Kitchen Apprentice: Trial by Lack of Fire

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgA kitchen without fire is a sad and ironically hellish place, where the cooks aren't feeling the heat from their cooktops but rather, from under their asses.

With the recent crush during brunch services, Jeff had been recruited this week to help the sous plate and expedite food in the few hours before the additional sous was scheduled to arrive. Left to my own devices, I worked steadily through a list of pasta mise. As I wrestled potatoes through a food mill, Jeff hurtled past me, a blur of white, rondeau held high above my head.

"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.

"Yes. Um, is that risotto?

"Yes. Add the tomato sauce. Now."

I did as I was told and started stirring. I had only made the risotto once before, the previous week, and even then, I'd mostly watched as Jeff showed me how to scrape down the sides of the rondeau and keep the rice from burning. I'd tasted the risotto once.

What was it supposed to be like again? And what was going on? I knew brunch could be hectic but service had just begun. Then I noticed Jeff down the line, brandishing a flaming C-fold.

The gas had gone out from all the ranges and he had to relight all the pilot lights. Just minutes into service, the kitchen was already fifteen tickets behind and I'd just been placed on risotto duty. Jeff put out his paper towel torch with a stomp and called out instructions.

"Taste it, Chris, yes? Add water, taste and season if you need to."

Yes, chef. I couldn't mess this up: risotto gets cooked in the morning, so that it has enough time to chill before getting prepped for an appetizer at dinner. Ruined risotto = very angry cooks all around. But it was okay, I told myself, fumbling for my notepad. Don't panic, you took notes last week! Just look at those...

"after tom sauce: stir + add water"

Holy hell, batman! These were the shittiest notes ever!

Stir and add water? But how much? How often? How do I know when it's done? I couldn't be running the length of the kitchen with spoonfuls of risotto for Jeff to taste. But I should remember how it to tweak the taste, as long as it tasted something like the end product, right?

I had a bite of the bubbling mess before me, and tasted...bland, crunchy grains of slightly-salty nothingness. I added salt, vinegar. I kept stirring, I kept tasting. More vinegar, more salt, more water. I scraped down the sides. Finally, it was beginning to taste like risotto.

"Please, please don't get me fired, just behave and taste good," I whispered into the rondeau between tastes.

When the grains had finally cooked through, I pulled the rondeau off the heat and ran to gather my finishing mise. When I returned, Jeff was standing over the pot, spatula in hand.

"How is it?"

"Fine, now just let the liquid cook off."

It was as though the heavens had opened above my work station. Nothing was getting thrown out! My ass wasn't getting canned! I could hear the angels singing. I could feel a god-light settling across my very sweaty shoulders.

It was a true comfort: I'd passed a benchmark I didn't even know I'd set for myself before I achieved it. I'd helped the kitchen out in a pinch. Was I slowly becoming a smaller burden to those around me? I know I should be striving for something more than "fine," better than "good," maybe even better than "great." I should always want to be faster, more efficient, more consistent in everything I do and much less panicked. With time and practice, I know I'll get there, but as far my short term goals go, "fine" is just fine by me.

But I will definitely start taking better notes.