Passing through the threshold of the restaurant’s side entrance, I proceeded down a service stairwell into a dimly lit hallway. A handful of kitchen staff silently changed from rain-dampened civilian cloths into culinary whites.
“I’m looking for Chef Aaron or Chef Jack,” I awkwardly announced to anyone who was listening. My eyes desperately scanned the scene for some reaction.
“Sure, give me one second.”
The voice came from behind me from someone in a state of semi-undress. Based on the coat and tie hanging from the locker beside him, he must have been front of house.
I stood motionless along the wall as he finished dressing. The rain from my umbrella formed a puddle at my feet, the growing pool measuring the awkwardness of the quiet. Anticipating a handshake, I shifted my knife bag to my left shoulder.
“And you are…,” the now fully dressed individual broke the silence, walking towards me with an extended hand.
“Mark.” I met his shake with a solid grip. “I’m here to stage. I was told to ask for either Chef Aaron or Chef Jack when I arrived.”
“I think Chef Jack is already upstairs. Let’s get you a coat and a hat and we’ll head into the kitchen.”
This guy knew the drill. I was clearly not the first lost face to appear in this hallway.
I was handed a fresh chef’s coat and a paper hat as we proceeded towards the kitchen doors. I juggled my knife bag and umbrella, dressing as we walked. An awkward sight, limbs akimbo.
We entered the kitchen as I tried on the paper hat. About three sizes too small, I tore right through it. Damn. As best I could, I balanced the torn remains on the crown of my head.
As we entered the kitchen, I was immediately struck by… the calm.
Lunch service was in full swing. But there was no din of banging pots. No flames leaping from sauté pans. No blood vessel rupturing screams from the chef. In fact, it seemed sleepy. The kitchens from my teenage summers had been more chaotic.
Anthony Bourdain, you lied to me!
I was led past the pastry team, mechanically laying uniformly shaped rolls upon sheet pans, to an individual who was mid-conversation with a member of the wait staff. He had seen us approaching, but continued talking.
My escort patted me on the back. “Good luck,” were his final words as he continued through the kitchen. It was clear I was not going to get an introduction.
I waited until the conversation ended and then asserted myself.
“Chef Jack?” I extended my hand. “I’m Mark. I’m here to stage. I was told to ask for you when I arrived”.
He gave me a quick scan and reached for my hat, immediately realizing it was both torn and far too small. “Yep, follow me. We’ll get you set up over here.” He left the hat barely balancing on my head.
I followed him to garde manger. Salads and small plates. It was where I expected to be stationed for the day. Fewer opportunities to screw things up. Cold preparations. No opportunity to burn the place down.
I was introduced to a team of three, already hard at work.
“What can I do?” I immediately inquired. As it was clear I wasn’t going to be tucked away in the corner for the day, I was determined to be useful.
The three continued working, shoulder-to-shoulder, never looking up.
“We’re prepping for tonight.”
“He could work on the meyer lemons and limes.”
“Do we have meyer lemons? I thought we were out and just had… “
“Use regular lemons if we’re out of meyer. Stage, check in the walk-in and I’ll show you how we’ll prep them.”
“And the walk-in is where?”
All three gestured to the large metal door behind us. Yes, that large metal door was obviously the door to the walk-in refrigerator.
I returned from the walk-in with two plastic containers. One filled with limes. One filled with lemons… meyer lemons.
A cutting board had been set-up for me, and I took my place at the end of the row, unpacking my bag and grabbing my chef’s knife.
First, do no harm. That was my primary goal. If my presence ended up being a net positive for the day, that would be all the better. But I was determined not to screw anything up. This included no cuts and no burns.
Second, say yes (or “Oui”) to everything. Small dice potatoes for 14 hours? Oui, Chef! Organize the produce in the walk-in alphabetically? Oui, Chef! Mop the floors in the customer restrooms? Oui, Chef!
But I knew what the kitchen staff must have been thinking.
During my life as an investment banker, I had endured many an afternoon with a “job shadow”, typically the child of a high fee-paying client. These college sophomores and juniors were considering careers in investment banking (or equally likely, dad and mom had made that call for them). Ostensibly, they wanted to see what a day in an investment bank was really like.
These “shadows” were a productivity kiss of death… a wasted afternoon. They didn’t know their assets from their elbow, and they literally didn’t know where to find the restroom.
When they would leave at 5pm, concluding an afternoon of leisurely coffee chats and glad handing, they would have a dangerously skewed view of reality. Free of our “shadows”, the rest of us would finally be able to start working, tucking in for another 10 hours as we placed our dinner orders. Pizza again.
I would do anything to avoid that perception. I would not be some foodie tourist in their kitchen, golden ticket in hand… looking for the full tour. I’d stay out of the way. Ask questions when necessary. I would be friendly but not overly chatty. I would ignore the fact that, while I was just 32 years old, to them I was a fossil.
15 meyer lemons and 15 limes. They would be just one component part for the small plate of "Lobster Rolls" - crispy pastry cigars filled with lobster and crème fraiche.
I had ordered this dish on both of my prior visits. I had noted the brightness of the citrus, but I certainly hadn’t considered how those flavors – such a tiny part of the whole – had been incorporated. Just a shot of lemon juice, right?
Not quite. Each lemon and lime was cut into supremes - individual wedges that had been perfectly removed from skin, pith, membrane and seed. The supremes were subsequently small diced, preserving as much of the juice-filled pulp as possible.
I picked up my knife and made my first cut along the skin of a lime, squinting with one-eyed intensity as I removed any sign of white pith while preserving as much of the fruit as possible. Then another cut. And another.
I turned the lime in my hand, inspecting it from all sides to confirm that it had been skinned to satisfaction. Just one or two cleanup cuts needed, and I proceeded with extracting each wedge.
It was another exercise in concentration on my part as I positioned my knife directly alongside the membrane between each wedge segment. With eight or nine clean segment removed, I placed them in a small plastic to-go container and reached for the next lime.
It was then that I realized I was being watched. All three of my companions at garde manger had been studying each labored movement. They had not been impressed with my approach, I realized, as the one nearest me silently took the next lime from my hand and placed it on his cutting board.
"Start your cut here at the top and work your knife forward as you move from top to bottom, then cut here... then here... It should take no more than four cuts… five at the max. Remove the skins from all of the limes first. Then cut the supremes."
As he spoke, he extracted each wedge with two quick and precise cuts.
"Think of it like an assembly line," he finished, as he dropped the supremes in the plastic container with mine.
His looked nicer.
The 15 seconds demo, while sobering, had been extremely helpful, and I moved quickly through the remaining lemons and limes. I snapped a cover onto the literal fruit of my labors and passed it to my lime-supreming instructor.
He held the container to the light, examining the cuts. "Exactly," he smiled as he placed it in the refrigerated cabinets below our counter.
He then reached for a printout to his left - the mise en place prep list, I realized. He traced his pen down row after row of remaining items, stopping at "citrus supremes" and making a checkmark. It was one of seemingly countless items for the afternoon.
I did my part to work through the list with the team.
Chicory kits - selecting only the most visually appealing greens for the chicory salad, a process of examining each leaf to confirm it was plate-worthy.
Cleaning leeks - removing every trace of dirt from the leaf sheaths while preserving the roots as part of the presentation. I quickly learned how much leeks love dirt and that they love hiding it in the most impossible to remove places.
It was midway through plucking perfectly spiraled pea tendrils from larger bunches that Chef Bryce stopped by to check on progress. He immediately noticed me standing out as the awkward fourth in garde manger. A beat later, his face transformed with a look of recognition.
"Hey there! I see we've got you all set up. How's it going?"
"So far, excellent," I replied sincerely.
"Great. Well, when you're done down here, I want to make sure you get upstairs, particularly when we start dinner service."
The upstairs kitchen is where it all came together. The expediting… the grilling, searing and sautéing.
"Absolutely. Thank you, Chef."
He smiled and then stepped back, tilting his head as he considered my still-torn paper hat. He reached out and tried to pull it lower on my head, an attempt at giving me some level of respectability. Best intentions not withstanding, like his predecessors, he quickly realized little could be done. He pulled his hands away carefully, as if afraid even the slightest breeze from his movement would knock the hat from my head.
I returned to my pea tendrils, picking up my tweezers in search of the next perfect spiral.
“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” asked one of my garde manger companions.
“Yes. I am,” I replied, almost surprised by my sincerity.
She smiled, “Ha, I can tell.”
What had I missed?
I had been lulled into a trance-like state while washing a shipment of dandelion greens and lost focus on what was happening around me. Not a good thing in a busy kitchen.
It was as if I hadn't heard the cry of “battle stations!”
Every in-process preparation was being placed into containers, wrapped in plastic and sealed away in cabinets and refrigerators. Cutting boards were wiped down and carried swiftly to ready hands at the rinse sink. Buckets of sanitizer and clean towels were dropped on every metallic surface.
The entire kitchen was being scrubbed from top to bottom, literally. As an obsessive, clean-as-you-go cook myself, I’d appreciated the neatness at every cook’s station. No clutter. Only have out what you need.
At one point I was asked, “Are you using that salt?”
“I’ll need it when I’m done cleaning the leeks, Chef.”
“Then put it away now and take it out when you’re done cleaning the leeks.”
But this was different. One individual led the effort, scouring every surface with a brush. Another followed, applying an admirable amount of elbow grease with a dishtowel from a bucket of sanitizer. A third squeegeed each surface dry, while yet another wiped each surface with a clean, dry towel.
At the same time, a second team was similarly attacking the floors.
I suddenly felt dirty by comparison – as if my presence was somehow sullying the purification ritual I had just observed.
And as quickly as it had started, all of the stations were reset, and everyone was back to work.
I moved cautiously, like the owner of a new car. I didn’t want to be the one to put the first scratch in the finish.
It was brief, but the five minutes sitting during family meal was nothing short of calf-muscle bliss. As an avid runner, I had expected to fare better in this regard. But several hours standing over a cutting board had proven more exhausting than any of my twenty-mile, weekend warrior runs. The physical effects of my years as a desk jockey had never been more obvious. "Don't lock your knees," was the passing advice of someone who saw me stretch for the floor earlier that afternoon.
Before the meal began, the entire staff assembled for a quick meeting. Cooks, wait staff, bussers, hosts, and dishwashers... It was my first opportunity to see everyone together in one place, and together they were nothing short of a small army.
Chef Bryce ran through general announcements: a couple changes in the menu and a few new items he was planning to try for later in the week, including a pig's head terrine. That sounds awesome, I thought.
And then he finally brought it up. I had seen the headline moments before I left my apartment, but I had been trying to keep it at the back of my mind. More pressure. And if the news had me on edge, I could only imagine how the crowd around me was feeling - the very team that had received the honor.
"So you've probably all seen that we made the long list for Best New Restaurant for the James Beard Awards," he began. A few people, myself included, started clapping... fading as he continued, realizing we hit the wrong cue.
"Now, there are a lot of names on that list, and there will be a second list of five finalists in the coming weeks (they made the cut). It's great recognition for what we have been doing here. But the last thing we can do is use it as an excuse to get lazy. If we are going to be a three star restaurant, we need to keep pushing like a three star restaurant. Now, given the news, we're expecting a number of VIPs in house today, so as always, let's have a great service." Now everyone clapped.
The floor was then opened to the rest of the team. A member from pastry was eager to speak.
"They know who they are, so I won't name names." She was staring directly at one individual, so names weren't particularly necessary. "But last night, someone put a sheet pan on top of a tray of meringues. This morning, they were crushed – totally destroyed! And because someone wasn't paying attention, we had to completely remake them today!" It was as if she had been crushed with those meringues.
The sugar-crumb fate of a few pastries seemed a bit insignificant following the James Beard announcement. But everyone stood silently, Chef Bryce nodding and scanning the room to see that everyone was taking in her words. It may just have been the ill-fated end of a few whipped egg whites, but it was exactly the thing that Chef Bryce had just mentioned. The little things that matter if you're going to be the best.
With family meal done, I hurried back to garde manger to finish sorting through the shipment of dandelion greens, an extra chocolate chip cookie concealed in my pocket (if they were the handiwork of the meringue-incensed pastry chef, she could rage all day long for all I cared, because these cookies were amazing!)
Chef Bryce was a few paces behind me, heading towards the doorway to the upstairs kitchen for the start of service. As he passed, he said, "As soon as you're done there, I want you to come into the kitchen."
CONTINUE TO PART III...
CONTINUE TO PART III...