Monday, August 01, 2005

chicken heads, temper tantrums, and the deveining of shrimp

Trying to fall asleep last night, I was barraged by images of chicken heads bobbing in a steaming vat of stock whenever I closed my eyes. Dribbles of oil and hunks of aromatic vegetables floating like life rafts behind my eyelids were begging the drowning poultry to grab hold.

I have been spending an increasing amount of time with stocks at work. I strain them, the huge metal vats piping hot off the stove, and cool them down. When the stocks – most often chicken and veal – cool, the fat coagulates and rises to the top. It’s my job to get them into a portable container and in the fridge before that happens. Not only has this given me massive arm muscles (on my day off last week I had dinner with Alex, who I hadn’t seen in a few months; he took one look at my shoulders and biceps and quickly dubbed me Rambo) but also it has given me a strangely disturbing array of pre-sleep images. No matter how many decapitated animalia I encounter, I am always a little shocked and surprised by their vacant eyes and limp neck sockets.

Since the blackout, this week went by in a blur, probably due to increased working hours. Eleven hours of dishwashing can do a number on your mental faculties, let me tell you. I feel like my brain is encased in a fog.

There were moments that stand out, however. Some were unfortunately of absolute horror -

Last night in the heat of service, the sous chef L. dropped two perfectly plated masterpieces of lamb’s tongue confit in a smash of broken china on the floor. The Chef looked stunned for a moment; the dishes were for a table of ‘very VIP’ and it was the last of the lamb’s tongue. He visibly clenched his jaw, perhaps trying to hold in the unavoidable blow out. But then yelled FUCK and slammed his fist down on the metal counter. He whirled around, looking at the mess, and slammed his fist down again. Plates rattled on the shelves; a collective cringe went through the kitchen staff. The Chef refused to make eye contact with L.; the kitchen was silent for the rest of service. The tension was so tangible I felt as if I could scoop it out of the air and store it in the fridge just like chicken stock.

The garde manger ( or salad and dessert chef) J. also began making mistakes again on Friday night. It began when he attempted to send out a plate of sour milk panna cotta which wasn’t perfect. The Chef saw and coldly moved right up in J’s face. What the fuck do you think you’re doing man? Do you think I don’t see everything here? EVERYTHING? Do it over. Walking away he muttered: I’ve got a garde manger cook who doesn’t know right from wrong.

J. has the unfortunate tendency to shut down under pressure and criticism. As soon as The Chef began his loud rant, J. only made more mistakes. The more yelling, the more imperfect plates. It’s a vicious cycle – one that spells doom for J’s chances to work sauté line, a position that he visibly yearns for. With each additional sloppy plate, the heat of The Chef’s mounting anger spread. It certainly reached as far as the sink and I wouldn’t have been surprised to later find my eyebrows singed off. J. was a disaster and The Chef was unrelenting. There was something wrong with every single plate, no matter what. The peach crisp he plated was one inch too big. The foie gras was a centimeter too thin. The green salad was not stacked tall enough; there were three too many crispy onions on top. The colorful vegetables in the farm stand salad were not arranged with proper visual gradation. It was painful to watch, my own ears were burning with embarrassment for J. He crumbled under the pressure.

After service, J. walked around the kitchen with blank eyes, foul temper, deflated ego, and a visible, undulating hatred for The Chef.

This week there were also, however, moments of wonderful gastronomy -

The Chef was wearing denim shorts and a ratty blue t-shirt. Without his baggy chef’s whites he was an alien being, unfamiliar and strange. But, not surprisingly, much more approachable. Together, hunched over the back prep table, he gave me a lesson on cleaning fresh Georgian shrimp. We peeled the shells off of their slick gray bodies, slit open their backs and delicately removed their digestive tracts. We kept them in a metal bowl resting in a box of ice. Seafood, The Chef told me, is ideally kept just a bit over freezing. The refrigerator, kept at 40 degrees, is still a bit too warm. Even a few degrees affects its taste. He is a thorough, inspiring teacher. I hung onto his every word, trying to drink in his knowledge. He asked me if I read about food. I said yes, of course, and rambled off a list of my most recent culinary literature (Calvin Trillin, MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl…). The Chef just looked at me and raised his eyebrows. Get your head out of the clouds, Molly. Read about real food. Leave the romance for later.

I bought myself a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking this morning.

And in one of the first working relationships where the whisper of friendship lurks somewhere in the background, the sous-chef A. seems to have taken me under her wing. Every night she helps me to make a list of things to be done, explaining the science behind technique and answering the multitude of questions with which I barrage her. She went to the Culinary Institute of America; when I told her that I was in the process of applying there she hugged me.

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