After four months of culinary school, I thought I had learned how to work fast in the kitchen, especially under pressure. Last week’s restaurant challenge proved to me otherwise. Over the course of two days last week, we transformed our kitchen at school into a mock-restaurant, planning to serve nearly 200 guests. Our menu was enormous. We prepared dishes from an a la carte menu, off of which Chef Patrice (our instructor) had pre-selected a three-course meal for each customer.
For the first day, I was assigned to the saute station, specifically working with chicken, pork, veal, beef and duck. This station also included preparing accompanying side items such as mashed potatoes, haricots verts, rice pilaf and snow peas. Here are all of the dishes for which we were responsible:
Chicken Roulade with Spinach and Sun Dried Tomatoes, Madeira Sauce, Pommes Darphin and Snow Peas
Chicken Leg Chasseur, Riz Pilaf, Haricot Verts
Grilled Flank Steak, Sauce Choron, Pommes Darphin, Haricots Verts
Veal Scallopini with Mushrooms, Madeira Sauce and Squash Risotto
Braised Duck Leg over Sauteed Cabbage
Pork Tenderloin, Sauce Charcutiere, Broccoli a l’Anglaise, Mashed Potatoes
Steak au Poivre, French Fries, Haricots Verts
Seared Duck Breast a l’Orange, Pommes Sautees a Cru and Ratatouille
We had two hours to prep our station. Two hours went by a lot faster than you might think. In fact, it was not nearly enough time. In general, one of the most important part of prep time is figuring out what you can do ahead of time and what you have to do a la minute (at the moment of service). Fortunately, most of our dishes could be cooked in advance and warmed up in the oven right before serving them.
We divided the work up among our group, deciding who would be in charge of what dish. I was to do most of the prep for the Chicken Chasseur, and then help out whenever I could after that. The first thing I did was create a prep list for myself, which looked something like this:
- Whole chicken
- Breast, thighs, legs
- Bones to fortify stock
- Braising liquid
- Chicken stock
- Mirepoix (Onions, carrots, celery, chopped small)
- Bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf)
- Sauce chasseur
- Braising liquid
- Tomato concasse
- Tomato, rough chop
- Tomato paste
- Onion, very finely chopped
- Thyme, bay leaf
- Mushrooms, sliced thin
- Shallots, chopped fine
- Tarragon, finely chopped
As long as I could sear my chicken and let it cook slowly in its braising liquid well ahead of time, I would be safe. While my chicken cooked in the oven, I could prep for the sauce. This included slicing and sautéing my mushrooms, simmering tomatoes with onions in olive oil over low heat for my concasse and chopping my tarragon and shallots finely.
Because we had no break between prep and service, we had no time to clean and organize our station. After two hours of frantic prep, everything and everyone was an absolute mess. Chicken and duck blood had splattered on my chef whites while spilled sauces, stocks, vegetable scraps and whatever else were strewn about the table. We wiped down everything as best as we could.
Two members of our group moved to the expo station. Here, they would receive the orders from the chef and yell them back to everyone else in the group. Expo was also responsible for the finishing touches on all dishes, whether this meant making sure the plate was clean or spooning sauce over the meat.
The rest of us were back at the stove and oven, preparing all of the components of each ordered dish. For the Chicken Chasseur, I made sure that each plate received a hot thigh and a drumstick. The haricots verts were already blanched, so all I had to do was heat them up in warm water for about five seconds. The plates for each dish had to also be warm, a tedious but essential detail.
The first hour was frantic, chaotic insanity.
The communication between expo and the rest of us was horrible. When a dish is “ordered,” it does not mean that it is needed immediately, but when a dish is “fired,” this means that it is. At first, I was confused, not understanding the difference between the two commands. I’d have a pork tenderloin plated and ready, when a Chicken Chasseur was needed right away, while a braised duck leg was getting cold because I had sent it out too early.
Meanwhile, Chef Patrice is screaming – Where is my Chasseur and medium rare Steak au Poivre? It’s been way too long! Get it out NOW!
I don’t remember hearing expo tell us we needed a Steak au Poivre, but that doesn’t matter. It just needs to get done!
Later, as I was sending out a chicken and duck, I accidentally dropped my wooden spoon into the deep fryer. I stared at the spoon with a weird fascination for a few seconds – the hot oil crackled around the spoon as it bobbed up and down. I snapped out of my trance and fished it out with a pair of tongs. Later on, another member of our group dropped another wooden spoon on the flaming stove. It took two of us to blow out the flames.
Gradually, we figured out a system to send out our food more efficiently. After all was said and done six hours later, I realized I hadn’t had a single drop of water. As dehydration and exhaustion hit me, as I plopped down in a chair. It felt incredible.
I can’t imagine it is this crazy in a real restaurant. The cooks know the menu well, and prepare the same dishes night after night. Being exposed to the demands of a real kitchen, however, was a useful experience. I survived by telling myself to keep calm and stay in control no matter what – even if I had no idea what the hell I was doing, I had to look like I did. I am beginning to see that working on the line in a kitchen is serious business that is not as easy as it looks. It requires a lot of concentration and a lot of multi-tasking. Although I’m improving everyday, I’m still not quite there yet.