I have a growing shelf of books about the experience of being a chef, thanks to my friend Mia who is kind to send one at every birthday and Christmas, and sometimes in between. This Christmas’ offering was The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. The book has both interested and encouraged me.
I had to run an errand on the way to work one day last week and ended up with a few minutes in the parking lot before I had to be in the kitchen, so I pulled the book out to read for a bit. In the middle of the chapter I was reading, Flinn described the Chef making a consommé:
Chef carefully removes the clarifying ingredients and pours the consommé through a passoire. He tastes again with his spoon. Satisfied, he adds perfectly diced vegetables.
“Goutez, goutez, goutez,” Chef begins. “C’est tres important . . .”
Anne translates. “Always taste, taste, taste, as you cook. Chef Guillard believes this is very important. If you wait until a dish is done, then it is too late to fix the seasonings. You must taste everything as you go along, every ingredient.”
Thursday night it was Chef #2 and me in the kitchen again. Tuesday night I had made a concerted effort to approach things differently. I had a much shorter prep list for him and worked hard to frame things so I didn’t play into an adversarial relationship. He seemed more accommodating as well, and the evening went OK. Part of the change I made was to take the lead in calling the tickets as they came in and give him a more limited responsibility, and he responded well, leading me to rethink my assumption that the problem was his lack of passion; perhaps he was just struggling to keep up. Thursday night, we saw our first customer a little before six (we open at five) and our last just after eight – in between there were sixty-seven others who came, unannounced, for dinner. In that time frame, also, the printer in the kitchen became temperamental after we changed the paper and a couple of tickets got lost. One of our servers, in particular, became discombobulated.
Duke Dining Services sends anonymous students in from time to time to evaluate all the eating establishments on campus. (You can see this coming, can’t you?)
The server came back first to ask if a customer could get an appetizer portion of the Butternut Squash Ravioli. My answer was yes. Several minutes later, she came back with a ticket for said ravioli to be served with a medium steak. A crucial detail is I make the ravioli myself, but I can’t make them to order, so I freeze them. They have to be in the pasta water for a good four minutes to thaw and cook; when I pull them out of the water, I always press them to see if they are cooked before I drop them in the sauce to finish the dish. About the time we started the ravioli, six dessert orders came in, so I asked Chef #2 to finish the dish. He timed it with the steak, which had already been cooking, and sent them out together.
The ravioli came back. It was still frozen.
When the server returned, she said she had forgotten to write a Roasted Chicken Marsala on the ticket and needed one, as we say, on the fly. Once again, I needed Chef #2 to get it done. I was finishing the desserts as the dish went out. A few minutes later, one of our other servers came to tell me one of his friends was eating dinner with us and was doing an evaluation. I went out to see how their dinner had been and, yes, they were on the receiving end of all that I have just described.
Needless to say, we got a poor evaluation, which listed, among other things, that the ravioli was still cold and the Marsala was bland. I could hear the French Chef saying, “Goutez, goutez, goutez.”
My mind was full of woulda-coulda-shouldas. I should have gone out when the ravioli was sent back. I should have double-checked his dish before it went out. Then I moved on to the reality of our needing to send an order out every two minutes for two hours. Those things crossed my mind before I even got back to the kitchen. As I opened the kitchen door, I made a decision not to say anything to him about what had happened. Part of my choice was driven by my need to finish the inventory before I went home; part of it was I wasn’t up for a confrontation; part of it was I’d been in his shoes. I picked up my clipboard and finished my tasks.
We had had a good night. One table – a table with an evaluator – had gone bad. Next Tuesday, I thought, as we are getting ready for service, I will go over the evaluation and remind him to taste, taste, taste.
About that time, one of the other servers came in to tell me there was someone else in the dining room who wanted to speak with me. I went over to a customer seated close enough to the evaluator for him to have heard what had happened.
“I just want you to know,” he said, “I had the ravioli and it was amazing. The cinnamon pasta. The filling. I’ve never had anything like it.”
His order went out after the frozen one. While I was still doing desserts. And Chef #2 cooked it. I was grateful I had chosen not to speak to soon.
On Friday, I stopped by the used bookstore in our neighborhood because of a comment on my “Redemption Center” post that mentioned Flannery O’Connor. I got two of her books for about five bucks and came home to read the story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which tells the story of Julian and his mother, whom he despises for her unwillingness to change with the times. The story is set in the South, in the thick of the Civil Rights struggle. Julian and his mother are white, and they are riding on public transportation, which means blacks are on the bus as well. When she embarrasses him by her actions, he comes down both angrily and condescendingly. When the story ends, he is on the precipice of what O’Connor describes as “his entry into the world of guilt and shame.”
Perhaps the parallel is a bit overstated for what happened Thursday night, still it strikes me that the entry into the world of hurt presents itself, sometimes, as a clear gateway and other times as a trap door. I had decided Chef #2 was low on passion and high on attitude; I watched and listened a bit longer and found he’s trying to adjust to an environment that may not match his skill set. He does have some of the attitude, but not for the reasons I assumed.
We are often offered opportunity to enter the world of grace, and take those around us along. As I learned again Thursday night, most of the time I find that door by stumbling in.Like the chef tasting and tasting along the way as he prepared the soup, I had managed to find some redemption in the evening by moving slowly and not over-seasoning my responses.
At least I can see that looking back.