether or not this will eventually put me into any kind of field of expertise is debatable. But for now, I'm thrilled to go along for the ride -- and blog about it all the way. Postings to follow.