Well, my internship at the James Beard House is over and my feelings about it are mixed. I miss spending the day working with food, putting my skills to use, and using new equipment. I miss preparing ingredients that I would normally (or rarely) be in contact with, such as truffles, fresh-from-the-farm baby golden beets, and micro-celery. I miss the adrenaline rush at service time, when 80 beautifully designed, identical plates have to get out in 5 minutes, which has to be repeated at least half a dozen times, and usually more. It’s a rush that lingers even at the end of the night, when it’s 11 p.m. and you’ve been on your feet for 12 or 13 hours, and your feet are throbbing and your back is screaming and your fingers ache from chopping several pounds of onions, and your hands are scarred and burned from the momentary lapses in memory or judgment, when you forget that the pot was only just turned off or the sheet pan has been sitting on the industrial pilot light all afternoon. I miss the satisfied smiles on people’s faces as they come through the kitchen to leave, and their comments about how fabulous everything was. I miss being part of that creation. I miss the satisfying contrast of having just done a shift doing something I love when I am at my full-time job hating what I’m doing. It gave me something to look forward to—a glimmer of hope that there is something else out there for me.
What I don’t miss is being on my throbbing feet for 12 or 13 hours, the backaches, the painful burns. I don’t miss getting home at midnight, thoroughly exhausted, yet unable to fall asleep because of the adrenaline still coursing through my body, and having to get up early to go to work the next day.
If I were younger, I would probably be able to deal with the “cons” for the rewarding “pros” of restaurant/catering work. But, unfortunately, I came to this juncture in the road later in life and, physically, it’s just not something I can do full time. Sure, I can handle it on a temporary basis, in short spurts, or occasionally. But all the time? No. I’ve been a personal chef and that is exhausting as well, but it’s on a totally different level in terms of time constraints and control, both of which are in your hands. But it’s also a tough business to negotiate. You’re totally in control…and you’re totally responsible. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, bookkeeping, marketing, etc. Just the marketing alone was daunting enough to make me run and scream. So, I’m looking elsewhere.
But I digress. I was talking about James Beard and I wanted to share some of my observations.
While every chef had a different take on food, a different disposition, and a different way of running a kitchen, I also noticed some common riffs. For example, ice cream was a common component of dessert. I understand this, since one of the rules of good meal planning is to use a combination of textures. Ice cream fits the “smooth and creamy” bill easily and it’s a crowd pleaser. But I read somewhere a criticism of the use—or rather, overuse—of ice cream in desserts. Whoever it was said that they were sick of seeing ice cream in every chi-chi dessert. On one hand, I agree. Surely, these highly acclaimed chefs could find something else to fill that texture bill; on the other hand, people really love ice cream and the flavors that can be created are boundless. (Of course, some people get a little out of control with the flavors, but that’s another story.)
Another similar theme was the use of gaufrettes (waffle chips). One chef using them was not remarkable; three chefs using them meant it was a trend. It told me that waffle chips have become a go-to item to make dishes look pretty and appealing. I don’t know if this has been the case for a long time or if it’s a relatively new trend, but personally I can take gaufrettes or leave them.
I also noticed that most chefs have embraced the use of the “spoon push” when saucing plates. I know that there are only so many ways to sauce a dish, but pretty much everyone has adopted this particular practice. Micro greens were the ubiquitous garnish, but since the JB House supplied those, it made sense. Duck ham, or duck prosciutto, seems to be another currently hot product. Maybe it’s been around a while, I don’t know, but it was certainly new to me. Poached pears were also a popular dessert component.
Each chef also had their own little touches that were unique to him or her. Chef Kaldrovic, from Sea Glass at the Inn by the Sea, used his own homemade lobster oil to garnish his lobster bisque. Blackberry Farm used their own charcuterie. Chef Ryan Poli, of Tavernita in Chicago, created a really nice “natural” serving platter by combining kosher salt with whole spices. Tony Esnault, from Patina/Los Angeles, cut his imported French truffles into thin little circles to garnish various dishes. And Fortunato Nicotra at Felidia had his gluten-free ravioli, as well as housemade burrata. Only one dinner had themed drinks: Blue Inc., with their Anorexic Model (Pierre Ferrand Cognac with Lychee Bubbles, St. Germain, and Berry Garnish) and Blonde Afro Puff (Chocolate Martini with Giant Marshmallow) and liquid PB&J, courtesy of wine director Tricia LaCount.
I also want to say the staff at the JB House were all so helpful, patient, and hard working. I always felt particularly terrible for the dishwashers as the evening went on and the massive piles of bowls, pots and pans, dishes, and multitude of utensils piled up higher and higher. Those guys have their work cut out for them.
The things I experienced and the lessons I learned at James Beard will always be in my mind as I move into the next phase of my life. I suspect that as I work with food, at home or at a job, I will have flashbacks to my days and nights at the JB House. I welcome those flashbacks as reminders that I was lucky enough to not only get a scholarship from the James Beard Foundation but to get some training at one of the most prestigious organizations in the culinary world. In the end, it may or may not get me where I want to go, but I’ll always have that particular notch on my belt. I met some really great people—some humble, some eccentric, all intensely focused on their art. If I learned only one thing, it’s that no one is perfect, not even highly acclaimed chefs at the top of their game who have been invited to cook at the James Beard House. And if those people can make mistakes and still be considered great chefs, then so can I.
Thanks to everyone at the James Beard House for being so nice. It was a pleasure to work with them all and I hope to see them again, as both a volunteer and a diner.