“What the fuck am I even doing here?” I wondered, as I stepped into the kitchen of The Metropolitan, the crown jewel of Salt Lake City’s fine-dining scene. The sounds, the smells, the lights, the red-brown tile floor, the checkered pants and the white shirts – it was all familiar and at the same time completely foreign. I was nearly 40 years old, and hadn’t been in a commercial kitchen for the better part of two decades. Some guys buy a Corvette when they have their midlife crisis. Me? I left my comfortable corporate America job to follow my passion and get back into food service.
I’d met with the chef a few days earlier. “Why you wanna do this, man?” he asked, quite sincere and perplexed.
“It’s just something I’ve got to do. I’m passionate about food, and I want to be in the food service. That’s all.” I replied earnestly.
“OK, it’s your life. Come back next Tuesday at 2pm sharp for a stage. Bring your knives with you. I’ll work you on the line for a few hours and then we’ll see.”
He shook my hand, and I left, mind spinning, guts churning, heart pumping.
“Stage?” I wondered, “what does that even mean?!”
“Knives? I’ve only got two, should I go buy more? What knives will I need?”
“’work the line’? Really? He’s just gonna throw me into the deep end to see if I can swim?”
I was scared. I felt like I had made a huge mistake in leaving my job. I had no idea what to expect. And I was committed to doing this. Like, burn-the-ships-in-the-motherfucking-harbor committed. I went home and Googled this new word, stage – “an unpaid internship when a cook or chef works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines.” OK, so I’m working for free for a night to get some experience, like an on-the-job interview. Cool. I can do this. What Google didn’t tell me is that a stage is actually more like a cross between an Olympic time-trial and a Broadway audition, and all of the thoughts, emotions, hard work and exhaustion that goes with it. But I’d soon learn that the hard way.
Knives? Shit, I only had two – a 10” chef that was a gift from my father several years back, and a beautiful 8” Füri East-West Coppertail. They both needed sharpening. I called a friend to borrow his electric knife sharpener, and did a rather rough amateurish job on them, but managed to put a decent edge on them both. I rolled them up in a kitchen towel for transport. OK, good to go.
Working the line terrified me, and I had no idea how to prepare or what to expect, so I read through some old cookbooks, checked out The Metropolitan’s website to get familiar with the menu, and read through a bunch of other websites explaining culinary basics.
Ready as I’ll ever be.
As I walked through the back door and into the kitchen, I got a few sidelong glances from servers and cooks checking me out. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have bothered me, but I wasn’t feeling confident or sure about anything in this moment. Chef found me a few seconds later, stuffed a piece of paper into my hand, letting me know it was my prep list for the night, and then gave me a quick tour. He grabbed me an apron and a coat from dry storage, and took me to far end of the line.
“This is your station tonight, garde manger. Get to work on your prep list. It’s a little after 2:00 right now. You need to be finished with prep and have your mise set by 4:30, and then we’ll have family meal. The bar opens at 5:00, so if you gotta skip family meal to finish your prep, do it. Any questions?”
Yeah, about a hundred different questions, starting with what do ‘garde manger’ and ‘mise’ mean, and what’s family meal? I didn’t ask him, because I didn’t want to look stupid, but I felt lost already. I looked at my prep list:
1 quart pomegranate seeds
2 quarts granny smith apples, small dice
2 quarts green lentils, cooked
1 case artie greens, cleaned and prepped
2 quarts beets, roasted, peeled, large dice
½ quart dates, sliced lengthwise
1 quart warm bacon vinaigrette
1 quart orange thyme vinaigrette
Apple Cider Vin
Two and a half hours. I can do this.
As I surveyed my station, I noticed that everyone else on the line was younger than me by at least 15 years. Hell, I had a good 10 years on chef. Each one of them was meticulously setting up their respective stations, puling knives, spoons and other tools from their knife rolls. I felt completely inadequate and somewhat ashamed to unroll my little kitchen towel with only two knives in it. It’s funny the things we use to compare ourselves to others, and how harshly we judge ourselves for what we perceive to be inadequacies. Needless to say, I felt completely out of place. I didn’t belong here. But I wasn’t going to turn tail and run, either. I was here, I’d just do the best I could and get through the night.
I went back to the cutting boards and grabbed the first one in the rack, a light blue one, and carried it out to my station. The kid on the station next to me shot me a withering look and said “dude, that’s a fish board. Go grab the green one.” Feeling even more inadequate than I already did, I ran back and switched the cutting board for the green one, then went to the walk-in to start gathering things. I grabbed three pomegranates and went back to my station. Having no idea how to prep a pomegranate, I leaned over and asked the not-so-friendly cutting board advisor how to prep it. He just looked at me with a blank stare, as if he couldn’t believe this wasn’t common knowledge. Without saying a word, he left the line and returned with a medium-sized metal bowl and a large metal spoon. He cut the pomegranate in half, and started tapping it over the bowl until the seeds fell out. Then he slid the bowl and the spoon over to my station, all without a single word spoken, as if I didn’t even merit the courtesy of words.
After I’d prepped the pomegranate and stored it in the drawer on my station, I moved on to apples. No sooner did I have the apples on my cutting board than the kid steps over without saying a word, peels one, sets it on my station, and proceeds to cut it into small dice, then returns to his station again. “Thanks man.” I said. He just nodded his head and continued his prep.
On my third apple, I cut myself. Not badly enough for stitches, but it was painful and deep. Chef immediately came over and took me back to the hand wash sink to bandage me up. “You good? Do you need to go?” He wanted me out of his kitchen, and I got it. I had already figured out that this crew was a well-oiled machine, and I was a foreign body that was going to do nothing short of fuck up their entire service tonight with my ineptitude and awkwardness and lack of skill. But I wasn’t going out like that. If I was going out, it wasn’t going to be by my choice.
“Nah, I’m good. I just need a glove”
Chef got me a band-aid and a glove and I continued prepping.
At 4:00 pm, chef came over. “hey, I’m going to have you do the amuse bouche tonight, you cool with that?”
I didn’t have any choice but to tell him I had no idea what that even meant, and I felt completely stupid asking him to explain. I didn’t feel any better after he’d explained that it was a small, one-bite dish served prior to their first course, intended to be a preview of what to expect during the meal. No pressure, but now I’m responsible for each and every guests first impression tonight? And I’ve only got 30 minutes to figure this out and get it prepped? And finish my existing prep? I was so screwed. I wanted to take off my apron and just say ‘thanks for the opportunity’, but I held fast to my commitment to work this shift. Chef made a few general suggestions, and I settled on a pistachio-crusted beef carpaccio (there was some of this left over in the freezer from the previous week’s salad) with arugula, quick-pickled onions, olive oil and fresh-cracked pink peppercorns. Nothing too creative or stellar, but it fit the bill. I prepped one for chef to taste, and he approved.
At 4:30 when cooks started leaving the line to eat family meal, I still had prep to finish, so I kept my head down and continued working. As I was finishing up, just a few minutes before 5:00, chef came down the line with a copy of the menu in hand. He taped it to the wall at my station and underlined the first four items. “Those are yours tonight. You just did the prep for them so this should be a breeze for you.” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“How do you want these plated?” I asked, hoping for some guidance.
“I want to see what you come up with. We don’t really have any hard and fast plating rules here, so show me what you can do.”
Yep. I’ve been thrown into the deep end of the pool, and I’m sinking like a stone.
The first ticket comes in. It’s got two salads. I quickly place some of the artie greens on each plate, drizzle a little dressing, and sprinkle the nuts, dates and cheese over the top, and place them on the pass.
“seriously, dude?” yells chef from the other end of the line. He comes down, pulls the two plates down, and just looks at me.
“the greens aren’t dressed, there’s no volume to these… I mean, this looks like a flat plate of lettuce with some shit sprinkled on top.”
He grabs a bowl and shows me how to dress the greens and plate them with some height, and how to arrange the other elements. It looks beautiful. I can see why he was pissed at my effort, and I’ve clearly failed the plating portion of the night. However, now that I can see what he’s looking for, I’m on it.
I’d like to say that the rest of the evening went smoothly. It didn’t. I was slow, and made many mistakes. I was slowing down the line, and since I was first course (and amuse), I was slowing everyone else down, and affecting the integrity of their dishes, dishes that set on the pass for too long, had to be re-fired, and so on. It was a hot mess, and I was doing the absolute best that I could, working my ass off, and it just wasn’t good enough.
After two and a half hours of this torture, things started to slow down. Chef came over and said “clean up your station, go over to the bar and grab a drink, and I’ll be right there.”
I knew I’d failed. Miserably. My mind was already churning, trying to figure out if there was another restaurant I could apply at that might be easier. Maybe I was only good enough for fast food? Jesus… I was utterly defeated. I’d given everything, and fallen painfully short.
“well, you’ve definitely got some work to do” chef said, as he slid into the chair next to me. “your knife skills are shit, your plating is sloppy and boring, you move too slow, and you don’t know many basic kitchen terms.” I get it, I suck, no need to kick me while I’m down. “But I’d like to offer you the job. You’ve got heart and drive, you took instruction well, and you worked all night next to Jon without running away screaming or trying to kill him, so that’s definitely something. Can you start Thursday?”
I was dumbfounded. I had a job? As a cook? In this kitchen? “Yes, chef. I’ll be here Thursday. What time do you need me?”
Over the next year working at The Metropolitan, I would crash and burn hundreds of times. I would cost chef a lot of money with some of my mistakes, and I would try the patience of every single employee that worked there, front and back of house combined. But I learned something every day – a new technique, a new ingredient, a new plating method – it didn’t matter WHAT it was, so long as I learned SOMETHING. Learning something showed that I was hungry for this, that I wanted it, and that I would do whatever it took to get it and make it mine. I expanded my knowledge of food, I honed my techniques and knife skills, and I improved every single day. Perhaps the most important part of all this learning was that I was willing to learn from everyone, no exceptions. I learned just as much from watching Pedro, our dishwasher (and occasionally joining him in the dish pit) as I did from conversations with the owner, out back, long after service had concluded. I learned, and I remained teachable.
I also worked as hard as I could, every single day. And when The Metropolitan closed, I was offered an Executive Chef position at another restaurant, which I accepted, but you’ll have to read about that in the next chapter.