The Making of a Restaurant

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Lessons learned from our brief stint as chefs, last in a series:

We're the biggest suckers of all. Despite all the frustrations, and the confusion, and the missteps, and the almost fatal screw-ups, and the furious looks from the kitchen crew, I'm still excited about the prospect of operating a kitchen of our own someday. Probably more so. I didn't say anything of the sort on Friday, of course. We would have been laughed right out the kitchen doors.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Lessons learned from our brief stint as chefs, fifth in a series:

Keep your cool. I was impressed by how well the professionals dealt with change. The number of people to serve, for instance, kept changing, from 22 to 26 to 34 to 32. The sous helping us out received each revision with aplomb. Later, after we'd plated all 32 salads and used up just about all the ingredients, a waiter reported that some people wanted their dressing on the side. "Impossible," I said to myself. "What kind of lunatic wants dressing on the side? Don't they realize how hard we've worked on these plates?" The sous was a little more poised. Without any grumbling, he and Ann scrambled to find a few empty plates and enough salad fixings to fill them.

Another example: Until we were ready to serve, the 32 finished plates were stored on a tall rack, four plates to a tier. When the dining room was ready, one of us carefully wheeled the rack from the walk-in refrigerator. "One of us" wasn't careful enough. The rack bumped a table, sending plates clattering. It made a horrifying clang, akin to the metallic crush of a car accident.

Miraculously, only two salads were disturbed, and it was instructive to see how the sous received the near-disaster. There was a brief look of terror and a brief scolding, but then he set to assessing and solving the problem. Within minutes we'd fixed the salads. The sous was able to measure his rage as carefully as one would measure saffron -- just enough to be effective, not so much so as to waste precious resources -- and he never bawled "one of us" out. In a kitchen like this, there's no time for bawling. (And thank goodness for that.)
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Thursday, September 26, 2002

Lessons learned from our brief stint as chefs, fourth in a series:

Cooking is hard. Okay, the truth is, we were scared. It was evident that the Sofitel was expecting all volunteers to be of the professional variety, and here we were, two posers who didn't even know to bring their own knives. We were quite aware of the responsibility handed to us. That we'd ruin the centerpiece event of this fundraiser was very real. Fortunately, we were kept on track by Chef Ann, who kindly spelled out the things that Swendra the Sous Chef assumed we knew: how to grillmark; how to blanch green beans; how to evenly cook shrimp; how to expedite the plating process. At the end of the day, proud of the work we'd done under such uncompromising conditions, I asked Ann if she'd ever hire us for her kitchen. She was saying "No" before I could finish the question.
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Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Lessons learned from our brief stint as chefs, third in a series:

Diners are bigger suckers. The meal that we were preparing was for a charity luncheon featuring über-chef Art Smith, F.O.O. (Friend of Oprah). I bet that the folks who shelled out $65 for this food assumed the same thing I did: that Art himself would be preparing the food. Uh uh. Art showed up about three hours after we started, and did nothing more than tell us the shrimp looked good... no, wait, a little undercooked. "Better flash those for a few minutes" was all we heard from the master chef all morning. Not that it mattered. The final product, prepared exclusively by three volunteer chefs (the third, Ann, did have a few years of culinary experience under her toque) could have easily passed as a professional creation, and the diners were none the wiser.

Resting after our shift in a hotel lounge, we even overheard someone raving about how delicious "Art Smith's" lunch had been. Abiding by the culinary code of honor, we bit our tongues.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Lessons learned from our brief stint as chefs, second in a series:

Cooking is easy. A year's experience preparing breakfast at the Cafe has sharpened our chopping skills and taught us a cursory knowledge of kitchen etiquette. Reading "Kitchen Confidential" gave us a glimpse at some of the strange customs of a professional kitchen. We would never have expected to know enough to stay afloat if suddenly tossed into a real kitchen. Yet tossed we were, and we managed to leave in one piece. With only a quick briefing by the kitchen's harried sous chef about his expectations for the recipe put before us, we were told to go at it. We stumbled around at first, looking for ingredients and utensils (Me: "Where are the knifes?" He: "You didn't bring your own? All chefs bring their own knifes."), but soon we were making tracks like we'd worked there for months.

It's not hard to follow a recipe. What's hard to pick up are all the nuances that separate commoners from the cooking school grads -- speed, artistry, etc. It was quite clear that the two of us had spent no time whatsoever in the classroom. Fortunately, we faked our way through the basics that we weren't often called out about the other stuff.

Monday, September 23, 2002

Lessons learned from our brief stint as chefs, first in a series:

Chefs are suckers. We were expecting, at best, to chop veggies for four hours, probably under the scrutinizing eye of a wiser, more experienced chef, who'd only hand us the knife after watching us sign a waiver promising not to sue the hotel when we sliced off one of our digits. At worst, we expected to spend four hours holding the blender cover on tight.

We got way more than we bargained for. The two of us sauntered into the Sofitel kitchen with not so much as a permission slip from the Inspiration Cafe, without a clue about our roles for the morning, and with little hesitation, the chef put us to work chopping, grilling, blanching and mixing. It was as if by donning the white chef's jackets, on loan from the hotel's wardrobe office, we were magically turned into bona fide kitchen personnel. I even got a "Hi, Chef!" from a hotel bellhop I passed in the hallway -- no question, one of the day's highlights.
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