It was a big blow. Suspended for cutting myself? Everything came to a screeching halt for me and it was all very sobering. In hindsight, the Chef was right to do it.
I was sitting at home in my studio apartment, out of school and out of work. I came to a quick realization that I had been kidding myself. I thought I was doing great at everything. But what had I really done? The honest answer was nothing. I wasn’t even cooking at the restaurant. I had left my previous post working a very busy wood oven in a 400 seat, high profile boutique hotel to take a job that was by all accounts a step down. At my previous job I was getting my ass kicked on a daily basis and it was good for me. I left that hotel to be a low level expediter in a prestigious kitchen, and I hadn’t even progressed past that. I started to realize I wanted more. And I knew to get more I was going to have to work hard. It’s a realization that has stayed with me to this day.
After a few weeks I returned to work and school with a renewed vigor. Days off became opportunities to learn new skills from the Chef like how to clean and butcher fish. My grades were perfect and I was becoming more of a standout at school. At work I started taking initiative to do things like organize the walk-in or to come in early and cook staff meal before my shift (cooks don’t do this enough anymore). I did it to get noticed and it was working, but I also loved doing it.
It was starting to pay off. I was promoted to AM pantry, a small step but a step forward nonetheless. Because the menu changed every day cooks had to consult with the Chef at the beginning of each shift to receive a daily menu and prep list. On one particular day I was told I would need pancetta vinaigrette for a salad but instead of waiting for the Chef to instruct me, I took the brazen step of making it myself.
I rendered the pancetta and saved the drippings to which I added sherry vinegar, shallots, honey, whole grain mustard, and fresh thyme. I tasted. The Chef approached the station to give me instructions and I sheepishly told him I had already made the vinaigrette. He gave me a double take, grabbed a spoon and tasted. As he put the spoon down he gave a nod of approval, and then said “nice, let’s run with it.” It was a euphoric moment and a big lift to my confidence in the kitchen. I still make that vinaigrette at home to this day.
Days later I saw our three chef contingent huddled in conference discussing how they were going to handle the fact that the PM salad cook had called out sick. I saw my opportunity and offered to cover the station if they would let me. It was a risky move. I had never done that position (which consisted of a 1000 degree tandoori oven you had to reach in and slap naan bread on to the side of) and I was clearly pushing my boundaries by even asking. But after brief consultation, I was given the nod. I never looked back.
Not long after, I was on the A-team working Friday & Saturday nights having progressed past salads to working the wood oven, a busy station responsible for making the restaurant’s signature dish. I remember one Saturday night in particular where I was given a sizeable pick up, something like 17 dishes. I remember calling it back effortlessly to the Chef while noticing the more seasoned cooks looking on approvingly, and then knocking it all out flawlessly. It was a tremendous feeling, the feeling of real cooking…
It keeps me going today.