Its the first week of October—I’ve been a Ferrandi student for a whole month now. And just to show that they wasted no time pushing us into the deep end, we’ve already completed our first week of service in the school restaurant. For 30 Euros, people off the street can come and enjoy food cooked and served by students preparing to be launched out into the real world of fine cuisine (and we better know what we’re doing before then, because I suspect the real world is much less forgiving). Having at least some food service experience already under my belt, I admit I walked in feeling self-confident and excited. I knew I knew how to manage 4 saucepans at once without burning anything, I knew I could work under pressure and I’m not afraid of a bit of yelling. And after all, guest attendance was capped at only 30 people. How bad could it be?
It certainly started out easy. Tuesday was just for organizing ourselves. We spent the day running through the checklist of what we needed, preparing the stocks and getting some basic prepwork done, determining who would be in charge of what tasks.
Wednesday morning, we all woke up bright and early, arriving at school at a quarter to 8 to begin our preparations for our lunch shift. Things went smoothly (only a few minor hiccups) but I really had some building frustration with the lack of guidance we got from the chef. Its not that I didn’t know what needed to be done according to the recipe, its just that the chef has very specific ideas about how he wants his food prepared and plated. Unfortunately, with 11 other students clamoring for attention, I wasted a lot of time standing around and waiting for him to get to me and demonstrate exactly how he wanted a particular vegetable cut, or exactly how it should be arranged. We got through it though, and finally it was time for service.
The way service works is that the chef receives orders from the waitstaff (also students at the school, training for jobs in restaurant service and management) and then calls out the orders out to the kitchen staff, according to table number. In charge of each station is a commis chef (a classmate was assigned to the job), who actively keeps a record of the orders, coordinates cooking, tells the cooks at each station when to fire, and then helps plate. (In a “real” kitchen, however, often the cooks themselves have to keep track of orders while cooking–there isn’t anyone to do it for them.) Adding to the confusion, we must also keep an eye on the time—for example, we know that when order comes in from the dining room, the appetizer will be the first course out. We pay attention to the clock so that when we begin cooking the main course it will be perfectly done when the waiter comes back to get it. Starting too early means cold food being delivered, starting too late means it won’t be ready and a longer wait for the guest. Finally, we must syncronize with other cooks preparing other dishes, so that all main courses are ready to go out at the same time, and so on.
Training your mind to balance all this information clearly isn’t developed on the first try. or the second try.
Our first service went ok. There were a few challenging moments in the beginning (misheard orders, not firing the right amount of food, food not being the correct temperature), but toward the end we all started figuring out how to communicate and how to multitask all the things we needed to do. I was in charge of sauteing skate, so throughout service I was not only cooking the fish, but monitoring my portions and ingredients, washing out my pans, and just trying to stay clean and organized. I do think that I got some pretty good practice for this at Lenovo (maybe better actually, as it’s way more intimidating to have to do all this with the customer standing directly in front of you and watching) but it was definitely a challenge to keep all the orders straight, especially when they’re being barked at you in a foreign language. Thankfully we weren’t on our own and we had our commis to help keep track of things as we cooked. Even so, at the end of service I found I had cooked one piece of fish too many, but yknow, that’s not the worst that could have happened.
Our second service began much easier as we had already prepped most of our ingredients the day before, and aside from making some fresh sauce and cutting some new herbs for garnish, there really wasn’t much to do. Since we had a little extra time and leftover fish, we decided to make a terrine. Y’know, I don’t know why terrines aren’t very common in the US, but they’re a great way to use up leftovers (just pack them into a dish, we layered ours with roasted red peppers and our harissa herb mixture, and leave overnight to set), and when you think about it, they’re really not all that different from a meatloaf.
Unfortunately, despite our easy start, somehow things got a little out of control during service. All things considered, it really didn’t go badly, but I could tell my commis was getting a little flustered and there were some issues with communication between us and the other fish station. In some ways mastering the kitchen is a little bit like mastering ballet. It certainly requires both mental and physical focus,stamina, and athleticism (that is, if you don’t plan on bursting into tears or keeling over onto a flaming iron stovetop), and everyone on the stage really has to be dancing at their best every step of the way. When we’re not in sync with each other, the entire performance gets onto the wrong foot.
Overall, I didn’t really have a good time in restaurant service. But then, I don’t think I liked my saute station at Lenovo when i first started, either. I definitely didn’t like the grill. It’s always kind of scary when you’re taking on something new and don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail. It feels rather like moving up to Monopoly from Monopoly Junior….it’s sort of the same game, but on a whole different level, and with some new complications I haven’t really learned how to manage yet. It was tiring and frustrating, but it’s manageable and we’ll get the hang of it. We have to, or we might as well hang up our hats now.
Other dishes on the menu: