A few weeks ago I put a few things in two backpacks and drove south to the small wealthy town of Los Gatos, home of Manresa restaurant. I was to stage for three days at the bequest of David Kinch, chef and owner.
About two years ago my friend Pim called me up and said she was making all the food for a friend's birthday party but she didn't want to make dessert. Could I make something, she asked sweetly. Her friend didn't like really sugary desserts and she'd be making a bountiful Thai spread-- could I prepare something simple?
There was a recipe I'd been wanting to make. Lemon Cream, supposedly similar to the one Tartine puts in their light tarts garnished with whipped cream and pink rose petals. A few days before the party I called Pim to ask her a few last minute questions. I let her know what I was planning. "OH David will like that very much, he loves Meyer lemons." "David?" I inquired. "David Kinch?! I'm making dessert for David Kinch's birthday party?!!!"
Oy Vey. How did that important fact escape me?
I was going to make a lemon cream tart but the experimental dough I lined the flouted tart pan melted. I was sure the Chef Gods were conspiring. "Heh heh heh... You can't back out now, it's just hours before the party."
But my dessert was a hit. I took my very long serrated F. Dick knife and carefully sawed through the disk of tart dough, creating lengthy pointy crunchy cookies. These were a nice foil for the luxurious lemon creaminess.
At the party David and I became engaged in a conversation about whether smoking cigarettes affects palate sensitivities. I liked that he had opinions. Strong ones. And he wasn't afraid to have an in depth discussion with someone who had differing opinions.
On the West Coast I find this trait sadly lacking.
I met a few of David's cooks and he said I should stop in and say hi sometime. I didn't tell him that driving through Los Gatos wasn't part of my commute to anywhere I ever went. I was polite, I said, "Sure."
The next time I spent any amount of time with David and Pim was the night I covered the Commonwealth Club food bloggers event. I was the proud winner of a $200 gift certificate to Manresa from the Menu of Hope fundraiser Pim had generously put together. He wanted to know when I was coming in for dinner.
"And, hey-- when are you coming in to spend some time in the kitchen? You know, I don't ask just anyone!"
Oh. It dawned on me. Slow, yes, but I got it finally. He was inviting me to stage.
In the restaurant industry the way we interview is that we "trail." We send a resume and interview like the rest of the world, but then we do what is like an active interview. We come to the kitchen for a day, a night, and we watch service or we get put in a corner with some tasks. Depending on the restaurant, the chef, the caliber of the kitchen, the trail can be just watching, hours and hours of active work, or something in between. At Gramercy Tavern I was told not to touch anything during service because all the food going out had to be perfect.
At another trail in NYC I was told the 130 seat restaurant was staying open for 4 reservations on the books. When I saw some incredibly overcooked creme brulees on a speed-rack, I glanced at the 400F oven and expressed my condolences to the pastry chef. "Oh those?" He said, nonchalantly waving his hand over their still bubbling surfaces, "Doesn't matter, we torch the tops during service and no one will know the difference." I looked at my watch and lied, saying that I forgot I had a doctor's appointment. The restaurant closed a few months later.
A stage is like a very long trail. A stagiere is a person who apprentices, someone who can and will work for free for the experience. The practice is most common in Europe with many American cooks going to any restaurant who will take them.
Pastry chefs love stages. One reason is because the savoury kitchen is composed of an entire brigade of cooks to create the menu whereas pastry chefs are lucky to have an assistant or two. It's rare that pastry chefs will turn down eager, free labor.
Many a cook at The French Laundry started in the pastry department during my time there. It was their "in" door to the kitchen. I, for one, appreciate the cooks and chefs who feel comfortable in both worlds. I started as a line cook and those skills have proved immensely useful at many of my more challenging jobs.
I spent three days at Manresa. Wednesday- Friday 11:30 am- @1 am. Hot, long, inspired days and nights.
Stay tuned for part two.