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.

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