Kitchen Apprentice: Fried Chicken for Family Meal

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgThis week at service, I actually cooked.

Wow, tremendous, you're saying. You, a "cook," cooked at a restaurant. Would you like a medal?

Allow me to explain.

As a production/prep cook, I am not directly responsible for any food that a customer would consume. The sunchokes I cut will be seared off at contorni. The fennel I slice will get grilled for a side. I have been working at the restaurant for 15 weeks now, and before this past Sunday, the only heat I'd applied to anything in the kitchen was in the form of me heaving my body atop amazingly unyielding mounds of pasta dough.

This is not to say I should be on the line, nor have I earned it: while I have been working BOH (back of house) since October, I only came in twice a week. And with my new job, my time at the restaurant has been shaved down even further.

Whenever I am asked to do anything more challenging than fetching leeks from the walk-in downstairs—which can be very tricky, by the way; finding the right container may require you to play a bruising game of produce jenga with 50-pound boxes of artichokes and jicama—like the time I was tasked with making a dressing for family salad, my reaction is steeply parabolic.

First, I am overjoyed. Make vinaigrette? Of course!

Then just as quickly, I realize that people will actually be tasting this dressing. Family dinner, no less. These are the poor people who tolerate me during service will now have to suffer my vinaigrette.

But it's only after I have measured everything out that I experience "the moment," mainly because I have, like an idiot, forgotten which—oil, or vinegar—must be poured into the blender first. "The moment" directly precedes the point of no return; it's the pause before an especially crucial step that determines whether the product is edible or mangled and shoe-flavored. Luckily for everyone that night, I conferred with a line cook first; the terror that is un-emulsified fruity vinaigrette was avoided.

Fast forward to Sunday: there I was, standing in front of Ted at plancha. I can't tell if Ted is either the most trusting of my kitchen abilities or just so damn busy all the time he has no choice but to accept my help. Either way, poor Ted.

"Help? Yes!" He pointed to a giant aluminum bowl filled with marinating chicken.

"Can you fry that?"

A tricky question. Can I? Well, technically, it was possible.

"Yes." A minute later, I found myself in front of the bubbling fryers, clutching the entire staff's lunch in my hands, experiencing one hell of a "moment."

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.

Ted swooped in and showed me how to cook a batch, tossing several handfuls of the bird into a wire basket, lowering it into the oil with ease, as though two quarts of chicken on the end of a stick didn't weigh anything at all.

When he returned to his station, Milly, the sweet line cook working next to the fryer, came to my rescue.

"You can try shaking the baskets, to make sure the chicken doesn't stick. Like this, see?"

She hoisted up the basket from the roiling vat and flipped the pieces of chicken, sending drops of oil sailing through the air. She passed me the handle.

"You'll feel like a badass."

I managed a little shake and plonked the basket back into the fryer. When Ted came back, I lifted the basket and to my horror, the chicken Milly flipped so beautifully had settled at the bottom of the basket and adhered to each other. It was a lumpy ball of salmonella.

Unfazed, Ted worked the pieces lose with a fork and the handle of the spider net, passed the basket back to me and returned to plancha. I grasped the handle with both hands. Come hell or high oil I was not going to let the chicken stick again.

After some whimpering and a few more baskets of chicken, I fell into a rhythm: paw one mound of chicken loose with a fork and shake vigorously when lowering back into the oil while bracing self against the side of the fryer. Sauce and toss cooked chicken in a hotel pan, consolidate cooked chicken, dump in another couple quarts of raw chicken—rinse, lather, repeat.

Eventually, I mustered the courage to really fling the chicken around, an ability borne out of frustration and not skill, muttering as I thumped the wire basket against the fryer wall emphatically (oh-no-you-don't-you-little--).

Milly smiled at me from her station. "See? Don't you feel like a badass?"

Sweating by then, with a strip of hoisin crust around my wrist, I did.