Monday, September 22, 2008

Am I really here?

My left fingertips are burnt, calloused and numb. I have a bad burn on my right forearm and wrist. I have a strange wound that won't heal in the space between my forefinger and thumb - a little accident that happened in my wrestle with a giant Hobart mixer. Both my hands are swollen and muscular like a man's, and they tingle with tightness every morning. My back aches, my feet hurt, and I'm really really tired.

On September 3rd, I began my four-month apprenticeship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. My day starts somewhere between 10:30 a.m. and noon and ends past midnight, around 1:00 or sometimes 2:00. When they say to come in at noon, it's really not a blessing because you have less time to do the same amount of work. I really can't believe the amount of food the kitchen is able to produce in so little time every day. With set-up for service at 3:00, family meal at 4:00 and service starting at 5:00, you only have about 4 full hours to get it all done. How do you it? You push. And push. And push. I thought I was pushing, but it's become clear that I have no idea what that really means.

In the first week, I worked with the meat guy. Ironic considering how little meat I eat at home. I spent most of my time putting various forms of meat into sous vide bags with various forms of marinade. The main takeaway from that week was that meat is heavy, especially turkey breasts. They are about the size of my thighs.

In the second week, the chef de cuisine put me on the amuse station. Talk about being thrown into the fire. I came out alive, but it felt a lot like the feeling of being thrown into the deep end when you don't even know how to doggie paddle. It was crazy. But it's also an honor to be given so many responsibilities. Every day I learn a little more - how to organize myself better, how to shave a few seconds off of this or that, how to season better, batter better, slice meat better... I'm learning on the job, hands-on, through experience. Raj at Saul used to say theory is useless if you can't execute it. Many cooks know a lot of stuff in theory but can't cook. I hope I'll learn to cook better. Someday. Day-by-day.

So how has it been? My brother asked me yesterday if I was having fun. I can't say I am, only because I've made a lot of sacrifices to be here, and life in the kitchen is hard as hell. It was never meant to be for my entertainment. There have been times, especially in the last week, when I would wonder about this new life I've chosen, if it needs to be so hard. I would ask myself, "Annie, wouldn't it be so much easier to go back to advertising? What are you doing here taking out linens and trash at midnight for zero pay?" But the thought of going back to the office life makes me cringe and my stomach churns just to think about it. It makes me sad sometimes to think how much I hated it because it would be so much easier if I didn't. If I could be just a little o.k. with it, I would go back. I really would. But I know I can't. I just can't.

What I can tell you is that I'm much happier. Or maybe it's more contentment and feeling at peace. In the morning, I drive past a beautiful lake, up to the pastures of Stone Barns filled with pigs, chickens, cows and sheep, and have a little chat with Gerry, the security guard. I get out of the car breathing sweet air, put on a crisp, clean uniform and start a new day with new challenges. I greet the staff, an amazing staff full of some real characters, then I set up my station, which has a window out to the courtyard (which I never seem to remember to take a moment to look out onto...).

At the end of the day, after thirteen hours standing on my feet and using my hands, I come home knowing that I did honest work and knowing where the fruits of my labor went. I'm also mighty proud of the stuff that kitchen puts out. Maybe not my finicky, disastrous financier burgers, but my ricotta and butter aren't half bad. And of course I'm in awe of the exquisitely beautiful plates that the chefs produce, especially the salads from the garde manger station.

Sometimes I wonder how I got here because every morning I feel like I awoke to a dream. Then I remember I just asked. Just ask. You never know if someone will say yes and where it will take you.

The photos above are from my third Thursday at Blue Hill. Thursdays are farm chore days, when we go out into the fields for an hour or two and have a chance to come that much closer to the ingredients we work with. It's great to get our hands dirty.