Kitchen Life

This is the most 'traditional' kitchen I've ever worked with, in the sense that it conforms to many of the stereotypes people have about fine dining restaurants. 

For the past week we started at 10 am, working until the last table was finished. For reference, the tasting menu plus pre-dinner canapés and post-dinner petit fours comprise an approximately 3-4 hour experience for the guest, and the last seating is at 9 pm. On weekdays that translates to us missing the last subway trains and taking taxis home.

When I first told my father how much we work he asked me if it was legal. I laughed.

The sous chefs make an effort to send the stages home 'early,' after we've been there for about fourteen hours; this is relative to the chefs de partie (full-time employees). But, hey, at least they get paid.

We break once during the shift at 3:30 pm to eat staff meal all together. Those precious minutes are the only time we get to sit down.* A friend once asked me if, as employees, we eat the same food that the restaurant serves the guests. I laughed. No lobster or reserve caviar for us! I'd like to think that at a Michelin starred restaurant the food they feed us is a step up from staff meal at the Cheesecake Factory of PF Chang's, but I really can't say for sure.

My last job was much more corporate, being a part of a luxury hotel franchise, so even though it was still fine dining I rarely worked more than 55 hours per week. There was an HR department, and rules like taking a full thirty minute break before the sixth hour of work were enforced. 

This is my second time working in Europe, the first being when I staged at a well-known bakery in Paris. And, once again, I can't help but notice the differences between here and home. Generally speaking, European chefs are more aggressive-aggressive, while Americans tend toward passive-aggressive. This is not to say that I haven't seen an American chef throw a tantrum (because, oh boy, have I), but those episodes are rarer in my experience. Europeans are also more chivalrous; as one of only two women here in the back-of-house team, the guys are really good about helping me with things that are heavy or up on a high shelf. American guys, not so much.

No matter where in the world you are, though, the real backbone in the kitchen is camaraderie. It's stronger here than in any other kitchen I've been a part of. The team is a family. We push ourselves and each other, laugh, cry, and scream together, because the only way to go is up.

*A former chef of mine used to work at a 3-star Michelin restaurant, where staff meal was hurriedly scarfed down while standing. As a result she drank tons of water because sitting on the toilet was the only time she could rest her legs.

 

Tales From the Bottom Rung

stage

noun

/sta.ʒjɛ:ʁ/

1. Professional term in the restaurant industry for voluntary* indentured servitude.

"Periods of my life when I've consumed the most wine: taking care of my dying grandmother, my first stage right after cooking school." - author's personal experience

2. Abbreviation for a person engaging in said activity.

"We go outside and watch videos of cute animals when the stages are being annoying motherfuckers." - a sous chef

*A stage is a graduation requirement for many culinary school students, in which case I guess it's not so voluntary.


Interns seem to be a marginalized group of the workforce across all industries, but particularly so in the restaurant world. As a stage you are a freshly dug latrine getting shat on by everyone else, every day, all the time. It's easier if you've had some work experience before, but each kitchen differs slightly in its rules and etiquette, and if you don't adapt quickly the mountain of shit only presses in on you more tightly, covering your eyes, ears, nose and mouth and making you scared to breathe in case it somehow pisses somebody off. (One rule that's consistent everywhere: always cut the tape, don't tear it. And make sure it's fucking straight). Often these details are not intuitive. Sometimes they might not even make sense, but you keep your head down and do it anyways. 

You are expected to fail and make mistakes, but each time you do you have to work three times as hard to gain back even the tiniest amount of respect because, after all, you should have done it correctly the first time. After that you can bet your superiors will keep an even closer eye on you, interrupting you at every step of the recipe in a slightly resentful manner because doing so takes valuable time away from working on their own projects. It makes you nervous, and even more prone to making mistakes. If you don't show improvement quickly people will start to treat you like you're mentally handicapped. And once you've reached that level of disappointment it's almost impossible to redeem yourself.

Depending on the size of the kitchen, you will probably interact with people from various levels of the hierarchy. They will give you conflicting instructions on how to do the same task, and then get upset with you when it proves impossible to follow all said conflicting instructions. This leads to a small group discussion in which no one will ever concede that they were wrong, but everyone (at least on the surface) eventually agrees on a new, "right" way. Write that down. Got it? Good.

The recipe will probably change again the next time you make it anyways because chef's mind switches faster than the direction of the wind. He will react to your inability to keep up with all the modifications (which, by the way, exist solely in his brain because he's said none of them out loud) with mild surprise, as if to say, "But why aren't you a mindreader?"

It is better to ask questions, even stupid ones - especially stupid ones, than to end up wasting product.

You can never stand still. Your hands must always be doing something. When in doubt, clean.

Being on time is late. Being early pisses off some sous chefs who need their alone time before the whole crew arrives.

Unless the restaurant is part of a hotel, you can expect to work more than 40 hours a week, and not get paid. In exchange for your labor you receive instruction, mentorship, connections and, of course, the recipes. If that doesn't sit will with you, there's the door. Your friends and family will probably not understand why you are subjecting yourself to this. It's easiest just to tell them that you have an internship and let them draw their own conclusions, which undoubtedly involve circumstances much more humane than they actually are.

Some days you will want to cry; if not you aren't being pushed enough. Other days and sleepless nights, you will question your life choices. You may even want to quit, but deep down you know that no matter how hard the work is, you will be so much better when you come out the other side. In fact, you already have gotten better.

Eventually, hopefully, you start to thrive. You live for those moments when chef or a sous tells you that you did a good job; when your coworkers appreciate rather than tolerate your presence. And for all the random, spontaneous times, like excavating the garbage room at 2am in your service whites and watching your sous karate kick a mannequin down the hall, that probably would never sound funny when describing it to someone who wasn't there, but you were, and you remember. Those are all the things that make the stage worth it.

 

Chicago in Photos

When life hands you an invitation to a wedding in an obscure part of Indiana, you RSVP YES and immediately start planning your trip to Chicago, gastronomic mecca of the Midwest. Four days and as many nights was enough to just scratch the surface of what the city has to offer, though it would take at least a couple weeks to try all the restaurants that I wanted to.

Things we liked: river tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the food, Hamilton, the coffee, the 606, the International Museum of Surgical Sciences, food again, the American Writers' Museum.

Things we didn't like: ...

Photos below.

Marina City (aka the Corn Cob Buildings) by architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Marina City (aka the Corn Cob Buildings) by architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Mom and me at the Cloud Gate.

Mom and me at the Cloud Gate.

Revival Food Hall in downtown is an excellent lunch spot.

Revival Food Hall in downtown is an excellent lunch spot.

Street art.

Street art.

Library of the International Museum of Surgical Sciences.

Library of the International Museum of Surgical Sciences.

Original manuscript of On the Road below a map of Kerouac's travels at the American Writers' Museum.

Original manuscript of On the Road below a map of Kerouac's travels at the American Writers' Museum.

A biker on the 606, a former railroad line converted to public park.

A biker on the 606, a former railroad line converted to public park.

Delving into Vietnam War History

One of our first excursions upon reaching Saigon was a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels - an underground network spanning some 200 kilometers of varying depths that could hold up to 10,000 Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War*, portions of which have been reopened for tourism. The site isn't so far, as the crow flies, from the city center, but the traffic made it seem so, as did the gradual giving way of multi-lane thoroughfares and modern buildings to modest houses and unpaved roads.

The main entrance to the complex felt like a museum, what with a gift shop and displays of antiquated weaponry and missiles. Once our guide squared away our tickets, we descended into a short stretch of tunnel (not part of the original network), emerging onto what could easily pass for a film set from Apocalypse Now, replete with distant gunfire. Though it was not a hot day (thank god), the air beneath the thick, green canopy of trees was heavy with moisture and rife with a still somberness befitting a site of war. Military-style tents housed exhibits and dioramas illustrating the construction and use of the tunnels, while employees in khaki uniforms milled about, demonstrating how soldiers accessed the tiny, hidden entrances.

Another tunnel entrance.

Another tunnel entrance.

Ventilation holes, incorporated into what's meant to look like a natural rock formation from above.

Ventilation holes, incorporated into what's meant to look like a natural rock formation from above.

The system was ingenious; the underground network had areas for designated uses like bunkers, latrines, and kitchens - with disguised openings for ventilation above ground. Certain areas even had river access should soldiers need to escape by waterway. Up top, in addition to designing entrances so well camouflaged and small that even if Americans located them they wouldn't be able to fit, the Viet Cong also set myriad sorts of traps for the enemy.

One sort of a trap - a false floor above a pit of spikes.

One sort of a trap - a false floor above a pit of spikes.

An employee leads us into a section of the original tunnel network.

An employee leads us into a section of the original tunnel network.

A short stretch of original tunnel is open for tourists. As a petite woman, it was cramped for me and my camera. I could walk, bent double, but the 6' 4" Canadian in front of me had to shuffle whilst practically curled up in the fetal position. We had handed our bags over to the members of our group who had opted not to go for the full experience; I tried to imagine what it must have been like during the war, staying underground for days at a time with my weapon and gear. Minutes later we reemerged above ground, gratefully stretching our legs and backs and gulping in the humid air.  

The gunfire we'd been hearing, though somewhat amusing and atmospheric from afar, was decidedly less so up close. Our guide, a local, joked that criminals were executed on site; in reality there is a shooting range where visitors can fire authentic guns used in the war - with real bullets, he assured us. Bullets can be purchased in increments of 10 for a wide range of firearms. I have never held a gun, nor do I desire to; I cannot reconcile shooting as recreation when, nearly every day in the country I call home, there is news of gun-related violence.

As we turned away from the shooting range, back toward where the bus had dropped us off, I thought about the tunnels I'd visited in Okinawa, how warfare has evolved over the years, and how different cultures choose to commemorate it. Our guide said that such tunnels would be ineffective today, when there are smart missiles that can pinpoint exact targets and burrow through layers of concrete before detonating. This reminded me of the film Eye in the Sky, a timely drama about drone warfare and the human sacrifice that still persists in battles waged through technology. These new methods may reduce the collateral damage suffered in decades past, but at the same time desensitize us to the violence and destruction still intrinsic to war.

A defunct tank.

A defunct tank.

 

*Or, as locals call it, the American War.

Saigon in Photos

We didn't spend nearly enough time in Saigon, but in our two days there managed to immerse ourselves in the city's smells, tastes and legacy. Our hotel, the Continental Saigon, dating back to 1880, was located just across the street from the opera house in an area dotted with architectural vestiges of the French colonial days. The double room I shared with my mother was cavernous and stately with ceilings of church-like proportions and a dainty sitting room area. At the same time, crossing the street away from the opera house brought on aggressively modern skyscrapers, designer stores, locals selling everything from street food to knock-off sunglasses, as well as hip new purveyors like the Gingko concept store. The city's disparate identities is perhaps best reflected in the fact that it has two names: Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon.

Like many other Southeast Asian metropolises, Saigon can best be described as organized chaos. Millions of motorbikes sort of, mostly, obey traffic lights and laws, at night forming an endless, slow-moving sea of lights amongst the honking cars. The bikes congregate ahead of the other vehicles at red lights, surging forward like an angry swarm the moment it turns green.

Despite the many many marks of history on the city's geography, it's also decidedly cosmopolitan - we passed many European designer stores, ethnic restaurants representing cuisines from around the globe, and even a subway project in conjunction with a Japanese company.

Photos below. 

Our first meal in Saigon - noodle soup at Pho 2000, made famous by Bill Clinton's patronage back during his presidency.

Our first meal in Saigon - noodle soup at Pho 2000, made famous by Bill Clinton's patronage back during his presidency.

City hall, with statue of Ho Chi Minh.

City hall, with statue of Ho Chi Minh.

A street vendor near our hotel.

A street vendor near our hotel.

Our hotel, another vestige of the colonial era.

Our hotel, another vestige of the colonial era.

A saleswoman portions coffee beans for a member of our group at a local market.

A saleswoman portions coffee beans for a member of our group at a local market.

Post office.

Post office.

A local purchasing fresh fruit.

A local purchasing fresh fruit.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Opera House.

Opera House.