October 17, 2011.
When I started Sugar Talk, I knew my pastry course was only 20 weeks long, and so I would eventually need to segue into new topics. I figured I could sow the seeds of that transition by occasionally reporting on interesting food-related things other than my pastry course antics. So far in Sugar Talk’s history, that’s happened only once – the infamous Snake Cake. What happened a few nights ago brings us to the second interesting non-pastry course thing since Sugar Talk’s inception.
Setting the stage. If you know me, you know I have a borderline obsessive interest in restaurants, chefs, life working in a restaurant and so on. Through happenstance,Todd and I gave our dilapidated old sailboat to Executive Chef Aaron McCloud and his wife, Angie. During the hand off coordination, Todd told them that I said a condition of getting the sailboat was that I wanted to have a kitchen visit to Chef McCloud’s kitchen at the Inn at Perry Cabin. I wasn’t joking either. When they came to get the sailboat, I chatted with Chef McCloud and he graciously agreed to indulge my request.
So, we arranged for me to come in on Friday, October 14. I figured Chef McCloud would just give me a basic tour, let me observe for a little bit the kitchen (which prepares food for the hotel’s upscale restaurant, the pub and room service) and then send me on my way. And I would have been in hog heaven with that alone. About two days before the planned visit, I received an email from Chef McCloud indicating I should wear a white top and black pants, that he had whites (you know, restaurant lingo for a white jacket) and that I should “bring any tools [I] like to use.” Gah! Was it truly possible I might actually get to work for a little bit in the kitchen? I could barely contain myself.
As requested, I reported at 2:00 p.m. with tools (an odd assortment of knives, microplane, spreader, kitchen scissors – I had no idea what to take) in hand. Next thing I know, after a brief tour through the kitchen, Chef McCloud introduces me to Fabrizio and Kirby and tells me I’ll be working the garde manger station with them. The [guard mahn zhay] station? Really? No way! Wait, what happens at the garde manager station? I know, for someone so “obsessed” with life in a restaurant, how did I not know what this station does? I’m embarrassed. But rather than ask, I slyly Googled it while no one was looking and here’s what I found, courtesy of Wikipedia: Garde manger, meaning “keep to eat” [in French]refers to a cool, well-ventilated area where cold dishes (such as salads, hors d’œuvres, appetizers, canapes, pates and terrines) are prepared and other foods are stored under refrigeration.
Holy moly, I was going to be working the line! Making salads, cold dishes, you can do this, Rachel. However, having no idea what I would actually be doing, I did my best to act confident and follow orders. Kirby and Fabrizio couldn’t have been more kind to and patient with the inexperienced newbie. From about 2:30 p.m. to nearly 6:00 p.m. we completed mis en place: I made balsamic vinaigrette, Caesar dressing and remoulade, made the salad for family meal (restaurant lingo meaning the staff’s meal before service), made “fake ice” which is salt and water turned into a mixture resembling ice slivers and used for plating, learned how to shuck oysters and subsequently shucked a good dozen and a half or so (Friday Night Oyster Night at the pub!), sliced the tomatoes for the tomato salad and kept running back and forth to the various coolers for supplies. This may not sound like much, there was more and I know I’ve forgotten some things, but trust me, I was moving quickly and keeping my head down.
Once the mis en place was done, it was only a few minutes before the first orders starting coming in. Orders coming in involves a piece of paper coming out of a machine that lists what the “cover” (restaurant lingo for diner) has ordered. The paper is divided between the different stations. The garde manger station’s orders are listed first. Fabrizio, or eventually me, would grab the order and put it at our station. There were times we had three or four orders working at once. Kirby had been pulled to another station, so it was Fabrizio and me for most of the dinner service.
After showing me once or twice how to plate the different orders, I was turned loose to work parts of orders on my own. Fabrizio made the duck salad while I prepped and plated the oysters. Or I made a tasting size tomato salad and a fancy pants Caesar salad while he made the oysters Rockefeller. It was wild being in there! Hustling around, reading orders, yelling “Heard!” which is what each station does to confirm receipt of the order, plating the order, having to scrap the order and start over because the damn ticket was for a split order of salad (that only happened once thank God and I promise now I will never order a split or special order in a restaurant after seeing how it can trip up the line ), making sure the plated order looked alright (Fabrizio always did the balsamic drizzles on the salad plates, my hand wasn’t steady enough and I was terrified of ruining the plating and having to start all over). The night flew by. I think I went to the ladies room once and maybe had the equivalent of a glass of water (we drank out of plastic storage quart containers. I was working the line, you know.).
I’ve always heard about how hard and tiring the restaurant business is, and I can tell you now from first-hand experience, that is the truth. By the time we closed down the line and got everything cleaned up, it was about 11:00 p.m. I had been there nine hours. And those were some of the most interesting and exciting nine hours of my life. Thank you Chef McCloud for this eye-opening experience. I’m still giddy thinking about it.
A look back on the evening…