First, I get to work 45 minutes to an hour before my scheduled shift because I’ve learned this is how much time it takes for me to complete everything I need to without feeling frantic. Reason #1 restaurant kitchens are mostly dominated by men: the uniform pants available seem to be missing a place to put your hips. I have to go up about 2 pants sizes* in order to get the suckers over my hips, and then fold down the gaping waistband.
I have about 2 hours to complete the following:
-Slice lemonsvfor oyster garnish. (Small cuts on one’s hands make this slightly painful.)
-Mince shallots and chives for mignonette sauce into supremely delicate little bits with clean slices that don’t make the veggies bleed. The couple of shallots I’m mincing don’t bother me so much, but if the prep cooks working near me happen to be prepping a bucket of shallots (this has happened the past two days) I am also accomplishing my OCD mince through a weepy-eyed haze.
-Assemble ingredients for little cheese puffs, including about a pound of shredded parmesean and fontina cheese.
-Quennelle and bread seafood croquettes. Quennelling is a process of using two spoons to work the mixture into little footballs. I find this activity rather satisfying, even if it mysteriously causes the tip of my left middle finger to go numb for the rest of the night.
Then for the next hour I have to move everything from the downstairs prep area to the upstairs service kitchen, while simultaneously cooking the dough for the cheese puffs. If I’ve planned well it should only take 10-12 trips to get all of the above upstairs, plus about 100 oysters, crushed ice for the oysters, 3 different kinds of bread, and miscellaneous supplies. (*I used to have to wear pants that were 3 sizes above normal.)
Once the cheese puff dough is completed, it gets put into pastry bags and chilled. If I’m on top of stuff, I’ll have about 20 minutes before family meal to get my station set up: making sure I have all the necessary service pieces: 4 different sized bowls for oysters; little ramekins for cocktail sauce, lemons, and mignonette sauce; oyster knives. Perhaps I will also use this time to have a heart to heart talk with the oysters so that they will open up to me.
Then on to family meal. I am a sucker for free food of any variety, but I must say this family meal is especially good. The 8 or so cooks who are working the stations for dinner are each responsible for a dish. Sometimes they coordinate and get a whole themed meal out of it (Moroccan once this week) and sometimes it’s just random. Last night, for instance, there were meatballs with marinara sauce, (8 oz meatballs, mind you, since the guy making them couldn’t find a smaller scoop,) roasted potatoes, some sort of rice pilaf, mussels with vegetables and cream sauce, roasted broccoli with anchovy butter, and a green salad. If I haven’t been feeling too frantic up to this point, I may actually have an appetite. If not, I’m scarfing down what I can anyway, since this will be my only opportunity to eat for the next 8 hours. (*By next week, I expect to only have to go up 1 pants size.)
After family meal we move into service. During service I am responsible for the following things once they are “fired.” (That’s restaurant speak for “cook this now.”):
-Toasting and slicing three different types of bread (admires blister on right index finger where heel of knife sits)
-Shucking oysters as ordered. (Admires three puncture wounds on base of left thumb where oyster knife slipped and small cuts on right middle finger from the pointy parts of the shells.) Mind you, before the one day I had shucked oysters in culinary school, I had experience with this roughly never.
-Warming and plating bacon cheddar biscuits. (Pastry department makes and supplies these.)
-Deep frying corn fritters (batter prepared by Garde Manger**) and seafood croquettes. (I have no hot oil burns to speak of as of yet. <knock wood>) I have a instant read digital thermometer for making sure my oil is hovering around 325 degrees. When it’s not in the oil I am often shocked to notice that the ambient kitchen temperature is registering around 99 degrees. I am drinking buckets of water but never having to use the bathroom.
**Garde Manger refers to the station in a kitchen responsible for salads or other cold items.
If I’m lucky, the pace of this is constant, but not crazy. Occasionally I have a heart spasm when I hear things like “Fire 24 chilled oysters,” but then usually someone else will jump over and help me. If the oysters are cooperative I can shuck about 3 a minute. 6 or 12 is a normal order.
And in addition to what gets fired, I need to find time in the evening to pipe the cheese puff dough into little rounds that get frozen and baked for the following day’s service. Reason number #1009 that I perhaps should have more strongly considered pastry is that I’m apparently really good at this. The Garde Manger cooks who use the puffs to fill with goat cheese for an amuse bouche have declared that mine are the most successful of anyone who works that station. (The other 1008 reasons that perhaps I should have gone into pastry involve my love of sweets and the fact that several of the pastry cooks are always downstairs in the prep kitchen which is not 99 degrees rocking out to something like Guns N Roses while going about their business.) Occasionally I’ll get asked to do little side projects for the line cooks like quartering brussels sprouts and dicing some bread into cubes for little croutons. For VIP guests a bonus course might be improvised, and that’s when these kinds of things come up.
When service starts winding down, after you’ve been on your feet for 10 hours (minus 10 minutes of family meal sitting) is when the really hard work begins. Cleaning up. And this involves taking everything out of every cabinet and every drawer, and cleaning in, around, and under every surface you can see, plus taking back down everything you initially brought up. Basically this feels like you just ran a half marathon and so you thought afterward you should run a marathon for a little cool down. The clogs you wear that protect your toes on the outside from things like falling knives etc., feel like they are breaking your little toes from the inside. Where the rest of the staff finds the energy to push through this part at a rapid clip is beyond me, since by the end of the night I can barely walk.
Is it all worth it? Truthfully, the jury is still out for me. I do get a kick out of the fact that people are paying big money to consume things that I made. And at the end of the night all the cooks hang out in the kitchen for a minute and have a beer together, which is cool. And sometimes the pastry department brings leftovers, which is supremely cool.