Food Lovers’ Guide : Chef For A Day

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A food writer goes to work in a restaurant kitchen and learns it’s not all glory and glamour.

The crêpes were almost my undoing.

I’m standing at an eight-burner commercial range at The Supper Club on Del Paso Boulevard. A food writer, I’d recently mentioned in passing to the restaurant’s owner, Matt Woolston, that I’ve been thinking about going to culinary school. Oh, don’t do that, Matt said. Spend a day with me. I’ll teach you a few things. So here I am on a Saturday morning in February, working as a prep cook.

I’m in charge of making 60 crêpes for that night’s dinner service. With my right hand, I snatch a plastic spray bottle from a nearby tray and squirt a thin stream of canola oil into a smoking-hot saut pan. Dropping the bottle, I use my left hand to pick up a pitcher filled with crêpe batter. With my right, I stir the batter and ladle a little into the pan, then grab the pan by the handle and pivot it over the heat to spread the batter in an even circle. I wait 60 seconds while the crêpe cooks on one side, then grab the handle again. Here comes the tricky part: flipping the crêpe. I quickly jerk the pan, first forward, then backward, over the fire. The crêpe clings stubbornly to the bottom of the pan, refusing to budge.

I jerk the pan again, a little more assertively this time. Still nothing. Now I’m shaking it furiously, like a demented person making Jiffy Pop. The crêpe bunches up like a blanket after a restless night’s sleep. This is not going well.

I take a spatula and scrape the rumpled crêpe into the garbage. Try again. I repeat the sequence: Spray. Stir. Ladle. Pivot. Wait. Flip. This time, the crêpe leaps half-heartedly out of the pan, then changes its mind and flops back onto itself. I curse. Into the trash can it goes.

By now, I’ve been at the crêpe station for more than a half-hour. I’ve had a few successes, but mostly failures. Matt says my pan isn’t hot enough, so I turn the burner up to high. Long, angry flames lick up and over the sides of the pan, dangerously close to my fingers. Nearby, huge, steaming pots of lobster and chicken stock are bubbling lazily. I’m in my own little hellish microclimate: My face feels fevered and the fingers on my right hand are starting to resemble boiled shrimp. I pour another ladleful of batter into the pan and try to flip. This time, the crêpe flies out of the pan and lands on the sizzling stove top. Snatching it up, I burn two fingers. Stupid. I’m really feeling the heat&emdash;both physically and metaphorically. If there’s a 10th circle of Dante’s inferno, I think, this surely must be it.

What the hell was I thinking when I signed up for this gig?

Here’s what I was thinking: I love to cook. When I was a little girl, I whipped up feasts for my brothers in my bedroom, frying chicken in my Easy-Bake Oven and making macaroni in a little pot on top of the radiator. When I grew up, I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a pastry chef, but the work seemed too hard and the pay too low. So instead of cooking food for a living, I write about it.

But now I’m almost 50, and the lure of the kitchen is still strong. I don’t necessarily want to work in a restaurant kitchen, but I’d love to learn how to cook like the professional chefs I interview. Which is how I end up at The Supper Club.

I arrive at 9 a.m., dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. It should be an easy day, Matt tells me. Together with two other prep cooks, we’ll spend the next 14 hours preparing that night’s dinner: a seven-course tasting menu for 43 people.

Matt is determined to show me exactly what goes on in a professional kitchen. People have this glorified idea about being a chef, he says. Before even thinking about going to chef school, you should work in a restaurant. He starts me off with an übersimple task: trimming broccolini. Like the brightest girl in school, I dispatch the job with ease and speed. This isn’t hard, I think. What’s next? I ask.

Crêpes, that’s what’s next. Matt tosses me a recipe for chive crêpes and tells me to make the batter.
Then he sends me to my Waterloo: flipping crêpes at the stove.

Charlie, Matt’s second in command, has arrived and is watching my crêpe performance from the other end of the kitchen. Something tells me he’s not impressed. When I finish up at the stove and come looking for something to do, Matt tells me to go help Charlie. Charlie looks pained. I imagine how he feels: probably how I used to feel on busy weeknights when my young daughters clamored to help me make dinner. Charlie shows me how he tenderizes Kobe skirt steak for spiedini, but he doesn’t actually let me try it.

I trot back to Matt, who now has me cutting matchstick-size pieces of parsnip on a balky mandoline. He gives me a safety glove so I don’t hurt myself. But the toothy blade doesn’t want to stay in its slot, and I’m fearful of turning the fingers on my unprotected hand into little matchstick-size pieces. I also find it nearly impossible to cut the rock-hard parsnips into anything approaching a consistent shape and size. I’m grunting and sweating as a messy pile of raggedy vegetables accumulates on my board.

It’s now close to noon. Only got 12 hours left, Matt jokes. You’re over the hump.

I clean and hull some strawberries, then chop some arugula. (Finally, I think, two jobs I’m semicompetent at.) The radio is blasting, and Matt, Charlie and Mark, the other prep cook, are laughing and talking as they work calmly. There’s a lot of camaraderie in a professional kitchen. Work’s gotta be fun, says Matt. If it’s not fun, why do it?

Not for the money. A beginning prep cook makes $10 to $12 an hour, according to Matt. That’s small potatoes, especially if you went to a top-notch chef school like the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where tuition runs more than $80,000. 

Next, Matt puts me to work breaking down a 6-pound Maine lobster. A few minutes earlier, he’d taken the massive beast, still alive and wriggling, out of its shipping box and placed it in a stockpot. He poured in boiling water, dropped a lid on top, and left it for three minutes. Now, the expired lobster is sitting on my cutting board, reflexively twitching. My job: to separate the meat from its shell. The shells will go into a broth for soup, while the flesh will be poached in butter and placed in the bottom of the soup bowl for an elegant and tasty surprise.

My tools are my hands and a wicked-looking pair of kitchen shears. Matt is clearly worried I’m going to cut off a finger. He hovers protectively, telling me more than once to be careful. But after several humbling hours in the kitchen, I finally have my sea legs. I rip the creature apart with my hands and use the shears to cut open the claws, extracting the lobster’s flesh without cutting off my own. 

The rest of the afternoon whizzes by in a blur of chores. I season vegetables, stuff crêpes with a mixture of arugula and goat cheese, pick cilantro leaves off their stems, slice braised short ribs into quarter-inch-thick portions and make several batches of naan dough. Restaurant cooking, I’m learning, is nothing like the cooking I do at home. Every dish for tonight’s dinner has five, six or more components&emdash;proteins, vegetables, sauces, garnishes, compotes and pures&emdash;that have to be separately prepared. The beef course, Kobe Beef Three Ways, will consist of braised short ribs with demi-glace, spiedini stuffed with housemade herb pesto, a blue cheese slider on housemade naan, fried mixed-root shoestrings, steamed broccolini and housemade roasted pepper ketchup. That’s nine components for one dish. Alone, the demi-glace&emdash;a rich sauce made from veal stock&emdash;would probably take me the better part of two days to make at home. After we make each component, we cross it off a master list and move on to the next. Later that night, they’ll be assembled at the last minute to create the final dish.

For a dish called Rack of Rabbit on Tenderloin-Stuffed Loin Over Marrow Beans With Braised Fennel and Applewood Smoked Kurobuta Bacon, Matt shows me how to butcher a rabbit and allows me to french the tiny racks of rabbit loin. I scrape the flesh off the ends of the minuscule ribs with a small implement that looks like a serrated butter spreader, then delicately pop each toothpick-size bone from its meaty robe. Be careful not to break the bones, Matt warns me. A single rack, smaller than a D battery, costs about $30, he says. Apparently, big, ham-fisted cooks have a tough time with this job, but as a woman with small hands, I find it a breeze.

At 4 p.m., I finally sit down for the first time that day and take personal inventory. My lower back is aching and my right hand&emdash;my slicing, dicing, cutting, flipping hand&emdash;feels like a claw. I sip water and watch Charlie puttering around the kitchen. It’s quiet. The calm before the storm, says Matt.

After a few minutes, I hop back up and start working again. Sue, another cook, has arrived for the night shift. The pace quickens. I take a pan of rabbit legs confited in duck fat and pull the meat off the bones. I roll out the naan dough, use a biscuit cutter to make tiny rounds, then fry the rounds in a saut pan. Before I know it, it’s 6:30. Customers have arrived and are standing out on the restaurant’s patio, sipping cocktails. It’s showtime.

Everyone has a job. Mine is to make the lamb hors d’oeuvre. I take a fried potato crisp, add a dollop of rosemary aioli from a squeeze bottle, top it with a slice of seared lamb loin, add another dollop of sauce, dust it with crushed pistachios and place it on a tray. I repeat the sequence, over and over again. As soon as there are 12 on a tray, a server grabs it and rushes out. They keep coming back for more. Lamb! they yell.

Done with hors d’oeuvres, we move on to the next course. Cooks, servers, Matt’s wife, Yvette, even Javier the dishwasher line up at a long counter and assemble each dish, brigade-style. We’re a well-oiled machine. For the crêpe dish, one person ladles two different beet emulsions&emdash;one red, the other yellow&emdash;onto a plate. Another takes a wooden skewer and makes a star design in the puddled liquid. A third places the warmed crêpe on the plate. Finally, I grab a tiny handful of microgreens dressed with vinaigrette and place it daintily on top. I feel a twinge of pride as I watch my crêpes go out the door.

After three hours and six courses, we’re almost done. It’s time to send out dessert. I slip into a white chef’s jacket and go out to the dining room to help serve. Then, Sue and I return to the kitchen to clean up, wiping down the range and prep counters, dragging the heavy rubber floor mats into the alley, sweeping and mopping the floors. When we finally finish, it’s almost 11. I slump at the bar in my chef’s jacket and gulp a half glass of cool Viognier. Then I get in the car and head home. My back is screaming, I reek of rabbit and I feel like I’ve bathed in duck fat.

I did it, I think. Today, I was a cook.