Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lessons Learned in the Test Kitchen

So after six hours in the kitchen for a Paradigm dinner service (as recounted in Part I and Part II of my running diary), what have I learned from my "Chef Fantasy Camp"?

Alls chefs are not sociopathic miscreants. Contrary to the reputation fostered by "bad-boy" chef tell-alls like Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," the population of every kitchen is not the equivalent of a jailhouse with pots and pans. I know it's fun to imagine that every kitchen is like the crew of a pirate ship, and perhaps some are. But the kitchen at Neomi's is full of sincere, hardworking people who you'd be perfectly happy to take home to your mother. Maybe they were just on their best behavior for me.

Mise en place is where it's at. I know this is really basic and that just about any book about cooking will tell you the same thing. But there is simply no way any menu like this can be done, or indeed virtually any professional kitchen could function, without a lot of advance prep work. Seeing the process involved to put out one 11-course meal for ten diners makes the sheer logistics of places that do this all the time, with even more elaborate menus, all the more daunting. Even as a home cook, there's surely a lesson here too. We enjoy doing dinner parties, but it drives Mrs. F crazy that I seem to spend most of my time in the kitchen. The more prep that can be done in advance, the less time it takes to get the food out.

Plan, plan, plan, and then be ready to improvise. Shit happens. Hopefully nothing too monumental. Despite all the advance work, something invariably will go awry. As guests were arriving, Chef Windus was still hauling his anti-griddle from outlet to outlet trying to get it to work. As the ticking clock started to narrow down the window of opportunity, the chefs quickly switched gears and got the blood orange puree into some molds, onto some ice, and into the freezer, in enough time to set before it was time to be plated. You have to be constantly ready to adapt.

Inspiration can be like wild fermentation. Ideas travel fast these days, particularly when people are willing to let them do so. One of the components for the Paradigm menu was inspired by three words in a twitter post: "beer can cabbage." This is not the first time I've had a dish in Miami that was inspired by the eternally creative Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot of the blog Ideas in Food. Several months ago I had a dish at Talula that paired roasted bone marrow with pickled bananas, inspired by this post. I've noted previously how one of the things I find so interesting about much contemporary cooking is the "open source" nature of it. Where for much of culinary history, recipes and techniques were closely guarded secrets, today many chefs eagerly - almost as a badge of honor - share information about methods, ingredients, ideas and inspirations. This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, those prone to simply mimicking will do so, which can lead to a disappointing and ironic sameness in a cuisine that should be a platform for creativity. On the other hand, those who see this information as tool and inspiration, rather than just something to be duplicated, can effectively use it as a springboard for their own ideas.

There is such a thing as "lefty" plating and "righty" plating. It just so happened that lefties (myself included) dominated the kitchen last Friday night, but not exclusively so. It was pretty amusing to see one chef start a plating element, and then to have another follow behind and have to twist himself into a convoluted pretzel to duplicate the brush of a sauce across the plate.

The waitstaff have a serious sweet tooth. Sometimes they need to be appeased. Especially after a long night of bringing out food for other people, a little something to boost the spirits and energy levels is a good idea. Keep your waitstaff happy.

In case you were wondering – if there is anything in the slightest way distinctive about your appearance, your clothes, your manner, your voice, or just about anything else – you can be pretty sure the waitstaff have come up with a nickname for you. I don’t want to know mine. You probably don’t want to know yours either.

I'm clearly not cut out to be a professional chef. For any youngster with TV-inspired visions of becoming a celebrity chef, or mid-life-crisis-aged amateur cook contemplating a career change - spend some time in a kitchen. It's hard work. My "fantasy camp" was a small - and preposterously comfy - sampler of what it's like to work in a professional kitchen: I was there barely more than 1/2 the day of a typical cook (in an earlier post I linked to a StarChefs survey showing that the average workday for most culinary professionals is 9-11 hours), I didn't spend hours chopping onions or dicing potatoes or trimming artichokes. I wasn't working over a hot sauté or grill station for hours turning out hundreds of covers. I was spared the thrill of tracking inventory, taking in deliveries, and cleaning up stations. And yet by 11pm I was beat. There's little doubt in my mind that you have to really and truly love what you do to last as a chef. While I share their passion, I don't know that I share their energy. It's a lot easier on the other side of those swinging doors between the kitchen and the dining room.


  1. Very good post indeed, it sounds like you had a great experience. You are absolutely right about spending time in a kitchen before committing to a career change. I did a four month internship last year ( and it was absolutely eye opening. You need stamina.

  2. Thanks Doc.
    Michael - That's a great post and a great experience that you describe. It seemed like something of a baptism when I got my first "Behind!" about 5 minutes after stepping foot in the kitchen.