« My Kitchen Haikus | Main | The artist in me »

The weeds, aka the juice

I have been so busy all summer and fall (yes, in the weeds) that I haven’t written all that much. Actually, what I have is a number of unfinished pieces – half hashed out ideas or stuff I wrote but never bothered to post. Now, looking back, most of it seems dated. Being excited about the seasons and the science of happiness related to that - Ugh! Maybe it will come back to me one day, who knows.. In the meantime, I’m happy to see the busy season go and I don’t care about the science behind it. I wanted to write all about our mushroom festival – the ins and outs of the up and down season that it was, the varieties that wowed, those that didn’t show up, the hits and misses, recipes, highlights - all while it’s fresh in my mind, I have loads of photos. But I don’t have the energy, or the desire.. Although it was a huge success, it is the climax of our season (that starts in spring) and I’m ready for a break, not to mention eager to be cooking and thinking about other foodstuffs.

Amongst all the scraps of paper and half written posts, there is this one that remains timely only because in this business, the weeds are the kitchen are the weeds. I got writing one night in response to a post by Shuna (on Eggbeater), and I went off on a tangent or two, but I still think it’s worth posting, even if it only gets you to read her (now old) post.

I love it, Shuna - so dead on. Please see her post about cooks in the weeds, especially if you are a young cook. http://eggbeater.typepad.com/shuna/2008/10/the-weeds-resta.html

Here, we call ‘the weeds’ being ‘dans le jus’ or ‘in the juice’, but it’s all the same: that kitchen reality of relentless and unpredictable pressure that can make or break a cook, that reveals our experience and competence, our strengths and weaknesses, that inevitably weeds out the unfit, sending misguided newbies running for greener pastures, that makes the rest of us stronger and always on our toes, trying/needing to be better all the time.

No matter how much you want to coddle your carrots or your greens or your quail eggs or your dough, the fact is, it all has to be ready ‘Yesterday’, despite the fact that it’s hot outside and the dough isn’t cooperating, that the fridge is AFU and your greens half froze in the cooler, or that the silpats are sticking and the oven is full, that you’re one scallop short, or that the dishwasher hasn’t shown up or the fish guy hasn’t arrived. And none of your team has eaten, pissed or had a break with no window in sight. Still, the show has to go on, customers are hungry, they are there expecting the best, you HAVE to deliver, you have to be ready, you have to have a pocket of solutions when...

The ‘weeds’ or ‘the juice’ is exactly what work experience is all about. You aren’t even a cook, let alone a chef, out of school – no, not until you have years of weeds under your belt. And then as a chef, you still deal with that monster, being put to the test regularly, but you also have to train your cooks to deal with it, and as Shuna so eloquently puts it, there is no one way. Some need to be coached big time with words or with side by side action, but ultimately, all cooks have to ‘sink or swim’. No matter how much you learn, how well you are prepared, the weeds will come and you will have to deal. Best be as prepared as you can (MEP, MEP, MEP), and then be ready for anything. But then you will still need good judgement to negotiate those ominous weeds, and a good relationship with your fellow workers who might have to jump in to help when needed (solid team dynamic), all of which requires humility and social skills, and of course resourcefulness, passion and stamina throughout.. Who ever said cooking was easy? If only people really knew what was behind all their beautiful, delicious dishes. Oh yeah, that’s what the food network is on to, not that a few screaming chefs and cockroaches do it justice.

I clearly remember my first real cooking job (Quartier Latin, garde manger 15 years ago), where I tasted the ‘true - out of school’ weeds for the first time. I was a top student, but all of a sudden, I was NOTHING, useless. Always in the juice, I started and finished every shift in a sweat, daily on the verge of tears, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do this ‘crazy business’. I prayed to just get through the day, chop fast enough, get those tartares and salads and escargots and blue cheese beignets out quickly and just so, not forgetting all those damn squid and brains I had to clean, making the crème brulées, the fussy pear tart and etc., all while passing under the radar of the French chef I hadn’t impressed because I didn’t know what a ‘cul de poule’ was (why do I have to be anglo?) and because I couldn’t turn a mushroom for crap (what is the point of turning mushrooms? I still don’t know.) It was boot camp for sure - physically exhausting, mentally draining, a whipping of the ego, a whipping dans tous les sens. Especially because I had another full time job in a similar kitchen on the side (I was eager and driven), where luckily, I had a slightly softer chef in charge who still pushed me to the limit, but was supportive and empowered me; no matter, I was still always in the weeds.

Anyway, at the Quartier Latin, where I was terrified stiff, my saving grace was the incident when he asked me for a brunoise when he wanted a macedoine, scolded me but then realized I was right, coupled with the fact that the following night, I cut my finger off and taped it all up solidly without letting on and worked the night, only going to the hospital at 1am (it was too late for stitches), and then I think I made a surprisingly good staff meal for a rookie to boot. All to say that I passed the hump, I started getting pats on the back. That bit of extra work and recognition kept me going; maybe I could do this after all, I thought, just MAYBE I did have at least some of what it takes. The juice came again every day for hours at a time, and I still never knew if I would survive, but somehow I did. Then I’d go to my other job and go through another gut wrenching service, days, weeks, months on end. If I had stopped for a minute, I may have gotten weak and bailed, but before I knew it, the adrenalin rush, the steep learning curve, the exciting food we were cooking, the team spirit, that kitchen stadium battle feeling with its sweet highs, had taken hold of my soul. I finished the year stressed out, with a foot problem and a back problem, but I was almost a cook. I had worked all the stations, I could make all kinds of dishes, even menus, but it still wasn’t easy - managing the rush, the juice, the weeds. There were the Radio Can lunch rushes at Picolo, the hundreds of brunches at Winnie’s, my catering events that started hours late, the non-stop chit machine at the Tavern, then the stars and reputation of L’Eau à la Bouche.

As a somewhat seasoned cook at l’Eau, I still wasn’t out of the weeds. Instead of volume and non-stop chits, it was all of a sudden about important details, a brigade, managing up and down customer flow, staff and inventory, living up to Anne’s reputation. The pressure never abated, the looming weeds never left, staff meal at 5pm – forget about it. Now at Les Jardins Sauvages, although simpler in format, and me better equipped with experience, I’m still constantly in fear, and I can rarely manage a 5 min. break, let alone staff meal. Definitely, a lot of that pressure is self imposed, but mainly it’s the nature of the beast - professional cooking is wrought with details, time limits, perishables and PEOPLE, ie. Ten zillion things that can go wrong, especially if you’re striving for high standards. And I don’t want to/can’t bang out food. None of this would be worth it if we banged out food.

Who wants to bang out food? And so, I plan and I organize and I fret; I feel like I do everything in my power to minimize the weeds (all while cooking them), but they still keep cropping up. That’s life, as they say, especially in a restaurant kitchen. I have no choice but to do my best to avoid them at all costs, but I do embrace them too, it’s a part of what makes this crazy life tasty, keeping life exciting, keeping you sharp. How to pass that on? I don’t know. It’s just years in a kitchen. Stick it out, and it comes. Stick it out, you’ll understand. All chefs can relate 100% to Shuna’s post, it’s so good.

Now, I have a small kitchen, I’m there every night manning the stove, searing the meat, making the sauces, I have a set menu. All that means I have more control, minimizing disasters that aren’t my own fault, but there’s a lot more to a meal than meat and sauce, I still need good staff. And again, because I only have six burners, limited space and a small staff, I am flirting with the weeds because I push the limits with my complex menus; cooking everything that needs to be à la minute, stove space is calculated from the time we arrive, every countertop is always in use. I get an allergy or a kid (pasta), and there goes two burners.. If tables are staggered due to late arrivals – I can’t be searing scallops and deer at the same time, nor can I be plating scallops and deer at the same time (space, staff). So, even my supposedly serene kitchen is ripe for weeds. But not like in a big one with a brigade and a big carte, or another small one with no brigade and a line up.

Oh, but I remember.. Over the years, I can think of so many juice nights, most of which you get through and sit around afterwards and have beers in relief; everything is fine after the fact, a happy blur. But there are certain scenarios that if repeated don’t wash down with a pint of beer. There’s the cook who is NEVER ready, that always needs bailing out, that relies on it, that won’t last. But it does happen to all of us too, to tank, to almost not pull through until someone on the team comes to the rescue, and it’s classic that - the uber talented cook who ends up sinking because of his ego because he is working alone, in contrast with another perhaps less talented cook who is friends with everyone, who jumps in here and there, often to save the day. A cook like that provides a kind of glue in a kitchen, so much more valuable than sheer talent I now understand. Like a chef de partie who can tell you exactly what the score is, that we are in the shit, that there are exactly 3 pintades left with 5 on order, that we are low on this or that, or that so and so is fucking up, or who can fess up and ask for help. You have to be quick, on the ball and a good cook, but if you can’t take the heat and say it like it is when the shit hits the fan, you take the team down. Like Shuna says, in the weeds, it’s the team that counts. As a result, I don’t choose my staff the same way anymore (when I can choose). But really, I don’t care about CV’s or credentials or even talent really, it’s more about being smart (in a general sense), quick, tough, passionate, dedicated, and most importantly, having a good personality that fits with the team and the place - all the better to get through the weeds together.

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 04:58PM by Registered CommenterNancy Hinton in , | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

What an excellent article this is. I prefer it to the one that's cited - this piece is hotter, fiercer, edgier & somehow more delicate.

I'm a newcomer to what I'm beginning to believe is a subculture food writing trend, which is marvellous text written by talented cooks & chefs who are not mainstream published authors in the least. What they have in common is that they're all from Montreal. They write about the food they can source in Montreal, near Montreal, in Quebec. Part of the lustre gleaming from their paragraphs comes from the fact that, as quasi-amateur scribes, they're not yet aware of how good they really are.

Finding the bits & pieces of such writing is like finding wild herbs in spring. A few here, a few there. Where there may have been an entire field last year, this year can find the crop vanished & the field occupied by other plants.

I've only begun to explore this blog. It looks like a jewel. It could never have come from any other place on earth. The writer, though she's pushing the envelope into the next century, far ahead of nearly everyone else in north America, writes familiarly about food that's been here, in Quebec, for a thousand years.
November 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterhumble_pie

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.