*The first plated dessert I put together on my own that actually went to a table.
The full time pastry program at SFCS is a four month in class program, then immediately followed by a two month externship. I’m at the tail end of my first week of my externship at the Village Pub, a one-star Michelin rated restaurant in Woodside, CA. This week has been full of ups and downs, settling in to a very, very new schedule and type of work. I’m not quite sure I like it, and to be honest, am quite thankful it’s only two months, but the one thing I am sure of is that I’m learning at a much more rapid pace in the kitchen than I did at school.
School was very structured, obviously, and went through as much breadth as possible in the four months we were there. Because it was only four weeks though, we didn’t get much practice in terms of repetition, different techniques on fundamentals and speed. In the restaurant, you do whatever is needed in order to be prepared for service and to get out alive on the other side. That means, one minute you may be making pate a choux and the other you are scaling out ingredients for a foam — and you’re doing it fast. On my first night, doing my first task, I was told to prep pears for poaching. Yay! I did this a lot during my stage at Manresa Bread! I was set up in a tiny corner, but wasn’t given any lemon water to put the peeled pears in. I asked, ‘do I need lemon water in case they turn brown?’. The reply I got would tell me everything I need to know about how to work in a real kitchen: “Nope, you don’t need it if you’re fast enough”. Shit, ok. Go time. (Hilariously, and of course, right after that I peeled my pinky finger along with the pear so I had to ask for the first aid kit. Within ten minutes. Such beginner).
Working in the pastry department of a Michelin restaurant is just organized mayhem. There’s a constant energy, even when it isn’t service time. Everyone moves deliberately with urgency. Once service begins and the tickets start flowing in, you can get in the weeds very quickly if you don’t have everything set up right and have extras on hand. The few hours that we have between lunch and dinner service are critical to making sure we’re able to make it out of dinner alive. Even then, there is a bit of production that happens throughout the night to prep for future nights.
The most critical (and most popular, by far) part of dessert service at The Village Pub is the Chocolate Souffle with Earl Grey creme anglaise. It’s ordered throughout the night, and takes quite a bit of time to bake. If you don’t have a buttered and sugared ramekin and the souffle batter ready to go, you’re already behind. If you get an order for three, but only have enough batter for two, you’re set back at least five minutes. It’s an interesting balance that needs to struck. The very first time I made it, I over-whipped the egg whites — turns out it’s best if they are soft to medium peaks, not firm peaks otherwise the souffle will crack — and had to start over, under the gun. And for the life of me, I cannot pour that base cleanly into the ramekin. I know it’ll come, but in the mean time I keep getting chocolate everywhere.
Then you have birthdays and anniversaries, along with all the other things that people go to fancy dinners to celebrate. Above is the picture of my very first happy birthday in chocolate. I’m sorry to the diners that got that plate. I’m certain I’ll get better in practice, but damn it sucks to suck at all this. On that note, here are some of the big lessons I took away from week one that I hope you might find valuable – whether you’re thinking about going into this industry, curious how it works or just like to know a bit more about what it might be like.
Lessons from Week One:
And apologies if these are seemingly obvious, but many of them didn’t occur to me until I was shown otherwise or called out for it:
- Assume you know nothing. Because whatever you do know is only one way of doing something. Doesn’t mean that’s the way chef wants you to be doing it. Example: pate a choux, which I used to make the chouquettes pictured here. Chef asked me if I know how to make pate a choux. I replied yes! I’ve made it a few times. Turns out there are many ways you can make pate a choux more efficient. Fortunately, chef is pretty cool and showed me how to make them his way, which is much faster. Boom. Pretty little chouquettes in a shorter amount of time.
- Two Hands. Do everything you can with both hands. Why are you only moving one almond cake at a time when you could be moving two?
- Work Clean. Tie off the end of the piping bag with plastic wrap. Will help keep it nice and clean, and won’t run the risk of it spilling out.
- On the same note, put away things as you use them. This was always something I thought I did, but when you have to put out three quarter sheet trays to plate one dessert, putting back each one as you’re done with them will help make sure you work cleaner – and smaller.
- Work small. At times, there will be four of us in one six foot area. We all have sheet pans, bowls, scales, ingredients. And it has to work. Be smart about the amount of space you’re taking up. And same for how you stand – people can’t walk behind you if you’re standing far away from the counter taking up a bunch of room.
- Stand up. Move things to work for you. Don’t bend over and risk hurting your back when you could be more comfortable.
- Proper shoes. Kitchen shoes not only protect you from slipping and falling, but damn do my legs and feet feel better after wearing them. I wore regular running shoes the first day (don’t ask why, I’m not really sure) and came home to really achy legs. Second day with my normal kitchen shoes, I came home to reasonably tired legs.
- Compression socks, FTW. Along with proper shoes, compression socks have really been helping my legs feel a lot better after standing all day. I know nurses know this one well.
- Be heard. This was interesting to me. I always say ‘behind’ and ‘corner’ when walking around in the kitchen to avoid collisions. I apparently wasn’t saying it loud enough, as I collided with someone that I was just saying ‘behind’ to. She correctly told me to ‘be louder’ as she continued walking.
- Time and place. When service gets super busy, you shouldn’t be spending time to make everything look perfect. If you got a bit of meringue in a place it shouldn’t be, but it isn’t obvious, keep moving. Spend the extra time when you have it.
- Super specific: If you’re melting butter and chocolate together in a double boiler, put the butter first, then the chocolate. The butter seems to take longer to melt, so having it be closer to the bowl will help it melt faster and more evenly with the chocolate.
- Scaling. I’ve always made sure to be exact when it came to scaling ingredients, but time and time again people have told me I can be plus/minus 5 grams on most things, with the exception of chemicals, which should be exact. I’m still trying to train myself to be ok with this.
- Practice, practice. Piping, quenelling, and writing with chocolate are three of the most important skills to develop if you want to work in a fine dining restaurant kitchen. You end up piping in so many different ways – from portioning almond cakes to ribboning cremoso – that you have got to be consistent and fast at it. I am not there yet, but if I wanted to actually have a job in this industry, I would need to get good at it fast.