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.

No comments: