They say the experience of your first cooking job never leaves you. Outside of the culinary school sanctuary is where the real learning begins. In the first kitchen the new cook has to learn to turn the craft perfected in the classroom into the job. It is in this first workplace where passion has to produce a paycheck. The lessons learned there, the processes, the tools gathered to help make it through the night, resonate louder than the classroom note taking. The habits of the first kitchen are forever imbedded in your culinary vision. Are plates clean and centered, garnished with sprigs of chervil? Or are they busy with bâtonnets and brunoise?
My first kitchen was at the Prince Michel Vineyard restaurant—a restaurant attached to a well-known winery about forty minutes north of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was spanking clean, enormous, and air-conditioned. The plates were generous fifteen-inch rounds with three-inch pink rims trimmed with gold, and served as a canvas for talented Chef Alain Lecomte and the visiting chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in town for special events.
Bright red steamed lobster glistened with drawn butter. We used the tip of a paring knife to balance three beads of caviar around a sprig of chervil for the salmon canapé. The food came together on the plate with order, focus, and precision. Duck breast rested, then was sliced paper thin and fanned alternately with paper-thin slices of peach.
Chef Alain Lecomte taught me that food was beautiful. I watched him as he examined a purveyor’s seaweed-covered lobster, swollen-eyed fish with gaping mouths, or scrawny, wrinkled squab. He picked out the diamonds in the rough. Then he’d teach me to painstakingly eviscerate and clean them for him. Chef Lecomte could simmer the flavor and collagen out of a fifty-pound box of veal bones. With yolks, wine, butter, or this bone-fortified water, he would make a sauce to send that fish or squab into the dining room and make believers out of everyone. We could almost hear the dining room erupt in applause when, after the dessert course, Chef wiped the sweat off his face, buttoned the top button of his coat, and pushed open the swinging doors that led out of the kitchen.
For the most part, I was turning vegetables and doing other prep work. I carved carrots, potatoes, and zucchini into eight-sided bullets that not only cooked at the same rate but gave plates a fussed-over look. My first few attempts looked more messed up than fussed over. Even when I thought I’d carved a decent pound or two of potatoes and carrots, Chef would examine the bucketful of my labors. After regarding them very seriously, plunging his hands into the water and letting potatoes and carrots fall through his fingers, he would walk over to the stove and empty the entire contents into a big pot of boiling water. My clumsily carved vegetables disintegrated into what was to become the soup du jour.
After a few weeks I was good enough at turning to be awarded the task of sectioning citrus fruit. Until I got this right, the chef used my knife to make a point of showing me how to separate the peel from the flesh of an orange. If his orange came out perfectly round and skinless and mine did not, it wasn’t because of faulty equipment. Chef, who was French, would mumble “Tziz naht ze knife,” as he held the blade close, examining it from tip to riveted handle.
When service began I was usually a nervous wreck. I tended the convection oven and responded with a start when the timer rang. One busy Saturday night I had no idea that the towel I used to grab the baked-to-order lime soufflé from the convection oven was damp. “Guilliaahhnn,” Chef was shouting, “the soufflé, put it here, hurry, hurry.” Steam was bubbling through the towel. But I carried the soufflé to the tray slowly and put it down carefully so that the lightly browned top stayed high above the rim and didn’t collapse. The server smiled and raced through the swinging doors. When Sian saw the blisters bubbling through the skin on my fingers and palm, she brushed them with her much smaller hand. “Mommy,” she pronounced, awestruck by the sacks of water in my fingers, “what did you do?” I felt kind of silly telling her and her sister that I was carrying a hot soufflé across the kitchen even though the hot dish was blasting steam through the towel and it was burning me. “Why didn’t you just put it down?” Magalee asked. I told her that I just couldn’t. “There are some things you just can’t put down, or drop,” I told her, trying to explain. “People are counting on you.”
It was an invigorating and invaluable time, but after nearly six months I realized it was also time to move on. I needed to work closer to home. My commute was nearly eighty miles each way. At night on the way home I’d set my cruise control on ninety miles per hour just to catch a glimpse of my two daughters before they fell asleep. I also needed to support both of them—not to mention myself—and graduate from making five dollars an hour as a vegetable cook. The little vineyard restaurant was an opportunity for me to learn, and it helped me realize that cooking in a restaurant was what I really wanted to do. But, as a single mom and sole supporter of our family, I needed to move quickly up the ranks. I didn’t have the luxury of learning on the job for years before moving up.
In all my time at the vineyard restaurant, I was never allowed to be at the stove during service. My heart swelled as I watched Chef making art, but standing close and handing him plates was no longer enough. Watching him work was exhilarating and frustrating. I’d never know if I could do this—if I could make food do what he made it do—if I never burned my hands on a ladle or got my chef coat dirty. I had to find a line-cook job to see if I had the talent or skill to do what I wanted more than any big marketing contract or advertising campaign. I knew that if I hoped to one day become a chef myself, I would have to earn that right with hard work and exhausting nights on the line. If I couldn’t hack it, I would have to find something else, maybe even give up on my dream.
Having worked in the corporate world for years, I was certain that to get to the top I’d have to get into a high-profile restaurant where the chef’s reputation would help open doors for me down the road. But I couldn’t just toil under a famous chef. I needed a job that would allow me to support my family. I not only wanted to move to a high-profile restaurant, I wanted to skip a step in the process. Most restaurants want a cook to have done at least a year at the garde-manger or salad station before becoming a line cook, but with a move to the more prestigious hot side of the line, I could get both a career and a pay boost all in one shot.
So with eleven years in marketing communications under my belt, I crafted a resume that convinced Chef Susan Lindeborg of the popular Morrison-Clark Inn to put me on the grill station. Lucky for me, she was shorthanded at the time. It was a real break, but it was time for me to put up or shut up.
Susan Lindeborg was making beautiful food at the Morrison-Clark Inn. It was all over town. There were great reviews and magazine articles. Her knowledge about the raw ingredients all of us work with was unparalleled. But she had a passionate respect for the spring pea as well as for the lobe of foie gras. When a cook working the line with me made the polenta with so much butter and cream that the corn pudding tasted like scrambled eggs, Susan turned red-faced and didn’t quit lecturing until a fresh pot of water had started to boil. Spring peas arrived one day, and, boy, was that sauté cook in trouble when he presented her the special to look over and the peas had been blanched and blended into a glossy pastel purée. “What did you do to the peas?” she shrieked.
Her devotion to food was matched only by her devotion to her staff, from the pastry chef to the dishwasher. A towering figure—she stands about five feet eleven inches tall—she was concerned with all of our lives and careers. I don’t think I realized how tough she was until I saw her cleaning the lid that covered the reach-in cooler at the garde-manger station. I had looked away from the catfish I was browning when I heard metal clatter against metal. Blood was spurting from the gash along the length of her thumb. Without a word Susan headed for her office. She came back and pitched in plating salads and desserts when we became busy. Her thumb was wrapped tightly in the masking tape she kept in the first aid kit.
Every member of the staff feared, respected, and loved Susan. Sure she’d shout our ears off when we did something wrong. But if she came by when I was reducing the rabbit stock with a little bit of bourbon and broke the glossy surface with her index finger to taste it as I incorporated the butter and it met her expectations, I earned her signature pat on the shoulder. We all strived for that.
Sweat poured from my brow the first minute of the first day I settled into the hot corner of that kitchen. Gas jets on the grill heated lava rocks to about 400 degrees, cooking almost everything I’d learned in cooking school right out of my brain. The sheer intensity of the heat in combination with my jittery nerves made for unforgivable errors. I was an incompetent marker; instead of the neat black squares decorating my T-bone, there were multiple brown and black diagonal stripes. I was slow and disorganized.
My home-cook instincts were in the way. Anyone could tell that I hadn’t spent very much time in front of a professional stove. Everything near the stove was branding-iron hot. I reached for pot handles without thinking to pad my hand with one of the thick white towels rationed out to us at the beginning of the shift. The heat blasting from the oven made me hesitate before pulling out the lamb I was finishing to medium well. I jumped back from the heat like an amateur. Tables waited as I fumbled with tongs. I over-reduced sauces and had to start over. I sprinkled too much salt or too little. Susan would check on me now and again and merely sigh. I was sure my first day would be my last.
I had to last, though. As much as this was a challenge, it was too good an opportunity for me to lose. This was a great restaurant. It was located in a historic building in the heart of downtown Washington. Beautiful guest rooms, ornately decorated dining rooms, antique furniture, and the largest floral arrangements I’d ever seen. It was a fine, expensive restaurant, and the food was on the same high level as the décor and the service.
When I finally arrived home after that first day—all burnt and weary, feeling as if I’d fallen asleep on a blanket at the beach—the young girl I’d hired to watch my two children had a laundry list of mishaps to tell me about. Sian hadn’t eaten lunch or dinner. Magalee had been caught daydreaming during class and had not turned in a stitch of homework the entire week. Both girls had refused to take a bath, brush their teeth, wear pajamas, or even go to their rooms—let alone to bed. When I followed the babysitter, dragging my exhausted frame into the living room, they were both asleep in front of the TV wearing last year’s Halloween costumes, my jewelry, and lipstick Sian had found under the swings during recess.
I couldn’t very well say, “Wait till your father gets home.” And I couldn’t just go to bed as if nothing had happened. The babysitter eased the door shut on her way out while I carried Tinker Bell and Pocahontas, one by one, up to bed. I was too tired to dress them in their pajamas, but I did wet a washcloth and wipe the lipstick away.
After they were safely tucked in, I came back downstairs, put up a pot of coffee, sat down, and read my notes from cooking school. I reread the chapters on grilling, but like Magalee in class, my eyes couldn’t focus on the pages. I read the same sentence twelve times. My weary mind began to visualize my worst nightmares: Sian becoming even skinnier than she already was, her ribs in plain view for every judgmental person to see; Magalee older, the spark gone from her eyes, shopping for baby formula with food stamps. What would become of my children while I selfishly chased a dream of cooking for a living? Was it a dream worth chasing? Was it even something that I could do?
I didn’t sleep that night. My shift started at three the following afternoon, so I figured if I stayed up, I’d have time to regroup. The chef wasn’t happy with my performance and neither was I—and I wasn’t happy with my performance as a mother either. I poured myself another cup of coffee and contemplated what to do. I realized that I needed a specific plan to excel at both parenting and cooking, and to be able to do both simultaneously.
First and foremost, I realized that the girls were disobeying, acting out, and daydreaming because they were seeing less and less of me. They needed to know that I loved them while familiar things were gone and routines were disrupted. There had been a sudden and unexpected change in their family structure, a move to a new house, and a new school. Something in their lives had to be solid, consistent, and unwavering. That something had to be me.
As for my cooking, I needed to put my first day behind me and actually believe in a significant point I stressed on my resume, the one my new boss had commented on: “It says here that you can cook. We’ll have to see about that.”
By the time I’d figured things out enough to calm down and study my notes, the sun was coming up. I was physically exhausted but emotionally rejuvenated. I woke the girls, stripped them of their Halloween costumes, and put them in the tub. I told them to get cleaned and dressed in twenty minutes and there’d be corn-flour waffles with strawberry syrup for breakfast.
I usually reserved this for our big Sunday brunch, but brunch was a meal we could no longer share now that I was working as a cook. I found, however, that the unexpected treat could be just as effective as an expected punishment. Not even Sian could resist waffles made with corn flour so that they had a sweet crispness and a golden color.
In fifteen minutes the girls were dressed for school and Magalee was making an awkward attempt at brushing Sian’s tangled mess of hair. After breakfast I helped them with their coats and we walked to school.
Our fifteen-minute walk became an every-morning routine and an important part of my parenting. We’d walk the ten blocks in rain, cold, or snow. I learned about their schoolmates, teachers, and the things that worried them. Sian’s fears and primary focus tended to be social in nature—she was always seeking company and wanted to be surrounded by people. Magalee craved time to herself and her own thoughts. Sian was a fast-moving bundle of energy, while Magalee sometimes wasn’t even aware school had let out for the day. When the babysitter watched them, Magalee had an infinite number of questions for her and was sincerely interested in every answer. Sian had infinite things about herself to tell the babysitter. Magalee never took the position of know-it-all, but Sian—in part because she was three years younger—could be insistent, stubborn, and challenging.
On this first morning we were early. I let the girls loose on the swings and went in to talk to their teachers. The girls went to a school where most of their classmates were from wealthy families. Most of the mothers threw on a fur coat, piled the kids into the Mercedes, and sped off to school. I was well aware of the bad rap that blue-collar working moms got: that they weren’t very interested in their kids’ education. And at first, it probably seemed that I fit that bill, too. I needed their teachers to know that I would be just as involved as any other mother, if not more, in my daughters’ education.
One benefit of restaurant work was that most of my mornings were free, so I volunteered to chaperone field trips and help out at any other activity that had the typical elementary-school teacher crying for help. I cooked Hasty Pudding on a hot plate when Magalee’s second-grade class studied Early American history. The story of Johnny Appleseed was distinguished when Magalee showed up for class with fresh apple fritters. I read Green Eggs and Ham to Sian and her pre-kindergarten class and brought green deviled eggs and ham, made with avocado and parsley (which I still make today at my restaurant) that Sian sprinkled with grated ham and passed around to her classmates. There was no reason a mother who was also a working cook could not be an asset to the class, and especially to her children. Copyright © 2007 by Gillian Clark. All rights reserved.
Gillian Clark is a nationally known chef who runs the popular Washington, D.C., restaurant Colorado Kitchen. She is a commentator for NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and has been featured on the Food Network as well as in The Washington Post and The New York Times.