So much for Semper Fi do or die!
I'm spending my first day at my new position as Chef de Partie staring at the ceiling, flat on my back, sick in bed. How do you like them apples? This is such a bad joke, it's not even worthy of a three tap drum roll.
Despite the onset of ma crève yesterday I ironed my chef's jacket and my chef's pants too laying them aside for a quick morning exit. I even trekked out in the rain to the 14th arrondissement to get all my knives sharpened.
My knife guy does everyone's couteaux in Paris including the staff at Hotel Crillon and Le Meurice. He grinds many a galley cook's knives to razor sharp precision – and he'll be happy to do yours too. (address at the bottom of post). It's a lot of fun to see his enormous five foot grinding wheel turning while he holds the blades against it, sparks flying everywhere.
Every time I go he tells me to be careful with my freshly sharpened knives. And every time without fail I slice one of my ten doigts without even noticing it. That's how crazy sharp they are. You don't know you're cut until blood gushes everywhere and you realize it's your blood that's making the mess. The nice thing about smooth cuts (as opposed to cuts from serrated knives) is that you really don't even feel them. Until you start cooking...
I had my first chef's knife professionally sharpened twelve years ago while working at Ristorante Ecco in San Francisco. I was so darned proud of that knife. It was a beautiful enormous Wüsthof chef's knife (Global who?) I didn't have a satchel of knives like other cooks, just had that one German workhorse and at a whopping $64, it was all I could afford. In hindsight it was too long and heavy for me, but I didn't care. I just loved the weight of it in my hand and the power it wielded.
After a month at the Garde Manger station my trusty steed began to dull past the point of a sharpening rod's aid. Since everyone's knives were dull he Head Chef, Wendy, called the knife man to come in and grind all of our blades. She warned me that my knife would be very, very sharp afterwards.
Yeah, okay, thanks for the tip Chef.
Slicing beefy red tomatoes horizontally into rounds, I noticed a burgundy color juice running all over the cutting board. I thought it was the tomato. Nope, it was my finger squirting blood everywhere. I unknowingly swiped the inside of my left index finger, which was holding the tomato steady, with my right hand and the tip of my knife across the inside bone joint down to my finger's base.
I should have gone to the hospital for stitches right then and there. The cut was deep tearing across the bleeding wouldn't stop. Wendy came over with wads of papers towels holding them around my finger applying pressure in between my deep gulps for air. We bandaged it tightly and put a finger condom on it. The clock struck 6 – time for dinner service to start.
The restaurant turned out 60 covers a night, with a bare bones kitchen brigade of four cooks. There were no stagiers or apprentis dying to take over and prove their worth. There was no Grand Chef standing at the pass cleaning plates and calling out orders to step in. The Head Chef was also the meat & fish cook and the Sous Chef was also the pasta & vegetable cook. I was the garde manger and pastry cook and there was one pizza guy. And that was that.
I made some beautiful insalatas at Ristorante Ecco: spicy rocket salad with sweet fennel ribbons, bitter endive, peppery radicccio and sliced pears tossed in a tart champagne vinaigrette and garnished with a crisp lacy cheese wafer. Or, my favorite, the baby spinach salad with roasted beets (gold, pink, and crimson) and smoked trout mixed with an aged balsamic dressing. Not to mention our signature Ceasar salad and the butter lettuce with tarragon starter.
But, mixing those salads required the use of bare hands. Each ingredient was dressed separately and then added artistically together on the plate. And plastic gloves weren't very popular back then – they certainly weren't practical in the kitchen in any case. Think about it, you would have to change your gloves every time the different beets were dressed in order to keep the juice from staining the shaved fennel or pears. Who has time for that nonsense?
Orders flew in like witches gathering for winter solstice and I was out of my mind trying to get cold entrées finished in time before the dessert orders started up. Whipping together salads in record speed, I felt my index finger bitterly stinging. I looked down in horror to discover that both the bandaid and the finger condom were missing.
Waitresses grabbed salads off the ledge of my station before I had a chance to delicately poke through them. And more servers ran back yelling: "Where's table 5? Where's table 7?".
I frantically turned back to the salads I was preparing searching for any remnants of plastic, but none was to be found. I spent that whole night in fear that sooner or later a customer was going to chew my bloody bandages, report it to the server, who in turn would tell the head chef, who would then fire me on the spot.
Luckily for me nothing happened. I would hate to think that a client ate the bandage and the finger condom. I dunno, maybe they mistook it for calamari? It must have been awfully chewy. Hopefully it magically found its way to the garbage can, but I still can't be positive. My finger eventually healed although it took a good long month and I still have the fine white scar to remind me. But, at least it's a neat bulging line and not some jagged saber tooth monstrosity.
Don't worry, that was a good long time ago and one of my first real cooking jobs. I would never do that to your food today. Never!
So, tomorrow I intend to start my new position assuming my fever comes down, my throat isn't blistery, and my head stops threatening to explode. Luckily for me, they only laughed when I called at 7 A.M. to say "I'm sick". They told me not to worry and that my post will still be waiting for me.
Did you want that knife guy's address in Paris?
Affutage & Reargenture
161 Rue D'Alésia
Metro: Plaisance, line 13
Tel: 01 45 42 39 67 (you must call in advance to make sure he's not on assignment)
P.S. If you tell him that "Amy the American" sent you he'll be happy. I don't know if it will get you a discount, but I told him I'd mention him on my website. He asked me to send my friends ;-)