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.

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