Monday, September 12, 2011


I'm back on the line. And I'm getting into a rhythm. I'm beginning to pick up momentum. Everyday is a push. But I'm getting better, all the time.

I just need to remember to relax, because if I get too stressed, it will show up on the plates.

One little blurb from this past Friday night puts everything in perspective. I was working cold side, we were pretty busy, but everything was going smoothly. Myself and the rest of the cooks were pushing out bomb food. Chef Tory was working the pass, so everyone was on edge. We don't want to disappoint him.

Sous Chef Mike's parents were in for dinner, and I was putting up a tomato plate for their table. The tomato plate is basically several different heirloom tomatoes sliced to order, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper, garnished with pickled red onion, sliced mousemelons (they look like grape sized watermelons, but taste like sour cucumbers), crispy bread shards, torn basil, warm olive oil poached wild cherry tomatoes, and is garnished table side with a bit of sarvecchio foam (sarvecchio is a wisconsin made parmesan cheese). Its a great dish, simple clean flavors. Tory calls me to the pass, says the plate needs a little bit more sliced mousemelon. I walk back to my station, quickly slice a few more, hand them to him and as I do, he laughs and says, "Can you believe we do this? We slice fucking mousemelons for a living!" and he handed me more tickets. I turned my back to him and faced my rail and shouted back, "Just livin' the dream chef!" with a smile on my face. Thing was, I wasn't kidding. Neither was he.

Most people who I grew up with are currently studying things like medicine, accounting, journalism, law... all things that seem very practical in the real world. I come in to work every day and get paid to do things like make fresh pasta; clean and cook lobster mushrooms (wild mushrooms that are bright orange like cooked lobster and have the texture of lobster claw meat when cooked); dice watermelon, remove all the seeds, and compress it with kim chi liquid, soy, sesame oil, korean chili, and fish sauce; I brine and confit beef tongue, then slice it and dredge it in egg whites and a mixture of rice flour and corn starch. It's not a normal profession by any means, but I'm not a normal person. Far from it.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Same Old Same Old

People in the food service industry tend to think of restaurants themselves as living, breathing creatures. Tony Bourdain said of his former restaurant, Les Halles, "One day she can be a well oiled machine, and the next she can turn into a cruel, nine headed hydra."

The majority of the faces in the L'Etoile kitchen may have changed since my departure in October, but the restaurant herself, shes pretty much the same animal. A few small things have changed, like the fact that cooks currently have an hour less prep time, and that all of the dry goods are about as far as they could possibly be from my station, but the dynamic of the restaurant is still the same. I walk in about a half an hour or thirty minutes early every day, and Ryan, still sous chef, immediately starts his playful jabs of, "Mikey hurry the fuck up you're in the fucking weeds!" I smile and return a half assed, "Yes Chef." And he comes over and says, "This isn't a fucking joke Mikey, move faster you're fucked." He smiles the whole time. I look at my prep list for the day. I'm basically completely set up except for the daily tasks of herb prep, fresh pasta making, and maybe a few more tasks like cleaning scallops, cleaning corn, making a batch of corn chowder, or confiting beef tongue. We've got 50 on the books, its a Wednesday. I'm not in the weeds, but I have to push myself like I am everyday if I'm going to survive weekends, or get moved up the line.

Then Mike, other current sous chef, (fun fact. I trained Mike on garde manger when he started at L'Etoile) will shout something at me in German along the lines of, "Mikey schneller zu bewegen!" which I think means move faster.

I'm no longer Mikey the Intern, no longer Mikey the Prep Cook, no longer Mikey the slow night cold side cook, I'm Mikey the full time hot side cook. That means instead of busting my ass prepping salads, cheese plates, and other cold appetizers, I'm working a much more manageable prep schedule and getting my ass kicked nightly on the hot line. I really have no "station" as it would be defined. I have a small cart that can hold a hotel pan of Mise en Place, but doesn't have nearly enough room for all of the prep for my four dishes. I have four burners, an oven, a salamander. I don't have a board to plate on. I can fit about 4 plates on the edge of my range, but thats it, and during a push, when tickets are coming in and I've got 5 tables fired, and 13 or fourteen plates to put out in a 5 minute window... shit gets rough. not to mention that the majority of my dishes require multiple pans and multiple burners. Of my four burners, one of them is completely occupied by a small cast iron grill pan that I use to grill scallops for the corn chowder. that means I effectively have three burners at my disposal. The beef tongue dish alone requires three small sautee pans. One to sautee ginger and garlic and then toss in the orange soy glaze that us the sauce for the beef. Another is used to heat up green beans with chicken stock and butter, and another is used to sautee a crescent of sushi rice. The Confit beef tongue gets fried on meat station and passed down the line when I call for it. Then the beef gets tossed in the glaze, add sliced scallion, plate the sushi rice, plate the beans, top them with the orange beef, then drizzle sauce... top with micros, which I have to pull from cold side because I have no room for them in my mise en place. The Chowder requires the grill for scallops; a small sautee pan to sautee fresh chorizo, sweet corn and chive in butter; and a small sauce pot to heat up a ladel of corn chowder which gets put in a small teapot and poured table side. The Gnudi dish really only needs one pan. A sautee pan to heat up sauteed lobster mushrooms with butter, lavender, chicken stock, then I drop the gnudi in a pasta pot that is located (thank god) on Fish station's range. This dish is all about perfect execution. The sauce for the Gnudies (a goat cheese dumpling) is really only an emulsion of butter and chicken stock. It will separate if it sits too long. It will separate if the quantities of stock and butter aren't perfect. It will separate if the plates are too warm or too cold. Sometimes it will just separate because God hates me. The minestrone dish is the easiest and least stressful dish... but I sold just one tonight. And I spent about an hour prepping the stuff for that dish, all of which has to be done DAILY. And I sold one. Everything else was thrown out or will be used for comida. I'm beginning to think God really does hate me.

Monday was my first day running an entire station by myself. Noone was watching my back, telling me what to do second by second. It was rough. I got my ass kicked. Tuesday I worked a shift on cold side, then today I came back to hot. It's amazing how much more confident I have become working those three godforsaken burners. We did more covers than Monday today, and in a shorter amount of time. A ten top and a nine top came into the kitchen at the same time, and I successfully put out 4 chowders and a gnudi and a beef tongue followed by four more chowders and another gnudi in about a five minute window... which is miraculous if you had seen the kind of shit I was pulling on Monday.

Thursday is my day off this week, and I am gonna spend it sharpening my knives, doing laundry, and maybe buying Madden for myself if I'm feeling like I deserve a treat.

Friday and Saturday... I'm personally terrified. I want it to go well... I really do. But there's only so much I can control. I can't control spacing of reservations, or what people order, or how busy cold side is, or how well my partner calls my tickets. All I can do is come in with a fucking plan. Bang out my prep, and get set up as well as possible. Then It's up to me to do my god damn best to roll with the punches, work with what I have, and make sure that every plate I put up is worthy to be served to a guest at L'Etoile, the best restaurant in Wisconsin, and one of the best restaurants in the Midwest. Hopefully she'll be kind to me this weekend... but you never know with L'Etoile. She's an unpredictable bitch.