It is much easier to contemplate progress from a distance. In this case a distance of 10,000 miles. Now that I am safe at home in San Francisco I can reflect on my experience thus far cooking for 7 months in Paris at a 3-star restaurant...
I know that if I was to die and go to hell that I would surely wake up in the kitchen of this restaurant. I continue to battle the heat in the kitchen. I am never comfortable even when I'm wearing the lightest of chef's jackets. All the boys pour sweat while cooking and I just swell up and turn red – la petite tomate. The heat can rise anywhere from 80˚ to 100˚ during service. Have you ever tried to think in temperatures that hot?
The long hours which start at 8AM and end at 11:30 PM with an hour and half break in the middle leave me constantly fatigued. The devil himself designed this work schedule, because I know the French and their love of the 35 hour work week, did not. Then there's the twisted idea that one must work 6 days a week to "make up" for vacation time, another sure sign of the devil.
And then there's the militaristic structure of the restaurant. We come on time dressed and ready to work. We work all day with minimal breaks. We endure being yelled at point blank and answer "Oui monsieur" to anything we might be getting yelled at about. There are no excuses for anything – no one cares – if the executive chef tells you you're food tastes horrible you answer "Oui monsieur, excusez-moi monsieur" and you redo it. It doesn't matter if you've been cooking for 1 month or 10 years. C'est comme ça.
So what is it that I love about my job? I know you must be thinking that – as I am thinking that too – after reading what I have just written. I have learned how to cook and I mean really cook. Not just read a recipe, not just grasp techniques, not just butcher small woodland creatures or brunoise carrots or peel potatoes. But I have some how managed to make my way to the fire at the heart of this very traditional French kitchen. Where once I stood nervously around the flames of the stove not wanting to appear novice, now I flick on the fire to it's maximum btu capacity and sizzle away.
When the restaurant is at full capacity and the chef's are calling out the orders and my boss and I running back and forth to the burners and stoves with legs of lamb, ris de veau, poularde, pigeon, veal, pheasant, and filet de beouf and everyone is doing their job and we are all working together to make beautiful food – then I know that I love my work. It is in these moments, that I understand why all the structure is in place and why it is necessary for us to work together 14 hours a day.
We are a family. Kind of like a dysfunctional Partridge family only we make food and not music. And we do love each other. When one of the young women (the only other woman right now) came in with a black eye – which she swore was an accident – we all vowed to kill her boyfriend if we ever saw him. When François, a beloved and well respected Chef de Parti, left to become an executive chef at another restaurant we drank champagne in his honor and begged him to stay.
And sometimes we do extraordinary things for each other. Like making Cassolet for the entire staff for our last meal together before vacation (a two day process) or eating Bouche de Noel baked special from the pastry kitchen. I will never forget drinking Champagne together as a team after our last service with the Famous Chef that owns the restaurant. These are the moments I treasure.
And whenever I get really hot, really fatigued, really upset, and really tired of my extended familly I think to myself, "You are cooking in a 3-star restaurant, they are letting you cook in a 3-star restaurant, they are letting an American non-French speaking woman cook at a 3-star traditional French restaurant ". Then I feel like a spy who has infiltrated the iron curtain of Gastronomy. And that gives me great pleasure.
Some out-takes on the last day before vacation...
We didn't just get to break open the Champagne after our last service. No, we had to clean the whole entire restaurant first and no one could leave or drink champagne until everyone was finished. A huge bummer for me because I started cleaning the day before to ensure that we could leave at a decent hour.
Everything in the restaurant, pots and pans included, are cleaned with the same green colored liquid. I don't know what exactly it's supposed to do, but I question it's ability to truly remove bacteria. So, I brought my own materials: Monsieur Propre (Mr. Clean) and Ajax industrial kitchen cleaner. I used these to clean the meat section of the walk-in refrigerator and all of our small refrigerators, prep areas, and tiled walls.
One of the Executive Chef's (who i adore) walked into the fridge and was so impressed by the sparkle and clean fresh smell that he told my boss he had never seen it like that before. At first I thought I might get in trouble for bringing in my own supplies, but when he asked to borrow my products I was happily surprised. Needless to say the rest of the kitchen asked to borrow my supplies shortly afterward. The whole kitchen smelled spring fresh and shined. Thank you Monsieur Propre and Ajax cleaning products for getting us our glass of champagne quicker!