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Monday, July 14, 2014

A Stage in the Kitchens at Betony - Part I

A Stage in the Kitchens at Betony

Part I

Betony Sign

In February I had the opportunity to stage (i.e. intern) for a day at Betony in New York City. The following is part one of a three part series on the experience... 

I glanced down into that single eye – focused on me, but at the same time vacant. I felt oddly self-conscious for having made eye contact. But the awkwardness of being caught in the gaze of a dead-eyed stare was nothing compared to the physical weight of the just-bisected head that I held in my hands.

The other half of the head was several feet away. It still rested upon the band saw which moments ago had quickly carved the split: a perfect cranial split executed by a hypnotically spinning blade making equals of bone, cartilage, fat and flesh. On display for all to see – brain, nasal cavity, teeth…

No doubt it would be delicious, I thought as I submerged the first half of the head in a massive plastic container of just-prepared brine.

Tête de Cochon (Pig’s Head)
Date: February 20
Time: 1:24 am
Initials: M.F.

I sealed the top and moved the container into the walk-in where the pig’s head would rest overnight. Bisected head tonight… Pig’s Head Terrine with Mustard and Salsa Verde tomorrow.
I began to collect my tools while the last few cooks packed their mise en place for tomorrow, wiped down their workstations and filed out with surprising energy. How were they still standing? Had they not just experienced what I had?

In the corner of the kitchen, a new shift from the pastry team was just starting on tomorrow’s preparations.

I made my way to the basement door that led up to 57th street where I had entered just 14 hours before. At that moment, Executive Chef Bryce Shuman emerged from the nearby office, flipping through several pages of what was likely a prep list for the following day. He glanced up, looking remarkably alert given the hour – particularly compared to the personal fatigue I was feeling.

“So, what did you think?”

I woke that morning at 6am. Seven and a half hours before I needed to be anywhere. Figures it would be raining. I’d now need to carry an umbrella for the short walk ahead of me. It was a minor inconvenience. But this was not how I had been mentally rehearsing my approach for the last few weeks.

A little curve ball was probably a good thing. There was no way to predict what the day had in store.

A couple weeks practicing textbook batonette, julienne, and brunoise cuts on countless bags of potatoes – I was certainly no worse off for the effort. But a stage at Betony – this was not an insignificant step up from the kitchens of my prior experience. This was a rank shift. Several rank shifts. My apprehension was justified.

I had packed my knives the evening before, laying my bag next to a pair of freshly washed chef pants that I had ironed and lint rolled to distraction.

I had been studying the menu for several days and knew each item by heart. During my review, any unfamiliar ingredients that appeared in the stylistically terse descriptions had been recorded and researched. There was little left to do at this point but wait.

It was still raining at 1:10pm when I left my apartment; knife bag slung over one shoulder – a still-not-fully-familiar sensation. A cheap drugstore umbrella aloft in my opposite hand.

I arrived at 41 west 57th at 1:25pm, a respectable five minutes before I had been instructed. In my mental dry runs, I had determined that five minutes early was sufficiently “on time” without betraying my over-eagerness to get into the kitchen.

Betony Entrance

One last mental run-through of my instructions email.

“Males must be clean shaven” Check. After 3 months of test-driving a full beard, the facial scruff had been painfully dispatched the night before. My face felt cold.

“Refrain from wearing any jewelry except a plain wedding band”I had long since abandoned a college-acquired cartilage piercing as part of my initiation into what became a decade-long career in Investment Banking. The hole closed up quickly. Only the scar tissue remained (both from the piercing and the banking).

“Please come prepared with your tools as well as black shoes, black pants, black socks and a white undershirt”Tools… a bit vague. Chef’s knife, paring knife, honing steel, vegetable peeler, tweezers, and sharpie… those seemed obvious. Did I risk being “that guy” who packed every blade and gadget in his arsenal, just in case? Cleaver, mandolin, butane torch, smoker… I opted to keep it simple.

“We will provide a hat and an apron and a jacket to wear. Please ask for Chef Jack or Chef Aaron. I look forward to having you in the kitchen. – Chef Bryce”

“Well, here’s hoping you don’t regret that last part, Chef,” I thought as I stepped through the side entrance.

Betony Main Entrance Sign

This was my third time at the restaurant, although certainly the first under such circumstances. I had the good fortune of dining at Betony twice before – an outlier in my dining experience. I almost never repeat visits – too many new and untested restaurants throughout the city – too few free evenings to try them all. A repeat visit always felt like a wasted opportunity.

The first visit was shortly after Pete Wells had bestowed 3 stars on Betony in his New York Times review. A categorical rave, the review prompted an immediate call for a reservation, availability already limited to a full a month out.   

More than sufficiently taken with the experience, a rule-breaking second visit was in order, the visit that ultimately set the events of the day in motion.

Several months earlier, a newsletter from the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) appeared in my inbox amid a flurry of work emails on IPOs and economic indicators. I would read the email later that evening when the chaos of the capital markets ebbed.

“Signature Dishes of Betony”, it read. “Bryce Shuman, who helped oversee Eleven Madison Park's ascent, leads you through his own signature dishes.”

My interest was more than a little piqued. How could I pass on an opportunity to replicate the dishes I had so enjoyed at the instruction of the chef who had created them? Even better, I would also enroll my parents as a Christmas gift. That annual rack-your-brain challenge solved early this year – cooking class on a Thursday night and then dinner at Betony on Friday. Perfect!

In February, the “Betony weekend” finally arrived. As an investment banker, weekday evening social plans were always risky. They typically required aggressively managing workflow several days in advance and dodging late afternoon client requests that might put things in jeopardy. But after years of that routine, this evening was different. Having given notice several months earlier, I had quietly ended my finance career just one week earlier.

I arrived at the ICE campus comfortably on time. I didn’t have to worry about my Blackberry.

Like most recreational cooking classes, the kitchen was filled with borderline inappropriately dressed home cooks with dangerously undisciplined knife skills and palpable fears of the flames shooting from the commercial stoves. But everyone was eager for what was to come.

Signature Dishes of Betony Class at ICE (Photo used with permission from the Institute of Culinary Education)

No one lost a finger. No one was engulfed in flames (although a few side towels perished that evening). And the Betony team, led by Chef Bryce, displayed exceeding patience, demonstrating and re-demonstrating razor thin knife cuts and tweezers-precision plating.

By night’s end, the entire class had the hazy look that accompanies over-consumption. Chef Bryce finished the evening with a recap of the menu we had prepared: Fois Gras Bon Bons, Grain Salad with Labne, Marinated Trout Roe on Puffed Rice Cups, Beef Tongue with Mustard Seed and Teff.

As we made our way towards the door, Chef Bryce ended with, “If you’d like to stage some time, just let me know.”

It was casual and quiet enough to have been nothing more than a good-natured way of saying goodbye for the evening. Maybe not. I grabbed his business card.

The next night at Betony, we ordered a combination of the items we had prepared the evening before and some that would be new to us.

“Mine looked a little different,” my father remarked as a server lowered a plate of Trout Roe in Puffed Rice Cups on the table. “Yes,” I had to agree. “Just a bit different.”

As we finished our entrées, Chef Bryce stopped by our table to greet us – as casual and welcoming as he had been in class.

All the while, my mind kept returning to the invitation to stage. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Chef Bryce had at least seen me work with a knife in my hand.

The following afternoon, I sent the email. It was short and polite - a thank you for the great class and the great meal at Betony. And then, the ask.

I gave him as many outs as I could.

“If there was just a grain of seriousness in the invitation to stage, I wanted to express my interest.  Even if it were simply standing flush against the wall observing, or prepping micro-green garnishes, the experience would be tremendous.”

I hit send and got up to grab a drink. Just moments later, I heard my inbox ding as I stood in the kitchen. I pulled up the email on my phone.

“When are you available?”

And so we had it.

Continue to Part II...

Trout Roe in Puffed Rice Cups

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