Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just In: A Report from the Trenches

by Lauren Rauh

Garde Manger, Week One: 

My knees hurt, my eyes burn, my hands are cracked and covered in stab wounds and cuts, my shoulders are permanently stiffened at my ears, and I feel like I could sleep for a month and still be exhausted. No, I am not undergoing boot camp training, nor am I stuck in a Burmese prison. I have just completed my first week of work in a New York City kitchen (a new development since my first post!). In a whirlwind of coincidence and serendipity, I have begun my adventure of grueling work as the Garde Manger at The Fat Radish, a trendy newish restaurant in the Lower East Side. Having no previous restaurant experience and no culinary training it has been both the opportunity and the challenge of a lifetime. In one of those "it must be fate" moments, I happened to meet the Chef de Cuisine of The Fat Radish's sister catering company (Stonesilk) during a night out. Even after hearing my complete lack of professional experience, she told me to come in the next day for an interview. An interview, as I soon found out, in the restaurant world is called "trailing" in which you are simply put to work to see if you are fit for the environment. After holding my own during a 12 hour shift on a hectic Saturday night, I was hired!

As the newest member of an overworked team of chefs, I am burdened with long hours, high expectations, and tremendous pressure to learn quickly and work faster. At the same time, I am blessed with the patience, support, understanding and quality instruction of a kitchen that believes I can rise to the tasks at hand. Those tasks are specifically, a handful of hot and cold appetizers, pickles and condiments from scratch, salads, and two desserts. I must prepare for all these dishes ideally before the restaurant opens it's doors at 5:30pm. On a typical day my prep may include, making a batch of slow cooked chutney, baking a pan of bread pudding (from cutting the bread, to mixing the custard), picking 6 quarts of cucumbers, making 20 apple and butternut squash crisps (from peeling and cutting to making crumble topping), thinly slicing vegetables for salads, selecting herbs for garnish, building 20 sandwiches…and all before customers begin to order! A major part of the job is simply understanding what is needed and managing my time to get it done. As with any job, this takes practice, but when there are 180 reservations on the books and I've just cut off the tip of my thumb with the mandolin again it's easy to get discouraged.

I almost threw in the towel this past Saturday. On my fifth order of oysters that night (shucking oysters is my Achilles's heel) I stabbed myself squarely in the thumb with the shucking knife. Fighting back tears, I managed to bandage my thumb and plate an order of grilled cheese and two scotch eggs, all the while being yelled at for not having prepared vegetables for a specific salad that I had misunderstood to not be on the menu for that evening. At the end of that 15 hour day, I could barely walk home. After washing the smell of fryer oil out of my hair, going back to the restaurant in less than ten hours was the last thing I wanted to do. But through the blood, sweat, and tears (not in the food, I promise) I am getting the culinary training of a lifetime. I want to learn as much as possible and at the very least, I am gathering tremendous material for a memoir down the line (and this blog). At the most, I am learning from some of the very best.
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