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alta cocina – La Gourmandista

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Amélie: An Example of Inspiration

No. This is not about the French actress, Audrey Tatou and her very famous 2001 movie Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. It is about the young lady I mentioned in my last entry who from a distance, taught me more than she would probably imagine.

The day I arrived to work as an intern in a professional kitchen, my eyes were stunned by a lot of things. Why? I wanted to learn as much as possible of what happened in there. I wished to be as attentive and alert as possible to understand all the dynamics of the place.

Firstly, it was evident that us girls were greatly outnumbered in all positions available in the restaurant… the kitchen, the dining room, everywhere. I think the only place where there were more gals than guys was the pastry lab. But I will focus on the kitchen, since it is where I was spending my time and efforts.

In total – not including myself- there were three, THREE! The brigade was made up of about fifteen people and only three were women when I worked in the kitchen. One was a commis in the cold section, the second one was an apprentice in charge of the appetizers, and the third one was originally in the fish section, but later moved to work with meat products. I assume she was a demi-chef. She worked for the Sous-Chef. Her work included not only mise en place for meats, but also protein distribution during service, as well as some specific tasks for other preparations.

Her name: Amélie. A tiny young lady probably in her early thirties. She, like myself, reconverted to become a cuisinière. Originally a lawyer with a Master’s Degree, she worked for the State, I understand, but didn’t ever really enjoy it, so she decided to go back to school, but this time, to culinary arts school. She attended her classes and passed her exams like any other student, however, by the French system’s standards, she was already behind. Cooks start apprenticeships at 15 years old, no exaggeration. So, to be in her in her twenties… late, late, late. Nonetheless, she took up the challenge.

Through her, I learned that being a girl in a professional kitchen is harder than one would expect. The job is very physical, and among her daily tasks was the distribution of pantry supplies… meaning that coming up the stairs with very heavy stuff was part of her routine. But hey, don’t panic, this was no form of abuse. This is a standard task in a restaurant, and someone has got to do it. In this case she had just gotten the short end of the stick.

Then, there’s the fact of dealing with a brigade mostly made up of men. My perception is than in many professional kitchens in France, women are not seen as serious workers sometimes, so picking on the so-called ‘weaker sex’ might be common. And guess what? Yes, in order for her to be seen as a serious hard-working cook, she had to demonstrate there were no weak bones in her body, that her character was strong at any and all times, and that emotions were nonexistent, notwithstanding the comment of her counter part.

Once, I remember telling her “I think you are a very strong woman, Amélie”. She responded with a humble “Not always”. Yet I still think she is strong, and I just hope to see her in charge of her own kitchen one day. It would be a pleasure for me to dine at her Chef’s table.

Curiosity Fuels the Future of Global Gastronomy

Once no more mushrooms were to be cleaned during the early morning, new tasks had to be found for me. Now, I honestly don’t remember how many cases full of chanterelle mushrooms I went through during the season. I just remember I was EXTREMELY happy when it was over.

However, during my stay at the restaurant, I got a chance to work with plenty of other products. Yes, the tasks were quite simple and little if compared with what the rest of the brigade did, yet, I kept in mind that if my little hands were enough to work on this or that at such a Grande Maison, it was okay. And such a mindset was needed when my new friends the gray shallots arrived before me. Those little guys  who are cousins of the onion were another piece of work. If you are not familiar with them, they are similar to regular shallots, BUT their outer layers are so thick and sharp one cannot and should not peel them without a pairing knife. And of course, this meant sore fingers every time I worked on them.

And who would forget the little balls of foie gras? They had to be a certain weight in order for them not to be considered as ‘shit’, because they were too little and made the plate look disgusting, or too big and made the pasta explode while getting cooked at service time. I think those were between 100 and 200 on almost a daily basis… After a while I actually found out those went together with the chanterelles. To date, I still crack a smile when I think of them.

An endless amount of aromatic garnishes for stocks were also on my chopping board regularly: Carrots, shallots, onions, celery… the works. I think it was at least a couple trays per day, mostly for the fish section. And talking about them, how can I not mention crab cooking day. Vivid memories come to my mind.  Firstly, the smell is difficult to forget. I mean, I love eating fish and shellfish products, but you have got to really love cooking to not mind the smell with which your clothes and basically your whole self end up with. Then, the speed one has to work at when they come out of their court-bouillon (cooking liquid) to avoid the flesh from sticking into the shell again plus the temperature at which the crabs come out of the pot makes one develop never before imagined abilities towards hot ingredients. The fish lab becomes a production line with as many helping hands as possible to go over about three dozen crabs, to peel and extract all the flesh they hide under their very hard shells. During service, we, the interns, were responsible of finishing the flesh extraction with long toothpicks.

And yes, several other products came before me. Lettuce, brik pastry, and ducklings, just to mention a few more. But surely the one that excited me the most was the day I was given the chance to bone a dozen pigeons. The Sous-Chef handed me a tray full of them and asked me if I knew how to do the task. I said yes, but… the truth was I had never done it with a 8-inch chef’s knife. I was in a little panic to be honest. I didn’t want to ruin the product. I turned to Amélie, the only girl in the brigade who was neither an intern nor a apprentice. In a very confident way she said “just work with the tip of your blade”. It took me a good 2 hours, but they came out nicely, I think. Nonetheless, I still think I prefer a smaller boning knife for these jobs. It’s much easier.

Like I said before, my hands had the chance to work and touch quite a few products and, yes, I learned several reasons why dishes taste so differently in these fine-dining restaurants. It all starts with quality of the product surely, but also the way these products are worked on all the way through until they arrive to the dining room and served to the guests to get wowed.

What You Need to Know if You Want to Become a Chef

My alarm clock rang. I jumped out of bed, and I took a quick shower. I tidied up my place and had breakfast. Who in this world is capable of starting a day on an empty stomach ? I can’t, and shan’t, so I ate… Some bread with homemade jam and a cup of coffee would be enough.

Fortunately, bus 52 towards the Opera House stopped just half a block from home, and it would drop me off merely 50 meters away from the restaurant door.

I arrived a good 10 minutes before 8:00 a.m. The entrance, as well as the patio were in complete solitude. I thought I was late, yet the door to the kitchen and the locker rooms was locked. So, I waited.

Not long after, everyone started arriving. The chef was the last one to arrive. He greeted us all one by one and the door was finally open. We headed inside, and the day began.

I was appointed to the entremets section. The chef de partie gave me my first assignment. I thought I was never going to finish it. I had to peel a 10-lb. box of chanterelle mushrooms. Without further ado I put myself to work. I did whatever I was asked to, yet, the f#!%&ing box of mushrooms looked infinite, and even though I thought it was going to take forever, a few extra hands came to help for a little bit. I think they were just tired to see that I still hadn’t finished.

Chop here, cut there, swipe, and clean. That was pretty much my every day for the next few days. Little by little I started learning how they wanted things to be done. I’d like to think I was doing my assignments correctly, since I got to work on different products, but also got kind of stuck with some others which became part of my every day job.

I was not allowed to interfere during service and I was to carry on working in the back on the little tasks needed for the evening shift -which I did not cover. Sometimes I was allowed to leave earlier than others, just like in any other job. Yet, my body reminded me every evening that I was neither 20 years old any more, nor was this any other job. I had no idea this was going to be so physically demanding.

Behind the Scenes: Understanding the Kitchen Brigade

As per the Internship Coordinator’s instructions, I arrived on a Monday morning with a hard copy of my résumé, my internship contract (the “Convention de Stage”), looking as nice and as professional as possible, to the back door of what seemed to be a very imposing restaurant.

I entered the patio, and figured out which was the kitchen door; knocked, and since there was no answer, I discreetly opened it and let myself in. The floor was quite slippery, and I was in stilettos, so I had to pay very close attention to my walking. A young man saw me and even though he never stopped preparing his tray of tomato petals to be confit, asked if he could be of help. I greeted him and asked for the chef. The answer was unexpected: the chef was unavailable. I had to come back in an hour and a half.

I decided to go to a café nearby, grabbed my book of the moment, which of course I was carrying in my purse, and asked for a cup of tea. It was not very chilly that morning, but I chose an herbal tea, maybe just to feel calmer. Honestly, I wasn’t able to read much. I was a bit anxious, and the clock advanced quite slowly.

A few minutes before the agreed upon time, I paid for my cup of tea, put my book away, and put on my trench coat. I walked the 150 meters to the restaurant, and returned to the busy kitchen where the mise en place was coming to an end. Once again I gave my greeting, and asked if the chef was back. The young man called the chef in a rather loud voice to tell him that there was a lady asking to see him.

Reading with my cup of tea

I was invited to a very small office, barely a 1.5 m2, I think… but I am quite null in measurements of the sort. He asked me my business and I told him. He nodded as he listened attentively. He asked what schedule I wanted to work, if I had my contract with me, and when I wanted to start. All was discussed in a matter of 3 minutes. It was actually shorter than a phone call.

We both signed the documents, and he turned to the young man saying “she starts tomorrow”, who was then introduced to me as the Second de Cuisine. The young man just said a firm “oui chef”.

As we said our goodbyes the chef said “see you tomorrow at 8:00 o’clock, madame”, I answered with the same firm “oui chef”, and left.

I was excited. I was part of a 2-Michelin Star brigade. Yes, I was only the intern, but then again, I had dreamt about this for a long time, and never even imagined it could come true. What was there in store for me? It was a matter of a little more time, now.

French Cuisine History: The “Grande Table”

To talk about a French “Grande Table” is to talk about a spectacular place in the broadest possible sense of the word. It indicates that from the moment we enter the establishment, our experience will be unique; a once in a lifetime kind of thing. We should enter with the knowledge that even if one goes back to the same restaurant, there is a big chance that at least the menu will have changed.

Therefore, when I could understand what these restaurants were about, beyond the luxurious dinners full of delicacies coming from the most exclusive places around the globe, I knew that it was in such a place that I wanted to do my Internship to work as an Apprentice Cook. I wanted to witness firsthand if the abundant smiles, politeness, and sense of peace in the main dining room would also reign before the burning piano during service. In other words, I wanted to know what happens “behind the scenes”.

Many times I heard that if I wanted to learn as much as possible, it would be better to go to a small restaurant, for it is there where my workforce would truly be useful and required. However, my mind was made up. My wish list was full of legendary Parisian places; some of them with more than a century’s worth of history. My argument: I was interested in being in an exceptional ‘cuisine’, one where breathtaking plates would be prepared, where guests would dream with their eyes wide open. I am still not sure if the internship coordinator was convinced, or if she just gave up and presented me with some options.

I had to do a little bit of research, and selected one of those places called ‘a maison d’exception’ for their tradition, techniques, and awards. Yet I truly had no idea what awaited my arrival.

When the Oven Played a Very Bad Joke on Me and it was the Worst Day to Do so

After the 10-Dish Challenge training I talked about in my previous post, I was completely sure it didn’t matter what dish I had to prepare on exam day. I would be calm. I knew the steps, the time, and even how to plate my preparations. I even knew which was my preferred recipe and which one I thought would be better for someone else.

Hence, I arrived about 45 minutes before the time I was indicated my entrance into the kitchen would take place. I immediately changed my clothes into my uniform; my chef’s coat, apron, pants, and cap. I chatted for a moment with some of my classmates upon their arrival to the Winter Garden. Some of them had just finished and one could see how tired they were, but showed relief through their smile indicating they had given it their best, and the culinary odyssey of the day had finished. Others, like myself, were waiting for the ordeal to begin in complete uncertainty of which dish we would have to prepare for the jury. Between you and I, I have to say I wanted the Guinea Fowl Pie, because even though I would have to start at a very quick pace, in the end, the only thing necessary was to be sure it had been long enough in the oven to arrive to the correct temperature in its core, and therefore be sure it wouldn’t be raw.

There were still 15 minutes or so before I was to enter into the kitchen, but decided, together with my Polish classmate who had been appointed to enter at the same time I was, to make an appearance at the kitchen door and see if the Chef would let us enter to set up in the work stations. I entered first and blindly selected my recipe at random. I was then handed my grocery basket and the clock started ticking. I decided to begin with the technical test we were all demanded to do; a béarnaise sauce. I think I was able to prepare it even with my eyes shut. A few minutes into it and I was ready to send it out for tasting. It seemed the Chef had liked it. Smiling and motivated for the good feedback I had been given, I put all my energy into my dish, and even though I hadn’t had received the recipe I had hoped for, neither was I in discontent. I had to prepare a Guinea Fowl in a Clavados sauce. For those of you who are not familiar with Calvados, it’s a liquor made from the double distillation of apple juice alcohol. I made all my prep work, cleaned the bird, chopped all my vegetables, apples, everything… Time was a luxury I couldn’t afford to lose, so I took advantage of every minute as much as possible.

The little animal in question went into the oven after having rubbed butter all around it as the recipe indicated. I turned it once after 10 minutes and another time after 10 more minutes. It was supposed to be ready after 30 minutes in the oven, and it would be then when I would aspire to reduce my sauce for it to be creamy and full of flavor. The Chef notified me that I had 35 minutes to go before I had to send out my preparation to the jury to taste. I have to confess that I was in total awe, for I was almost ready. He advised that I should then take my time to clean up my station, but y’all know the saying “Man proposes, but God disposes”? Well, the 30 minutes passed and the wholly beast was still raw. I left it in the oven for 10 more minutes at an even higher temperature. I notified the Chef. We decided together to change oven and let the jury know. This bird was being rebellious. My time was up and the freaking bird was still raw. They asked me how much additional time I needed. I asked for 10 more minutes.

The beast was finally ready, but my sauce didn’t reduce as it should have. The stress makes one start to make bad decisions and I almost broke it. SHIIIIIT!!!!

I plated as I could. An assistant helped me to put everything in the platter as dignifying as possible for a decently seen French service. Nothing spectacular, nor as I had foreseen. Oh well! I cut the fowl into pieces trying to not burn my hands too much in the process. Fortunately, I had trained myself, and I practically did everything by heart.

The platter got sent out.

My sincere opinion the cooking was at its limit, that it would have appreciated a couple more minutes, but I didn’t have them. My legs were shaking. I started to pick up my sh#t unceremoniously, just hoping the telephone wouldn’t ring in the following 24 hours telling me I had flunked the test because of a faulty oven which didn’t allow me to prepare my best version of the dish.

The Chef, when I was leaving, told me he had two pieces of news for me. A good one and a bad one. I answered that the bad one was that my sauce “stunk”. He nodded to agree, however, he reiterated my cooking had been perfect, on point. I smiled and hugged him. Yes, yes, a total act of disrespect, but in my defense, it was as if half a ton of sorrow and sadness tormenting me at the moment, had been taken off my back.

Of course, there is no photographic evidence of the experience. In fact, I just feel lucky there was something to send out to the jury and that they didn’t penalize me very much.

On Chickens, Ducks, and Guinea Fowls

We were just in the third class when I had to face the chicken… It sounded easy. It didn’t seem very difficult. However, once I had the bird before me, I had no idea where to begin.

To prepare any poultry in order to cook it, one must start practically in the same way, notwithstanding which one it is this time. One has to stretch it, burn the few feathers left behind, take the tendons out, cut the feet when applicable, be-head, de-gut, truss, or cut in pieces, and theeeen one can start to cook it.

To see it being done for the first time was fascinating, especially if we consider I was a mere spectator, and it would be others the ones responsible of getting out of the classroom and reproduce what the Chef Instructor had prepared. The second time, however, I was much more worried, since I had to repeat each and every step in the same way they had been shown in class. Little by little, I started feeling more at ease with the procedure. I even became competent enough to increase my speed at the task. I had to learn how to cut into pieces, how to obtain the different pieces, and even how to make it into a “ballotine”. If we talk about the duck, then we have to think about leaving the thighs and the legs well done, while the breast fillets have to be rosé. With Guinea fowls one has to be careful of not overcooking because the meat ends up with a rubbery texture. Anyhow, the learning process seems infinite, and practice makes master, they say. I have no idea how many birds I have be-headed even with the obscurantism entailed. I have a lot of fun when I go to the market and tell my merchant it is not necessary for him to do anything else but wrap the little beastie in some paper and he wishes me “good cuisine”. To remember in retrospection my first homemade roasted chicken which I had the courage to prepare for dinner because my friend who doesn’t even prepare a sandwich told me it was so easy to do even she could achieve them without any problem whatsoever, and even though I made it a little bit blindly, it came out really nice, and it seems it was a long time ago, yet it was just a couple of years ago.

By now, I have prepared a whole bunch of traditional dishes with a poultry base in the last few months, and even though there surely will be many more to experiment in the next quarter, I still have to learn about pigeons, quails, or any other unknown bird which hasn’t found its way towards my dining room table.