As the rainbow leaves started to fall from the trees, Micky (my boyfriend and my restaurant's chef) found himself totally without staff and needed help in the kitchen.
Kolin, one of our servers, agreed to cook. So did I. We both had some kitchen experience, him a bit more than me.
"So what do you want to do?" Micky asked.
"I want to work with you."
The Kitchen Diaries
Since reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential the summer I graduated from high school, I saw working in a restaurant kitchen as a sort of test of toughness. At the age of 19, I cooked for several months in a Midtown Manhattan restaurant, where the chef screamed a lot. When he directed his anger and truffley breath a few inches from my face, I ducked into the bathroom to cry. "He screams at you because he thinks you have potential," one of the cooks told me, trying to reassure me.
I remember a rush of disappointment when the sous chef didn't know who Karl Marx was. We were supreming a pile of white grapefruits. I thought, "I can't work with these people." Was I an elitist brat? Perhaps.
Still, I looked forward to my mornings rolling bricks of cookie dough into globes and gluing stacks of sheet cake with chocolaty goo to create towering layers. I loved working with the pastry people. They were the nicest and the least likely to erupt into yelling.
So I dug up my kitchen clogs and chefs coat. Micky and I walked to work together, careful to release our hands from each other's hands before nearing the restaurant.
Mostly, I like working in kitchens. I like how tangible it is—you make duck fat gougères and pickled wasabi beets and people eat them for dinner. You make something with your hands (and occasionally with your head, heart and soul as well). You create something. Like writing.
The days pass really fast. Service, at lightning speed. When you go home, you feel exhausted, but there is also an energy still vibrating mercilessly in your body. This is why cooks are up all night, drinking or sometimes not drinking.
Getting to Work
Micky showed me how to set up the kitchen. Roll out the black mats on the floor. Fill the trash cans with trash bags. Get your utensils, oil, butter, and salt ready by the stove. Anchor your cutting boards with a damp dish towel so they don't slide on you when you're peeling carrots the size of fat worms.
We got to work. He taught me to make parsley chips by flattening and microwaving the leaves. I pushed hot potatoes through a chinoise for what seemed like an eternity.
My favorite time is service. Micky's plates have a million components, so we would both check we weren't forgetting anything. I'd remind him about the ace cabbage leaves on the barramundi. He'd remember the pumpkin seed powder of my squash soup before the waiter whisked it away.
First: get the veg ready. He taught me how to finish the tiny turnips and purple brussels sprouts with a bit of beurre monté. I wrapped le puy lentils in cabbage leaves and slid them into the salamander.
I could never get the chermoula (a Moroccan sauce with cumin, preserved lemon, garlic, and paprika), onto the plate in the symmetrical swirl Micky demonstrated. But I loved to stack the potatoes that I made into buttery mash. They got squeezed onto the plate via a pastry bag, then layered with paper-thin potato chips. Then another squeeze, another chip, another squeeze, another chip.
How to Cut Sausage
Micky made chicken sausage with confited dark meat and chestnuts. My job was to slice it clean and balance the circle vertically on the plate. But my knife left rips and tears through the meat. It looked like I had pulled apart the seam on a dress—sausage threads everywhere.
Micky was upset by my sausage destruction, and threw the mess into the trash, with gusto. I sulked: I knew it was ugly. I wanted advice, not reproach.
This was the only time during our week working together, side by side, cutting board by cutting board, that I needed to go outside for a minute, catch my breath, wipe away a rogue tear. We talked it over, and we were fine. I returned to my place, making careful smears of sunchoke puree.
Working with My Man
One of the owners, Gene, pointed out that Micky had wanted to keep me out of the kitchen—keep some distance—when we agreed to work together. And now here we were, stuffing chicken with preserved lemon together, doing the dance that cooks do.
I was doing two jobs, essentially. Slipping out of the kitchen to confirm reservations, talk to customers, schedule and direct the wait staff, print menus. It was a hard week.
It was amazing to see Micky in action from up close, and I gained a lot of respect for how hard he works and how patient he is. I watched in awe as he juggled the million things on his to-do list, talking to vendors, interviewing potential cooks—I could not work with him forever!--, butchering meat, creating dishes, teaching me. Also, he is exceedingly talented, creative, and knowledgeable. A good leader. In other words, a great chef.