Friday, January 4, 2008

Feeling ill

Oof. Day 4 at RestoX was a complete failure. The overwhelming feeling I have is that I’m not cut out for this. I just don’t have the knack for it. Even if I do, I’m beginning this process way too late in the game. I feel like a 32-year-old just picking up a violin to become a concert pianist… this is just not realistic, is it? There’s a part of me that’s telling me to just give up, that this is crazy. What can I possibly do in the food industry at this age? But then there’s also this gut feeling (not hunger) that I must go on, that there’s a light at then end of this dark and fuzzy tunnel. Yes, I must do this. I can do it. Must…Go…On...

Things went awry from the very first moment I walked into RestoX. The first bad omen: there were almost no chef’s jackets in the changing area. Normally, there’s a huge pile of fresh, clean, sparkling white jackets hanging on the rack. Then, when Adam asked me to fetch some shallots in the walk-in, there were no shallots. Note to self: no shallots = a bad day.

Not to my surprise, I was asked to roll out the pasta for tortellini and tagliatelli. But not so fast! ChefX announced that today I would be receiving a tortellini tutorial - another bad sign. Without a word, he placed a beautifully executed tortellino on the work surface. I admired it and said, “Beautiful! You must have made that one.” He did. Then he placed an ugly duckling version next to his and said, “That’s yours.” Oof. My gut still wrenches as I write this. Remembering that moment will always bring me to the ground. If ever you think I need a slice of humble pie, this is your weapon.

Painful lesson #1:
Never, EVER, think you know what you’re doing. Never think that you have it all down. Even after you’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years, there’s always room for improvement. All this time I thought I was being humble, but clearly I thought the tortellini were mine. I mean, ChefX did coin me A. Tortellini after all… As with any situation, pride can just sneak up on you. Just like that.

I rolled out the dough, cut out the circles, and tried to emulate ChefX’s pasta craftsmanship. I’m not being dramatic here either. Those two tortellini were as different as night and day. If you saw ChefX’s piece de résistance, you would agree that it was a thing of beauty. Try as I might, I could not get my tortellini to look like his. Close, but the subtle difference made all the difference – not unlike the difference between a real Van Gogh vs. a replica. I feel so discouraged knowing ChefX honed these skills over decades of practice. How will I catch up, if ever?

Painful lesson #2:
ChefX explained that your tortellino shape is affected by whatever thoughts you get lost in. After the “lesson,” I was feeling like a complete failure, scared that I wouldn’t be allowed back at RestoX, anxious, nervous, mad at myself… all of these things. So what did my pasta look like? A scared little bear with it’s arms around itself, shivering in a cold, dark corner. What did ChefX’s look like? A radiant, open rose bud.

The thing with tortellini is that they’re so malleable, and every single one has to be sculpted into shape. If you don’t have the consistency of the pressure and angle of your fingers, each one will turn out slightly different. Yes, one could argue that this is the beauty of hand-made food. But then again, as ChefX explained, there must be some form of consistency in your food, day in and day out. This is a huge part of customer satisfaction. As my friend M.’s father says, a sign of a great cook is consistency. I’m presently feeling incredibly discouraged, but deep down inside I feel so determined. I can still do this. I just have to have respect for the process, and practice, practice, practice. Maybe I’m just delusional.

Painful lesson #3:
If you have a question in your mind, ask it! It all goes back to asking good questions. The dough that morning was extremely moist. Dry dough is a nightmare for tortellini making, but wet dough is the bane of tagilatteli making. All these weeks ChefX had always put out a quart of semolina flour (to sprinkle the sheet and tagiatelli with) and next to it a quart of all-purpose flour. I always wondered what the all-purpose flour was for. Hello? Why didn’t I just ask? I could shoot myself for my sluggish thinking. I ran the wet through the machine 20 times. It was still wet. I rolled it out thinner and thinner till it hit 7. Still wet. As I discovered later, this is what the all-purpose flour was for – duh. I lay the thin pieces out to dry a little, then ran them through the tagliatteli setting. I ended up with a sheet full of straggly lumps of dough. A nightmare. The logical thing to do would have been to ball it all up and start over, but my nervousness from the tortellini tutorial spurred me to keep going (and maybe lack of sleep from cookie-baking didn’t help either). Another note to self: When engaged in kitchen work with minus 5 hours of sleep, expect to make stupid mistakes.

Painful lesson #4:
ChefX said if I see myself approaching a train wreck, just stop and ask for help. Don’t continue thinking things will get better because most likely, they won’t. And you’ll end up making more work for yourself and others. I think the tricky part is recognizing when you’re approaching a train wreck or not. Most likely with food mistakes, the only answer is to throw it all away and start over. As ChefX says, “When in doubt, throw it out”.

The most painful thing about all of this was that Adam had to create a whole new batch of dough and roll it out again himself. It was a double-whammy of guilt layered with hurt pride…

My last task of the day was to slice some chives and tarragon. I always hated the way herbs look sad and wilted after you chop them. Clearly the kitchen of RestoX feels the same. Herbs bruise easily, so you ever chop them – you slice them. There is a subtle but great difference between the knife skills, but with herbs as delicate as tarragon, you pluck off the leaves one-by-one, creating a nice stack. You run your knife forward, through the stack, not directly down, so that you slice into the herbs with the forward motion, not with gravity coming down. It helps to have a very sharp knife. Apparently, gravity down is a big no-no in all professional kitchens. You’d be kicked out of the kitchen for it.

Luckily, ChefX didn’t kick me out after that long and horrifying day. Tomorrow is day 5. I will get to sleep early, chew my breakfast of champions slowly, and try to keep my kitchen mantras top of mind.