Kitchen Apprentice: On the Other Side of the Learning Curve

Editor's note: Each week "Chris P. Beycon" shares tales from behind the kitchen door, where she works as an apprentice at a popular restaurant. Read her column here each Thursday! —The Mgmt.

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgEntering the world that is BOH shocked my sluggish, civilian senses. Everything in the kitchen was hotter, faster, more intense than I'd ever experienced before. I felt weak and slow, but I was determined to adapt.

Simple requests like "please cut some sunchokes" had me whimpering in the walk-in, trying to pry a container of sunchokes out from under a mountain of produce. The first time I seasoned short ribs, I made such a spectacle of myself, struggling with the pepper mill that a bunch of porters and dishwashers gathered a short distance away to watch. What is she doing? They waggled rubber gloves at each other. She should be doing it like this! Pepper mill pantomiming and head shaking. No, no, not like that, like this! I tried to ignore the brisk gestures dancing in my periphery as I continued to break my wrists over sheets of short ribs. This...this is embarrassing.

And poor Jeff, I was his ball and chain to endure those first couple of months when I knew nothing about pasta. I slowed down production, took forever to portion dry pastas, and pestered him with an unceasing stream of questions. I had to be reminded of steps and ingredients week after week. My work was sloppy, my fingers slow. I didn't know how to hold a knife properly. I had a hard time looking sous chefs in the eye. I mumbled everything and scurried everywhere, hiding in the pasta closet as often as my chores permitted me.

I had to improve, or ran the risk of making a lot of people very angry with me. I absorbed as much as I could: I remembered where things were kept, how equipment worked, how to prep vegetables for contorni, how to peel boiled potatoes faster (ok, this one I learned last week—use the back of your paring knife!). Now, I can lift more, sort of keep up with Jeff during most pasta production, and even make occasional eye contact with sous chefs. But while my progress hasn't exactly been stratospheric, I am beginning to feel like I've plateaued somewhat.

Usually, after watching and helping Jeff make a new pasta a couple times, I show vague signs of improvement. Not so with ravioli last week. I botched everything I did to "help." I began by ruining Jeff's dry brush, the one with fine bristles meant for dusting the flour off the pasta machine after production, having mistaken it for the one usually used for wetting sheets of ravioli skin. Then, armed with a pastry bags of filling, we started at opposite ends of the rolled out dough, piping dollops of filling onto the sheet. By the time Jeff was through with his bag, I'd only managed to squeeze out several off-center, teetering piles of filling on my end of the dough. When sealing each individual piece, my fingers kept snagging the thin sheet of pasta, causing the dough to pucker and crease.

"You gotta watch out for those."

I think the gentler the reprimand, the shittier I feel. I continued sealing. More snags, more ruined pieces of ravioli.

"Have you made the ravioli before?"

I cringed a little before I answered.

"Yes."

Silence. I probably shouldn't have pursued it, but...

"Why?"

"No reason."

GOD! FUCKING! DAMMIT! I wilted a little inside, embarrassed, annoyed, tired, cranky, everything I wasn't supposed to be when I was making pasta. Some pastas may be tedious to produce, but I didn't like thinking there was a pasta I was actually incapable of making.

I was relieved when we finally wrapped up the product for the freezer, demoralized and feeling very sorry for a haggard-looking Jeff. I was back to clumsy, pasta-ruining, drop-shit-everywhere-Chris. If I had a tail, it would've been firmly tucked between my checkered legs. Was this simply the lack of improvement, or was it something worse—regression? Whatever it was, I wasn't enjoying the other side of the learning curve. Here's to hoping for a second wind, and a second chance at ravioli.

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