Yesterday was my first day of school. I mean “school” in the figurative sense, but it really is school in the food business. I started work at a restaurant in Manhattan, in a real kitchen with real restaurant people who are famed to be knife-wielding alcoholic maniacs, if you believe Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I recently finished six months of cooking school, at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. Everyone asks, “Where’s that?” when I say the name of my school, by which they mean, “I’ve never heard of it.” I always answer, “Twenty-third and Sixth Avenue” just to be literal and also not to acknowledge that I’ve committed myself to a $15,000 student-loan principal in order to attend a professional food school that no one’s heard of. It’s not a nice feeling. The last part of the program is a six-week stint working in a restaurant. As school wore on—three evenings a week of preparing musty French recipes like rabbit in mustard sauce and mussels in white wine—it was the externship part that I got really excited about. You begin to intuit that doing stuff in a classroom is a big fakey exercise, that you’ll never learn anything truly useful at this rate. You want to run with the big dogs. The professionals. Not other middle-aged, white-collar, cooking-curious baby chefs like you.
Needless to say I became more and more nervous as the day approached. When I called the restaurant for the first time, the chef de cuisine told me to come in for an interview. In the restaurant hierarchy, the chef de cuisine is the great unsung hero of any operation. He’s the guy who runs the show on a daily basis, while the executive chef tends to the big picture. This being a four-star French restaurant, the chef spoke in French-accented English and kept the call very short, giving me only enough information to proceed to the next phase of our engagement, which was to show up in two weeks for an in-person interview. This scared the hell out of me. You think to yourself, “Man, this is the real deal. He’s going to be a hard-ass. He’s going to make me cry.” The chef appeared in my mind as a tall, thin man with scarred hands, a severe face, and hard little eyes like marbles. I feared that he would administer the cooking version of a pop quiz: I’d arrive for my “interview,” and he’d march me to a stove and say, “Cook me an omelette! Do it!” I also imagined that the gleaming galley kitchen, which is fully visible to the customers in the dining room, wasn’t the actual kitchen. There was, I was sure, a dark, humid basement made of concrete walls with water running down them in sheets. My corner of this happy place would be lit by a single naked light bulb, swinging from a frayed extension cord threaded through exposed pipes overhead.
Scary French Chef turned out to be a really nice young guy with dark bushy eyebrows, who insisted that I start after the holidays so that I could have a fun New Year’s. When I arrived yesterday at 10 a.m., the hostess led me through the restaurant, past the long polished stainless-steel bar, past the brown leather banquettes, to the amuse bouche prep station. There, a waiter took me down a flight of stairs into the building’s basement and deposited me at the feet of Don, a Spanish-speaking cook with a moustache, who was chopping red bell peppers. It’s almost exactly the opposite of the dark, wet, secret prep basement I had feared: Bright and gleaming as a copper pot, the floors are bone dry, and the climate is nearly frigid from air-conditioning. Don informs me that Jean-Luc, the day’s sous chef, has not yet arrived. I fret for a moment. Oh God, have I been abandoned? Will I stand around like a dope all day? Don asks, “Do you have your own clothes?” I nod yes and follow him through a long-seeming maze of back hallways to a room. “This is the women’s locker room,” he tells me. “Change. Don’t forget to close the door.” I do as I am told, emerging in my “whites,” which consist of poly-cotton checkered pants that look like clown wear and a white double-breasted poly-cotton jacket bearing the patch of my school where a left pocket might be. I find Don again. He instructs me to put my stuff under a desk in the office since I have no locker. Then he and I return to the prep area where he is working. He shows me a large bin of kale and picks up one of the stalks. “You take the stem and you pull it, like this.” He holds together the two sides of the big, green leaf in one hand as if pinching together the wings of a butterfly, and pulls away the stem with the other. I nod. Then I start doing it.
10:05 a.m. Destemming kale.
11:30 a.m. Juicing red bell peppers. Jean-Luc arrived eventually and presented me with a toque, the hat that looks like a large, pleated coffee filter. It is on my head. I would be less conspicuous if I were wearing a potted plant on my head. The juicer is the same machine that you might use if you were making carrot juice, and it has a spigot on the front that extrudes mulched-up red pepper pulp. These machines usually come with a short, plastic cylinder that you use to push down whatever items you’re juicing. Of course, it’s been long lost. So, I am using the butt end of a long, wooden paddle instead. I look ridiculous.
12:15 p.m. Still juicing peppers. I ask Jean-Luc, “Does this take a long time? Or, am I slow?” He laughs and walks away. The rest of the kitchen is quiet, except for the incessant chatter of the back waiters, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi, and an occasional baa-ing noise coming from one of the hot-line chefs. I’m sure the lamb noise is a reference to me.
2:30 p.m. Cleaning wild mushrooms. I’m trying to stay aware of what I call “mongrel mouth.” It’s that slack-jaw thing that happens when you’ve been picking over chanterelles and black trumpet mushrooms for an hour. The barnyard sounds continue.
4 p.m. Low-blood-sugar moment. I eat an energy bar to keep my mental focus.
5:20 p.m. Dinner break. There’s a cafeteria for all the hotel staff, including the restaurant workers, where there is a casual buffet of foods. Tonight it is a baked pasta casserole, green salad, fruit cocktail, and cucumbers soaking in a clear liquid. But I don’t partake of any of it because Justin, one of the evening cooks, has made a bunch of sandwiches out of yesterday’s beef brisket special. It’s like a pulled-pork sandwich, but with beef. It’s the most delicious sandwich I have ever eaten.
6 p.m. onward. Julienning (i.e., chopping into sticks) onions, bell peppers. Chopping leeks. Trimming the ends off Florida kumquats. Helping with plating the goat-cheese panna cotta appetizers for a party of 25 people. Sometimes I just watch.
9:10 p.m. I leave.