Walkin’ On The Line: A Rookie’s First Night on a Restaurant Line

When I started on this whole chef apprentice’s journey, I knew sooner or later the whole unionized job environment was going to have to end. So I went and got a job at real, honest to goodness restaurant.

While it’s true that while working at Co-op, I did learn a fair bit of the basics. However, it was about a week into classes at Chef School that I knew there was so much that I needed to learn, and there was no way I could ever hope to learn them in a kitchen that didn’t even have a stove top. So with much encouragement from more experienced colleagues and the well wishes of my now former co-workers, I set off to find a job in a restaurant kitchen.

Now you’re probably wondering, “What the fuck are you thinking?!” 

Yes, I know. The world of restaurant cooking is for the young twentysomething…yadda yadda yadda, crazy shit, blah blah blah. Trust me, I’ve heard the stories (no, I didn’t bother reading Bourdain’s book). And when I set out to be a chef, I mentally prepared myself for the crap that was to come. But where was I to find this opening to get into a restaurant?

Lucky for me, I have made some connections. While some turned out empty, one of my mentors got me into the door at a recently opened Spanish tapas restaurant in town, where an old co-worker of his was now one of the sous chefs.

I had the standard interview with the executive chef, and less than 48 hours after finishing writing the first year final exam I would be starting my new job. I still don’t know how that connection did it, but well, it somehow miraculously happened. Maybe it’s my sparkling personality and fiery passion that won the chef over? Or rather I had worked at the same market as one of the sous chefs who has seen me in action? I’d like to think it’s a combination of both. Whatever it is, I got in.

Anyway, the night before I was due to start, I sat down for a couple beers with said mentor. He’s someone whom I’ve grown to deeply respect in the short time I’ve known him, and he has helped me immensely in my career so far (plus he’s bailed me out a few times during school when I contemplated throwing my hands in the air!) — plus he was one if the biggest proponents of me getting out there into the big wide world.

“Look,” he told me, as he tool a swig of his beer. “You got to be ready for anything…heck, for all you know they could start you on dish (pit).”

I kinda had a feeling that it could be a distinct possibility, knowing that I would be the lowest on the proverbial totem pole. Most of my classmates did mention they started there when they first worked in professional kitchens. I hoped that it wouldn’t be the case, but girded myself for the possibility anyway.

“Do whatever you can, help out whenever you can, and wherever you can,” He continued, “You’ve got some hard people to impress.”

I nodded, and took a drink. I was more worried about letting myself down by making a stupid, stupid mistake and also getting yelled at on my first night by one of the chefs. That would suck royally, and probably make me even more nervous. No one wants to get fired on the first night, right?

That night, I slept intermittently. Was I really ready for this jump into the world of restaurant cooking? And why on Earth would I choose a Saturday night as my first night?

The worry stayed with me, all the way up until I walked into the restaurant. Before that, I paced around nervously at a rooftop park nearby for a good two hours, while my friends tried their best remotely to keep me from losing my shit.

After a short wait the sous chef came out to greet me, happy to see a familiar face. Well, at least he’s happy to see me.

We went through the motions, and I got to meet most everyone that I’d be working with. I had deliberately gone in a little earlier, so the grand tour per se was a little more leisurely paced. But when you’re nervous, it kinda felt like forever. At the end, I was given my uniform shirt, and was told to change into it immediately before heading to the kitchen. I was already wearing a buff to cover my hair, and brought my own apron along thinking it would bring me a little luck (if not a little style!) — so the change was a snap. I took my trusty knife roll with me downstairs, and headed into the flourescent glow of my destiny.

Immediately, I was paired up with my station partner for the evening. I would be assigned to garde manger (the fancy way of saying “cold kitchen”). That meant plating up salads as well as desserts, but before that could happen we needed to make sure our station was ready to go before the dinner rush.

The first task I was given was to slice some bread for crostini. Sounds simple, right? Try doing it with a slicer that looked older than I was…and it was on a push cart. I won’t bore you with the blow by blow commentary, but let’s just say it caused a bit of a mess, and a few pieces of bread that didn’t end up being crostinis plus a massive amount of crumbs that fell to the floor. And unbeknownest to me, all while I was having a right fight with said slicer, the executive chef was looking at me.

He didn’t have a nice look to his face, so I stopped and tidied up before continuing on, hoping to avoid his steely gaze that seemed to pierce through my soul even deeper than Aprile and Leung combined.

Bullet: dodged. Sort of.

The rest of prep after the bread slicer went relatively smoothly, as my tag team partner and I walked through the remainder of the list. There were a few early tickets, the sound of the buzzing printer almost melodious (it would become background noise throughout the night), but for the first few hours it was a brisk pace.

It was about 6:30pm that the first rush finally began, and my partner duly showed me each dish as they came through. Slowly, and with a little trepidation I managed to get a plate or two done by myself to acclimatize. So far so good, I thought to myself.

And then, it happened. 7pm hit, and the tidal wave arrived. By that time I was feeling a little less stressed, but still nervous. While earlier tickets coming off the printer didn’t always have cold dishes, all of a sudden tickets were coming in hard and fast, with salads, desserts, side salads and appetizers spread across. In retrospect I think it was because many of the early seated diners were finishing their meals, while the later seatings were just starting theirs. On top of this, we were also plating canapés for a party. This convergence caused a massive tsunami that threatened to swallow the rookie and his tag team partner.

We were warned at the beginning of the service that we could potentially be caught under, and my worst fear was unfolding in front of my eyes. Scenes of myself fucking up and getting yelled at and told to leave flashed in front of my eyes, as one of the chefs jumped in to help us clear the tickets. But even as we worked like mad to get the salads and desserts out, the tickets still kept on going, the buzzing of the printer melding with the ticking clock, threatening to pull me asunder.

But then, a voice came through in my head.

This is your moment, Johnny. I told myself. Shut up, keep your head down and do as you’re told, and bang those dishes out like the fucking champion you are.

Like a Red Bull for the mind, something just clicked in my mind and all of a sudden all I heard was the tickets being called out, and like magic my hands just went to the dishes and banged out the dishes. It may have taken a little longer (and sad to say a few plates did come back), but by around 9:30pm we were back under control. The final canapés went out as the dessert orders were still coming in, but by that time we were on a roll.

By 10pm, I finally breathed for the first time in hours. The sous chef came by, and asked how I was doing. By that time I was breathless, and could barely eke a word out. I was working on adrenaline fumes by that time too, so likely words would have made no sense even if I had opened my mouth.

“So, you survived a Saturday night. Well done.” He smiled, as the other cooks nodded in agreement. I had done it. I had survived the first night of many, many more.

As we talked, one of the waitresses called me over. Puzzled, I walked over. She told me two people in the dining room were looking for me, of all people. Not any of the chefs, but me.

Who on Earth could it be? Surely it couldn’t be my folks, or anyone from my class, or any of my fellow food bloggers or even my mentor. So who?

As the waitress led me out, I was surprised by the sight of my friends James and Matt, who had seen my two nervewracked Facebook statuses before I went in, and decided to check out the restaurant (and probably to see if I was okay, most likely!) I was blown away, and thanked them for coming in…again, adrenaline fumes makes tongues tied. If I had let instinct taken over, I probanly would have bawled a little with joy. But I didn’t and I think they understood that I was a bit worse for wear to say the least.

But knowing I couldn’t step away too long, I excused myself, and went back to bang out the rest of the tickets for the evening while cleaning up the station in preparation for shut down, and filling up the mise en place for the crew coming in after us. After all, ’tis better to leave a station filled with mise than to leave it empty for the next guy, and you don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t refill the station with prep!

While I was doing that, I remembered my mentor’s advice: help out anyone who needed a hand, from dishes to prep and a few other places in between.

So being a good cook, I helped the swamped guy in dish put away plates, while running around making sure everything was neat and tidy. Being the new guy, I was keen to make that good first impression, and by and large, I think I did okay there. At least no one yelled at me. Not tonight, anyway.

Once our station was clear, I finished a last sweep of the station, and then bid te rest of the kitchen staff a good evening. Finally, at around 11:35pm I stepped out of the restaurant, and into the chilly night air.

As I crossed the street, I took a deep breath, and allowed myself a small smile. Some of the self-doubt and nerves escaped into the night as I exhaled, lifting a metaphorical weight off my mind.

I had survived the first night on a restaurant line. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest night but I survived it nevertheless. But then I was quick to remind myself; this was just night one, there is still a hell of a long road ahead on this path to greatness. But at least, for the first time in a while, I felt like I was on the right path.

So, night one is in the books — what’s next?

#ChefSchool Week 2: My Love-Hate Affair with Baking & Other Foibles

Well, two weeks down, six weeks to go. But more importantly, the two worst parts of technical training is over.

Are new nightmares on the horizon? I don’t know but without the dreaded twin burdens of math and baking (I can sense the bakers in my readership rolling their eyes in unison already…) on my mind, gnawing away at my deepest innermost fears and whatnot, i am actually excited to find out more! Anything, including the world of butchershop (which starts tomorrow) has to be a cakewalk compared to the super fussy world of baking. Right?

Whatever butchershop throws at me though, I feel I am at least going to be one more iota prepared than I was for bakeshop: I have had meat cutters at Co-op, butchers at Sunworks and even a fish cutter from Calgary’s best known fish shop, Billingsgate, give me some pointers. Heck, even the chefs at work have shown me a thing or two. These are all pros, and I have to say I am grateful for what they have shown me. Now if it will all come up in my mind when I really need it.

Oh yes…last week. Math went surprisingly better than I had originally expected; I think I aced the test, having been one of the first to finish the test even after checking, double checking and even triple checking my calculations,  but until Chef Volke gives us back our exams I am not going to start relaxing. As for baking, that’s a story unto itself.

Baking D-Day, as I like to call it, was two-fold. First up was the theory exam, which again I had no problems. I got the baking terms and how each pie crust and cookie method down pat by and large, but like a triathlon, the transition from theory to practical can make or break you.

Entering the bakery that now feels like home, I unpacked my tools, and immediately got to work. Earlier in the day, my mother (who is a master baker herself) gave me a few pointers to producing the impeccable product to present to Chef Warden. With almost four hours to produce two baguettes, a loaf of white bread, and two beautifully garnished chocolate cream tarts, there was no time left to lose. Luckily, Chef Warden had allowed us some time on the day before to complete some basic scaling and to complete a blind bake of our pies — of which I took full advantage.

My pie crusts ended up just a smidgen on the dark brown side, but since they were usable still (and judging from the dough scraps, and weighing it against both making two new tart crusts or keeping the very beautiful yet slightly too brown tarts), I decided to forge ahead.

Mixing the doughs was easy enough; as they began their first bulk fermentation I got to work on the pastry cream/chocolate cream/chocolate pudding filling. You’d be surprised as to how easy and versatile pastry cream is; but it’s the tempering of the egg yolks is the tricky part. If your scalded milk is too hot, you have scrambled eggs. Too cold, and the starch doesn’t activate. Nervously, I watched the milk warm as I vigourously whisked the egg yolks. I almost gave myself tennis elbow doing it, but finally, as thin wisps of steam began to rise, it was time for the milk and egg yolks to meet. Slowly, they met. So far so good.

Then, it was time for the heating to thicken the cream. Slowly I stirred under the medium low heat. A thick layer of bubbles covered the surface, a machination of my own doing as I had whisked too hard. Desperately trying to stir while trying to get a good view for the custard, I incurred the attention of Chef Warden.

“John, you’re stirring too fast,” She chided. “Slow down.”

Slow down? SLOW DOWN? I was on auto-pilot by then; any slow down could cause massive disasters. But I followed her advice, and slowled the stirring. And sure enough, as heat was allowed to disperse throughout the liquid, the magic of thickening happened. But I still had to be careful — too much, and my pot would be filled with scrambled eggs. I was out of the frying pan, but back into the fire.

Sweat rolled down my forehead; time was ticking away more incessantly than that annoying clock from Chopped. I wasn’t about to allow myself to screw this up, and I didn’t. The custard gained vanilla and chocolate at the correct consistency, and was immediately put into the tart shells and sent to the chiller. Round 1 was complete.

Once that was over, the breads once again took centre stage. By then I was a bit more relaxed. but still fretful. I punched and portioned the doughs, rounded and benched them. The shaping came together quickly, and it was then off to the proofer. For the white bread I proofed the loaf alone; for the baguettes I tied my fate to a classmates’, sharing their tray. Their fate and mine would be intertwined.

Meanwhile, I took up my battle with whipping cream; the tart required perrfectly whipped cream with rosettes piped on. Earlier in the week, the rosettes on my lemon meringue pie looked atrocious, mainly because my hands were shaking like a leaf. I got the whipping cream to the proper consistency (stiff-ish peaks), filled the piping bag, and did a practice rosette.

It was perfect.

I did another. Perfect again.

I pulled out the tarts, which by then had been cooling. I moved onto the first tart, filled the middle with a swirl of cream, and then began the piping.

I don’t know what happened, but for the next three minutes, I executed rosettes. Eight on one tart, then eight on the other. It was complete, and I had somehow done it. I piped rosettes. Properly.

I stood back for a moment. Shock, elation (no, not to the level of exuberance that led to THAT moment) and RELIEF.

The rest of the day passed by without much of a hitch; I followed my mother’s advice on the breads during the proofing phase (“The product is fully proofed when the surface is dry and it slightly spills over the sides.”), and as soon as the doughs’ surfaces were dry and puffy enough I sent them to the ovens. Once the white bread came out of the oven, I took it out of the pan to cool and breathed a massive sigh of relief. All that was left was the tasting and marking.

Wait. Marking? Shit, I had forgotten all about that.

I laid out the products on a metallic platter, sliced a few tranches of bread as per instruction, and took it all for marking. I took a huge gulp of air, and looked on with bated breath as Chef Warden looked over the products, and tasted them. I barely squeaked out my answers as she quizzed me on some of my procedures, and the whole thing felt like an eternity. Then. finally…marks.

The white bread…perfect.

The tarts were a bit overdone on the shells, but the pastry cream was perfect consistency.

And then…she declared the baguettes to be misshapen and barely passable. The inside was slightly moist, which was a sign of underproofing. There were some cracks from the folding, and the colour was under.

But it didn’t matter. I had somehow taken on the baking monster for a second time, and won in a split decision. The verdict on the theory exam? That’s still in the air, too.

All in all, I have to say I have survived baking. There will be more adventures in the future, and I pray that next time we meet I will score a knockout. Here’s hoping, of course.

Compared to that adventure, work has been rather uneventful. Eats of Asia is moving to Crossroads starting in February, so you’ll get to see me in action slinging bao and pulling noodles in Ramsay-Inglewood soon. Oh, and I ran into Nikita Scringer, a MasterChef Canada season 2 finalist. Pretty cool chick. I have a feeling we will meet again…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some studying of meat cuts to do…