We had some visitors in the kitchen at work last week; a group of high school students from Fortuna, CA, who were touring the restaurant because they were interested in a career in the Culinary and/or Hospitality industries. Chef hosted the tour then sat them down for a “Q and A” session and a little dessert.
Had I been asked, I would have advised them to run screaming for the nearest four-year college to get their degree in anything besides Hotel/Restaurant Management or Culinary Arts. Not that I want to discourage everyone and anyone from going into the business I have spent virtually my entire adult life doing, but most successful people in our industry did not make this their career decision when they were in the 10th grade. Most of us who made a success of this business got into it a bit later in life. We saw it as an easy, interesting way to make some money and occasionally get laid. So we took that job as a server, or bartender, or cook; and the rest, as they say, is history. Those who decided to spend $80,000 on four years at CIA after attending Career Day in High School because they thought Top Chef was cool, graduated to find their first jobs were all in the $10 to $15 per-hour range. They were generally less successful, and usually ended up doing something else.
Regardless, I would’ve warned all the kids visiting us about making any serious decisions about what to do with “the rest of your life” while you are still in high school. Get out, go to Europe, smoke some hash, get laid a bunch; then you can start to figure it out. You’ll be amazed at how different your priorities will be.
Their visit did remind me of another instance of a classroom tour of the kitchen. Back in my Kitchen Days, I was working as a Saucier at an expensive, popular French restaurant located in a winery in The Napa Valley, run by a quirky yet talented French Chef.
This Chef ran his kitchen in the classic Brigade di Cuisine structure developed by Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was originally an Army cook and is largely credited with being the first to divide the work of a kitchen into stations, based on the raw products each one handled. Each station would prepare ingredients for dishes, but not necessarily the dishes themselves. Everyone was inspired to do their best work, so as not to be seen as the weak link in the chain when their ingredients were ultimately presented on the plates during service. We had an Entremitier (vegetable garnishes), Saucier (stocks and sauces), Rôtiseur (meat and game butcher and roaster), Garde Manger (cold foods and garnishes), Pôissonnier (fish and shellfish), Pâtissier (pastry and desserts), Le Plongeur (the dishwasher), etc.
Chef was fond of taking in “externs” from culinary schools who had to work 500 or so hours in an outside restaurant as part of their curriculum. He would bring them in during the busy season because they were mostly young, inexperienced, and would work cheap; and he would ride them without mercy, like a Show Pony. They’d work through “the season”, put in their hours, then leave and go back to school; and we’d wait all Winter for the next batch.
Chef would assign the externs to the stations where they could do little or no real damage when they fucked things up. That usually meant the Entremitier station. One year, the extern assigned to this station was Sarah, who was the Dikey-est looking heterosexual woman I’d ever seen. Sarah looked and talked like someone you’d expect to see rolling out from under a pick-up truck in an auto repair shop, her eyes squinting up at you through the smoke of the non-filtered Camel between her lips, and rasping out something like “Hand me the fucking torque wrench.” She was also pretty much a “shoe clerk” and struggled with even the simplest of tasks in the kitchen. Add to that a serious predisposition towards alcohol and drug use (like most of the rest of us); she smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor, would screw anyone in pants, and was basically just a hot mess.
One of the dishes Sarah was responsible for was a ravioli app with a lamb filling and a Roqueforte sauce (yum!). The lamb legs and brains needed to be braised slowly until very tender, then processed in a giant R6 Robot-Coupe until smooth; then slowly passed through a food mill on a 40-quart, three-speed Hobart mixer with a very powerful motor.
Sarah was at the food-processor point in the process and, as usual, completely hungover. She dumped the meat mix into the food mill of the Hobart that would push the mix through the sieve on the bottom of the bowl with these two rotating rollers, just as a tour group of 3rd Graders was coming through the kitchen, led by someone from the Marketing Department.
In her half-inebriated state, she made two very bad mistakes. The first was not paying attention as the meat mixture AND the two-piece curved blade from the Robot-Coupe went into the mill; the second was turning on the monster Hobart’s motor without first checking the speed setting.
The Hobart fired up on the highest speed, splattering the lamb and lamb brains in all directions, while the blade from the Robot-Coupe separated into two high-speed projectiles. One of them flew out and across the room like it was flung by that guy in the Circus that throws daggers blindfolded at the woman strapped to the rotating wheel. It imbedded itself in the aluminum wall of the walk-in with a sickening “THWANG!!” missing the little ones on the tour by mere seconds. All that was missing was the knife snuffing out the lit cigarette in the woman’s mouth.
Chef was in Japan on a promotional trip that week, so when he returned we had to give him the “good news/bad news”. The “bad news” was that we needed a new blade for the Robot-Coupe; the “good news” that no children were impaled.
Sarah, of course, left us soon after; and she probably regretted not having spent more time at that Auto Mechanic’s table at her own Career Day.