Cooking is about adapting, an exercise in observation, utilizing all your senses. Every pasta comes with its own set of rules, finicky things to look out for. For the most part, I enjoy learning about each pasta's characteristics and familiarizing myself with their quirks. But I cannot even pretend to like "spaghetti."
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At The Restaurant, my three inch paring knife is one of my best friends, along with my notebook and sharpie. With my paring knife, I peel potatoes, cut tape, trim sheets of pasta dough, halve artichokes, open tins of olive oil and occasionally nick myself.
After an unremarkably average performance on my "pasta midterm," I was determined to do a little better on the final I'd have to face. Beyond joking about the assessment test he'd eventually administer, Jeff still didn't have much set in stone in the way of planning the actual final—until last week.
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."
For 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.
Even though my triceps and forearms were ready to fall off after coaxing flour into eight batches of cavatelli, it's still one of my favorite things to do in the pasta station. Kneading each batch took me longer than I liked—by the time I wrapped up the last batch for resting, the first was ready to get rolled out—about two hours.
No matter how fabulous the establishment, at the end of a day, a restaurant is a business. In order to maximize profit margins, waste has to be kept at a minimum. At The Restaurant, the sous chefs in charge of ordering take care to purchase the freshest, highest quality produce, whether that entails personal trips to the farmer's market or sourcing dried pastas from Italy.
I practically clung to Erica's apron the first day I trailed. She was on the hot station, and was responsible for any fried sides or appetizers that went out with an order. I was sandwiched between her and Mark on garde manger. Those two stations alone commanded more surface area and lowboys than the entire kitchen at the restaurant I'd worked at previously.
When working at a restaurant you're proud of, it's only natural that eventually you'll want to experience it as a guest. But there are a few lessons I've learned along the way.
Every woman in my family cooks. When I think of my maternal grandmother, I think of the boiled amaranth greens she'd put on top of congee, the iron from their roots bleeding across our bowls. My paternal grandmother was famous for her shizitou, a fist-sized meatball skirted by mushrooms and baby bok choy.
"Behind! Hot!" He set the pot down onto a stovetop at the back of the kitchen and turned to me. "Do you remember how to make this? You better—I'm serious." I couldn't see what was in the rondeau from where I was standing but he spoke with such conviction, it could have been filled with rocks and shoe leather and I wouldn't have dared to say no.
Of course, any service can be rough, but several factors can turn Sunday brunch into a minefield for cooks. Parties are usually smaller at brunch so the turnover time for a table can be much shorter than one for dinner. The increase in potential diners, coupled with the fact that brunch is longer than dinner, turns a typically busy (300 covers) service into a marathon where cooks find themselves sprinting (350-430 covers) the entire way.
Before my apprenticeship, besides baking the occasional birthday cake or roasting turkey for Thanksgiving, the primary use for my oven was for storing muffin pans and a multi-tier steamer. Now, almost everything I cook gets roasted or flashed in the oven at some point. My pasta water gets more salt than it ever used to, and my attempts at fresh ravioli are increasing in frequency.
There is so much to learn about pasta. There is a reason behind every step in the process, an understanding of the dough's chemistry that you must achieve.
In the pasta closet, Jeff already has some Dave Matthews Band or Lupe Fiasco playing on his iPod. After laying out the day's production list, we begin to make pasta. The repetition in pasta production allows a prep cook to zone out and hum along.
I'd watched the cooks drop things into the fryer all the time. It looked simple enough, but I'd never been this close to the fryer, enough to feel the heat on my face. And I'd definitely never fried this much chicken before.
The organism that is the kitchen cannot perform at its peak when its contributing parts are not performing at theirs; there is nobody in the kitchen who is superfluous during service (with myself being a rare exception), and everyone needs to be moving, searing, boiling, frying, plating to the beat of the same drum.
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.