(For those of you just joining the program, the internship story starts here.)
So I’ve been at Cafe Flora for nearly a month now, generally working 4 shifts a week. I thought it would be a good time to take stock and see what has changed since I began, and what I’m learning.
The first couple of weeks, like at any job, were primarily about getting to know people and trying not to screw up anything too badly! I did push a sheet pan into a two-sided rack without looking and knocked some papadums out on the floor, but that isn’t an uncommon occurrence. I’ve seen a number of small accidents of this kind – mushrooms scorched, buckets of stock knocked over and so forth. Everyone is used to there being occasional mistakes and deals with them cheerfully.
Now I pretty much know all the folks that work in the kitchen and many of the front-of-house staff as well. Moving out of the "who is this new guy" phase, which is nice. Everyone has been incredibly supportive of what I’m doing, and happy to show me how to do the million little tasks that make up a day in the life of a restaurant.
There are lots of new things to learn. Where do I look in the storage room for red miso? What is the best (fastest, safest) way to empty a boiling hot 5 gallon stockpot into hotel pans for cooling? Where should I store the collard greens I just cleaned for the brunch crew? If we are out of Port in the dry storage, can I use some from the line to make this sauce? And so on.
Of course so much of restaurant cooking is knowing the good "tricks". For example, I needed to open 12 cans of cranberry juice to make our cranberry-ginger drink. Our sous chef L. showed me how I could open one and leave it upside down to drain in a china cap strainer while I opened the next one. These kinds of things help a home cook as well, but it is that much more crucial when you are cooking for hundreds of customers.
The other night I needed to make gnocchi. When I make them at home I might make 30. At Flora I helped make nearly 1000 (!) one night and then another day I made a few hundred by myself. When you do that many you become very aware, for example, of how the temperature of the dough affects your ability to roll them off the fork. When they get too warm, the tine marks kind of just mush. I also learned that I get better results by putting the piece of dough vertically on the tines instead of laying down like a log. I find this sort of experimentation fascinating.
The same is true of knife work. I’m getting a callous at the base of my index finger from the overhand grip on my blade. It isn’t unusual to be chopping for 45 minutes straight if you have a lot of onions or peppers to get through. I want to work on making more consistent and accurate cuts, as well as getting faster.
In a fairly small, fast paced kitchen with sometimes as many as eight folks working at once around shift change time, and waiters and dishwashers coming in and out too, and hot, heavy, and sharp objects in constant use, you have to pay close attention. You have to be sure and say "behind" whenever you pass in back of someone, and if it is really important you shout "hot behind" or "knife behind". You make similar announcements when leaving oven doors open, putting hot trays in racks that others might grab unknowingly, leaving hot pots in the dish pit and so on. And you get used to the tight quarters. While you are chopping away, someone may need the salt from above your head or a lid from below. Depending on the situation you can either just lean to the side and keep going, or step out of the way for a second and jump right back in. Given all that activity, it is a good idea to try and gather a lot of what you need for a recipe or prep job before you start, so that you can kind of settle into a spot and not have to run around behind everyone a bunch of times.
So I guess the big thing now is that I want to transition from focusing on being able to hold my own in the kitchen to being able to do everything better and faster each time. There is a lot of room for improvement! I watch some of the other more experienced folks and they can easily start on 5 prep tasks at once, with everything mentally timed so that the pauses in one job (like waiting for a sauce to reduce) will match up to the active parts of others. I’m not there yet, though sometimes I can have two tasks "away" at once without getting myself too hosed.
This past week I started to train on the "pizza" station, which really does a lot more than pizza. On the current menu, the station has two pizzas, a black bean burger, the portabella french dip, the quesadilla, part of the plating for the coconut tofu, a hot dessert, and a handful of childrens items. There is a lot of prep and cleanup for this station of course, but the actual last minute cooking and plating isn’t that hard.
The trickiest part is that you have to work in close concert with the line cook and the expediter to time all of the dishes for a table, and you don’t have duplicate tickets to work with. So you have to use reminders to keep track of what dishes you have fired, with what special requests (vegan, extra sauces and so on), and which ones you have ordered but aren’t making yet, waiting for the line. Similarly you have to understand what information the line cook needs to be able to time their half of the dance. (Me: "Flipping my burger", Line: "Ok, dropping fries. Two minutes on the wellys.")
Right now this seems a bit intimidating or at least challenging, but I think with a few shifts under my belt I should be able to manage it. It clearly is a step up in difficulty from the pantry station where there is not much timing and you can refer to the tickets.
So that is the brain dump of where I’m at in this process. I’m getting exactly the experience I was looking for: spending time in a professional kitchen, seeing what makes it tick, finding out if I have the ability and desire to be a part of it, doing the physical work, enjoying the folks, learning lots about food… and having a great time.