"Turning Japanese, I really think so…"

In our last episode, it was 1981, and nativenapkin (me) had just made his move, at the behest of my buddy and restaurant guru, Crazy Brian, from traveling line-cook/broiler cook at the local Mom and Pop Steak and Potato joints, to an apprentice under one of the first Master Chefs to arrive upon the Bay Area/Napa Valley restaurant scene, Masataka Kobayashi.

I started two weeks before the Grand Opening on September 18, which would be a gala “Coming Out” affair with a sit-down, four course dinner for 200, tons of celebrity guests, and a Wilkes-Bashford Fashion Show.  More on that a bit later, but right now…

Masa was born in Japan.  He went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Kobe, and had apprenticed in his youth, under the Troisgros Brothers at their restaurant in France; he had gone on to much acclaim as Executive Chef of Le Plasir in New York, before he was lured to Napa by Claude Rouas to open Auberge du Soleil.  He spoke Japanese, of course; but also French, some Spanish he learned when he met his wife, who was from the Dominican Republic, and English, although not a whole lot of any of them besides the Japanese.   We communicated more with gestures, demonstrations, and the use of a few key “Masa-isms”:  “Be careful…” “Saute quick”, “nice salt pepper”, “sauce around…”, “Dats right!” and a few others.  As long as we both knew the context of the conversation, we were okay.  Anything to do with the food and cooking, which was about 90% of our conversations, was understood.  If the topic veered off to the personal, we had a little more of a struggle.

My initiation into my first real kitchen, where there were sights, sounds, smells, tastes and aromas that were completely new, was like a novice skier being snatched from the Bunny Hill, put on the chair lift to the top of the mountain and dropped off.  I had the basic skills I would need, but no idea of how to get down this mountain other than point downhill and go.   I was definitely going to end up with snow in my underwear.

Masa employed the “See One, Do One, Teach One” system:  first time, I show you; second time, we do it together; third time, you show me.  Although, in his halting Japanenglish it came out, “Fuss time, eye show, say-go time both do (pointing back and forth between his chest and my chest), lass time, you do…”  It is a philosophy I still embrace.  It can really help separate the sheep from the goats in a big hurry: if you take more than three times to learn anything, you are probably a “waste-o-flesh,” as Brian used to say, and not worth investing any more time or effort to train.  Buh-bye.  Their “immersion” teaching cemented these lessons so well that today, over 30 years later, I can still remember ingredients and techniques I learned then.

My first two weeks in Masa’s kitchen were also my last weeks at my previous job.  Even in my irresponsible youth I felt it necessary to give two weeks notice.  I had learned my lesson: that doing the “Fuck-you-I-quit” really did nothing much for my ego beyond the adrenaline buzz of the moment.  And it wasn’t that I had learned what it meant to be “professional”; or that I didn’t want to burn any bridges (I had torched quite a few up to that point, both personal and career).  I had just discovered the joy and power that comes after you have given your notice to a boss that has been a total dickhead for the last 6 months.  So, for two weeks I worked my day-shifts for the crazy Italians, plating pasta and sauteing zucchini, and then drove the 20 minutes up The Trail to Auberge for “schooling”.  By the end of an 18-hour day, the last 1o of which was this intensified, concentrated, hurry-up daily culinary academy, you’d think I would be mentally and physically spent.  Quite the contrary:  the mental aspect was so stimulating I often spent a couple of hours with Chef in his office after work, listening to him talk as we read through the Escoffier book, soaking up every tidbit of knowledge I could. My physical endurance came from adrenaline and the fact that I had the “retard strength” of a 21-year-old.

I had to learn my lessons quickly and well in those first few weeks, as the hype around the opening had generated a huge buzz and business volume that did not permit fucking up, ever.  And there would be no ” Grace Period” from The Press:  Patricia Unterman, then the main restaurant critic for the SF Chronicle,  reviewed us in our first month.  Herb Caen, the iconic gossip columnist, visited and wrote about us several times in those first weeks as well.   Masa’s and Brian’s instructions didn’t so much sink in as they were hammered home.

I started out on the Garde Manger station, doing two or three cold First Courses, the palate-cleanser salad that every diner got after their Main Course, and the four desserts.  The Chocolate Mousse we served on the opening menu was about a 10-step affair that involved making a Zabbione in a 20-quart Hobart, with three lit Sternos underneath it to slowly thicken the two dozen or so egg yolks while I progressively added sugar, Grand Marnier, and melted chocolate;  then, an Italian Meringue had to be gently folded in so as not to decrease volume and lose the airy quality we were looking for; then sweetened cream, whipped to soft peaks, was added to finish it.  There was only one mixing bowl for the Hobart, and the delicate nature of the three main components dictated that they be made and combined quickly; so once started the process had to be completed without interruption.  It was an abject lesson in timing and logistics.  Brian “helped” me learn by occasionally coming through and moving a vital tool, like a whisk or a spatula, to a table 20 feet away to teach me the importance of Mis En Place:  everything ready and in its place.  Got it.  After that, I kept a pastry spat in my back pocket at all times!  Shit like that…

We worked 6 days a week, with Tuesdays off.  Every Monday was payday.  So, after trying to cram two days of partying and such into a 36 hour period, yeah, I was broke by Wednesday.  The Grand Opening Party was looming, so the week before we worked straight through to prep for it.

The Wilkes-Bashford people came up the day before to set up for the fashion show that would entertain a guest list that included the likes of newly-elected Governor Jerry Brown and his consort, Linda Ronstadt.  The runway for the show was constructed on the bottom floor of the Auberge, with the idea being the guests would gather along the railing on the upper terrace to watch.  Scaffolding was anchored into the steeply sloping hillside below, putting the end of the platform a full 30 feet off the ground, with no railings .  The runway had a black covering, and the only lights used were spots directed onto the models;  to the guests viewing the show from the balcony, they had the appearance of walking on air, out onto an invisible stage suspended in the blackness below.  It was a spectacular effect.

We saw little of the show, as the six of us (the entire kitchen crew at the time of opening) were huddled into the downstairs “Banquet Kitchen” which was comprised of a couple of stainless steele tables and a plate warmer.  We were in there plating 200 First Courses of Chilled, Poached Maine Lobster with Beluga Caviar, Fresh Black Truffles, and Sauce Ècrevisse.  The lobster was poached, shelled, then “re-assembled” on the plate:  perfect claws pointing outward, below which were slices of tail meat alternated with the truffle slices.  Eight tiny green asparagus were the “legs” on each side, and three cucumber tournè formed the fan of the tail at the bottom.  The tail slices were topped with the caviar, at a cost of God-knows-how-much per ounce.

One of the several very gay male models from the show peered through the tiny window of the prep kitchen, knocking feverishly on the door as he saw us applying the fish roe.  I opened the door, and he asked “Is that Beluga caviar?”  Yup.  He held up a vial that had probably a quarter-ounce of coke in it and said, “I’ll trade you a spoon of this for a spoon of that…”

Yeah, like Little Orphan Annie, I think I’m gonna like it here.


One Response to "Turning Japanese, I really think so…"

  1. waiternotes says:

    Sure like this reminiscence. I’ve been to Auberge a few times. It’s still first class. Must have been exciting times. Thanks.

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