In Someone Else’s Kitchen … (a journey outside my comfort zone)

May 24, 2011

Hi Chef,

In an effort to expand my culinary capabilities, I am considering taking the time during our off-season (July/August) to stage with a chef that inspires me. As one of those chefs, I was wondering if you ever offer opportunities like that. If so, I would love to talk to you and see what the possibilities are. If not, if there is someone you believe may have such an opening, please let me know.

Thank you,
Laura

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Over the last nine years, with very few exceptions, I’ve been the boss. You know, the one in charge, making the plan, managing the process and approving the end result. I have prided myself on not being a bossy boss, but one that tries to lead through example and teamwork, with an overall sense of “this is a place you want to work”.

The problem with being the boss is that you are always in charge. Yes, we also get to be students, learning from our workforce, but we never get to be told what to do. Perhaps why we become the boss…. I will have to think about that.

So, it was without ego, and with some trepidation, that I had given up my boss card for 8 days, working as a jack of all trades, and, as I am already aware, master of none, at The Marine Room in La Jolla, California, for Executive Chef Bernard Guillas and Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver.

Proving the power of social networking as a means of enhancing one’s business acumen, I used my LinkedIn network to connect to Chef Bernard. Explaining that July in Arizona is not just hotter than hell, but business is probably better there, I reached out and requested the opportunity to “stage” (pronounced “stahdge”, the French term for an apprenticeship) for a week or so. To my surprise and delight, his response was immediate, and now here I am, on Day Two, ready for more.

But I am getting ahead of myself. And before I recount my experience, I need to point out one thing. There is nothing like working in someone else’s kitchen to humble you. To go from Big Dog to minor nothing in a nanosecond is akin to learning the Emperor really has no clothes.

Day 1. Introductions.

I arrive at The Marine Room ten minutes earlier than the agreed upon 3pm start. Seated in the lounge area of the dining room, I admire the western wall comprised entirely of glass, not just overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but seemingly in the Pacific Ocean. I could just sit here forever.

Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver arrives a few minutes later and we meet for the first time. Immediately, I feel his pain, to have a complete unknown thrust upon him merely hours before dinner service with the tacit directive to include me in the process. I want to apologize before I even shake his hand. In the spirit of full disclosure, I tell him that I am completely outside of my comfort zone, which, he acknowledges, is exactly why I am there.

My first assignment is make the pain d’epices, Chef Bernard’s grandmother’s recipe for spice bread that, “no one seems to make correctly”. Is this my test? If I fall prey to the historical failure of this baked good will I be voted out of the kitchen? The recipe has already been measured out; apparently, I am only worthy of assembly, mixing, and baking. Or am I?

Humility lesson number one. Did you know it is scientific fact that you have culinary amnesia the minute you step into a strange commercial kitchen? Having had this experience twice before (The W Hotel in Seattle, Greens Restaurant in San Francisco), I was prepared and knew to start asking questions – really difficult questions like, “where do I find a mixing bowl”, “where is dish wash”, and a personal favorite, “is there an outlet nearby”? Once I had my tools, I read and reread the recipe and got to work. Of course, having Chef Ron come by intermittently to observe quietly what I was doing only compounded my mounting anxiety. But I love to bake in addition to cooking, so I persevered.

Once everything was mixed, my batter was met with disdain due to lumps – lumps that could have been addressed using a mixer, but I was asked to do this by hand. So, with the assistance of a large chinois (think pointy strainer), I strained and strained and strained….literally. Once that batter was as smooth as a baby’s bottom, I was given the ok to pan it up and get half of it in the oven. Fast forward to the result – after an hour’s baking time, and several hours just resting, I was given the pain d’epices thumbs up. By that point, I had been thrown to so many wolves; it was almost a bribe to ensure I was coming back the next day.

While panning up the batter, Chef Bernard made his first appearance to introduce himself to me. Personable from the outset, he was welcoming and worked to put my insecurities at bay. A little later, prior to service, Chef Ron brought me up to his office so we could all discuss a plan of action for the week and ensure I was hitting my objectives
to absorb as much as possible. I sat there feeling like a culinary student about to start an externship … completely out of my league.

Back in the kitchen, my baking extravaganza complete, I was surprised to learn that Chef Ron wanted me to dice sashimi ahi and slice pompano for the Ocean Trilogy, a popular first course. I work quite a bit with the same tuna but watched respectfully as Chef Ron showed me exactly how he wanted it done. Funny how a small dice in my kitchen looks like Vegas dice in this one, but I pushed through until he was happy. Slicing the pompano made me appreciate the talent of sushi chefs around the world – I learned better technique that I can’t wait to put to work once home.

Next I was assigned to Emily on Line 1. As I quickly learned, Line 1 finishes every dish that leaves the kitchen for the dining room. That means sauces, vegetables, garnishes in a variety of artistic executions, plus the Ocean Trilogy from start to finish. This was my assignment.

The Ocean Trilogy (Sea Trio) was comprised of the diced ahi, pompano and sous vide lobster tail, each presented separately on the same plate with three different sauces, marinades and/or emulsions, plus two different caviars; each plating needs to be identical. Already knowing the squeeze bottle is the chef’s best friend, I spent the rest of the evening executing the Sea Trio, improving each time, speed getting faster, even portioning additional lobster in the middle of service.

Emily was awesome, reminding me of me in my own commercial kitchen. Able to explain what to do while performing three other things at the same time, her tutelage that night was wholly appreciated. With ample opportunity to get impatient, or just do it herself, she gave me the space to look, find and do, thus allowing me to learn.

Toward the end of service, Chef Ron invited me to the front of Line 1 to help finish the plates…. No pressure. I learned to hold the ladle differently when saucing (I know that sounds ridiculous, but really, it’s not), and took my saucing role quite seriously (none on the protein, avoid the vegetables, only on the plate, not too much or it will slide around in transit to the table, leave room for the balsamic swoop)…. For a minute, it felt just like home.

By the end of evening one, I knew where to find dish wash, the walk-in, the meat rack, small wares, bowls, the bathroom, the water fountain, clean towels, aprons, and knives. I also overcame my fear of the slicer (thank you, prosciutto). I said “behind you” so many times walking behind the hot line I should just make a recording, and wiped plate after plate before sending it out. Exhausted more by the stress of not knowing the rhythm than the actual labor, I threw in the proverbial towel at 10pm and headed home. As I write this, I have 5 hours before I am back on the line.

Day 2, Line 1

Just like kindergarten, first days are the hardest, so it was with less trepidation I arrived for day 2 at The Marine Room. With no Chef Ron in sight, I looked for a familiar face, and ended up meeting Amanda, about 90 pounds of Line 1 authority and professionalism. Informing her that I would be her lackey for the evening, Amanda quickly put me to work, bundling asparagus (two white, one green) and green beans (7- 8 each) with blanched chives that would soon make their appearance as vegetable garnishes on two of our platings. Of course, my only thought during this task was, great for parties of 20 or fewer, would NOT want to do this for 100 seated guests….or would I?

Once my vegetable bundling task was completed, I did other types of prep, including slicing trumpet mushrooms for steaming (bone-in rib eye garnish), prepping pain d’epices for crisping, honing my sashimi slicing skills on more pompano (amazing how much better one does when not being keenly observed), and doing the mise en place for cornbread (6 oz each flour, cornbread mix, butter and cream, 7 eggs, 3⁄4 of a number 10 canned corn, a “shot glass” of sugar, and some truffle), plus whatever tasks Amanda threw my way. And again, I was the princess of the sea, preparing the Sea Trio when required.

For those of you reading this whom have never observed a professional kitchen in action, the “echo system” is the way chefs know that line cooks heard the order – so, an order comes in (tick, tick, tick on the machine) and the chef, or hot line, will call the order and when you hear your items, you echo. I found myself saying Sea Trio so many times that the casual observer might think I had suffered a head trauma. During one plating, Chef Bernard appeared over my shoulder, requesting I use more of the sauce for the pompano. He deftly demonstrated, then returned the squeeze bottle to my possession, approved my plating and disappeared to fix a slight flooding problem that really wasn’t so slight.

The beautiful thing about this fine dining restaurant is the flow of the evening. While there were definitely times that were busier than others, one never felt slammed, “in the weeds” or pressured. Overall, this kitchen was quiet and in no way emulated the exaggerated restaurant kitchens broadcast worldwide in such farcical programming as Hell’s Kitchen, as an example. In my opinion, a well-run kitchen is created by great talent that leads through inspiration and empowerment, and thus no screaming or belittling is required. And while the restaurant had gone through a bit of transition in the last 10 months, losing three kitchen staff that had 30 years of cooking for The Marine Room among them, the new team, with one year of cooking there among them, evidenced themselves to be well trained and highly professional.

In speaking later with Chef Ron, I learned that any culinary student doing their externship here must learn each sauce, each starch, each vegetable from start to finish –
there is no filling portion cups with potatoes unless those potatoes were peeled, boiled, riced, mixed and seasoned by said student. Upon hearing this I was slightly jealous, as that process would have served me better, especially when plating on the line.

Before leaving for the evening (since I am not being paid, nor vying to be hired, I don’t feel the need to stay until midnight to scrub down the kitchen), I asked Chef Ron to modify my schedule to focus next on Pantry , also known as Garde Manger. Here is where all cold first courses and desserts are prepared and plated, with a multitude of sauces and garnishes. Needless to say, I am inexplicably excited to work with Fernando, who has owned Pantry in the Marine Room for 15 of his nearly 26 years in this kitchen and learn what makes him the king of his world.

Day 3: Pantry.

Irrefutable facts: my kitchen Spanish is not up to par, I can follow a recipe, and given more time, I could own the Pantry, but I need to remove all nerve endings first from my hands (more about that later).

Every time I start a new station, I feel like I should offer an apology to the individual who owns it. In Pantry, it would go like this: “Hi, I’m Laura, and I am here to slow you down, hover over you, take pictures, insist on trying everything and ask a million questions. Oh, and don’t worry, I will take great care to put French words into my stilted Spanish so you will have absolutely no idea what I am saying – ready?”

Given that Fernando, Emily and Amanda were each so gracious in sharing their respective spaces, I assume they receive hazard bonuses by agreeing to “host” me. Ok, enough with the self-deprecation – I am NOT a train wreck in the kitchen; conversely, over the course of evening number 3, I actually believed I was adding value. Nothing says chef love like leaving my pantry post intermittently to answer a request from Line 1 to “Sea Trio”, with an occasional oyster plating, to boot (five spinach wrapped oysters, brushed with love, bathed in buerre blanc and topped with both trout and truffle caviar).

But I digress. Fernando’s first request of the day was for me to prepare the batter for lemon coconut macaroons. Day three, baking recipe three – am I earning a reputation for my ability to scale? Upon completion of that, I began to learn the line. Here, in Pantry, one does the cold appetizers – salads, carpaccio and cheese plate, among others, plus all the desserts. With only an affection for plating confections, and not consuming them, my waist line is saved, especially since I only need to taste two of the cheese that were less familiar.

Over the course of 7 hours, I plated crème brulée, carpaccio, tarts, chocolate bombs, tortes, salads, cheese and fruit. Each plate had its own sauces, squiggles, whipped cream, mint leaves, fresh berries, chocolate cigars, candied fruit, toasted nuts, macaroons, plantains, tuiles, I could go on but you get the idea. The cheat sheet on the wall nearby was (slightly) helpful, but so many squeeze bottles, so little time! One of the more popular desserts is the Spindrift Cobblestone Pie. I had the opportunity to make this with Fernando, and despite my brief episode of hypothermia, I am looking forward to making my own version once back in my own kitchen. Think chocolate cookie crust, frozen, then filled with espresso gelato, frozen, then vanilla gelato and white chocolate-hazelnut crunch, you guessed it, frozen. All smoothed by hand, and when you have frozen ice cream all over your hands, the sensation is, well, freezing. As chefs, we talk about having asbestos hands, meaning a higher tolerance for heat, but cold? Well that’s a different story.
It’s interesting to see how confidence can dwindle when left alone. When tickets appeared in the window, and Fernando was there, I would take the ticket and go into action, with only a few question marks on choosing the right squeeze bottle, etc. But if a ticket came and Fernando wasn’t there, and it wasn’t something I had already plated, then I would wait it out until my plating mentor returned and led me through the process. Over the course of my first night in the pantry, I only had one major mistake, saucing a Cobblestone Pie despite the directive of “no sauce”. My mistake only benefitted the service staff, complementing their earlier family meal with a lovely dessert….

And now a word about kitchen equipment. From day one, I observed that while this kitchen was well equipped with some pretty cool equipment, such as cryovacs, steamers, altoshams, there seemed to be a dearth in small wares: tongs, ladles, bowls of varying sizes. I had yet to see a single liquid measuring cup, instead I was instructed to measure a “shot glass” of sugar or “eight cups of water” – literal cups, as in the kind you use to drink. It obviously isn’t hurting the success of each recipe, but proves how we can be prisoners of our own habits.

Being a Sunday night, service ended relatively early, and I found myself leaving about ten. When I sat down in the car, I realized it had been nearly eight hours since I had bent my knees, let alone gotten off my feet, and I was grateful when I finally crawled into bed. Dreaming about plate painting was the icing on the cake…

Day 4. Pantry Redux.

Arriving at my appointed hour of 2:30 on Monday, I greeted everyone in the kitchen as though I had been there for months, not days – Amanda, Carlos, Accursio, Lawrence, Emily … and with no Fernando in sight, I asked Amanda if there were anything I could do for her … I need to learn to think before I speak.

The next thing I know, I am stuck in culinary school hell, cutting onions and carrots in what is known as “brunoise”, about 1/8 x 1/8 dice. Here is what I know – I didn’t do it
well 10 years ago, and I certainly haven’t improved much with time. But my perseverance paid off if only due to the huge thank you I received from Lawrence, the current culinary extern, as it took one time-consuming task off his proverbial plate.

By this time, Fernando had arrived so we went to work setting up for the evening. No longer afraid of the slicer, I worked my way through oranges, blood oranges, and lotus root. I noticed I was doing very large quantities of each, but just assumed we were doing the prep for the next several days. Note to self – assumptions are never a good idea.
Family meal was served, as it was every day, featuring turkey burgers and fries. The ubiquitous salad offerings were nowhere to be found, so I made a meal of the romaine leaves for the turkey burgers and a couple of slices of watermelon. I ate in the Pantry, then went outside to enjoy the last of the beautiful summer day and made some phone calls. Overall, I expected a fairly slow evening – after all, it was a Monday.

About 5:45 tickets started coming in … perhaps flying in is a better description. This is where things got curious. I already shared with you that Fernando and I have a slight language barrier – my French Spanish is not understandable by anyone but me, and his Spanish is spoken so quickly and quietly that I stopped asking him to repeat lest he think I was the kitchen idiot. What I noticed is that the “T/Trilogy” tickets kept rolling in and being placed on the right side of the expo area. With little explanation that I could understand, I was set to the task of plating the desserts for a large party coming in for dinner. Yes! Something I could do without a translator or a chaperone. I quickly went to work and completed that task.

Upon my return to the Pantry, I found Fernando plating first courses and setting up dessert plates like a mad man. At this juncture it began to sink in – It was LOBSTER NIGHT! A fixed menu with a Tasting Trilogy (T/Trilogy) for dessert. So we were collecting dessert tickets to notify us of the number of desserts that would need to be plated, then the servers would let us know when they wanted it verbally. With the light shining brightly over me with this newfound understanding, my whole being shifted and I got to work. The more I worked, the more I remembered, and soon I was setting up plates for the dessert tasting, plating salads and goat cheese brulées and carpaccio and on menu desserts like nobody’s business. Three hours flew by like three minutes – a total blast.

There was one minute in the Pantry when my leader side kicked in – Emily joined us to see what she could do to help, and my too quick response was that we had it handled – after all, I had just devised a system that worked, now that I knew what was going on. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I stopped, apologized and reminded myself to take a step back. I was a guest in this kitchen, albeit one that was adding some value, but I was by no means running the show. I silently patted myself on the back for being self-aware.

Fernando disappeared for a bit to help with dishes and a special order came in. I checked with chef Ron who told me what to do, and went to task. Upon completion, I asked him “do you want to see my work, or do you trust me?” to which he replied, “both”. I ended up replating both of my creations and learning some additional squeeze bottle technique in the process. I also offered to purchase some new ones for him as my parting gift. He smiled.

At this juncture he and I began a long conversation about the kitchen and its staff. I asked him if, after watching me in action for four days, I was hiring material. His reply took me by surprise.

“I would hire you after a month”, he said. I thought, a month? But then he expanded on this statement – he pointed to person after person in the kitchen and informed me that this person was here for four months, this person for six, another longer, before he hired them. Of all the people in the kitchen, only one was hired on the spot, but I promised chef-chef confidentiality and cannot disclose that information. Of course, that month would qualify me to work only one station, but I was taking that response to the bank!
The more I talk to Chef Ron, the deeper grows my respect for his leadership abilities and culinary capabilities. Seemingly quiet and withdrawn on first impression, he is focused, aware, and driven with a goal of consistent perfection. I am looking forward to four more days of being under his tutelage.

For a Monday night, we were slammed, compounded by Chef Bernard’s early morning TV segment mentioning Lobster Night – an example of positive PR fallout. I learned after my conversation with Chef Ron that Fernando had told him without me, he would have gone under and that gave me a moment of culinary pride. I added value! It made the fact that it was now near 11 at night and I was wiped less exhausting. I finished cleaning up and wrapping product, took off my baseball cap and headed for home. Tuesday would come quickly, and with that a new station – Plates. Rubber, meet road.

Day 5. No Rubber. No Road.

On arrival Tuesday for my new station experience, it quickly became apparent that it was not to be. Allow me to explain. Tuesday is Chef Ron’s night off from the kitchen and so the line was managed by rock stars Amanda and Robin. Culinary extern Lawrence, who had been vying for a permanent position since the end of his externship, was glued to Robin’s hip, which left no room for me on Plates.

As a result, I found myself offering my free hands to anyone that would take them, and spent the next hour and a half washing five types of baby greens for the salad bundles served with the goat cheese brulée, shaving 20 black truffles, using the slicer for watermelon radish, restocking the pantry with Emily, and practicing the art of plate painting. Needless to say, I was not feeling challenged.

Service started unceremoniously, and the kitchen ran smoothly, per usual. About 8pm, I stepped away from Pantry and watched Robin in action at the Plates station, Lawrence having been dispatched to begin prep for the next day’s Bastille Day special menu, offered both the 13th and 14th. Robin self-deprecatingly commented that her culinary career was to microwave, given the technique the kitchen used for firing its starches, but in actuality, it was an interesting process. Tickets would come in, and Robin would fire the appropriate starch – rice, potato, quinoa – place it on the correct dinner plate, bring it to the hot line and place in their warming oven while the hot line prepared the protein. Then she would return to the station. Hot line would bring the now heated plate with the protein and starch to Line 1, where Robin and Amanda would finish the plate with various vegetables, garnishes and sauces. Plates were handed through the window to the expeditor, who would finish with more garnishes, then call the table runner and off that tray would go. A well-oiled machine, and one, on this night, that did not need my squeaky wheel.

Chef Bernard made a brief appearance, promised me one on one time before my departure, and was gone to the dining room to spend time with the General Manager and his entourage. After declining the offer to do the prep for chocolate crème brulée (not that I’m not a team player, but I was not there to do what I can do in my sleep), I found myself leaving at 9:30 for home, promising myself that Wednesday evening would be a different story entirely.

Day 6. Promise kept.

Arriving in the kitchen at 2:45 for my appointed 3pm start (yes, I couldn’t wait to get there, despite the perfectly glorious southern California day), I was greeted by Amanda, Emily and Chef Ron, all in start up mode for what the evening’s menu had to offer. For this evening and the following, the restaurant was offering a special menu in honor of Bastille Day, so Chef Ron was doing the culinary equivalent of pampering the sauce for the bouillabaisse and I was introduced to a new squash, Ronde de Nice, basically heirloom green round baby zucchini. Chef Ron showed me his prep plan for them – top removed and saved for presentation, inside flesh carefully scooped out with a melon baller, flesh reserved for potential use with filling mixture of beluga lentils, seasoned, slow roasted and filled.

As mentioned earlier, I was being sacrificed to Robin on Plates this evening (or was she being sacrificed to me? You’ll have to ask her) and when she arrived, my letter of condolence received and read, we went to work. Actually, our exchange went more like this:

Laura: I’m being glued to you tonight. Just let me know if you need me to get out of the way.
Robin: (Laughing – she laughs quite a bit) No problem. Let’s see what Chef needs.

And that was that – we started cooking – and I mean, cooking! Up to this point I had done some minor heat application, but nothing from start to finish. So, over the next hour, I caramelized onions, pureed them with cream and created the flavoring base for the hazelnut potatoes (I received a “perfect” from Robin when she tasted the puree). From there I scaled the recipe for the cornbread (1 cup flour, 8 oz butter for roux, 1⁄2 gallon cream to create béchamel with about 2 T turmeric for color, plus 1 cup corn muffin mix, #10 canned corn, 1⁄4 cup sugar, 1⁄2 cup chopped black truffles, hefty dose of truffle oil, salt and pepper, 5 egg yolks, 5 whole eggs), made the roux, the béchamel, combined the rest of the ingredients and then got to play with toys. In this case, the world’s largest burr mixer (also known as an immersion blender, assuming yours came from Toys R Us) as this was akin to the jackhammers you find in use on street repair. Apparently, this particular recipe required the heavy artillery to ensure the proper smoothness of the batter. Would have loved to put this baby into action on the pain d’epices that first day….

Portioned the batter for the corn cakes, into the oven and onto my next task, the Ronde de Nice. I cooked off the vegetable’s flesh, lightly seasoned, and pureed it in the Robot Coupe (note to Reader, please buy me one for my next birthday, as this is the one kitchen toy I have always coveted – well, that and a VitaMix… oh, and if you’re shopping, I’ll take the jackhammer like Burr mixer, too.) I blended the flesh with about half of the beluga lentils, seasoned with a little truffle oil and began to fill the squash per Chef Ron’s meticulous direction. I created my own methodology and soon had them filled, topped and ready for inspection. I found myself challenging any diagnosed OCD individual with my own laser like inspection before I placed them before Chef; such was my desire to manifest my ability for perfection. Result – SCORE! No requests for improvement.

Robin was starting to move a little quicker, preparing things for service, and when a few tickets popped in a little early that required her attention, I quickly stepped in and finished portioning potatoes, osso bucco garnishes and general clean up. We both have an innate talent for having exactly the right number of portion cups to fill, and talked briefly about how that is a general gauge to confirm you are in the right profession.

Chef Ron asked to see me. Uh oh. I quickly looked around to see if I had created any disasters, and not finding any, I met him in his “office”. Talk about an open door policy – his office was a swivel chair tucked under a long counter near the door to the dining room by the phone. He wanted to review the cooking class we were teaching the following evening. I say we, because he said we. A Bastille Day menu, this hands on class needed to have some items pulled and ready to pack for tomorrow. Given that I live and breathe this process professionally, it took me about 8 minutes to get everything together, wrapped, ready and stored where it wouldn’t be disturbed.

Service started and I observed Robin at work, a process that I have already described. Not wishing to get in the way of her flow, I found myself working anywhere in the kitchen I was needed. In any given moment you could find me plating Sea Trios, Oysters, Shrimp/Scallop (yes, another plating feather in my cap – microgreens, pain d’epices, preserved kumquat garnish, lemongrass foam), dicing ahi and slicing lobster for the Sea Trio, plating desserts, prepping artichokes, whatever was needed. I felt at home.

At the end of service, I had another long conversation with Chef Ron. Truth be told, I am going to miss working with him when I leave. He asked me what I had learned thus far, and after ticking off a few of the items I had cooked, and jokingly mentioning that I knew where to find things, he asked me what I had learned conceptually. Since my arrival, I shared that I observed the emphasis on perfection. That I had wiped and rewiped plates when my squeeze bottles exploded. That no beluga lentil would be on the outside of a ronde de Nice. That there was no room for interpretation if it meant “good enough”, since that is never enough. That I could tell who would make it and who wouldn’t. This last comment began a longer conversation on the types of personalities that make up his kitchen, what life was like before he got there and how things had transitioned since.

Given that I had been thrust into this man’s life only six days earlier, but feeling slightly more confident now than then, I asked him what he truly saw of me.

Unbeknownst to him, I was slightly unnerved by my own questions. After all, while we love feedback when we know it will be good, putting yourself out there really can put you on edge. Chef Ron summed it up in one word. “Laura, you have finesse. That is something innate, it can’t be taught. Anyone can learn to cook, but to have initiative and finesse, you’re born with it. On the first night, when I saw your lines on the Sea Trio and asked Amanda who did it and she said you, I knew you had it.”

My spine shivered with joy. If there were only one word, that would be the one, as “finesse” sums up the one intangible that makes great food superlative, turns service into hospitality, creates memories for life. With two more days to go, I already knew my experience was complete, my professional development objectives met for this party of my personal journey.

Day 8. Chef Bernard. Butchery. Chef Bernard.

Before I write about my final day at The Marine Room, you may already be asking if I don’t know how to count after all. Day 7? She didn’t write about Day 7! (I appreciate your capitalization of Day, by the way).

Day 7 was spent preparing for a cooking class led by Chef Ron at a local cooking school in honor of Bastille Day. Recipes from the award-winning cookbook, Flying Pans, co
written by Chefs Bernard and Ron, were to be used, giving the students a modern twist on classical French cuisine. Given that I teach weekly, I was completely in my comfort zone this entire day – the only challenge was it was not my class to lead, but I found even that no problem after a week of giving up control. Chef Bernard joined us in time to finish the dishes, give us the stories behind them (his grandmother was quite prolific in her cooking apparently), and ensure each student was star struck. I gracefully departed while they were signing cookbooks. Great class, wonderful people, delicious cuisine.

Which brings me to Day 8. Writing about Day 8 signals the end of my experience at The Marine Room, but what an intensely thought provoking day it was. Asked to arrive by 8 to meet Felix, I was to spend the entire day butchering proteins, preparing Family Meal, starting sauces and other ancillary items needed by the line cooks and chefs during service. Much to my surprise, Chef Bernard was entering the kitchen moments before me. He turned and said, “I know we were to meet at 3:30, but my day gets crazy as you know, so thought we would get together now. Let’s get some tea, “ and so I abandoned Felix and followed Chef to the dining room.

What I thought would be a 15-30 minute debrief of my experience turned into a three hour conversation that spanned decades as Chef Bernard answered each of my questions with unfiltered authenticity and unbridled passion. While I have barely nudged the surface of accomplishment this man has achieved in his 30 years of cuisine, I consistently appreciated the parallels in our approach to life, to food, to work ethic. While no longer star struck myself, I still questioned why he would take this time to spend with me, to open his kitchen to me, to create the space for me. I finally asked.

Similar to my experience with Chef Ron, I found myself holding my breath. Again, I found the answer surprising. Chef told me it was my original email introduction. The way it was written told him something innate about me. As a result, he did a little research on me, and replied with an invitation.

Our conversation continued in many directions, and before I knew it, it was 11am, he was needed elsewhere and Felix was experiencing just another day at the office, given that I wasn’t there to torture him. Chef Bernard and I said our goodbyes, with a brief appointment to reconnect briefly at 3 for odds and ends, and I went to work with Felix.

Organized to a “T”, Felix shared what was remaining on his prep list and we got to work. Over the next three and a half hours I cleaned veal butt, venison and elk, all new to me, but similar to beef tenderloin, so not difficult. However, one should understand that not just anyone could handle the raw proteins. As one of the most expensive items in the kitchen, mishandling proteins raises food costs and can send any commercial kitchen spiraling. I handled these as I would my own, challenging myself to have as little loss as possible. Felix was pleased.

I also prepared the chicken. Each breast had a small bone still attached (we call this an airline breast, lovely for presentation) that needed to be chopped off, then cleaned around the bone. Taking care to ensure my fingers were never in harm’s way, I channeled my inner Attila the Hun. Quite therapeutic, by the way.

During Felix’s break, I prepared all the fruit for family meal. Upon his return, I prepared the oyster appetizers – steamed spinach leaves wrapped around oysters with a scallop mousse. Chef Bernard popped back in while I was doing this and mentioned this was another recipe of his grandmother’s. At this point, I decided that the next time someone asked if I could meet anyone living or dead, I would choose Chef Bernard’s grandmother. Perhaps this would elevate me to his levels of achievement.

The next thing I knew, it was nearly 3 and the evening team was entering the kitchen. Accursio, Amanda, Robin, Lawrence, Carlos, Fernando … and I was done for the day. And then it hit me – I was done. I didn’t want to go. But it was quickly apparent the only person having this moment was me, so I found Chef Ron and told him I was heading out, promising (threatening?) to return the next evening, but this time as a guest in the dining room.

Chef Ron: How long has it been? 8 days?
Laura: Yes, Chef.
Chef Ron: That went pretty quickly.
Laura: I know, Chef. I guess that means it wasn’t torture. When time drags, then you have a problem.
Chef Ron: No, this was good. (and already thinking about that evening’s service) See you tomorrow.

I removed my apron for the last time, and my baseball cap, and headed up to Chef Bernard’s office. Again expecting a brief meeting, we spent the next two hours together, continuing our earlier conversation and getting a complete tour of the entire operation – the Beach and Tennis Club, the hotel, and all of its amenities. Introducing me everywhere we went, it was apparent that this is an Executive Chef who has earned every ounce of respect possible by each of his chefs, their staffs, and the guests.
Notable as well was Chef Bernard’s respect for me and what I have accomplished in my brief tenure as a professional chef. For me, it only reconfirmed my choice to follow this path and see where it will take me.

The lesson I have learned since choosing to attend culinary school continues to present itself: One can be a leader and be led – in my case, the path presents itself and leads me. My responsibility it to be aware of the opportunity, and open to taking it. What we create with our hands, begins in our hearts, and it is that which we put on the plate. As Chef Bernard and I both said earlier, life is short- we need to live it, taste it and savor it.

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