Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Fantastic Challenge

So, everyone always asks me "What was it like at The French Laundry??  Was it fun?  Did you learn a lot?"

The only word I can use to describe my experience there is: intense.  It didn't matter if you were preparing salad for staff meal, picking parsley, or scrubbing $40k worth of Perigord truffles, it was intense.  It made the experience stressful, but it was worth it for all of the things I was exposed to there that I otherwise never would have experienced.  I do have to admit it was a bit of a culture shock coming out of the classroom environment of the CIA.  No matter hardcore the teacher, nothing can compare to the real pressure of a three star Michelin restaurant. 

I started off on the morning shift, which begins at 5am every day.  We would prepare basic sauces, make pasta, prepare all of the fresh herbs and other greens that would be used as garnishes among other things.  We would also make stock and the staff lunch for all of the employees.  Some fine knife skills were required, but most of the tasks required more perseverance than anything.  I think my least favorite task was chopping duck carcasses for stock.  I was perpetually worried that the gnarly cleaver I borrowed from the butcher would slip out of my hand (because of all the duck goo) and go flying- denting something shiny and probably someone's head.

After a bit, I switched to the night shift.  This provided a completely different experience than the mornings.  You were actually involved in service!  Not that you were working the line or anything, but you were running backup for all of the chefs de partie, and sometimes they needed something very urgently (like two cups of apple in fine brunoise- 1/16" square, cut fast enough to not oxidize, then stored in a citric acid solution).  If you weren't too busy helping the chefs, there were plenty of tasks to do.  I had to take care of stocks, empty and clean at least two flats of eggshells per night, and maintain a par stock of blanched brunoise made of carrot, leek and turnip.  The eggshells were the most challenging part- not that they were difficult, but they took a particular amount of precision and care.  That, and I managed to rub off the ends of my fingers cleaning them (why are my hands bleeding??)!  It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

One of the best experiences I had in the TFL kitchen was working in the pastry department.  Since my focus has mostly been on the savory side, extra time spent with pastry was very highly appreciated.  Even though I was doing the same mundane caliber of tasks, many of them were new to me and I was glad for the practice.  I learned a lot about the fundamentals like making proper sabayons, caramels, sorbet bases, and creme anglaise. 

The most valuable things I learned there were the parts that didn't involve cooking.  I learned that it really is worth it to take the time to clean the entire kitchen, ceilings included, twice every day.  An impeccable workspace is such a joy, and most kitchens don't take the time to encourage that.  I learned that you have to be a special kind of crazy incredibly dedicated to survive in a restaurant like that.  And I learned that an extreme level concentration and precision results in some of the most amazing food in the world.  It all seems obvious, but when you see this super-controlled philosophy in action it makes more than common sense.  

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