Aluminum Chef

Here’s the long version:

When Kathy dropped me off with all the food and equipment we’d need to cook our hors d’oeuvres at the James Beard House in the West Village, I had a flashback to my first day of junior high. We’d thought we’d be earlier than everyone else, but a quick peek into the kitchen revealed a sea of white coats chopping things into identical cubes and strips like a well-oiled Swiss machine. Realizing I was about to pose as one of them, I carefully considered hiding in the coat closet until Kathy returned. Then I thought about how embarrassing it might be to have one of them find me there, twenty-eight years old and curled up on a few cases of wine, covering my eyes with my apron. Bad idea.

I introduced myself and got to work, unpacking and organizing and stacking our stuff and depositing our beach bags and Playmate coolers next to everyone else’s restaurant kitchen-grade coolers and knife totes. It dawned on me (again, only more strongly) that culinary school and four years’ experience as a personal chef made me a small-town mayor in a room full of state governors, in the same business but at the same time completely out of place.

My trusty locker partner finally returned, and I felt my heart rate slow. The guys from Arrows (bless their hearts) promised to help us shuck oysters and plate our food at the last minute, and I felt both a little relieved and a little annoyed; I knew we were ill-equipped to pull everything off by ourselves, but I’d admittedly gotten used to running my own show in my own kitchen and sort of had to swallow my pride when three guys opened 100 Winter Point oysters in the time it might have taken me to open the bag.

We unloaded what looked a wheelbarrowload of shallots and started chopping. About six seconds later Kathy sliced herself. Blood spurted. “Does anyone have a band-aid?” she asked to no one in particular. I felt my face flush hot and grabbed a box of sparkly blue ones I’d spotted earlier.

As the day progressed, a pattern developed: we did what we needed to do, as we’d planned to do it, more or less. (The cocktail sauce fiasco is another story; we didn’t realize one sauce was heavier than the other and loaded 150 shot glasses with the miso sauce, only to have to dump them all out and start again, with the heavier cocktail sauce on the bottom.) We asked for help when we needed it, and learned bit by bit how to do what we wanted to do in a restaurant-grade kitchen.

About halfway through the afternoon, I was starting to feel like a real schmuck asking so many questions. Cooking at the James Beard House was like travelling to a foreign country where I could read and understand the language, but couldn’t talk back. I’d thought I was passably fluent, when I was really not even learning the same words.

Sometime during the course of the afternoon, Kathy sensed my waning self-respect and pulled me aside.

“Jess,” she said, “We have nothing to prove here. These people run restaurants for a living. We write about them.”

She had a point.

And before I realized it, we were part of the same machine, chopping and prepping and tasting and plating and, yes, making mistakes (and we weren’t alone). We laughed and joked and I forgot that we were the only ones who’d never used a sauce gun before that day. When the guests started to arrive and parade themselves directly through the kitchen, all eleven other chefs put down their knives and started helping us, balancing caviar on beet chips and shrimp on shot glasses.

Like I said, our food turned out great. Here are all the photos, if you’re feeling impatient.

We found perfect shot glasses for the shrimp:

Shrimp cocktail with orange-miso and cocktail sauces

We ended up whipping some of the saffron cream for the stew:

Saffron Cream

And the beet chips held up (barely):

Beet chips 2

At first, I thought it was an orchestrated gesture of pity, a massive attempt to help us do what we couldn’t do ourselves. But as our hors d’oeuvres course gave way to the next course, and the next, I realized that once all the prep was done, each chef existed to help whichever chef’s course was next in line, and for five consecutive courses after ours, I stood on the plating line (when I wasn’t taking photos), dipping and dabbing and garnishing and helping the chef’s I’d assumed to be completely self-sufficient.

The food was spectacular in every way. We dubbed it the “butter, salt, cream, and shellfish dinner.” By golly, each diner must have consumed 5,000 calories. (And good LORD, if anyone ever offers you a fois gras crouton, take it and run.)

Here’s Sam Hayward’s course, baked Maine shrimp with miner’s lettuce, parsnips, and sea salt:

Sam Hayward's shrip salad

And Arrows’s main course, lobster tails and claws served on the shell (which they heated by smothering the pre-cooked lobster meat, arranged in the shell, with towels soaked in clarified butter, then shoving the whole thing in the oven so the butter-permeated towels could basically give the lobster a butter facial as it reheated) with fois gras croutons, mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, insane house-cured bacon, and about sixteen other things:

Arrows' masterpiece

They garnished their dish with roasted lobster antennae, which were surprisingly beautiful, if you ask me:

Roasted lobster antennae

And the final course, Price’s goat cheese cheesecake with pistachios, cream, candied orange peels, macerated strawberries and balsamic glaze, of which there was not one single crumb left on any of the 80-something plates:

Price's goat cheese cheesecake

So the food was great. The comeraderie was palpable.

But the whole scene, the sense that life only exists inside a kitchen, all the chatter about applying to be a challenger on Iron Chef (no kidding), and what seemed to be an overarching belief (from a few of the chefs) that one can always make food better than it is when it comes out of the ground, made me very happy to have avoided the restaurant chef route.

It’s always made me crazy that there is no way to classify someone between “cook,” which implies a given set of learned practices and procedures, and “chef,” which hints at something larger, like, say, talent and extensive experience. This is not a small difference. But to people who have never set foot inside a restaurant kitchen, it’s one that’s hard to explain.

I think of myself as somewhere in between. I know how to use a knife. I can prep a three-course meal for six and have every element come out hot and on time, almost every time. I can make pasta from scratch without a recipe. Et cetera.

But my arena is the home kitchen. I don’t use a hot box (hell, I can’t even say it without giggling) or a sauce gun on a regular basis, and I don’t calculate food costs when I come up with something new.

A friend of mine recently accused me of being an iron chef, and to both her surprise and mine, I was really insulted. I don’t cook for sport. I am formed, but not hardened, educated, but not tested. I’d probably qualify as an aluminum chef, if that. And I think I like it that way.

4 Comments

Filed under commentary, kitchen adventure, travel

4 responses to “Aluminum Chef

  1. What an incredible experience–and that food is gorgeous! Aluminum chef is a good thing to be.

  2. Sounds delicious! Great pictures as well. I liked the bit about lobsters. If you or anyone else wants to know more about lobsters or lobster dishes such as the one above, check out http://www.lobsterhelp.com for Everything Lobster.

  3. voncook

    Nice photos!
    Don’t worry about hiding under the apron..
    You could’ve turned their cheesecake upside down and make a hit.
    =)

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