Editor's note: Please welcome our new Kitchen Apprentice columnist "Chris P. Beycon." He (or is it a she? muhaha) is keeping his identity and that of the restaurant confidential, but will be sharing kitchen escapades with us each week. Read more about the experiences of a newbie with a chef's knife. —The Mgmt.
I messed up last night. Many times. Unceasingly. I knew it was going to be a bad day when I got on the subway and saw that I'd forgotten to remove my nail polish. Manicures might be great for interviews, but they look pretty stupid on a prep cook. I got in at 2 p.m. and checked in with Jeff, my pasta sensei. On Sundays, I work with him on pasta production until dinner service, when I help the garde manger and line cooks restock their lowboys or prep vegetables. Jeff was rolling out particularly delicate pasta in the pasta closet and needed me to stay out of his hair, so I began to prep some squash for agnolotti filling in the main kitchen.
I was in the middle of washing the gourds when I adjusted the container holding them and accidentally knocked into a giant saw that was hanging on the wall next to my set up. Instinctively, I reached out to catch it, pulling back the last millisecond, when my brain finally registered that it was unwise to grab a serrated-edged object pinwheeling through the air. It clanged onto the floor and I scrambled to pick it up.
Recently, we had an executive sous chef return from an intense, four-month long stagierie abroad. I'd heard that he was as exacting of a sous as he was passionate about the craft. I was equal parts excited, humbled and terrified to be working in a kitchen with him. The first time he spoke to me ("Excuse me") I whimpered and skipped aside.
He leaned over then and glanced at me. He didn't say anything, and it wasn't a particularly mean look, but it was so potent that I knew, that for as long as I lived, I would never make that mistake ever again. I fumbled with the saw and did my best not to cry or release my bladder, which I am sure would have broken several health codes and resulted in my permanent expulsion from the restaurant.
After that, I chased squash around my cutting board, and only succeeded in halving the kabocha squash, unable to cut the smaller, sturdier carnival squash. I am 23 years old, 5' 2'' and have the upper body strength of a third grader. This is not to say all females who work in the back of the house struggle with similar shortcomings. Actually, nobody else does. Erica on garde manger played softball throughout college and has biceps like small grapefruits. Lisa, a line cook, has the leanest, most amazing forearms I have ever seen on a woman. She's also very pretty.
Everybody moves with precision, efficiently and with great confidence. I am the only one who has trouble lifting buckets of turnips, or cutting carnival squash. Jeff was still concentrating on his pasta project when I approached him, apprehensive.
"I cleaned the big ones, but I can't cut the carnival squash."
"What do you mean you can't?"
"I'm...not strong enough...I can't do it."
I'm sure it had been a long day for him. I'm sure his back ached from crimping and forming all that pasta. I'm sure it sucked to be saddled with a weenie know-nothing who couldn't even complete a simple task without flinging saws around the kitchen. So when he heaved a sigh and told me to just set it aside and set up for dinner service, I couldn't feel sorrier, or more useless.
So far everyone in the kitchen has generously tolerated my vast ineptitude. In my two months there, I have been taught how to hold a knife (three times), pinch out trays of agnolotti and the best way to prep a variety of vegetables. Everyone is serious about their craft, gracious with their knowledge, and very kind. They all work hard to bang out good service with great food, so it must be distracting to babysit someone like me who doesn't know hold to hold her knives.
Awful night notwithstanding, my shifts at the restaurant are always something I look forward to. One of the more difficult things I've had to learn is how to put my mistakes behind me, and never to make the same ones twice. I'm still working on that—I make a lot of mistakes. I hope I can redeem myself and begin to earn the whites I borrow every week.