Recently, I had to do my first Friday Night Dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute. For those of you who don’t know what that is, the school opens up on Fridays to the public as a restaurant. Guests get a prix fixe meal of an appetizer, entree, and dessert, and the menu changes every week. The students sometimes plan the menu (which, at some point, we all must do), but usually it’s the designated chef’s menu that the students must execute.
So, I got there early and I was waiting in the common area for someone to tell me what to do. A little Japanese woman came up to me and asked, “You’re here for the Friday Night Dinner, right?” I said yes. She said, “I am the chef for the dinner. I am Hideyo.” Okay, so now I’ve met my chef. I was a little concerned at this point about being able to follow her directions because she had a really thick accent. But I took it in stride. I’ll be fine, I told myself.
Then she said, “I heard you are a good student, so I’m putting you in charge of the pastry.” My first thought was that my class hadn’t done pastry yet. Wouldn’t she want to find out first if I’ve been trained in that art? She said the dessert for the night would be a cake. Then I thought, okay, I’m no stranger to baking, I can handle this.
“I want you to look at the recipe and read it.” She handed me a stack of recipes and turned to the cake page, saying, “You are the master of this cake.” All righty. She indicated that there was a lot to do and that it would require a lot of time.Three other people were going to help me with it. That meant it was complicated. But, fine, I’m no stranger to complicated either. I can handle this. Then she stated, “This cake is the most important part of my menu.”
Great. No pressure on me.
I looked at the recipe…and my stomach lurched. I had never seen a recipe written like this in my entire life. Instructions for the preparations and assembly were on two different pages and you had to flip back and forth between the two pages. On the second page, the 5 different elements were in these boxes all over the page: a gluten-free cake, raspberry puree, raspberry cream, chocolate-avocado cream, and glaze. There was nothing consecutive or sequential about this recipe. And to make things worse, everything was in grams. Those of you outside the U.S. will think nothing of this—you weigh your ingredients all the time. But most Americans do not and it’s not something I’m used to. Now I’m starting to freak out a little. But I think, I know my way around a kitchen. I will get a hold of this recipe and master it. Here’s the thing, though. When you’re trying to control the execution of a recipe, and the people who are working with you don’t know that they should be deferring to you and would not defer to anyone but their chef anyway, you’re going to have a problem.
And I did. I completely lost control of the damn thing. No one was communicating and we kept overlapping steps. The real problem, though, was that every one of us was completely confused about this recipe. There was so much confusion and chaos in the kitchen, I was trying to pull everyone’s efforts together, and there was no communication, but what there was…was a screw-up. Oh, how I screwed up!
I had to make applesauce by roasting and pureeing apples. Then I had to weigh out 600 grams. Except that I forgot to weigh it and used the entire batch, mixing in other ingredients. When the chef found out, she asked me, “Did you weigh the applesauce?” I said no, and she asked, “Why?” I had no answer. If could have crawled under the table, I would have. I had failed my chef and wanted to cry. She began doing these mathematical calculations, mixed in other stuff for the cake batter, and separated the batches. I had no clue how she figured out how much of each ingredient to use, but she made it work.
The next day, she showed me how I had to cut it. Three cakes had to be sliced with excruciating precision. And I was allowed to use the knife only once. When I sliced, I handed it over to someone else, who put it in a pan of hot water, cleaned it, and wiped it try. Meanwhile, I sliced with another knife. So we had these two knives rotating. It took an hour to cut these perfect little triangles. Once we were on the plating line, executing the chef’s vision of each course, I picked up those chocolate-covered rectangles very gingerly and placed them on the plates just so. Once I passed each plate to the the next person, it was out of my hands. I was like a mamma bird sending off her chick into flight. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera so I only got a crappy camera phone shot, and before the cake was plated.
The entire experience was traumatic and I think I’m scarred for life. But in the end, she shook my hand, patted me on the back, and said, “Good job.” (She was tougher than her size would suggest—I thought my lung would collapse from that pat.) Despite the major faux pas and my inexperience in a professional kitchen, I think I did well overall. Most of all, it was exhilarating. There was an adrenaline rush about it all. It was damn hard work but I really enjoyed it. Mind you, it confirmed for me that I don’t want to be a restaurant chef, but I think a part of me will forevermore crave that high.
~ Appetizer ~
Red cabbage and red grapefruit terrine
Beets and potatoes with tahini sauce
Broccoli rabe in Japanese mustard sauce
~ Entree ~
Tofu carpaccio with watermelon radishes
Green pea falafels
Steamed quinoa with bamboo shoots and spring vegetables
Raw kale and avocado salad
~ Dessert ~
Raspberry almond chocolate cake
Hojicha ice cream