Saturday, October 16, 2010

Letters to a Young Chef

While I was at school, I had some preconceived notions about bakers. The bakers and the culinary students at CIA have a heated rivalry. Bakers are known as dough hoes or sugar sluts by the culinary students, and the culinary students are known as a group of rowdy drunks who aren't fit to function in society. The bakers might be right, but as I baked bread every day this week, I came to a few conclusions. While the art of baking is by no means easy, and the production load of the lady bakers at L'Etoile is no joke, working in a bakery is without a doubt much more physically, technically, and psychologically easier than working a restaurant line. Yea sure you work early, but every day this week I was out by noon this week. For the first time since I arrived in Madison, I actually had a social life on days when I worked. You, as a baker, have an extremely flexible deadline for your goods. You never have to rush to push food out. You never have your boss screaming at you because you have plates due up in fifteen seconds. And, while baking requires techniques such as rolling dough, all the hard work can easily be done by a machine. You set timers, set it on speed 2, and walk away.

Let's just put it this way, at no point this week did I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about how I had to bake a few more brioche buns the next day because I left a half sheet tray of them uncovered overnight on the speed rack. I didn't like it.

My time at L'Etoile is coming to an end. I don't want to spend a whole lot more time with the lady bakers. I want to be on the line, busting my ass, alongside the guys who I've worked beside for the past four months.

Having said that, I've never really baked bread before this week and it is interesting, I just can't see myself doing it for a long time.

This week, Starting on Wednesday, I woke up at 4 every morning to be in the bakery by 4 30. I, being the resilient bastard I am, made a point of not changing my sleep schedule too drastically. So that meant on a nightly basis, I would go to sleep just before 1, wake up three hours later, get off work at 12 or so, and take a brief nap before continuing my day.

On Friday, I got off work and was able to go see Mary play against Indiana, with the rest of the Ording family. I got an hour and a half nap in before I had to be at the game at 7. The game lasted until 9 or so, then we all went to dinner. I made it to bed by 1. Saturdays, due to the farmers market, when we sell pastries on the street, the bakers have to be in by 3 30. So I woke up at 3. I got off at 11 30, after braising 40 pounds of short ribs and smoking 30 pounds of pork shouder for Graze on top of my baking duties. I met with the Ordings immediately who were at the farmers market. We had brunch at Graze, and I returned home to sleep.

With basically one work week left at L'Etoile, I've been reflecting on my time here and doing A LOT of thinking about the future. I bought a few books on Amazon with a gift card I had received for my birthday. First, I bought the New York Michelin Guide, a book filled with the top restaurants in New York. Then I bought "Letters to a Young Chef". A book written by one of the best chefs and restaurateurs in the world, Daniel Boulud. In the book, he gives advice to people like me. He tells us his story, what he would do differently now, and he gives young American cooks the best advice imaginable in how to make it in this world. Even in the first chapter I had the chills. Because, without knowing it until now, I've been the posterchild for Daniel Boulud's road map to success.

His first piece of advice that caught my eye, was to get your foot in the door with a good chef, not a great one necessarily, but someone who can teach you great things, and provide connections when you feel you're ready for something new. That is undoubtably what I did at L'Etoile. Tory is a great cook, and a great chef, but the ceiling is only so high at L'Etoile, there is only so much I can do here. But he, and even Chef Chris at Graze have amazing connections in New York and I think they'd be more than happy to give me a nod, and a point in the right direction. Even cooks that I work with like Bryan Weinstein and Ed Lee could be huge for me in the future. I have no doubt in my mind that both will move on to accomplish great things. Both are extremely passionate, very skilled, and have an unparalleled desire to learn.

That brings me to my next connection to the book. Boulud argues that in a kitchen of the caliber that I am working in, you will learn more from the cooks you work with, than possibly even the chef. I agree without a doubt. I had the opportunity to work alongside Weinstein for over a month on Garde Manger before he was promoted to Meat Cook. The guy is more passionate about cooking than anyone I've ever met in my life. Pete, Ryan, and Ed all took me under their wing,

Most of you know that I see my near future in New York. I want to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that I will have at my fingertips, but the prospect of spending a life time in NYC is a little daunting. But Boulud has reassured me that there is a way to be successful outside of New York. And he hit close to home on this one. He talks about how he has known countless cooks of incredible quality, who worked in New York, but were tired of the city and left. And were successful. He says something along these lines: Today, you do not have to be in New York to be a great chef. Chefs from New York have become very successful, leaving New york and going to places like Cincinnati and Louisville or Madison, Wisconsin.

I knew he was talking about Tory. The man who took me in, and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.

It's funny. In the past few weeks, even before I bought this book, I have singled out Boulud as the one man that I have to work for. He talks about this importance for young cooks to stage, or work for free in kitchens, just to prove yourself and act as a sponge. I now know what I have to do. When I get to school, I will show up damn near every Saturday morning at the back door of Bar Boulud and DBGB, two of Boulud's restaurants that specialize in charcuterie. I will ask to work for free. If they let me, I'll probably do things like plucking game birds, torching fur off of boar' heads, stripping meat for headcheese etc. But it will honestly be an honor to work in that kitchen, and I think that I can prove myself worthy of even a part time job when I graduate.

Another key step in Boulud's roadmap to success is to travel. I really didn't think this was possible until I thought about it. Should I get in at a Boulud restaurant, I would have a door to France. Boulud himself was born in France and trained in Lyon. But his restaurants, specifically the two that I am targeting, have a partnership with Guilles Verot, the most famous Charcutiere in France. If I could prove myself worthy, maybe I could get a nod and be sent to Paris to train under the masters at Guilles' Verot, I would be on cloud nine.

This last reference I will make, was the coolest for me. He reflects on his experiences as a young cook and his relationship with other cooks. "Once the marketing was done, I would sit down at one of the local bouchons and have a bowl of tripe with them. They would open a bottle of Beaujolais (but I stuck with lemonade) The stories, the pungent rough language, the camaraderie made me feel on top of the world. Of course, they would rag me pretty hard in the way that old pros like to tease a young kid. But I ate it up. I was just so happy to be in their company." I still have to go back to Saigon Noodle before I leave. The Pho with tripe and tendon is just what I need right now.

I have one week left. I have to make it my best week yet. Less than one month from now I'll be back in New York. I cannot wait. But I'm going to savor my last few moments in Madison.

Go Colts! and GO Irish! My high school soccer team knocked off our top rival, Carmel today. I coached these guys last year, and had the pleasure along playing alongside them for a few years. I just hope they make it to state, which is two weeks away. Because if they do, Coach Kolo will be back on the sidelines one last time.

Take it easy,


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