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Posts Tagged ‘Restaurant Culture’

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It was because of the coffee that I knew we were close to New York. And it wasn’t about the type of coffee or the taste – because we’d stopped in yet another Panera off the highway exit ramp offering the same kind of coffee as the last Panera off the exit ramp.

It was how I got my coffee that told me I was near New York. New York City. I’m not talking about the state because there is no discernible difference when you cross state lines. It’s all about the City.

I gave my order to the Panera girl. Double espresso. I waited, expecting as usual to have to repeat the order at least once then to have to wait patiently as she picked out the right button on the cash register then to pay then to wait another three minutes or so while she moved to the espresso machine to carefully slowly tease out the coffee from the machine.

But it wasn’t like that. I ordered and she didn’t ask me to repeat myself. Instead she rang up the order and moved with lightning speed to the espresso machine. She was a little thing and as she moved she called out, “I’ve never made this before,” (try this scenario on anywhere else but New York City and you’ve got at least a ten minute wait for your coffee twiddling your thumbs and biting your tongue while the learning process is somehow carefully and painfully managed) and the manager, a little stocky Italian guy with arms like a hairy gorilla, appeared magically at her side. “It’s easy,” he said. “Just do this that and that,” he told her while pointing at things on the machine. She nodded, did what he said, and he turned to me. “You want it here or to go?,” he asked rapid-fire (it sounded like “youwanhereorgo” and my heart sang. I loved this guy. He spoke my language. “I’m going to take it to go,” (I’mgointotakego) all rapid fire patter between us, and I wanted to hug him from the sheer joy of the dance that got that coffee for me in just about half a minute rather than the three or four deadly, dull, boring minutes it takes ‘outside the city’.

It was because of the coffee I knew I was near New York. It felt great to get coffee in my language. Exultant, even.

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(This is part 3 of 3 parts – the first two parts of the story are composed of the posts of the previous two days . . . 🙂 )
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new-one-again

This is what Lenotre taught me to make that day.

And that was the day I decided to not quit that job. And it was probably the day I decided I could actually become a chef, also.

So it is the Strawberry Cake that I remember most, about all of it – when someone says ‘Lenotre‘.

You had to be there to see all the results – among which were some line cooks with slightly different attitudes.

But the best thing really was that buttercream.
Mille remerciements a Gaston Lenotre.

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(Part 2, continued from preceding post)

No reason, really – why I should have been repulsed by that little scene on the table. The Chef was married but then so was the Sous Chef. Inequalities of power happen all the time. The Chef was gorgeous in an older woman sort of way – the thought did creep into my mind momentarily of her three children but then again it was said that hers was an open marriage. The Sous Chef was much younger than her and biddable. That’s exactly why he was Sous Chef. His wife was the ugliest woman I’d ever laid eyes on in my life. Still is, if I remember right. Why, I can’t explain. It was nothing precise or explainable. She was just plain scary-looking. Ugly. But the fact remains that watching the Executive Chef lean back onto the table laughing with her mouth in a wide open grimace, her legs grasping the chunky chested Sous Chef who was also rather grinning in a frightened sort of way – was repulsive.

It had almost been the last straw. I’d almost quit the job.

The ingredients that went into this recipe of being a professional cook in a restaurant kitchen were so different than I’d expected. I’d thought “Oh! I love to cook!” “Oh! I can do that job!” “Oh! I want to work in a restaurant!” and so, I’d applied for the job and regardless of the fact that I’d never cooked professionally, won the job after a horrendous first day where I thought I’d surely die from exhaustion, where I’d gone and laid down a little kitchen towel on the floor of the dirty white-trash-looking staff bathroom, far in the corner of the worst-lit longest corridor, and I’d laid there curled up for ten minutes to gather the strength to go back and do the job. Lifting fifty pound mixing bowls over my five-foot-two shoulder to pour batter into the prepared ten cakepans in a sweltering kitchen had not been my forte at any time before that day, and it was a bit of a mouthful to bite on.

I’d almost quit, but there was a triangle in the kitchen that I’d either walk out on or break out of victorious. And I was just angry enough to want to emerge victorious.

The triangle consisted of the Chef on one side. The line cooks, Roger and Frank, on the other side. And little Colette the French waitress who somehow had ended up in this eccentric place called Connecticut who ooh’d and ahh’d over the new offerings on the pastry cart (“I am glad someone knows how to BAKE” she would announce in tight short tones. “It has been HORRIBLE“) along with the Salvadoran busboys, who detested the line cooks and who loved cakes and pastries and taking a side wherever a side was to be found. I didn’t want to walk out on Colette and the Salvadoran busboys.

Roger turned up the volume on the radio set tuned to the hard-metal station to a screeching blast that day when he saw me walk in, and started to bob his head like a sick old duck in time to the bass notes. Frank pouted. I walked to the pastry station and right there on the spot where the Chef’s behind had been sitting several days before, I threw down upon that spot my weapon, and got ready to begin the attack.

My weapon was sweet.

My weapon was brilliant.

My weapon was a book.

The name of my weapon was ‘Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries‘.

(To be continued . . .Part Three Lenotres Cakes)

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Some people remember the past through things they ate. Memory, place, time, flavor, people . . . all become woven together into a fabric not to be unravelled.

Just as when in those moments a piece of music will insinuate through melody an entirely different time layered upon the present in a sudden spark that floods the current reality with meanings imbued from the past . . . and those meanings are every bit as real in the ‘now’ as when they first were formed . . .

Not that memory is not a questionable thing. It is. But some memories are less fractured than others – one can only hope that the retrospective glance is not looking through the prism of the past less clearly but more clearly, with the focused light of objectivity found through years passed – something not be attained by banging at it, but nonetheless sometimes to be found seredipitously.

I remember the past not so much from things I ate, but more from things I cooked.

……………………………………………………………………………..

The kitchen was hot that day. It often was, if you happened to arrive in the afternoon for work rather than in the early morning before the ovens and stoves and grill and fryolator and steamer all were operating at a pace similar to an animated Disney movie – at times almost ridiculously fast, almost out of control.

I could go in to work at whatever time pleased me, as the Pastry Chef.

At this upscale suburban Connecticut restaurant dropped as if with a bucket of hope from the sky into the center of a large black concrete parking lot with many yellow lines painted for the many anticipated diners-to-be, the pastries were ‘important’ but not all that important. Pastries and desserts weren’t important to the Executive Chef  – as the reputation of the place was to be focused on the food – not on the pastry. Pastries and desserts weren’t important to the owner of the restaurant because the Executive Chef had been bought at a dear price, and had to be coddled. Pastries and desserts weren’t important to the waiters and waitresses because in all the time past, they had not been stand-outs as part of the meal but merely follow-ups. In other words, there was no good tip money involved with the idea of dessert since the desserts themselves here in times past had not been worth the effort of  putting on a song and dance in order to up-sell.

The guys behind the line did their usual little dismissive dance when I walked into the kitchen. Roger’s prematurely almost-bald head flicked sideways away from his saute-pans for the briefest moment, the steam on his gold wire-rimmed glasses blending with the sweat on his forehead – the forehead behind which was a brain with an investment of some tens of thousands of dollars in the form of a Master’s Degree in Philosophy which had never been used in the form of a job (and which it seemed to me was not used in daily life either, if his attitude and behavior bore witness to what was inside his mind). His soft shoulders angled forwards and backwards in an I-dare-you shimmy, ever so slight while his legs inched slightly more apart, edging his crotch forwards toward the stove as if he were going to fuck it – as if he could fuck it if he just wanted to – which of course as we all know, no girl could ever do.

Frank was more abrupt. He could be, since he was a CIA grad. Slamming the oven doors closed and slapping a towel on the line, he sneered slightly in my direction with a cross between amusement and derision, and moved even faster than he had been before, his beard and moustache and his simple huge-ness of stature giving him the air of a strong but somewhat out-of-place furry black bear. He watched, bluntly, as I walked over to the ‘pastry station’ – the stainless steel table in the center of the kitchen where he’d piled anything extra he could not easily find any other space to put so that I’d have to move it all while feeling his gaze upon me the entire time, his eyes slowly chewing me up, same as they had been each day I’d walked into that kitchen – which at the time was for all of three long weeks.

As I lifted the piles of sheetpans, shifting them onto the racks where they belonged, a vision rose of a scene I’d walked in on at closing time the previous week – the Exec Chef was sitting there right in the middle of my nice clean stainless-steel assigned pastry-making table, pulling the sous-chef towards her then wrapping her legs around his chest as he slightly-squirmed, slightly-enjoyed it. She was drunk.

Better moving piles of sheetpans than having to see that again, I thought.

You have to wonder why one would even want to continue making pastry on that table.

But then Gaston Lenotre entered the scene.

(to be continued – part two Entre Lenotre)

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Lenotre died today.

And I find myself strangely wordless.

It’s not that I have nothing to say, but rather . . . I may have too much to say – about Lenotre.

I never met him. Yet he was a pivotal person in the path of my life.

If I can place my thoughts into an orderly shape I’ll write about him tomorrow. And maybe past tomorrow.

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The November/December print issue of Mental Floss puts Homaro Cantu of Moto on its list of ‘The New Einsteins – 9 Geniuses’.

The article is short, one page of questions. Cantu talks about levitating salt with a particle gun 🙂 🙂 and has this to say about his menu:

‘First we shock people, and then we awe them with the fact that this stuff is real food, ‘ Cantu says. ‘If it doesn’t make you go, “Holy sh**, that was the greatest spaghetti I’ve ever eaten – and it looked like a cheeseburger!” then it’s just not worth it.’

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