The restaurant was in downtown London, a couple of blocks from the Savoy hotel. Although it was close to a landmark, its side street address gave it the sense of being a hideaway spot off the main road. The interior decor was simple and clean, adorned with colorful paintings by California artists that accented contemporary furnishings. In the back of the dining room, a semi–open kitchen featured a mesquite grill—a new trend in restaurant design in the States and a fresh addition to the London restaurant scene.
From the beginning, I felt apprehensive. It was the first time I would be responsible for all the back–of–the–house operations—from scheduling, ordering, equipment maintenance, and service—as well as the most important, the quality of the food. The departing sous–chef hinted that things might be a little “sensitive” in the kitchen.
After a couple of days on the job, I got the picture all too clearly. From my training in other restaurants, I learned that great kitchens are silent kitchens, the air thick with concentration. The only competition for your own thoughts are the sounds of knives chopping, whisks whisking in stainless steel bowls, and food sizzling in hot pans—all under the hum of the exhaust hoods and refrigerator compressors. I also believed it was the best way to get the most productive work out of a staff.
But each afternoon long before service began, this kitchen was abuzz with a cacophony of endless, needless, and distracting chatter. It was clear the staff enjoyed each other’s company far more than the work. Something else was clear. No one was looking to impress the new guy in charge.
Then again, why should they? They knew I was there for only a couple of months. And I wasn’t confident enough of the support I’d get from the owners if I told everybody to just chill out, that until they heard otherwise I was the boss and quiet was the way I liked it. Or maybe it wasn’t confidence I lacked, but a natural assertiveness.
One afternoon about a month into the job, on what was supposed to be my first day off since starting, I stopped at the restaurant to reassure myself that I could go and enjoy the rest of the day in peace. I was in the chef’s office, looking over the week’s food invoices, when one of the line cooks dropped on me that he had heard Alice Waters had reserved a table for dinner that night. Yes, the same Alice Waters who by any measure was one of the most respected figures in American cooking. I went to the hostess stand and checked the reservation book. It was true. Next to her name, in letters the hostess could not miss, the day manager had written “PPX”—personne particulierement extraordinaire—the restaurant’s version of VIP. My evening’s plans would have to wait.
I had met Waters several years before, first at a charity event in New York, and then again after I moved to San Francisco. One day, while flipping through a popular food magazine, I noticed an article describing a small, intimate cooking school in the south of France run by a self–taught authority of the cuisine, Nathalie Waag. What particularly caught my attention was the article’s description of how Nathalie took small groups of students to open–air markets in Provence to shop for the ingredients that they would use to prepare dishes that evening in her mas, a Provençal farmhouse. It was mornings in the markets, a leisurely lunch at a nearby café or an impromptu picnic made up from market finds, afternoon drives in the countryside, informal classes in the kitchen with aperitifs, and long evenings at the farmhouse table in the dining room. It sounded pretty good to me.
I was working as a sauté cook in one of the celebrated hotel restaurants in San Francisco, Campton Place. By all outward appearances, my life was good and my career was progressing nicely. In fact, a couple of weeks earlier, I had been offered a promotion to sous–chef. I hadn’t yet accepted the offer, but I hadn’t turned it down, either. Among their many responsibilities, sous–chefs are the ones who do the daily food ordering, which requires that they know and manage the kitchen’s inventory of ingredients. I had visions of spending more time with clipboard in hand counting the portions of meats, poultry, fish, produce, and dairy in the walk–in refrigerator, then moving on to counting the groceries in the storeroom, than actually cooking the food.
By comparison, the image of life described in the magazine article was far more enticing, and I wondered if there was some way I might get to speak with Nathalie. The article mentioned that she was a good friend of Waters’s, and that she spent her winters across the bay in Berkeley hanging out at Alice’s respected restaurant, Chez Panisse. I thought Alice would remember me and take my call. She did, and when I asked if she knew how I could get in touch with Nathalie, she said, “Sure,” and passed the phone to her. By an amazing coincidence, Nathalie happened to be sitting next to Alice at that moment. I introduced myself, and we agreed to meet over coffee a few days later at Fanny, Alice’s small café also in Berkeley.
When I arrived for the meeting, Nathalie was already seated. Once the pleasantries had been exchanged, she went about describing the simple ways of Provence. We spoke about cooking, markets, and ingredients. It didn’t take long to realize this was a lifestyle that had to be seen firsthand. Without ever having planned to do so, I offered to be her assistant if she ever needed one.
A couple of months later, it came—an invitation from Nathalie. She suggested I spend a “spring-summer school term” with her. I would be getting room and board—no salary or stipend, but that didn’t matter. Her reputation as a devout practitioner of Provençal cooking was unquestioned, and I knew that working side by side with her would broaden my cooking palette. I accepted immediately, figuring I would work with her for a few months and then see if I could find another opportunity in France, extending my European stay to six months, nine at the most.
A number of my fellow cooks scoffed at the idea of leaving an established position to take an unpaid internship. However, Mark Franz, a friend and well-known chef who ran the popular and busy kitchen at Stars in San Francisco, had a different take.
“It won’t be a waste,” he told me. “Short detours can be good for a career. Even if she has you in the back of the kitchen doing nothing but dicing tomatoes. Forget your ego; forget what the others are saying; just concentrate on cutting those tomatoes and watch. This could turn out to be the most important trip you’ll ever take.”
My excursion from San Francisco to the south of France included a weeklong stopover in New York. It was early spring, a nice time of year to visit and see my parents, friends, and some of my cooking buddies. The trees were starting to bloom, and those pesky dandelions were all over my parents’ yard. Coming from the temperate climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, I realized how much I missed the change of seasons.
During my week in New York I received a message from Nathalie telling me that I would have to delay my arrival at the school for a couple of months. Something about her classes starting late that year. Sitting around and waiting has never been my best game, so I called around looking for something to fill the gap. Within a day Larry Forgione, my former boss at An American Place in Manhattan and one of the true pioneers of the American food revolution, came through for me. He knew of the perfect situation.
A friend of his had just sold the London edition of his restaurant, and the new owners needed an interim chef de cuisine to run the kitchen for a couple of months until their own chef could start. The irony that this job would entail much of the clipboard work I was running from didn’t elude me. But what the heck. It was a short-term job that filled the empty slot in my calendar, and then I’d be off to the south of France. I called Larry’s friend, who in turn put me in touch with one of the new owners, and we agreed to a two-month arrangement.
With Alice Waters in the reservation book, I quickly changed into my kitchen whites, and when I entered the kitchen, I was glad I had. Everywhere I looked things that should have been taken care of had been let go. The walk-in was a mess, dirty pots had built up into a huge pile at the dishwasher station, and the garbage bins were overflowing. Damn it, I thought. I had left the place in good shape only the night before. How fast things can go south in an unsupervised kitchen. Even more troubling was that after I informed the staff that we had one of the world’s preeminent chefs coming to dine that night, everybody from the dining room manager to the pastry chef went on with a “What, me worry?” routine, breezily going about business as usual.
At five-thirty that evening, the hostess poked her head into the kitchen to say that the Waters party had just been seated, half an hour before their reservation time. Their early arrival caught me in a pre-service scramble, not really ready for them. I looked at my line cooks, who held my fate in their hands but had so far evinced no interest in pleasing or protecting me. But hope springs eternal, and I thought maybe, if for no other reason than to impress a world-renowned culinary figure, they might somehow find it in themselves to put out a special effort to match the occasion.
I decided to send a plate of hors d’oeuvres to Alice’s table. I was late getting them out, but at least this gesture would let her know that I wasn’t oblivious to her visit. Just as the hors d’oeuvres left the kitchen, the computerized dupe machine began spitting out the kitchen copy of the Waters order. It showed that one of the dishes was the same as what I had just sent out.
As I look back on that night, and I have done so many times, I wonder if I should have sent the manager to their table to ask if they wanted to change their order. But that night, under pressure, unsure of myself, I thought I had no choice but to go forward. I called out the entire order, first to the salad and appetizer station and then to the line cooks. “Ordering: red pepper crab cakes, a bacon and Stilton salad, and a pasta followed by a salmon, a lamb medium-rare, and a chicken. Ordering a cheese plate after the entrees.” The order was in.
My first indication that the night would be a long one came early. The server, a hip East End fellow with a punk hairstyle, placed the scallops with angel-hair pasta on the counter next to the salad and the signature crab cakes. The pasta, I could see, looked limp and lifeless, a dead giveaway to anyone in the business that it was overcooked. The scallops around the pasta revealed another problem—they appeared milky, not caramelized, telling me they had not been placed on the grill’s hot spot. Too late now.
The salad had its own troubles, being overdressed. The surplus vinaigrette had smeared all over the rim of the plate.
“I need another salad right away,” I said.
The salad maker replied that he needed to leave his station and go to the walk-in refrigerator to get it.
“Why aren’t you ready for service?” I asked him. “It’s past six. Didn’t you think anyone would be having a salad tonight?”
He didn’t even bother to answer me. I had to settle for transferring the salad to another plate. Fortunately, the crab cakes were fine. I wiped the rims of the plates clean and sent the waiter out with them. After about ten minutes, I fired the entrées, hoping to dovetail the second course on the back of the first, all the while wondering if I could be lucky enough to have Alice miss the pasta and salad defects.
I didn’t have long to wait for the next piece of bad news. The salmon was put up on the shelf way before the lamb. As should have been anticipated, the plate was too hot, which made the citrus butter sauce—a delicate liaison of reduced orange and lemon juice with carefully melted butterboil, creating a mesa of light and dark yellow around the fish. I transferred the salmon and garnishes to a warm plate and added some new sauce, a quick solution to the problem, even though there were remnants of the broken sauce near the edges of the sauce pools. When the lamb was finally out of the oven, I squeezed the rack from the sides between my thumb and my forefinger. My panic ratcheted up yet another notch. It was slightly firm, almost resisting the pressure from my fingers and bouncing right back from the indentation instead of being a little softer. It had been cooked to medium, not medium-rare as ordered. By the time we carved it, the lamb would be medium-well.
Through clenched teeth, I asked how a dupe with the word “medium-rare” on it could have produced an item that was not and could not ever again be medium-rare. No one answered. Of course no one answered. I was talking to myself.
The chicken was a needed bright moment. Except for some slight charring on the end of its wing bone, it looked fine nestled next to a cluster of watercress. But when I looked at the standard vegetable garnish on the plate, I failed to ask myself why I was serving winter vegetables in spring to the woman whose creed was that all good cookery should be in harmony with the land and its season.
I knew I should have refired the course, but by this point I was in a tailspin. When the entrees for the Waters table were out, the kitchen staff seemed to exhale as one, not because they particularly cared how well their work would be received, but because my tension level was off the chart and they hoped I would now ease up on them.
When the manager reported no complaints from our distinguished guest, I indulged myself in a prayer that I had dodged a bullet with my name on it. When it came time for the post-entree cheese course, I thought, At least we can’t blow this. The pantry cook handed the cheese selection to me. I was wrong. We didn’t even get that right. The first rule of serving cheese is to have it at room temperature. The assortment of California cheeses specially brought in included a couple made by Alice’s friend Laura Chenel. They had all been left in the walk-in refrigerator. I had no choice but to transfer the cheese from the chilled plate they were on to one that was room temperature. I said to the hipster waiter, “Take it.”