Monday, September 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stagiere -- Week Twenty

I have missed a couple of entries here, and I figured it's better to be accurate about what week I'm talking about rather than having them all sequential.

This week was my last week at Lumiere -- at least, my last week going consistently. I've had an incredible six month run. When I first started I was working just to become familiar with my surroundings. In the last few weeks, I finally nailed down the art of forming a quenelle of cream with one spoon.

I've been referring to my final day at Lumiere as my "final exam". It's very appropriate. The minute I walked into the kitchen the meat cook says, "you know today's the Steve Nash dinner right"?

The Steve Nash dinner he is referring to is the fundraiser for Steve Nash's foundation. A $1500 a plate dinner. I had gotten multiple emails about this through work via press releases, but for some reason it hadn't sunk in that if I showed up that day, I would in fact be working for the dinner.

It also hadn't sunk in that executive chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Daniel Boulud was also going to be there.

"I assumed that's why you were here".

Noooooo, no no no. I had been so glad I wasn't there on another weekend Daniel had come to town because I specifically wanted to avoid having anything I was doing scrutinized by this legendary chef.

So the dinner involved prepping for a yet unspecified number of guests ("thirty to sixty people" is what I heard). The dinner was happening at db Bistro -- they closed down the restaurant for the event. The only dishes coming out of the Lumiere side was the crab dish from the garde manger section. Keeping in mind that when I say "only" I mean we ended up prepping enough crab for about 100 dishes...on top of the regular prep for dinner service.

That's ten pounds of crab that needs to be picked over, then mixed with half a litre of chopped herbs among other things. I don't even know how many mangoes they went through, slicing them with a mandoline and cutting strips to wrap the crab with. Then preparing half a litre of mango bruinoise and piquillo peppers. Then forming and wrapping all the crab. Then wrapping over eighty crab rolls with rice paper wrappers.

It was go time.

In the midst of all this, as I'm squeezing a dozen grapefruits into juice, I hear a deep rich voice calling out behind me. I know it's Daniel. The Vancouver Sun was there to film Daniel and Dale making the scallop dish with corn succotash. I didn't dare turn around to watch, but listening to Daniel direct the action was amazing. He's a producer's dream. He knows what angles are the best, what to shoot, when to shoot it, what to say, how long to talk...considering he does this kind of thing all the time I'm not surprised. But I am in awe.

What's Daniel like in the kitchen? A pro. He doesn't have time to waste, he knows what he needs to get done and gets it done. I got to see that first hand during "the" dinner service. We had set out 87 plates on tables in the narrow hallway that joins the two kitchens. I had been tasked with plating the bruinoise of mango and piquillo peppers onto all the plates. The staff at db were tasked with building the crab stacks, slicing the rolls and plating all the rest.

We were right in the middle of Lumiere's dinner service and I we've run out of the coriander sticks we're using in the crab stacks. The rest of them are all in the db kitchen. I go out into the hallway and everyone is right in the middle of trying to get these 87 plates of crab out of the hallway and to the tables. Because it's so narrow nobody can fit around each other. The servers are on one end, the chefs are at another, the chefs are yelling for people to take certain plates away. Not all the plates have the same design on them so a lot of juggling is involved. Add to this the fact that the crab stacks are plated on top of mango puree which is making the stacks slide around and you can imagine the pressure.

Of course, I know better than to actually try to get anything from the other kitchen during all this. I head back and wait for the rush to subside.

The dinner was supposed to run from 7 to 8 pm. That was going to work out perfectly because the Lumiere dinner reservations had a gap between 7 to 8. There would be free hands available. At least, that was the theory. The dinner got pushed back to 8:15...when a bunch of reservations would have just arrived. It's amazing what you can do when you have no other choice.

And that's what really divides people who work in kitchens and others who don't. There's a breed of people that thrive on adrenaline and stress. The thrill of getting it all done and knowing you can do it.

I got called over to the db kitchen for the main course plating. Picture two lines of cooks on either side of a massive stainless steel prep table. db's chef, Stephane, yells out instructions. I end up near the end of the line, plating the beef and adding a romaine garnish to the plate just before Stephane sauced them. We probably plated everything in five minutes or less. I loved being part of that.

In the middle of everything Dale comes over and asks me if I want to take a picture with Daniel Boulud. Note: you do NOT say no to a picture with Daniel. I'm pretty sure that's a law somewhere. I was thrust into a corridor with him. He has no idea who am I or why I'm there but takes the picture anyway, which you can see to the left. Yes, I'm planning to print that out and hang it somewhere in my house. I don't even have pictures of my family hanging in my house yet, but you can be damn sure there'll be one of Daniel.

So the dinner went off successfully, as did the dinner service we did. Lots of momentary panic but it all got done as it always does.

I've had a bizarrely circular relationship with Lumiere over the past year. When I ate there the first time it reopened last November I met Daniel, as a patron. I gushed about it profusely in this blog posting. Now I've met him as a pseudo-employee. I won a chance to eat and work in the restaurant and ended up staying for six months. I don't know how it all worked out so seamlessly, but I know this has all been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

People ask me what I've learned. Everyone thinks I'm hosting these incredible dinner parties now but the truth is that the most thrilling experience I've had is getting to be around people who genuinely love food. It's an egalitarian love. You can love ham and cheese sandwiches just as much as duck confit. I could talk about wanting baked Alaska and have a roomful of people talk about their awesome baked Alaska experiences with no hint of snootiness, just a pure love for food. I got to be a part of the monumental task of putting a fine dining meal together. I found out what lengths people will go to work with food just because they love it. Oh yeah, and I finally nailed one-spoon quenelle making!

My time at Lumiere has been absolutely incredible. I am so lucky that chef Dale Mackay and everyone in the kitchen not only allowed me to be there but took their time to work with a total novice. I used their tools, I made mistakes but I hauled ass as best I could. Thanks so much to those who've stayed and those who've moved on: Dale Mackay, Nathan Guggenheimer, Doug King, Alex Amos, Brad Hendrickson, Jesse Zuber, Rhys Jones, Suyin Wong, Celeste Mah, Tony Chang, Trevor Bird and all the people at db Bistro as well for making me part of the team. I'm going to miss working with you but I know I'll be seeing you all around.

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