Monday, June 27, 2005

to understand a head of garlic...

Last night was long. I came home and collapsed into bed at 3:30am. It was a sleep filled with anxious dreams of crispy gold shrimp tempura and miles of dirty dishes being simultaneously consumed and washed, a never-ending stream of culinary duties.

In the kitchen we first powered through an interesting service: a four course fixe price tasting menu for all patrons. It was a somewhat successful attempt to clean out the walk-in fridge and serve everything that could possibly go bad in the next two weeks. No two tables ate the same thing; it was all a matter of the Chef’s gastronomic whim. Along with the Chef's interesting culinary prowess, (which I felt almost embarrassingly honored to watch, adoringly wide-eyed from behind the sink), this serving style also generated an obscene amount of plates to wash and appliances to clean.

When we started service the Chef looked at me, smiled broadly and said, clapping his hands: “This is what I live for, Molly. This is life.” His close-to-crazy happiness and radical passion radiated out of his body, from the wrinkles in his loose cotton chef pants to the tiny pores of his long nose. I, in turn, felt almost freakishly energetic, inspired by the creative cooking and collective energy in the kitchen.

But then, beginning at midnight, we began the long clearance of the perishables, a massive cleaning and preparation for vacation. By 2am S. and I were jumping up and down, playfully yelling ‘rapido rapido’ to an empty kitchen, attempting to motivate ourselves to finish our work and break through the haze of exhaustion. By 3, we were slogging through a perpetually not-quite-done mess of a sink, silently cursing the (extremely high) night manager who just wouldn’t let any little smudge on the fridge door slide past his observation.

I woke up this morning feeling slightly frustrated. After a quick talk with the Chef after service, I realized that I had been harboring secret visions of myself quickly and triumphantly donning chef whites and pleated toque, manning the saute pan with a genius that has not yet been witnessed by mankind. Not surprisingly, this is a tad unrealistic (besides the fact that no one at the restaurant wears a toque). This internship, I now fully understand, will largely be self-taught through observation. I think that it is difficult for me, coming from my academic background, to completely submit to this slow, physically exhausting learning curve.

But when I subtly inquired about a possible increase in direct culinary teaching after vacation, the Chef simply said: “The only way, Molly, to understand a head of garlic is to work with it every day, taste it, feel it, grow with it through the changing seasons. Garlic in May is a different species than garlic in December. It may sound cheesy, but I strongly feel that the only way to be a great chef is to understand your material, instinctively and experientially from the bottom, no matter how long it takes.” So, sans toque and however frustrating, that is what I'll be doing. In two weeks I will continue to gain a slow yet solid knowledge of the bottom of the (no pun intended) culinary food chain, not to mention an addiction to Advil and caffeine.

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