Week One: Welcome to the jungle.

Okay, so I fell into a bit of a black hole.  Apologies there.  First I thought I would let all of the first week’s experiences sort of marinate (witty food humor there) and then I would write something pithy (ha, more humor), beyond “First we did this, then we did that.”  And then I was too damn tired in the afternoons to do anything more than microwave some leftovers, wave goodnight at my husband, and pour myself into bed.  

For ten days straight.

So I apologize for the radio silence.  I will try to be better, I will. I will.

My experience with school did have a bit of a rough beginning.  As I mentioned earlier, I had originally registered for the winter quarter (to begin in January 2010), and with about three weeks’ notice I was given the opportunity to start in the fall instead.  Given my general state of unemployed-ness and general lack of productivity, I clearly jumped at that chance.  Which also left me at a bit of a loss when it came to knowing, clearly, what the hell was going on. 

Now, given that this is the community college, I expected it to be perhaps a step lower than, say, the CIA or Cordon Bleu.  But what I really needed to know was:  What the hell happens the first day?  What do I wear? Where should I be?  Do I need all of my sharpened pencils and fresh new notebooks, or would they simply be covered in carrot peels within the first two hours? 

First step, I emailed the program administrator.  Hi there, starting on Tuesday, very excited!  What do I wear?  Where should I be? Do I need books?  Knives?  A hairnet?

<crickets chirping>

Three emails and no useful answers, other than telling me I was to be there an hour later than the actual start time.  (I quickly corrected her on that one.  Trust me, anything that requires me to be dressed and across town before 9am and clearly not involving the personal consumption of bacon and coffee, I make sure of the time.)  I finally picked up the phone, the day before classes were to start. Hi there, starting on Tuesday, very excited!  What do I wear?  Where should I be? Do I need books?  Knives?  A hairnet?

“Didn’t you go to orientation?”

Somehow, I knew this was coming.  “Um no, if I had been to orientation, I would probably not be asking all these questions.”

“Well, you should have been at orientation.”

“And when was that?”

“August 16th.”

“You mean, before I even registered for winter quarter?  That would have been tough.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right.  Just wear your uniform and be here at 7:50.  I’ll walk everyone over then.”

So I will spare you the faux suspense–anyone who knows me knows I didn’t make it at 7:50, though damn if I didn’t try.  I left the house 40 minutes early—that’s like a whole day in Carrie-morning-time.  And then I sat in traffic (who goes the damn speed limit, anyway?) on the West Seattle Bridge.  And then I sat behind an entire line of cars (including a school bus, a city bus, and a garbage truck), all waiting patiently—as you damn polite Seattle drivers are wont to do—to make the one left turn onto the one damn street that leads to the one remote neighborhood where the school sits pleasantly nestled.  I have never, ever in my life so fervently wished that people here would drive like even the most timid of Boston drivers.  (Or Chicago drivers, or New York/New Jersey drivers—cities where I cut my teeth on many a 70-mph freeway merge and can make a left turn between two speeding tractor-trailers with one eye closed.)  I end up speeding past it all, pulling an illegal U-turn, and coming back around to make a right turn instead.  The convoy is still waiting, blinkers blinking.  Five minutes later, I pull into the student parking lot.  It’s 7:50am.

I run—run– to the culinary office.  Locked.  Walked to the only door of the culinary building I knew—locked.  Total panic sets in. First day and I can’t even get in the damn building! I decide I will find someone else dressed in these same silly checkered pants and ask them where to go—success!  I’m inside.  I find the admin, looking slightly puzzled that I’m again asking her all these silly questions like, Where the hell should I be?  I’m told to find my name on the station list on the wall. 

Not on the list.  Holy crap, did I make up all of this about starting in the fall?

The entire kitchen is bustling already.  Dozens of people who look like they know where they’re going, what they’re doing.  I’m feeling lost and I haven’t even been here five minutes.  Whose bright idea was this culinary school thing anyway?

Oh, right.

I’m told to take a seat in Chef’s office with The Others.  (There are others!)  I find a chair and sit around a small, fake-walnut plastic-laminate round conferencing table and take a look around.  Two guys, four girls, including me.  Stranded in the faculty office.  We make small talk, get-to-know-you stuff.  The aforementioned Chef comes in and says, “It’s a little crazy out there, so give me some time, okay, guys?  I promise you, you’re not missing anything.”

He says some variation on that theme another three times in the next hour and a half.  Sitting and waiting—not an auspicious start to my culinary career.

Though the sitting and waiting did bring one pleasant surprise.  I spent most of the time talking with Diane, another layoff refugee, after we realized we had connected in our online class forum and we had both moved here from Boston.  (Reason enough for an instant bond, as if we needed a reason.)  We talk Boston food, Red Sox, neighborhoods, Julia Child, and of course restaurants.  I mention that I was an interior designer there, working mostly on restaurants.  She owned an event-planning business and worked with lots of restaurateurs around town.  She asks what I had designed.  I rattle off a small list, but say my favorite restaurant was for a client in Arlington who wanted to open his first restaurant for himself, a teeny little jewel of a place called Scutra.

“Scutra!  Wait, you know Didier?!  I worked with Didier while he was still chef at Marino’s!”

Damn freaky small world, ain’t it?  We were probably within ten feet of each other in Boston a couple dozen times, but it took moving 3,000 miles to the other coast, our respective job layoffs, and culinary school for us to connect.  They say you make quick friends in a foxhole—I would say the same goes for a kitchen too.

Chef eventually has a moment to breathe and works on assigning us to stations.  Diane and I, along with Eric, one of our other officemates, are all assigned to Prep 1 for our first two weeks.  Since I’ve neglected to tell you, well, anything about school since it started, I will clarify a little: 

Each quarter, culinary students are registered for between six and eight classes, and we are in school from 8am until 1:30pm, with a half hour “lunch” break between 9:45 and 10:15am. (As you can imagine, lunch consists mostly of breakfast.) Rather than changing classes or tasks every two hours—which would be utter chaos—we are assigned to two-week “stations,” or little mini-classes that we are in all day, every day, for ten class days, and then we rotate.  (Sort of like volleyball, only with knives.)  Diane and I compared notes, and it seemed we would spend the entire quarter together– starting in Prep 1, then move to Inventory, Pantry 1, Food Server, and Short Order.  It’s good to have a friend in the trenches.

We were finally released to our stations—which was a relief and a moment of utter panic.  We quickly find out that, because it’s the first day of a new quarter, there is quite literally no food, except for some old, slightly moldy garlic and shallots, ostensibly left over from the previous quarter.  (Hence Chef’s statements about not missing anything.  The man tells the truth. ) Which meant, quite literally, nothing to do—for all of the stations, but especially when your name is Prep.  Let me tell you, this makes for a long first day.

Diane, Eric, and I find our station lead, who gives us the tour of the kitchens that we clearly missed while trapped in the faculty lounge.  I promise soon a quick sketch for you—done from memory, as close to scale as I can get.  I’m obviously missing a few things, but it will give you a general lay of the land.  It’s a veritable rabbit warren, though somehow we manage to make a loop around and find ourselves back at Prep.  Just don’t ask me to do that again and we’ll be fine.

For the sake of clarity, a little more background for you.  The school operates three fully functioning restaurants—a high-end French service and staffed by students in Saute 3; a midlevel casual restaurant, affiliated with Saute 2; and the school’s main cafeteria, including a hot line, short order (burgers and fries), and deli (panini, salads, sandwiches) which is staffed by the rest of us.  Each day Prep serves a menu that has three main dishes (“proteins,” we like to say), three starches (rice, potatoes, couscous, etc.), and a whole mess of vegetables—basically, whatever we can make out of whatever produce Inventory brings us.  Our station is staffed with students from all five quarters—from we lowly newbies up through Q5s, who function as our leads (and as sous-chefs to the executive chefs who teach all of us). 

For anyone who’s read Michael Ruhlman’s great book The Making of a Chef about his time at the Culinary Institute of America, or Seattle author Kathleen Flinn’s equally fabulous The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, about her experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, our whole setup will come as a bit of a shock.  We are, after all, at a community college, and the primary benefit of having a culinary program is that we feed the student body.  Thus we are not set up in pretty pretty demonstration kitchens, with each of us making the same dish for Chef to try.  Some days I really do wish that were the case, but we are at heart a production operation.  We have customers to feed, first and foremost.  I wish we were getting a little more formal instruction, but we are more often than not thrown in the deep end and expected to swim.  In the end, I probably prefer learning that way—it’s clearly more akin to working in a “real” kitchen than a rarified teaching environment– but when I’m in the middle of peeling thirty pounds of potatoes, I sort of wish I were getting to roast my own lovely French chicken.

And then I remind myself that my tuition is paid for by the state and I am still collecting unemployment, which shuts me up pretty quick. 

And in case you were wondering, our day looks like this:

8am:  Chef and the leads tell us what we’re making that day.  Leads start assigning dishes.

8:15am until 9:45:  We do any necessary prep for whatever dish we’ve been given, or whatever larger team we’ve been put on for the day.  (This is mostly chopping produce.  No proteins for us in the main kitchen until  Q4.)

9:45 to 10:15:  Students break for lunch.  Except Short Order, who get to serve all of us breakfast.  Or a cheeseburger.  (Who can eat a cheeseburger that early?  Eesh.)

10:15 to 11am:  Back to the kitchen. This is the controlled chaos that gets everything in steamers, ovens, on the sauté line, etc., and ready for service when the cafeteria opens for lunch at 11am. 

11am to 1pm:  A small team of people works the front-of-house line, serving customers.  (As I said to someone the other day, it’s like having fifty one-minute client meetings each hour for two hours.  It is more exhausting than I ever imagined. )  The rest of Prep is in the back, getting anything ready for tomorrow that can be done ahead of time.  And Chef gives the day’s demonstration on technique or a particular dish—pate a choux, tarte tatin, how to tourne a potato, etc. 

1 to 1:30pm:  Everyone cleans everything.  And I mean everything.  And then we go home so we can come back and do it again tomorrow.

We’ve now been at this almost two weeks, and the gears are starting to purr.  We know where everything is, we know who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t (more on that later), we know what the whole thing is supposed to look like at the end of the day.

I’ve gone from feeling pretty pleased with myself for chopping mushrooms and broccoli on the first day (without the slightest clue why or what for), to being shoved on the sauté line the second, to being given a solo flight on a potato gratin a la Dauphinoise.  (Word to the wise, don’t fake it when Chef asks if you know what a gratin is, because he will ask you to explain in front of everybody.  And then ask you to make it. Lucky for me, I have excellent gratin skills.) Today, I knocked out a Spanish-influenced rice dish pretty much on my own.  I’ve learned to pipe pretty potatoes through a pastry bag (say that five times fast), deep-fried some crispy pommes frites with garlic and parsley, and prepped more produce than I ever imagined, most of that today (for a catering offsite tomorrow that Chef is running with the help of fifteen of us students).  After barely more than a week, I can flip pretty much anything in a sauté pan with one hand (and keep most of it in the actual pan and off the cooktop).  Utensils are for rookies.

Today as we were prepping a metric ton of vegetables for tomorrow’s event, the Prep crew—now that we’ve gotten to know each other—played a little word game called ABC Rock and Roll.  Start with “A” and name a band, then next person goes with “B,” and so on.  The letter “G” gave us Guns ‘n Roses,  which inspired a little kitchen singalong:

Welcome to the jungle
We got fun ‘n’ games
We got everything you want
Honey we know the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need

In the jungle
Welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your knees, knees
I wanna watch you bleed

Kinda perfect, isn’t it?  Right down to the bleeding part.

The great irony is that by the time your station knows what the hell it’s collectively doing (and feels comfortable enough to have a little fun together), we all pack up and move somewhere else and start all over again, which is what will happen on Monday. 

Rough way to run a restaurant—or three–but as they say, every day’s a school day.

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5 responses to “Week One: Welcome to the jungle.

  1. I am totally loving this, learning a lot about a subject which utterly terrifies me (as the Tin Chef well knows), and really appreciate the terrific, humorous, writing style. Thanks my dear. Can’t wait to come back for dinner and psyched you made a friend from Beantown who knew Didier of all people. Still think Scutra was one of the best designed restaurants out there—not to mention the food! Hey, last ditch thought: you could design food?!

  2. Sheldon the Wonderhorse

    When I first met you oh so many years ago, the first thing I thought was, “Man, I bet this chick really knows how to gratin”. Good to know my first impressions were right on the money. Congrats on surviving the first jump into the pool.

  3. Rebecca Rickabaugh

    okay, I don’t care how many metric tons of veggies you have prepped or how profound your gratin skills are – what REALLY IMPRESSES

  4. Rebecca Rickabaugh

    me is that you can flip anything in a saute pan without hitting the stove top or the floor. My shoulders have forever put me in the rookie category. I need my implements.
    Fantastic, Carrie.

  5. Moon Over Martinborough

    Your first day and already sent to the Headmaster’s Office! Strap on your seatbelts, people. I think we’re in for a fantastically bumpy ride.

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