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Kitchen Apprentice: Midterm

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.jpgFor a while now, Jeff has been telling me that he would eventually administer an aptitude test of sorts—a pasta practical—to see how far I've come. I would be in charge the entire day, from checking inventory to determining the day's checklist and driving production. I remember laughing the first time he mentioned it: Me, in charge? Surely, you jest.

"Leave Shirley out of this. But I'm completely serious. It'll be like a pasta final!"

The idea of a test appealed to the media planner in me. Yes. Give me KPIs, give me benchmarks. Give me success metrics. But what if there was no success to measure?

"When is the final? What if I fail?"

He hadn't decided when at that point, but Jeff assured me that nothing would happen if I failed, because there was nothing to hold me back from. Comforting. At the very least, I knew it was going to be open book.

When a cook on schedule is late or does not show up, the kitchen scrambles to fill the void. When two cooks fail to show, like they did this past Sunday, Jeff gets commandeered to help prep the cook-less stations for service at 8:00 with no time to mix doughs.

"Today is your midterm!"

I finished tying my apron and blinked stupidly at Jeff. Midterm? Today? But I wasn't prepared! Who's ever heard of a pop-midterm before? I need more time! I need to study!!

"Ok."

I scuttled off, running through my mental checklist: First, set up the pasta stations with fresh and dry for service. When pulling pastas for service, take inventory and see what needs to be replenished. Consolidate product and stock the stations. Luckily, the pasta gods smiled upon me, and the walk-in was almost completely stocked except for a dwindling supply of cavatelli.

Begin production. Efficiency of movement. Upstairs, downstairs, try to minimize trips, grab everything at once: eggs, cheese from the pasta lowboy, containers to portion out each batch, a bowl for mixing, sheet trays for the fresh product, a stack of C-fold towels.

I started kneading out batches of cavatelli, going as quickly as my gnawing doubts allowed. Did I forget something? What if I ruin this "virtually idiot-proof" pasta? You're kneading it too hard, you're not kneading thoroughly. How long was one batch taking me? I had a lot of dry pasta to portion; would I be able to get through any of it between resting and cutting the dough? This was the second time I was producing cavatelli on my own, no more excuses; it had to be better and I had to be faster.

I finished kneading five batches in an hour, three minutes faster per batch than last week. I had just enough time to portion out a hotel pan of spaghettini before cutting the dough. I was cranking out my second batch and feeling good about my progress when Jeff finally popped back into the pasta closet.

"Did you mix any other doughs?"

I froze: So I did forget something!

"No, I'm sorry! I didn't think we needed anything else!"

He shrugged.

"Well you just blew your chance to try shit out."

"Oh, I didn't think I was allowed...."

I trailed off morosely and continued my cranking, facing the wall so Jeff couldn't see my lower lip extended in a pout. The cavatelli was fine, and according to Jeff I "passed" my midterm, but I was a little disappointed that I hadn't possessed the foresight to recognize the gap in my checklist. After cavatelli and portioning dries, what else was there?

Instincts can't be taught and I spent the rest of my shift wondering if that's as far as mine went: I was careful, methodical, and took pains to follow instructions, but was I incapable of thinking outside my lists? I didn't fail my midterm, but I don't think I exceeded anyone's expectations either. I can only hope for a better performance on my pasta final.

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