From the moment I get to the restaurant at 7Am to the moment I leave at 11PM there is noise. The endless clanging of huge copper pots and pans being carried up the stairs to the main kitchen, the bubbling of our rich veal stock on the stove, the sharpening of knives, the slicing and dicing of every sort of vegetable.
Then of course there's me in the corner at the viande station cleaving apart game while my boss hacks apart sides of veal. It's like a symphony with each section contributing their own specialized music.
When you cook in France you learn to cook with your ears. As I'm filleting pigeon at my cutting board I'm also listening to the jus simmering on the stove or my steaks sear that I'm preparing for the staff lunch. Of course we use our other senses too, but our ears are extremely important. When you stop to hear your food sizzling on the stove – that's when you know you've messed something up.
But the real show – the real symphony – takes place during service time. In traditional French kitchens all the orders are called out by the executive chef for the whole kitchen to hear. Then each dish as it is "réclamer" (order up!) is called out. For each menu and each plate ordered the kitchen shouts out: "Oui monsieur!" to confirm that it has has been registered. I often feel like I'm in a Southern Baptist Church with all the call and response.
Chef: "Cote de veau rosé réclamé!"
Viande Sation: "Oui Monsieur!"
Chef: "Menu prestige: l'etrille, St. Jaques, hommard, sabayon caviar, soupe artichaut, pigeon saignant!"
Entire Kitchen: "Oui Monsieur!"
Every once and awhile some one doesn't respond and then the executive chefs get really ticked off. I often hear the chefs yell to one of the young commis when he forgets: "Repondez Marius! Repondez!!!" to which he quickly answers "Oui monsieur!" for fear of being assigned unwanted tasks like 'la raclette' – scrubbing the entire kitchen after service is finished.
It is this call and response that drives our 3-star machine through the fourteen hour day. When I feel like I'm going to die of exhaustion before dinner service, it is the rhythm of the calling that revives me and gets my adrenaline pumping to make it through. I often complain that we don't use computers like all restaurants do in the U.S. because it's difficult for me to understand the orders since they are in French.
Sometimes the chef's yell too quickly and I hear "deux pigeons" instead of "Un pigeon" or other similar mistakes that drive my boss crazy:
Boss: "One pigeon Amy! One pigeon – it's menu prestige not carte!"
Amy: "Well, if you had a friggin' computer system here – like everyone else in the world – I wouldn't make these mistakes!"
Boss: "Listen Amy! Ecoute, huh?!!!"
Amy: "I am listening! I can't understand your friggin' language!"
Oh how I wish my French teacher in High School taught orally instead of visually! But then there are these rare moments of silence in the kitchen. Sometimes after an extreme cacophony of shouting and cooking and clanging there are these bizzare moments of peace. I like these moments. They are few and far between and momentarily relaxing. It is in these moments that I realize how our machine is like a fine tuned engine able to quickly speed up or halt to a screeching stop in seconds flat.
The hardest part about the call and response method is memorizing the orders. We have very loooooong menus at the restaurant (that take several hours for the customers to eat!) and there are often many changes to the normal tasting menus. When an order is 'reclamer' it should already be cooked. For instance, if a leg of lamb is 'reclamer' then it should be ready to be presented tableside and carved.
The hardest part is knowing when in the different menus to cook the different items and keeping them all in your head. C'est difficile! I haven't been able to manage this one yet because half the time the orders sound like mush to me. Thankfully my boss is able to memorize everything so I just rely on him to tell me what to cook and when.
Perhaps those of us that enjoy cooking under pressure listen to a different drummer, but in this Parisian restaurant we each contribute our own music to make something that I know Mozart would be proud of...
Chef: "Ris de veau reclamé!"
Amy: "Oui monsieur!"