Back from Ottawa
February 11, 2007
I feel like I’ve been to the moon and back. It was just Ottawa, and a day of tests, the last stages in the application for the job of Chef at Rideau Hall, but it was quite the rigamaroll (what is that word anyway?), a sort of a surreal experience. The whole process challenged me to the core, fully consuming me beforehand (insomnia) and then after the fact, endless rehashing and self-bashing. Thankfully, it is now over. The point of the exercise was to put myself to the test to see how I measure up more than anything. This kind of job was nothing I had ever sought or saw myself suited for. Over the course of the year (yes, a year!), I came to doubt it even more, tiring of all the drawn out procedures, formalities and paperwork, the bureaucracy. I blew it off a few times, but kept getting more chances, so what the hell, I decided I wanted to see it through to the end. Besides, if there ever was a proud Canadian, bilingual, idealistic cook, it was me, and I love tests.
I definitely got what I went for, that is an ultimate challenge. Foremost, I was reminded of how humbling the cooking profession is. No matter how many compliments you get, how many menus you create, how many successful dinners you pull off; no matter how many times you make a demi or cook a duck, there are still always ten zillion things that can go wrong, and you will continue to fuck up occasionally, when you least expect it. A forgotten order, a burnt tray of croutons or an over-reduced sauce are always but a minute away. And even when nothing catastrophic occurs, you find fault in some detail; there's always something to question or fix, and never enough time to get it just right.
From 9am to 9pm that day, I went from drill to drill in a sweat, forced to dig deep down behind the head-cold induced fog that covered my brain, to find the smarts, confidence and stamina to be as brilliant as I could be. In that, I failed. I didn’t make a fool of myself, I got everything done more or less; however, I didn’t let much brilliance shine through. At several points, I couldn’t help but think a panellist or judge was wondering how I got as far as I did, given some of my stupid gaffes.
The interview went Ok. The written part was daunting and impossible to complete in the allotted time, consisting of events to plan from A to Z, including a menu with wine pairing, service specs, producers, budgeting, staff, overtime, everything… for a state visit by the King of Morocco three weeks away, and then for a conference on child hunger for 250 people in three days. Huge. Caught up in a cloud of numbers, I somehow forgot to find a halal butcher for my favorite lamb source, doh..
The practical part, a black box, seemed the easiest of the tasks, with a trolley full of good stuff and plenty of time, but that’s where I feel I came up short. I wasn’t focused enough; I was too stimulated by all the great things in the basket and tried to do too much, and nothing spectacular. I definitely was not judge-conscious enough. I could have pulled out some fancy flourishes; I should have at least worked by the book. Instead, I pulled a bunch of 'un-kosher' manoeuvres, swore here and there, cooked bistro food and served it cold (there was a huge vent over me). I overcooked a pancetta garnish on my entrée that had way too many things going on anyway, and I forgot to put two of my veg garnishes on my main plate. I don’t know what I was thinking, I wasn’t. What I put out wouldn’t have made it out of any kitchen I’ve run. It was all in the details, but what was I doing there then? The chef for the GG would have to be the master of details, steady under pressure, regardless of lack of sleep or flu symptoms. Anyway, I left in a drained daze, so mad at myself for under performing, but somehow still proud, because the whole thing made you feel like you were a part of something special.
I have immense admiration for Michaelle Jean and respect for the Canadian institution symbols and all, but somehow, I can’t picture myself uttering the words ‘their excellencies’ every other minute. Sure, it would be a privilege and honour to carry out her program to forge a stronger Canadian culinary identity, promoting excellence, education and community. It would be fun to have those resources, that garden, and have access to the best Canadian ingredients, uncovering small treasures and promoting them, to be supported by a good team, to be a part of such an operation. I’m sure it would be the most rewarding of challenges, even if I wouldn’t have much of a life outside my job. I certainly became seduced by this job I had never really wanted before. I’m sure that with enough blood, sweat and tears, I could do the job well, but I also know that it might be less of a stretch for someone more experienced and more polished, like the other candidates for instance. The other three were evidently more serious and technical, and surely more accustomed to a big, formal, unionized type enterprise. Two were French from France tall hat types, the third was a guy from Ottawa, and already the sous-chef at Rideau Hall. Unless something really extraordinary went down that day, I can’t help but think he will be a shoo-in, and so he should be.
After all that, I have to say that teaching seemed less intimidating, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see the table champêtre and be back in the comfort zone of my small country kitchen. I did come back exhilarated, but also harder on myself than ever, finding nothing good enough, with a persistent drive to push myself to be better. I am more aware of my weaknesses (and strengths) than ever, which is a good thing, I guess. Even if the kitchen is an ongoing test, it’s only healthy for the ego and for the soul to get out of your bubble and really put yourself to the test every now and again. You inevitably find inspiration, and it’s bound to be a safeguard against aging, complacency and narrow-mindedness, not to mention helpful in keeping you in touch with who you are and what you want. I'm a just a cook, a simple girl. I am a good manager, I have a good instinct and palette, and a hungry mind. But my knife skills suck, I have never been near a Michelin star, and I rely on timers. I don't like things chopped too fine or overly transformed (ie.fancy), and I hate protocol. And that's fine.