A Fork in the Road

The fork changed my road, literally.

The fork changed my road, literally.

 

“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”

-Laurie Colwin

 

It’s April 2007, a month before my 21st bday. A coming of age as some would say, or the beginning of the end, depending on how you look at it. I’m breezing my way through community college, acing mentally taxing classes like biology 101, math for liberal arts and of course the classic GPA boosters philosophy and anthropology. I’m riding my parents dollar with no shame but my 21st summer is just around the corner and I’m going to need to pick up a summer fling to pay my bar tabs. Craigslist is the first viable option. You didn’t actually think I was going to run around dropping off resumes and filling out applications, right? Retail positions are a tough summer gig where I’m from. Boulder, Colorado is a college town and a large population of the customers for any store that would hire me goes home during the sunny months. Hmm, what about a restaurant? That sounds pretty cool I guess. Never worked in one and I hear servers walk out with a handful of cash after a busy night of walking around with plates of food. That’s the type of gig I can handle. I actually score a couple of interviews for busser positions (apparently I have to be able to clear a tables dishes before I can competently write down a customers order, enter it into a computer and then run a plate of food back to said table). Disclaimer: If you work the front of the house and are thinking “Hey! I work really hard asshole, don’t patronize my job!” Let’s get one thing straight: You don’t actually have to make anything. I understand you put up with extremely disagreeable persons from time to time, but lets not act like everyone doesn’t know that cooks work harder and get paid less. I’m not complaining. I chose my road fair and square but speaking your mind is a basic human right and plus, it makes me feel cool.

None of my front of house attempts go anywhere. Maybe it’s my total lack of experience or maybe it’s just that obvious that I’m more a swashbuckling pirate than a tea-and-crumpets-serving butler (Ok really, I’m done with the jabs at servers. Many of my closest friends play on that side of the same chess board. Truth be told I have a ton of respect anyone that takes their job seriously, no matter what it is). Eventually I’m looking for anything and had actually forgotten about a call I placed to a local restaurant called The Red Lion. It’s location is just outside of town, a bit up the canyon and into the mountains. They serve a German-influenced continental game menu. The property is simply stunning; the building used to be an inn and they now house large events (specializing in weddings) on their multi-acre location that borders Boulder Creek with amazing views all around. While most of Boulder remains relatively quiet during summer, The Red Lion heads into its wedding season, beginning with a Mother’s Day that was my first look into how truly hectic a busy restaurant can really become.

The restaurant’s sous chef, Arthur calls me one day and tells me to come in for an interview. The job is the glorious position of dish washer. I actually put on a nice shirt before driving up that day. An action that years later is actually quite comical in my opinion. Or perhaps it was a small sign of how serious the kitchen life would become for me. When I arrive it is the head chef, Rudi who greets me. It’s 10 am and since the restaurant only serves dinner, he is the only employee present. Rudi is a bear of a man. So typically a European head chef that you if you think about it for one second, you have probably imagined the man almost exactly. A belly large and round from the many years animal fat and carbs and a mustache that lacks only a bit of wax to curl the ends. He’s not the one who left me a message and I know this immediately upon his first words to me, a Swiss accent as thick as the restaurants buttery sauces I will one day be I charge of: “So you’re Nick huh? Ok, let me show you around”. I expected something so much more formal. An interview, a waiting period, a call back if I had gotten the job. After a brief tour of the kitchen and dining area he turns so me. “So if your interested, come in on Monday and we’ll get you started.” Wow? Did I really get a job just like that!? “Of course, yes, I’d love to. Monday it is!”

I leave the restaurant giddy yet completely ignorant of what I have actually gotten myself into. I have not the slightest clue of what kitchen life is. Sure I’ve helped with dishes after thanksgiving dinner but in this brief moment in time, I have fully transformed my fate. A fate that does not follow a straight line, yet a destination has still been formed which will take years to realize, if you could even say that it has been yet realized.

This is me. Not really, but it's pretty much how I felt during my first moments in the kitchen.

This is me. Not really, but it’s pretty much how I felt during my first moments in the kitchen.

Monday comes and the sous chef mentioned earlier shows me to the locker room. There aren’t any actual lockers in this room, it’s more of a closet where cooks and servers alike grumble about the day ahead or the night that has passed while suiting up or down like athletes before the big game. I change into a garb so classic that it’s first donning surely had something to do with the kitchen’s initial impression upon my life. Black and white checkered pants, and a white chef’s coat that I can just tell needs the sleeves rolled half way up. I go look in the mirror and there he is: a 20 year old kid facing his first day in the kitchen. I’m nothing more that a dishwasher but the uniform is transforming. I look cool, I think to myself. I feel cool, even. When I walk downstairs and arrive, for the first of many times into The Red Lion kitchen, I look around. Line cooks, prep cooks and other dishwashers are already busily preparing for the day. I immediately realize: Wow, they’re all dressed like me. And for the first time I felt it, I’m a part of something. I’m one of these guys now! Little did I know it, but in this small moment in time, there was no turning back, I had had officially crossed over to the chef life, well, at least, until the numbers end.

Out of the Oven and into the Frying Pan

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“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
-Julia Child

Turns out my fate was more or less sealed before I had even left the kitchen on Friday. Monday’s so called “meeting” was simply filling out tax forms and briefly going over the employee handbook. Pretty straight forward and nothing new to anyone who’s ever gotten a job. I am given an apron, a hat and two very nice chef coats. The nicest coats I’ve ever been handed by far and fitting for the establishment and team I am now a part of. Chef Adrian says I start on Thursday but I’m free to come in and stage any day before then. He does however recommend that I “get some sun” before I begin. We share a slightly awkward oh-I-wish-that-was-a-joke chuckle. I will also be meeting Chef Johnny, who will be the new CDC, short for “chef de cuisine”. For the uninitiated, a quick break down of kitchen ranks are as follows: There is the head chef who in this case is Michael Tusk. The restaurant is his. His cuisine, his concept and ultimately, his name on the line with every dish that leaves the kitchen. Then there is the chef de cuisine. The CDC is charged with being the head chef’s right hand man. They are responsible for everything that happens in the kitchen and are the chefs eyes, ears and really even his arms and legs while they are not present. Under the CDC are the sous chefs. They are extension of the chef de cuisine and roam the kitchen with similar powers of making sure everything is up to standard as well as pulling people out of the weeds as necessary. When a cook, also known as a “chef de partie” (or anyone, really), is far behind on prep or on sending out dishes during service, they are said to be “in the weeds” or “in the shits”. This is a very terrible position to be in and depending on the severity, it can seem like all hope is lost and that your entire existence is literally at its lowest point since your conception. This is not an exaggeration by any means. Chef de parties are the ones who work the line; they are the people actually cooking and are the first line of defense against the inevitable barrage of tickets that descend upon the kitchen every night without mercy. Under a chef de partie are the commis or prep cooks. These individuals usually perform the task of preparing what is necessary for a chef de partie’s station during service. There are many different positions and variations upon a lot of what I have just described but this is a basic overview on what is called the “brigade system”. It’s development is credited to Auguste Escoffier, who initially implemented the structure based on his experience in the military. Feel free to google him at your leisure.

Toward the end of our meeting, Chef Johnny comes over and introduces himself. Of course I expect that he’s going to be good at what he does but I’m not entirely prepared for yet another “wow I work with these people” moment. As soon as we meet, I immediately think to myself, I know this guy. How? I realize he is in one of my favorite food documentaries entitled: A Matter of Taste. The movie follows Chef Paul Liebrant during the highs and lows of his career. From serving burgers and being a liquor sales rep to receiving two Michelin stars at his famous New York City restaurant, Corton. Chef Johnny happens to be in my favorite scene: A very young Chef Johnny is moving slowly and appears to be hungover if not absent from the kitchen. Chef Paul approaches him and explains that everyday, one must come in with the attitude of being better, attempting to be faster and more precise with everything they do. This is the only way to become great. It is a very inspiring scene and I can tell that Chef Johnny took the words to heart as he has come a long way not only across the country but will now be running a very prestigious San Francisco kitchen. Once again I leave Quince feeling great and this time I allow a little celebratory fist pump as I exit the building. This is going to be great! I don’t care if I get my ass kicked every day, what an awesome opportunity! One must be careful what one wishes for.

The saying goes out of the oven and into the frying pan. If this is the case for me, then the frying pan I am about to enter has been waiting on the eye of the stove, with blisteringly hot oil ready to immediately sear the flesh of anything to contact its surface. I arrive full of energy, bright eyed and bushy tailed and prepared to take on the day. As I’m tying my apron, I look into the mirror. Everything is fresh as newly arrived produce. But like that crisply clean produce that will soon give itself to the knife and eventually the flame, I can taste a hint of the nervousness that I collided with while cutting onions as my first task while a stage only a week before. A gulp of coffee chases the shot of fear I have needlessly poured for myself. All my friends and family are in my corner, cheering me on proudly. But none of them are here now and it is only I that can conquer the path that has been set before me, myself and a small bag of knives.

Tough Kid Fruit

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“When you were young, you called grapefruit ‘tough kid fruit’ because I said you were a tough kid to eat it.”

 

I probably should have eaten several grapefruits before my second day as a Quince stage. I settle for eggs and toast. I’m a bit less nervous today, but  there is still an anxious edge in my bones. I really want this job and it always takes me a while to get comfortable at a new job. I can be somewhat quiet around new people I don’t know, especially in a professional setting. With a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast under my belt, I feel ready to prove my worth again. When I arrive at Quince, I transform from city soldier into chef extraordinaire and get into the kitchen. I say hello to everyone and find out that I’m working on the fish station with the cook who mainly does the garnishes and sauces for all seafood dishes. My first task is hardly a preseason game: Remove the heads of about 150 spot prawns. I am familiar with the motion as this is what is commonly served as Amaebi or “sweet shrimp” at sushi restaurants. I worked as a sushi chef for over 3 years, so I fear not. The difference this time however is a big one; these guys are still alive. I don’t want to show hesitation so I grab the first shrimp and twist, head one direction and body the other, my right index finger aiding the decapitation with pressure between the tail and head. The sound is as you would imagine, a squishy crunch is how I could describe it. The first few grossed me out a little, I won’t lie. It’s not that I felt bad for the little guys, their fate is certainly sealed. But I am ripping the heads off of living creatures and they do squirm a bit when picked up. Some even jerk enough to fly our of my hand. Pretty soon I’m cruising through the bunch, tossing the heads into one container and the tails into another. The project is completed by a very quick blanch of the tails. Just long enough to barely cook the outside but short enough to retain the reddish orange color on the meat. This also makes removing the shells much easier.

 

The rest of the prep day is fairly boring, a lot of herb picking happens. I washsunchokes and perform other relatively menial tasks that a stage happily performs without complaint. It is during this time that I look around for a moment and confirm this is what I want to be doing and that this is the type of place I want to do it. It’s a gorgeous kitchen, it really is. Traditionally French in style. Tiled walls, copper pots hanging from above. I have never seen such high quality stoves and ovens in my life. Every cook motivated is to perform at the top of their game. While everything seems to be going great, I get put in my place again just before staff meal. I’m picking tarragon that one of the pasta cooks needs to garnish the gnudi dish. He says to only choose nice ones so I carefully pick through the bunches, selecting only the finest and most pristine leaves. He comes over a while later, looks and my progress and gives me a straight forward evaluation: “C’mon man you gotta go way faster than that, I would have been done already and you’ve hardly begun.” He shows me the speed I should be moving and picking at. I apologize and tell him I will finish after staff meal at a much quicker pace. I run into him during our break and say sorry again and he explains that its alright, that there is a fine line between hustling and making it nice. I’m back on the tarragon after break, this time with a different approach. During my next project he stops while walking by and says “nice tarragon, man” with a quick wink and very slight smile. I’m not exactly proud of myself, it took two tries to pick some damn herbs properly, but it does feel good that I was able to take criticism and make an improvement. I start helping set up the area where I’m working and get ready for service.

 

My next big challenge comes right away: Chef Adrian tells me I will be in charge of the caprese salad tonight. “Tonight this is your dish, you are going to execute every single one. They have to be exactly the same and they have to be perfect. Can you handle that?” “Yes of course, Chef.” “Good. I’m going to show you one and then it’s all up to you.” He does a very quick demonstration, leaving his demo behind for me to study. The caprese salad at Quince has all the usual suspects: Tomato, cheese and basil. Only here, the ingredients have been slightly re-worked. When an order comes in, depending small or large, I must select several small heirloom tomatoes of various colors and lightly drizzle then with olive oil, a vinaigrette and a dash of finishing salt. They must then be perfectly placed in a bowl and arranged beautifully with a small opening for the stunning finish. Three mirco basil leaves are then added. I bring this to the pass also know as the expo. This is where the dishes are finalized with sauces and garnishes before the servers bring them to eager customers. The caprese is then completely transformed from an arrangement of seasoned tomatoes and basil leaves into a proper Quince masterpiece. A few drops of basil oil, a basil crisp, tomato crumbles and finally, a delicate scoop of burrata gelato that completes the symphony with absolute beauty.

I can hardly believe I’m making a dish thats going to customers in such a fine restaurant! They must see something good in me, right? While the dish seems simple enough, it must be executed with extreme precision and quick efficiency. I also have to get used to the “call out” system. Rather than waiting for a ticket to come in through a ticket machine, the expo calls out orders and then the cooks must call back the orders. While the order is sometimes called out as a large or small caprese, it is also a part of the “Summer” and “Garden” tasting menus. I must also quickly learn to discern a called in order and a call to a server to bring the dish to a table. I don’t make any mistakes and none of my salads are deemed unworthy. I don’t want to get too confident though, I am only in charge of one single dish which involves zero application of heat. All the real cooks must handle many more responsibilities at any given time.

My final task is again egg-cracking. Two cases this time and I must do a small portion of the whites for our pastry team. One cooks explains to me that for pastry, the whites must be absolutely pristine. I have to wear gloves and handle the eggs with extreme care. I do my best and after I have moved on the regular egg separating, Chef Michael Tusk comes over. “Are these for pastry?” Oh crap, what have I done wrong? “Yes Chef, they are.” His one word response is quite relieving: “Beautiful.” And walks away. “Thank you Chef.” I get right back to work but in my head I think, Boo-yah! Master egg cracker right here! I’m almost done as Chef Adrian comes up to me. “So I want you to stay until the end tonight so you can see how the menu meeting goes, how everything gets shut down, that type of thing. You said you don’t have any other stages set up, right? Good, well don’t make plans to do so.” Although I feel like it is completely not official, I feel a wave of excitement rush over me. I’m still working hard with my game face on, but on the inside I’m dancing around like I’m at some crazy dance club in Europe, swinging my neon shirt around my head and being showered in vodka by half-naked women. Ok, slight exaggeration. Slight.

After everything is closed down, I’ve changed back into my street clothes and am ready to leave. Adrian told me to see him before I left, but he is nowhere to be found. I consider leaving and emailing him. However, I want the job so bad that I’d rather wait by the door and either hope he hasn’t left the building or catch him in the morning on his way in, asleep on the sidewalk with a string tied from the handle to my arm so I wake up when he arrives. That would show some dedication huh? Thankfully thats not necessary as one of the last cooks to leave texts him and he emerges from the office. He brings me inside and asks me similar questions from the night before. “So you’re sure this is a place you want to work? You realize that what you did today was a cake walk compared to actually working here, right?” “Yes Chef, I want to work here really, really bad, I would be so excited for that opportunity.” He explains to me that this place is the real deal. “You gotta bring your A-game every day. You also have to leave your emotions at the door. We’re gonna yell at you, we’re gonna work you hard.” I assure him that “I can handle that, Chef. That’s the type of place I want to be in.” He tells me that its not official, but that he will strongly recommend me as a hire and that as long as Chef Tusk wants to bring another person to the team, he sees no reason why I wouldn’t get the job. “Come in on monday for a meeting, we’ll discuss the details then.” I thank him graciously and head out the door. I still don’t want to throw a ‘Yay I have a job’ party yet, in fact, a party doesn’t even sound like fun. Sleep sounds like fun. I am extremely proud of myself, though. I had moments of doubt, and had just worked around 26 hours for free. Quite the interview in my opinion. I feel like I did well and I worked my ass off. It seems like they at least saw some potential. I tell myself that even if I don’t get the job, I won’t fret and I will take the experience for what it is. My plan is to explore the city over the weekend and try not to think too much about monday’s meeting.

Its past midnight again as I walk toward the metro station. The San Francisco air is cool and calming, the city is quiet. I play my favorite songs on my iPhone and swing my head to the beat, tired legs somehow still full of energy as I travel quickly over steep sidewalks. My body is buzzing with excitement from the last two days. I feel no regrets in my decision to move here and can feel my dreams manifesting with every step. The streets themselves are singing to me: Welcome to the San Francisco chef life!

The Fruit of a Central Asian Tree

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“We’ll have you stage for a couple days to see where your skill level is.”

A “quince” is the fruit of a central Asian tree. It is from the rose family and resembles a hard-fleshed yellow apple. It is also the name of a restaurant in San Francisco. It is run by chef/owner Michael Tusk and since its opening in 2003, it has garnered four stars from the San Francisco chronicle and a one star rating by the coveted Michelin Guide. A few days before I left for the city, I had emailed Chef Michael stating that I had a desire to become a part of his team. Chef Michael is known for his outstanding relationship with local purveyors and I had received a strong recommendation that his kitchen would be an ideal starting point for my endeavors. We set up a meeting to talk. I came in and he told me that I should come in and stage (pronounced “stazhje”) for a couple days so his sous chef could see where my skill level was at. This statement made me a bit nervous so I explained to him that I had no formal training and had never worked in a restaurant of his caliber. He told me that formal training (aka culinary school) didn’t matter and that they would be looking more at they way I worked, took directions, communicated with the cooks, moved in the kitchen, and what type of passion and drive I exhibited. This made me feel much more at ease, as I knew I should be able to impress based on these circumstances. I agreed to come in a couple days later, ready to do whatever it would take to become a part of the Quince team.

I hadn’t worked for quite some time, having spent the last two months traveling around the country, visiting family and friends as well as one last hurrah in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. I knew this opportunity would be as well a challenge because of this. Everything from rusty knife skills to weak “kitchen muscles” would be put to the test. I would not be deterred by this and an incredible amount of motivation and support from my friends poured in when they found out about my chance at this great restaurant.

10 AM. Thursday. Quince restaurant. I had been shown around the restaurant briefly and with knife bag in tow, dressed in uniform, I felt ready. I certainly had a nervous excitement about me but I was confident. One of the prep chefs gave me the task of onion brunoise, which is basically a very fine dice. As I began making my first few cuts, it hit me. Like really hit me. This is it, I gotta kick ass today. I mean really kick ass. For some reason this concept stuck me and I started to lose it. I was sweating, I was practically about to pass out, puke, shit my pants or maybe even all three at once. “It’s just an onion man, you’ve done this so many times.” I couldn’t calm my nerves. I just simply couldn’t. I turned to the girl who had given me the task. “Excuse me, is there a restroom I might use before I begin?”, attempting to hide the sudden wave of terror that had befallen me. “Yes its upstairs right near where the lockers are.” I dashed up and ducked into the sanctuary. As I leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on my face, I looked into my own eyes in the mirror. “What the hell is wrong with you man, this isn’t what we had planned?!” I needed to focus. As in yesterday. If I didn’t get my sorry ass back into the kitchen and chop through those onions like I knew I could, I might as well just pack up my knives and go home. “NO, that isn’t happening. This is why you’re here, this is why you’re in this damn city to begin with”. I didn’t really feel that much better about it, but I forced myself to open the bathroom door and get my butt in gear.

3 PM. Quince restaurant. After my little freak out, everything was going great. Thankfully it was all coming back. The knife skills were still there. I was calling “Behind!” and “Corner!” as if I had never missed a beat. I was about to shuck at least 100 abalone and cut their guts out, totally for free, just to have a chance to work here. It felt great, it felt like home. At around 4 PM we had family meal, which is a staff meal, and I figured they might cut me loose as I would likely not be of any help during service. I had been there for 6 hours and could feel those “kitchen muscles” beginning to grow tired from lack of use. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Chef Adrian, the sous chef, informed me that I would be observing and helping with dinner service. Observing wouldn’t be too difficult, would it? Once again I was completely wrong. Just standing there watching, with so much going on was practically exhausting in it self. I had never seen a kitchen that worked with the pace and intensity of this one. I had never seen the “call out” system with my own eyes. And Chef Aaron, the chef de cuisine? Oh man did he run a tight ship. He rode every single ass in that kitchen, heck in that restaurant, like a do or die situation. And just standing there? Ha, if only. They had me running all over the place like a little monkey on a unicycle at the circus.

11PM. Yup, still here. Supposedly this place closes at 10, but you wouldn’t know it given the fact that orders are still coming in. There is some shutting down going on, but its still a full-on operation. I have been given the extra-fun task of separating egg whites and yolks. A case of such eggs. I believe they are sized at 15 dozen, making 180 eggs. When the task I finally complete, Chef Adrian pulls me aside for a little chat. “Maybe I did so well that they’re going to offer me a job right away! Or maybe I wasn’t good enough and they’re going to thank me for my time but suggest I try another kitchen.” He asks what I’m looking for, what type of work I’ve done so far and if I thought Quince might be a place I’d be interested in working. I try to give all the right answers while also being honest. He tells me they’d like to see me come in the next day, but work on one station the whole time. Kind of a “level 2″ as I take it. He says be there at noon because thats when the cooks normally arrive. I say goodbye to everyone, change into my civilian garb and head home. It’s a little after midnight by the time I’m out the door. 14 hours for my first day back in the kitchen. I am beyond tired. Physically and mentally. My back hurts along with my feet and legs. My freakin’ eyes hurt. I’m not complaining but it was grueling. There were times when I thought, f-it, I’m going back to sushi. Better money, better hours, less heat. But that’s not what I came here for. That’s not what I truly want. I get back to my friends place where I’m staying in the city. I plop down into bead and get ready for round two. As I begin to fall asleep, I laugh a little to myself. “That was fun, give me more. I’m ready.”

We’re All Just Chefs Until The Numbers End

 

 

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“Daddy, when do the numbers end?”

“Honey they never end.”

“I’ll love you until the numbers end.”

 

Hello, chef! My name is Nicholas Tran and I am originally from a little place called Boulder, Colorado. Just a week before my 21st birthday, I was offered a job at a local restaurant called The Red Lion. It was for the dishwasher position. I said to myself, hey, this could be a fun summer job. Little did I know that my life was about to be forever changed and shaped by my experience there. Fast forward a little over 6 years later: I am in San Francisco. No job, nowhere to live and only but a few dollars in my pocket. I am here to become a chef. A real chef. A head chef. The end goal is still many, many years away and I have almost nothing with me except my passion, my drive, my discipline and my dream. Follow me on my quest, from survival to greatness. Because, we’re all just chefs… until the numbers end!