Thursday, July 24, 2008
Work and school: The how and the why
scallops at Le Pigeon*
I'll be honest: If you asked me in March if I thought I'd be working in a restaurant kitchen in a few months time, I'd have told you, "You so crazy." In fact, four months ago, the thought of working in any professional kitchen, not to mention that of a high-end restaurant, frankly scared the shit out of me. Even starting culinary school and being surrounded by the endlessness of stainless steel was highly intimidating. I couldn't imagine how we'd get to the point where we would be cooking for the public in the open kitchen of the OCI restaurant (which is coming up for me in a few weeks).
Funnily enough, one of the most surprising things about my new job is how comfortable I feel in the kitchen, putting out food for which people are paying not a little money. I have a desire to know more, to get better, to get faster, to hone my skills. I've been bitten by the bug, as Chef Wilke put it, and it just keeps spreading.
With everything that I'm learning at work, I'll admit that it's crossed my mind to quit school altogether and focus entirely on with my job. I mean, what's the point of being in school if I'm learning so much AND getting paid to do it, right?
I've been pondering this quite a bit, and as we're nearing the end of Term 2 at OCI, I find myself wandering the hallways at school and thinking, "I can't leave this. I'd be missing way too much." School and work are symbiotic; both are feeding off the other, and both are helping to narrow my focus a lot. I thought it might be the reverse, where I'd be spreading myself way too thin, but work and school together has only made me that much more driven.
It really comes down to this: I learn how to do things at work, but I learn why I do those things at school.
Don't get me wrong; my chefs and coworkers at my restaurant are wicked smart and highly knowledgeable, and most of them didn't go to culinary school. The combined experience of the 10 or so people in the back of the house is kind of staggering. But as a rookie with very little formal kitchen experience, I find there are definitely times where I feel happy that I did my reading homework about varieties of heat transfer or the properties of salt or mollusk physiology. I'm shucking oysters at work, but only after we discussed shellfish anatomy in lecture did I begin to think, 'Maybe I should be cutting out the abductor muscle on the larger oysters to make it a more pleasant eating experience.'
Thanks to school, when I'm plating a dish at work and it tastes funny or looks wrong, I'm better at intuiting what needs to be done. I don't always get it right, but I feel more comfortable making decisions. More height, more salt, more vinegar, more color: all those things didn't mean jack to me before we filled out the endless amounts of recipe analysis sheets in Term 1. On these sheets, we were to describe every minute detail of every element of a dish. What is the sugar's purpose in the vinaigrette? What texture does a radish have in a salad? What color does the asparagus lend to the soup? Does the lettuce add height?
At the same time, because of work, my school sensibilities are changing. The idea that we're selling food for money is smacking me pretty hard in the face now that I'm working in a "real world" setting. It's not enough to make food that makes someone say, "I'd eat that." It has to be "I'd shell out my hard-earned money to eat that" (bonus points for "on a regular basis"). It's the difference between home cooking and professional cooking, and that difference only hit me when I set foot into the restaurant I work at now. Every time I put up a plate to sell, I make sure it's something I would pay the money we charge for it. It might sound a bit crass, but it is an industry and it's how we make a living. We have fun and feel passion for it too, and I think that translates in the food.
Because I have the roots for those real-worldy business sensibilities now, I find that I approach plating dishes at school from an entirely different perspective. It can't just be pretty... it has to be appealing; appetite-whetting, if you will. Something that stops you in your tracks and makes you think, 'Wow, this is beautiful/different/interesting.' And for crap's sake, it has to taste good.
It's a fine balance, but I feel I'm doing pretty well, considering the hours and the circumstances. I hope it only continues to get better.
*I don't work at Le Pigeon; I am, however, very fond of their food.