Or, really, my first proper week in the kitchens. Due to the long weekend, we started on Tuesday. The catering service was handling the day's service, as our deliveries came in mid-morning, and to allow time to restock the kitchen and all ingredients.
day one | chicken.
I am infinitely glad that I had no idea what I was heading into so I couldn't stress over it.
chef phil looks at me, his hand on a cardboard box. "I want to give you a full set of skills, so you can go into any kitchen prepared. have you ever broken down a chicken before?"
In front of me, within the boxes, were twenty whole chickens, waiting to be broken down, or fabricated, into eight pieces. The eight classical pieces of a chicken are the two wings, two drumsticks, two thighs, and the two breasts. We took this slightly further and halved the chicken breasts, creating ten total cuts of meat.
i know plenty about the theory of breaking down a chicken. i've studied the diagrams, read about it in on food and cooking, watched youtube videos with my tongue sticking out one side of my mouth and digging in the bottom of the bag for the tiny, broken chips at the bottom. but theory and practical application? completely different. i watched the chicken fall apart with a few graceful, practiced slices of chef phil's knife.
"do you want to try the second one?"
suddenly, everything i'd ever learned about breaking down a chicken vanished. i knew to check for the ball under the wing, but why? where do you begin to place your knife to separate the leg from the breast? where do you slice to go through the leg joint between thigh and drumstick?
knowing where to slice a chicken is something that needs to be learned with your hands, your fingers. my bones and muscles are learning the movements, how to hold the knife, how firm to press, how to cut through the sinew and cartilage with confidence, in one swift slice.
day two | into the weeds
mediterranean spiced chicken
coriander & fenugreek grilled salmon
couscous with feta and tart cherries
broccoli & potato mash
rosemary-dill grilled flatbreads
day two. first real day of actual internship with service. the set up here is a little different than most professional kitchens i've read about. instead of a restaurant with diners selecting from a menu and producing plates to ticket orders, a full very high quality buffet-style meal at restaurant-level standards (or above) is produced daily at noon. for the employees at stack, this is one of the perks of the office. i'm doubly intrigued because it's a highly creative atmosphere that gets me elbows deep into thinking and cooking for large quantities of people.
i had gone in thinking i was ready. i chopped. i filled my pans. i prepped my salad. i wheeled everything out at 10:45 am, just as i needed to.
suddenly my heart sank into my stomach. maybe deeper, maybe it slung somewhere about my knees. somehow i had been convinced that i'd needed to fill two full sheet pans (twelve six pans) with items. but there, staring back at me, was an another entirely empty spot. the third.
in a panic, i quietly whispered to chef shanna. "i miscounted the trays. what do i do?" luckily, several of the things i had completely missed were some of the easiest, such as throwing together pans of olives and marinated artichokes and setting out a variety of cheeses.
my embarrassment flamed a little, internally. on the way home, i bought a notebook and a sharpie and set to work diagramming and planning the salad bar stations and what salads i would come into prep the next morning.
always be prepared.
day three | mental mise en place
grilled flank steak
barbecue grilled chicken
twice baked potatoes
roasted asparagus with brussels sprouts
bloody mary summer salad
spiced banana cake with gingerbread oats streusel
I came in on thursday far more prepared. the prior day's incident underscored the importance of fully thinking through everything and being ready for the day. I counted trays, six pans, i knew what i was planning to make.
today's salad was a bright collection of vegetables. i wanted to balance the israeli couscous salad and the lentil salad we also had, so i opted to showcase cucumbers and tomatoes, hoping to spice it with a gazpacho and bloody mary flair.
taste. season. taste. season. taste. somehow i've added too many red chili pepper flakes. dammit. how do you correct for heat? let's add a little splash of vinegar, some sugar, more cucumbers, more tomatoes, more olive oil, everything more, more, more. slowly the salad flavors came down, rebalanced closer to where i'd wanted them. oops. lesson learned.
chef phil set me to cutting the flank steak. flank steak is cut against the grain of the meat. i had a lot of questions about why this was done and came home to research it a little further. flank steak, like other cuts of meat such as skirt or hanger steak, is cut against the grain to produce a more tender piece of beef. in these cuts, the muscle fibers are particularly strong and developed and cutting against the grain shortens these muscle fibers, allowing the piece of meat to break apart more easily and tenderly for the diner. slicing with the grain would allow these long muscle fibers to remain intact and attempting to chew a piece would in chewiness, toughness, and frustration.
after service, chef phil shows me the gravlax that has been curing in the refrigerator. the flesh of the beautiful piece of salmon is slowly turning from a dark pink to a lighter shade. the consistency of the flesh is changing, having a firmer pressure when your finger is pressed to it. it resists more. i am learning to read these tells, to speak this language, physical and visual, in a way i had never trusted myself to know before.
day four | happy birthday
roasted japanese eggplant
oshinko (assorted japanese-style pickles)
spring rolls & vegetable dumplings
red bean ice cream
happy birthday. i turned twenty-eight on friday morning. virgo child with libra ascendant. my first executive decision at midnight of september fifth was to pour another glass of wine and head downstairs to smoke a cigarette with anna on the front steps of our walk-up.
i was particularly excited for friday's menu, a variety of sushi. i had two salads planned for the salad bar, a seaweed salad (often found on japanese restaurant menus) and a quinoa berry salad. despite having planned what i wanted to make, i ran into a new roadblock. we didn't have all of the ingredients and raw vegetables that i planned for. i opened up the refrigerators and staring back at me, instead of broccoli and cauliflower, were empty spaces.
shit. okay. i have to be prepared for this, i need to think ahead, order items in advance. i start thinking about salad prep. hours slip away at the chopping board.
i'd come in that morning bearing a giant daikon radish, roughly the size of my forearm. for my very first task of the day, I had sliced it up and begun pickling it in rice vinegar, sugar, and turmeric, hoping to get those bright yellow pieces of pickled daikon seen in oshinko, which i order almost embarrassingly often from the late-night japanese joint around the corner.
at 10:00, chef phil looks around the kitchen. "are you guys ready to roll?" i looked at the empty third pan next to me. i still had a salad to make and i had to hurry. scratch the quinoa. i didn't have time to boil water and prepare quinoa. maybe if i'd done that first and then attacked the salad prep. oh well.
what do we have? be quick. i know we have sundried tomatoes and olives. there are chickpeas in dry storage. we still have bunches of italian flat-leaf parsley. i hurriedly grabbed the chickpeas and started washing them while slicing sundried tomatoes and parsley. i added lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and a hint of pepper. good. not revolutionary, but good. still, a part of me thrilled internally to have come up with something quickly using what was on hand. my mind works best in a time crunch, a panic, an absolute pressure cooker.
that night, anna and i head to vespa, an italian joint at 85th and 2nd ave. we sit in the backyard garden, strings of christmas lights crisscross over our heads tied on various pipes, fire escapes. we drink prosecco. eat scallops, carpaccio, branzino. the week has been amazing, equal parts intense and demanding and exhilarating. i have never spent so much time actively learning, absorbing, and mentally cataloguing everything. consider your movements, your placement of items. consider your fingers. consider your knife.