A Different World + Bedlam Ensued + When One Door Closes
Good Morning from Warren Grove, Prince Edward Island
I don’t remember how I felt heading into a classic French kitchen to work. But it was a different world I was entering into.
Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me.~ Carol Burnett
People in chefs’ jackets, baggy houndstooth check patterned pants, clogs, fast moving knives, stirring, chopping, and stoves with flames all combined into a boisterous circus of stimuli.
After the quick introductions were made, I was shown my work area and started right away with peeling and chopping vegetables.
When the opportunity arose, I mentioned to the chef I could only give two years of my life to Toronto. I wanted and needed to learn as much as I could and fast. My short-term goal was to stand beside him and cook meals under his direction. And once achieved I was heading back to Prince Edward Island to open my own restaurant.
“The great glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live with purpose.” Michel de Montaigne
Preparing vegetables into many classic cuts such brunoise, julienne, paysanne, batonnette, noisette, chateau was beneficial. Knife skills are something you cannot learn in a book.
"Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience. You need the experience to gain wisdom." ~ Albert Einstein
After time passed, the chef promoted me to ‘Garde Manger’ looking after cold dishes. Endive salads, watercress soup, green salad, Salade Niçoise and steak tartar were a few items I learned to plate.
The restaurant operated a separate restaurant upstairs. A very small efficient kitchen designed for one cook to work in. There were over 100 seats for guests. One item on the menu only. Prime Rib, Baked Potato, Vegetables and a Dessert Trolley which servers took to the table. I had a few months preparing all the food and plating it for servers to take to the tables. It was a pressure cooker of a job.
Every experience in life enriches one's background and should teach valuable lessons. ~ Mary Barnett Gilson
This part of the journey was short-lived and thankfully invited back downstairs.
Now promoted to work on the line with sous chef, and the line chef. The sous chef was of Italian descent, the line chef Canadian and both were great to work with. I learned a lot working with them.
Classic French dishes such as Bouillabaisse, Truite Au Bleu, Coq au vin, Sole Almondine were served nightly. Many dishes were completed at the table with the Maitre d’ or Captains, displaying their food knowledge and finesse using their flambe skills.
Working in a kitchen is hard. It can be a stressful environment to work in.
For this Maritimer, it was like working in the united nations. I thought it was great. But time and time again, I would hear negative comments about one’s nationality.
I found it wearing me down.
"I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet."
~ Mahatma Gandhi
It is customary for staff to have a meal before service. It starts with the Chef cooking for the Maitre'd. The Sous Chef preparing something for the Captains. The Line Cook for the waiters and me for the dishwashers.
Two experiences changed me forever.
The Maitre’d, who always carried himself with an air of superiority walked into the kitchen to order his personal dinner from the Head Chef. They exchanged brief formal niceties out of respect for their positions within the profession. The Maitre’d ordered a sirloin steak medium rare with vegetables. The chef acknowledged the order and said it would take 10 minutes or so.
The cooking area was a bank of old propane stoves with the burners removed. There were large gaping holes in the stovetop. When you needed to cook you turned the dial and up through the holes came a roaring flame. You kept the flame under control by putting the frying pan over the hole. Cooking was fast.
There was an old floor-to-ceiling grill for cooking red meats on. The flame came from the bottom like a barbecue and from the top like a roaster. It was always on and ready. On the floor was a tall bucket for dumping grease. The swill bucket was not a pretty sight.
The Maitre’d left the cooking area. The chef took the steak from refrigerator. He dropped it on the floor, stepped on it, swished it around in the swill bucket and threw it onto the grill. He proceeded to burn it.
He prepared the plate, hit the bell calling the Maitre’d to come and get his dinner.
Gus floated in on his own air, and for a long moment, he looked at the plate. He looked at the chef, smiled and said, “thank you, chef,” turned around and calmly walked out.
I will never forget that exchange.
I was impressed with one person and not the other. I couldn’t understand how someone can dislike another human so much to do something like that.
My first night to cook for the pot washers was experience I will never forget.
The custom was to serve old food to staff who were further down the pecking order in the kitchen brigade. The dishwashers usually received food well past its prime covered in a gravy of some sort to mask it.
What will I cook for these men?
I couldn’t imagine cooking this way for the three 80-year-old Portuguese dishwashers. They worked very hard. They talked between themselves in Portuguese. They grabbed old cigars from the plates, wiped them off, light them and continue washing the pots and pans. They were characters.
It was 4 in the afternoon; so I cooked breakfast.
I pan-fried some potatoes with onions, eggs sunny side up, bacon, toast and jam. I rang the bell and the three men shuffled up to the counter.
I wasn’t sure how the plates would be received.
They looked at the plates for what seemed like forever. They turned and looked at each other in dead silence.
Then they looked at me with tears flowing down their cheeks.
It still gets me when remembering that moment. They were so grateful for a fresh meal.
“Respect is one of the greatest expressions of love.” – Don Miguel Ruiz
From that night on, whenever I was cooking and had to call out for a pot or pan, they delivered right away.
They always smiled and gave me a big hello when I entered the kitchen.
I always made sure I cooked something fresh for them. They loved the Clubhouse sandwiches.
I finished the course at college near the top out of 66 taking the program. Yet, I had no desire to be a chef.
Now with more time on my hands, I could work more.
The chef found me a job at a restaurant owned by a Swiss chef whose specialty was milk-fed veal. He had a thriving lunch business.
Memories are two.
In his kitchen, you were not allowed to use utensils when cooking at the stove. To turn the veal in the hot pan you could only use your index and middle finger.
This chef was extreme.
If you did something wrong in his kitchen, he would punch you in the arm. I didn’t stay there very long. He was a bit intense.
Memories are not fixed or frozen but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection. Oliver Sacks
Coming to the end of my journey, I achieved what I had set out to do.
I was standing beside the chef and cooking the dishes under his watch. To say I was a hyper-activated human while under the stress of preparing meals would be an understatement. I was like a ping pong ball filled with adrenaline.
His frustration with me one evening led to a teachable moment.
While he pointed at the floor barking, “stay there and don’t move,” he reached to his left and grabbed some sort of white powder in his hand.
He drew a line on either side of me with the powder and in a strong German accent firmly said, “stay between those lines!”
The big night came when the chef asked me to take his spot and cook meat on the fiery cavernous grill.
It was a busy night and orders kept coming in fast and furious.
While doing my best to keep up with cooking the butterflied filets and sirloin the grill kept flaring up. I mentioned this to the chef, and he barked, “baking soda,” I looked at him puzzled, he points to a container filled with baking soda, “put some on the flame,” he said. So I did.
It worked for a minute or so, and I kept flipping the fast cooking steaks. I kept putting more baking soda trying to put out the flame, but it wasn’t working. I said, “chef it’s not working.”
He kept telling me to put more and I did. I kept doing it until the flames started shooting out the front of the grill and the alarm system kicked setting off the fire retardant system in the kitchen and dining room.
White powder everywhere. Bedlam ensued.
For what seemed only like minutes, firemen came rushing into the kitchen with hoses and axes.
The cooks stayed and watched.
I watched a fireman analyzing the situation while looking for the source of the fire. He had a hunch and pulled out a drawer from the grill. He carried the ignited grease-filled drawer outside.
Then another fireman took an axe to the walls by the grill.
We were closed for a few weeks while the restaurant was cleaned and refreshed from top to bottom. The kitchen walls where firemen’s axes explored were repaired and freshly painted.
When I came back to work; I met my new chef, Klaus.
Till next week, take care and keep moving.
Wishing you a wonderful weekend.
With love from Prince Edward Island,
Bruce + Millie
ps. Your Morning Smile
Grandpa always said when one door closes, another one opens...
Great man, horrible cabinet maker.