Monday, May 24, 2010

Pith and Vinegar

Like an orange or a lemon working in a restaurant kitchen is equal parts bitter and sweet. Bad days both demonstrate the sometimes seediness of it all and the acidity of tongues that are more often than not turned on each other ; good days are refreshing, they stand out crisp in the mind and light in the heart. But enough metaphor, time to get to the meat of things (okay maybe one more metaphor). Saturday was my last night at the restaurant, they've hired someone far more qualified to take the position left vacant on the line. I really wish them the best of luck; I think I learned a number of things about myself and about the industry while I was there.

It occurred to me while I was helping out at garde manger that 'staging (pronounced stah-ging) is a lot like being a surgical nurse. You have to anticipate the moves of the person you are helping and be there utensil or ingredient in hand before they think to ask for it. It is an elaborate dance of movements and if you are good at your job the whole thing moves like a ballet. Unfortunately 'staging is always done for free, which is something about the industry I understand but don't really approve of for extended periods of time. With as much work as needs to be done in a kitchen, the long hours and hectic pace of things, the least you can do is pay someone a reasonable wage for the time they are there, even if it is only a night (to be honest I'm sure most onetime 'stages would settle for being paid in booze or food).

Lately I've been reading "Devil in the Kitchen" by Marco Pierre White. He is one of those chefs famous for being horrible to work for with a tendency for hurling things at his staff or yelling at his patrons. It really comes as little surprise that he trained Gordon Ramsey, but he also worked with Mario Battali and that chef is famous for his kindness in the kitchen. Reading his autobiography has given me some insight into the whole "I scream at my staff because I want them to be better" ideology practiced by pastry chef at the restaurant but I can't say I subscribe to it. It goes back to the old adage "is it better to be feared or loved". I've always been a proponent of love myself and I think the main reason that the pastry chef and I didn't click is simply because he failed to understand the one thing all my instructors at school learned very quickly; I am always and will always be my own worst critic.

It's a bit of famous fact amongst my friends that I am never happy with what I've made. I'll bake something and then pick it a part wondering how I could do it better. Last Christmas I baked four coconut cakes and discarded the first three because they didn't rise the way I wanted. The week we made petite fours in class mine weren't the perfectly coated and decorated morsels I had envisioned and so I came home, made them that weekend and took them to class to show chef that Monday. My last day of class I asked Chef Danks what piece of advice he would give me and he told me that I needed to stop doubting myself. It's been a hard piece of advice to follow but I'm trying the first step to overcoming is admitting and all.

Looking back at my eight weeks in the kitchen of the restaurant I gained quite a bit of knowledge. I learned to move more quickly than I had thought possible, how to juggle multiple plates and tickets at a time, how to make bread (though I'm still not great at it), the proper way to plate a salad, and most importantly how to work under great amounts of stress. I also learned that while some may view culinary school as a waste of time and money it in the end is worth it, especially if you are passionate about food and want to learn to do it well. There are things you learn as a pastry student that you won't learn in most restaurant kitchens, how to properly temper chocolate for instance, or why you meringue won't whip up when it appears you've done everything correctly. You'll learn the proper name for techniques that are used and the proper way to complete them. An example of this is Paté Bomb, which is how mousses can be stabilized without gelatine. The process is relatively simple, heat your sugar syrup to 248F and temper it into egg yolks that have been whipped until pale and frothy. You continue to whip the mixture until it is cool. At the restaurant when we made mousse I noticed that the pastry chef wasn't letting the mixture cool completely before adding it to the whipped cream. Even though I would never correct him that was why the mousse he made came out loose. When making the mousse became my task it was something I self corrected.

The remaining weeks of my externship (since I have to make it 11) will hopefully be spent at a cake bakery closer to home. I'll be 'staging but given that I have little to know knowledge in how to decorate a cake I don't mind working for free because it is a heck of a skill to have. There will also be no more forty-two hour weeks which doesn't hurt, and the hours will be more conducive to having a part time job somewhere to help with bills. I guess the most important piece of advice I can give to anyone it the one that has seen me through these past eight weeks, there is no crying in pastry.



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