Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Herbfarm Stagiaire, Part II

Arriving at the Herbfarm to act as “stagiaire” for two days, I was excited and just a little nervous. I was expecting to spend the next twelve hours running about yelling, “Yes Chef!” and being cursed at while I fumbled with trays of food.

As it turns out, Chef Chris, apparently the youngest head chef of a 5-Diamond restaurant anywhere, is one of those rare people who has a lot of talent but little ego. The kitchen had a steady rhythm, efficiently working down a list of tasks towards the final product - a nightly 9 course dinner designed around a monthly theme.

Organization was paramount. Everything was labeled and grouped on trays by course. As the staff moved around the kitchen, and rounded blind corners, they called out, “Corner!” “Corner - hot pan!” “Behind you - carrying plates!” “Corner!” Each person worked their way quietly down their list of daily tasks, occasionally chatting with those around them, mostly concentrating on the ingredients in front of them.

Even the student interns seemed to get away with very little ribbing from the senior staff. “That’s ‘Yes Chef’ to you!” was as nasty as it got. Even when the kid spilled oil on the floor right before crunch time, he was allowed to suffer his humiliation in silence. At the end of the second night, when a mistake was made with a tray of duck breasts, the staff was stoic, more surprised than upset. “This has never happened in three years,” murmured one of the staff, almost in disbelief over an easy slip-up.

I was grateful to be put right to work with simple tasks and comfortably fell into my own moving meditation. I washed and chopped hundreds of dollars worth of morels, their barely damp sponginess reminding me of the nose of a dog (hint - wash them in salty water and when you think they are clean, raise one to your lips and suck the dampness of one into your mouth, letting your sensitive tongue feel for any grit). I pitted hundreds of cherries, eating the ones that split when the pit was too large to fit through the hole of the pitter. I pulled each tiny leaf off of dozens and dozens of thyme stems. I picked the meat from the legs of sixty squab, which is much like trying to squeeze raisins for grape juice. I cured duck legs, blanched and peeled fava beans, and made pasta dough - tasks that I was relieved I already knew how to do, although my pasta kneading technique was much improved by the instruction of the sous chef. He was kind enough to not laugh at my sorry efforts, simply saying, “here, I’ll help you finish,” cutting my dough in half, and without comment, he began kneading the dough with an expert hand and let me adjust my form to match his.

Far from a kitchen dictator, Chef Chris dug right into the work itself, chopping vegetables for the night’s dinner, garnishing plates on the line, experimenting with ideas for next week’s theme, and even mopping the floor at the end of the night with everyone else. He was clearly the creative force and the leader of the team, but he was also a part of the team with everyone else. Watching all of these moving parts work together, it struck me that the kitchen is like a choir: no singer lining the bleacher is noticed for their exceptional talent, but anyone who sings a note off key has the power to ruin a song.

The first day, I was so focused on staying out of the way and trying to be helpful, that I barely tasted any of the food. Since a couple of extra plates are made for each course, I was encouraged to sample from them if they were not needed in the dining room. On the second night, during the third course, I grabbed a stuffed pasta roll and a few morels and stepped around the corner and into the rows of dish storage. I took a bite and sighed, relaxing into the layers of flavor, rich noodle, warm creamy goat cheese, woodsy morels coated in butter. As I pulled the pasta to my lips for a second bite, I pulled back and looked again. “I made this,” I thought. This was the egg yolk pasta that I had mixed and kneaded the day before. This was the cheese filling that I piped onto sheets of pasta this afternoon. These are the morels that I had washed and chopped. So maybe it wasn’t my recipe and maybe I did not actually apply any heat to any of the ingredients. But my hands had prepped each part of this dish and now I, along with 39 other guests, was eating it.

I was asked a few times why I was there at the Herbfarm. “Are you in school or are you working?” on of the kitchen staff asked when I first arrived. “Well...” I hesitated. Yes, I work, but in a job that has no relation to food at all. Why was I taking time off of work to go work in exchange for a stiff back and sore feet? When I explained that my job is not in the restaurant industry, she asked if I had a career change in mind. “No, probably not,” I answered. I thought about this while I rinsed and chopped and sorted and arranged food on plates. I was there because this is what life is about for me - exploring my interests, collecting novel experiences, learning new things.

What I learned most from my two days as Stagaire is that most of us have the ability to create amazing things like the Herbfarm does every night, if only so much attention was put to the task. Sure, Chef Chris is talented and creative, but there was no secret magic happening there - only exceptional ingredients and the finest consideration for each detail. Lemon thyme wasn’t chopped for garnish, but rather each individual leaf was pulled from the stem. Button mushrooms were not used when morels were available. No one thought it outlandish to make a sage blossom cream from scratch only to be used to fill the minute hollow of two little raspberries, wrapped in a tiny strip of fresh fruit leather, to be served as an amuse bouche at the end of dinner.

One of my favorite questions to ask someone is this: What would you do if you knew you would not fail? I wonder, is this what keeps us from doing what we have passion for? Fear of failure? Have we failed less if we never tried at all? Fear and monotony are ingredients that make life sour. It is when I stretch past the day to day to explore new things that life is sweetest. Now back to my goal list, eighteen done, lots more to do.


brittney said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. My husband treated me to dinner at the Herbfarm for my 30th b-day. It was a magical and delicious evening we will never forget. It's fun to read about your experience in the kitchen.

"What would you do if you knew you would not fail?" What a great question. Immediately I thought, teach people how to successfully garden in order to empower them to grow a portion of the food they eat. I think about it all the time, but I'm not acting on it. Why? Maybe because I'm afraid I'll fail. Food for thought for sure. Thanks!

Kim said...

I think it's so cool you did this! I love your goal list, and you couldn't have chosen a better restaurant at which to fulfill your stage goal. Thanks for taking us into the experience with you!