Excerpts from a book I hope to write some day
(For Chapters 1 & 2, please go to previous posts)
Journey of Reflection
After a rather rough and long lunch service, one where the chef stampeded down the line to the designated Bulgarian fish cooker slapping a freshly finished but slightly overcooked fillet of rouget on his back along with the entire plate, I get to see Momma. You could tell she was happy to be in Paris. First-timer’s eyes.
It was a nice break from the chaos of a stagiaire’s life. The wonderful thing about having Momma around was that we could share in adventures around Paris and chat about life. The big chef gave me a little more time off so I could be with her. Though a professional monster when it comes to business, he’s still a guy. And seeing as I wasn’t getting paid yet and all, he didn’t hesitate to tell me to spend some time with her. “NOT PAID!” are you saying? Traditional cooking rites of interns ladies and gentlemen, like initiations. Interning and also getting your butt kicked, for free. It is old school.
When I arrived in Paris for the first time, I didn’t know what was going on. All I had were my bags: one suitcase of “chef-ing” gear, one of clothes, a backpack with some books and journals, and my necessities. I didn’t speak French, was low on money, and I did not have any clue as to how I was going to find a permanent place to stay close to work. “Where to start?” I had not yet even been to visit the restaurant where I was going to work. But it all seemed to add to the adventure. I am used to moving by now, and am acquainted with European culture after some years in Italy and Austria. So, I made my way to a hostel home in northern Paris, Hotel Le Montclair, of which the trusty Lonely Planet suggested. Lots of other young foreigners and couples were roaming around so it felt more comfortable. The journey from the Charles De Galle airport into town was a face-smack-awakening. I took public; getting a feel for the “real Paris”. To say it clean and straight, the outskirts tell you a lot about the Paris not written about in the tourist books. I’ll leave it at that. See for yourself.
Lonely Planet, as in many real-life travel stories, came in handy. After making my way through a few youth group associations, churches, classifieds, and embassies, I gathered information about what was available and also in my price range per month: around 400 Euros. After many inquiries with various businesses, owners, renters, and rich aristocrats who owned property and rooms throughout Paris, mixed with roaming around, and trying out my luck, something came up. It had been a miraculous two day scavengers-hunt. There, at 122 Avenue Victor Hugo, was a loft attic apartment. Each floor apartment of the 19th century building had their own garret room located in the topmost section. Because it wasn’t “in the books” and he had a soft spot for newbie Americans in Paris while also respecting what I was doing, he offered me the room right away. He even lowered the price to 400 Euros a month, my budget. The best practical spec of this place was that the location gave me a beautiful 15 minute stroll to work. There was a bus stop right across the street, I had a view of and ten minute walk to the Eiffel Tower, a two minute strut to the nearest Victor Hugo metro stop, and both a laundry-mat and supermarket within 200 meters. I felt it was right. I moved in and the next day I started work.
This is how Paris and I first started.
Momma and I voyaged up and down the Champs Elysees, were served espresso while waiting in line to enter the Louis Vutton store (now that’s service!), snatched falafels at L’As du Falafel in the Jewish district, toured the Louvre, walked the magnificent parks, toured to cathedrals, had ice cream at Berthilion next to Notre Dame on the Île-de-France, saw Jim Morrison at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise with the rest of his remaining fans, dug through the metro systems, visited the new library Bibliothèque Fr. Mitterrand, and sat on the beautiful panoramic white steps of the Musee National de la Marine across from the Eiffel Tower at night to admire the lights and grandeur of Paris’s refined yet omniscient encompass. Of course, we were accompanied by cheese and fresh bread. Wine as well. There is no place like Paris. It is one of a kind. Since we were there during the holiday season, the decorations were at their heights. The air was fuming with Christmas spirit and cheer. Everything was alive and joyfully bundled up for the cool Parisian weather. It is unforgettable, powerful, yet soft and elegantly dreamy at the same time. It must be the flair and finesse of Parisian panache.
After discussion we decided to take a short trip to a nearby town named Chartres. This was mainly in order to visit the Gothic cathedral located there. My father and I have been following the stories and myths about western esoterica for quite some time now. “Big D” was into it many years before the entire Masonic / Knights Templar knowledge went vastly public. At that time, we were living in Rome Italy and I was finishing high school at the American Oversea School of Rome. Long live Via Cassia 811. To his credit, Big D once sat me down and said: “Josh, one day, all of this secret info about the Masons, Jesus going to the East to study during the “missing” years of his life, the Holy Grail (Sangreal) and such are going to go mainstream. I think it will first start out as a book, maybe not even a true story, but one with true facts in it.” Many years later, The Da Vinci Code made its appearance.
Since Chartres cathedral is one of the old seven great Gothic cathedrals (of Templar initiation) in Europe and it was so close to Paris, it was an obvious choice. Of course, the “famous tour guide”, Malcolm Miller, thinks that all this esoteric knowledge is poppy-cock and moreover that Dan Brown doesn’t know his backside from his elbow. We aren’t particular super-fans either but decided to make T-Shirts with “WE LOVE DAN BROWN” in bold letters just to flash Malcolm and get a rise out of him, not to mention plant a seed for an egotistical reality check. Arrogance has always been a pet-peeve of mine I suppose. However, the architecture and stained glass windows took my breath away. They are indeed a spectacle to behold. Originally constructed in the 12th century, the massive size of the building with its two contrasting spires, flying buttresses and peaked arches, really made the whole structure appear to hover above the wheat fields and other buildings in the town. Never have I seen anything so ornate, strong, and spell-bounding, at least in Christian style. The way the light streamed through the glass and filled the cathedral’s interior with such a deeply mystical and anciently regal aura gave me my own reality check. What is it really that draws me, or even others for that matter, towards living a more morally inspired and wholesome life? Like the monks in the sculptures around the Church. What feeling and pull inside is there that would inspire, even cause, someone to want to experience something greater than their present paradigm and social existence? I was reminded of that just then, and sat for a moment to take it in so that I could attempt again at getting past the fuzziness or confusion of “what is it that I really want with my life?” Something that I frustratingly have yet to answer.
It’s like the angel on one shoulder and the demon on the other. Positive reinforcement. Practical denial, analysis, and criticism. Where am I to go? Who am I to learn from? Securities and expenses? Five year plan? All these questions confusticate and confound me yet at the same time clarify me. Deeper in there, beyond my conscious awareness, are the formations of a direction, a barring. And in essence, that’s what this book is about.
Excerpts from a Book I hope to write one day
(For Chapter 1, please go to the previous post)
Days in the Life
As I open my dreary eyes, much the same I do every morning, I can see the night lights on the top half of the Eiffel Tower from my window. The sheets are just thick enough to keep me warm. After having Lyme’s Disease as a child, getting up in the morning has always been extra difficult. That’s my excuse in any case. But as I lie there and my consciousness becomes more clear, I know that the responsible and proper thing to do, thanks Mom and Dad, is to get out of bed and get to work early. Paris is so different in the early morning hours, as if it lays in short sweet hibernation. What few people are out in the early morning still look like they just got off the cat-walk we Americans see on TV. Their dogs even more so.
What’s new about today, are two things. One: Christmas is definitely in the air. Never more clearly before have I felt the feeling of Christmas than here in Paris. The lights, the vibes, energy, the smells, the sophisticated and chic shopping; it is all so magical. The life, the joy, the warm happy special and comforting feeling that one gets, emphasized even more when spent with family in the spirit of giving during this time of year, has housed and infused itself throughout the shining blue-black cobblestone-set streets and buildings. Even better news for me today is that I will be able to share all this with Momma who is on her way to Paris from Vienna, Austria today.
I make my way down the Avenue de Friedland until cutting to the right at Rue Lamennais to mosey my way into the staff and delivery entrance area. During my drowsier days and when my timing is right I can catch the early morning bus, but the crisp chill of the fresh breeze frosts my nose and makes me just that much more alert for the oncoming tornado day. Besides, how many more of me can there be here now in Paris working at a great restaurant and, as they walk to work, pass through the Arc de Triumph and Champs Elysees? Maybe it’s something with the hue and soft radiance of the black metal street lights mixed with the weather and general vibe that defines Paris as the official “City of Love”, or, maybe I’m just delirious from lack of sleep.
I see my Japanese fish station head Chef De Partie at the door step to the kitchen’s entrance. He’s always the first and always has the most radical and flashy scarves stylishly wrapped around his short and thin neck: florescent blues, greens, and purples with frizzy metallic sparkles in a thick polyester cotton material. Must be a young-Asian-man-thing. (I had no idea at the time.) He’s not swinging on that side of the rainbow either. I found out he is already married and is soon expecting kids! As we wait for one of our superior officers with enough clearance level to open the door, everyone power naps in the fading darkness on the back door steps while covered in thick winter designer jackets lined with fake-fur coatings along with jeans, beanies, scarves, backpacks, and chef tool kits.
There is one sole and very brave woman in the kitchen, Marie. When she is in her element and smiling, she is as good if not better than the rest. Moreover, she’s about as emotionally tough as a bull waiting on-deck in the cowboy rodeo stall to buck its brains out whose jewels just got twisted with barb wire. As the second Sous-Chef, Eric, parades his way to the kitchen and staff door, he laughs arrogantly (as most French men seem to do) when seeing our “Diesel” labeled kitchen sister then proudly belts out Chatte, “Pussy!”. Quickly, his face finds itself touché backhanded with sincérité from the Mademoiselle as she spitsChien, “Dog!”. And thus, in authentic French fashion, our day has commenced.
We fire the ovens and burners, and help organize the back walk-in refrigerators and cooling-units as the deliveries come in. Many people think that the magic of a chef is in turning ordinary ingredients into whimsical savory notes that tease and excite the taste buds. How not true. Here, the major magic comes from the ingredients themselves. Before me are incredibly fresh and vibrant baby fennel, imported Spanish onions, crisp apples, picture perfect Potimarron pumpkins, and vivaciously flamboyant orange zucchini flowers to name just a few. It is perfect top of the line produce. And with what great care it is that we look after these heavenly gifts. Everything is systematically organized, arranged, layered, and labeled in meticulously clean storage units. We have two walk-in fridges for vegetables, one for dairy, another for fish, and another for meat. When Chef Thomas Keller stopped by one day to reminisce through his early cooking years (also spent in this kitchen) I witnessed his appreciation for truly beautiful and fresh produce. The fish are brought straight from the docks, fresh on return from the morning’s catch, directly to our doorstep. Monsieur Vrinat gets the best of the best, a small perk of having been one of the longest continuously-lasting Three Michelin Star restaurants in the world.
I start up my station along with the rest of the team and commence preparing everything new and fresh for the lunch and dinner services. Today though, I’m a little lucky, I get to see the Meat Station make their sauces. For foodies, this is the ultimate in secret techniques that can make or break chefs. That is: how to be a good saucier. So let me tell you what I see:
………put in recipe.(Not Yet ;) )
Difficulty, of course and screw you karma, is that I start to have a headache. I struggle through until I can observe what else the Chef De Partie of the meat station has to do when finishing his sauce. He turns off the heat, whacks it with cubed butter and gently whisks it in with a pinch of salt and freshly cracked finely ground pepper. Of course, I get a few slight kicks in the butt but hey, I know that they are NOT going to tell me how to do that while I’m still in my current position, so I take it and just do my normal chores whilst simultaneously sneaking a peep. As he finishes the sauces and gets them ready to store, my head starts to throb. Maybe it’s just too much work and pressure but I gradually start to have the creeping fear that I won’t be able to make it through the lunch service. Usually I am pretty tough with myself concerning this kind of subject but today I’m more sensitive, honest with my situation, and thus am feeling less hesitant to just tell it like it is. At this point I don’t really have much else to lose because my vision is going a bit blurry. I decided I’m brave enough to see the Chef himself.
I stumble around to the Garde-Manger line and just get to the Chef’s door floor. He’s sitting in his chair hunched over papers, delivery forms, menu ideas, and scheduling. As he turns around, I get a glimpse of the man’s soft side and concern. He looks at me slightly worried and knows that it could be potentially difficult to communicate what the problem is. Good thing I have become skilled in basic communication through use of hand, arm, and facial gestures. My Italian language skills, now adapted for French, add the necessary elements for understanding. He gets the point.
Without a moment’s hesitation he smiles, as if a light bulb started to glow brighter from within, and spins in his chair to grab something from deep under the desk. Out comes a half-full bottle of Remy Martin XO. He grabs a paper cup, throws down a shot full himself, and then hands one over to me with a grin. I’m thinking and mentally chuckling, “this is epic”. To make the perfectly stereotypical chef - apprentice experience all the more memorable, he throws his thumb to something over his shoulder, behind him on the wall. Lo and behold lies a calendar of almost fully naked beautiful French women posing and, naturally, teasingly gesturing “Eat your heart out Yankee!” I can’t help but laugh and as I meet the chef’s eyes, his says, “That’ll take your mind off things”.
Excerpts from a book I hope to write some day
“OUI, CHEEFFFFF!....ÇA MARCHE!”
We cried out through the ensemble of copper pots, chopping sounds on boards, shoe shuffling, and body bumping. The head of my station, a small whippy and stressed 23 year old Japanese man with short gel-spiked black hair runs his eyes over the entire fish station and everyone in it as we all receive the new order and perform our specifically designed tasks in order to get the order out perfect, on-time, and in harmonious sequence with the other dishes from the garde-manger and meat stations for the same order. “Go-time”.
The sweat gently trickles its way down my face and into my chef’s coat collar. I wipe the fresh trimmings of fennel, chives, and shallots left my small cutting board into the special trimmings container for use tomorrow in making the stock. Automatically, I clean my area in a few strokes while then in one fluent movement opening the (lower fridge), spinning and holding the fridge’s door open with the edge of my shoe as I gently place a new copper saucier filled with fresh ingredients necessary for the dishes on line in pick-up. The smell of a properly seasoned fresh fillet of rouget gently sizzling in fine olive oil with tomato confit dances its way towards one nostril, the fillet of St. Pierre and basil finds the other. I continue the spin grabbing what is needed for the new orders with my right hand while harmoniously closing the door with my left hip as I begin to organize and get what I need lined up so everything else can flow smoothly and we can keep up with the orders. Trimmed baby fennel, tourneed baby radishes, and winter vegetables are gently making their way to just underdone in our signature bouillabaisse cream reduction so they can be “just right” when the dish is placed on the guests table.
It could be culinary heaven except for the problem. There is a new guy on our station. As everyone knows in the kitchen, “the new guy” can either win his spot with honor and glory or get kicked off his spot because of failure to perform. As is the criterion with our modern women. Unluckily for him, he got the short end of the stick ça soiree. The dishes that passed through him for finishing touches just aren’t up to par. Through the flames, heat, smoldering sweat, and mirage of constantly moving bodies in what is known to be the “hottest” Three Michelin Star kitchen in Paris, using my peripheral vision I notice the chef leave his “captain’s” post. This, in any kitchen, means that it’s hit the fan and that it’s time for the very big heavy duty “open up a can of whoop-ass” trouble. At that moment, as in the twilight zone, everything stops.
In today’s episode of therapeutic drama, “the new guy” twist the plot and decides to run for it! We stop in surprise and interest.
He pivots to the right, leaps and makes a run for it. He is quickly met by a hurling crème brûlée
saucier, courtesy of the Chef himself, which barely shaves the top of his head and smashes against the door as he literally sky-dives through the back doorway into the prep area. Physically unscathed, emotionally shattered. Whimpering sounds are heard from a distance in the back. Still, someone’s gotta take the hit. It’s our stations responsibility. Why? Because whether or not it’s our fault personally, the customer only sees what is presented in front of them. That dish is from our post and we should have more control and supervision over “the new guy”. Whoever said chefs are selfish creatures and don’t take one for the team?
Ironically, I know this guy from when I worked in the Alps, in Chambery, at a one Michelin Star place, L’Essentiel. We didn’t know each other very well but close enough that when I first saw him in the kitchen in Paris we both had a big unexpected smile to greet each other. I still didn’t speak that good of French, moreover having the American accent, and since we worked about 13-16 hours each day, when it was time to go home, everyone pretty much just went back to rest. Others hit the bar. What you’d expect? We’re talking about Chefs.
Never-the-less, when working in a kitchen that demands perfection, everything has to be compulsively in order and anal-ly consistent. The Poulette de Bresse rôtie à la broche for 2 costs over 150 Euro and a bottle of wine can be as pricey as 2,000 Euro for a not-sooo-special label. Simplified: that’s a whole lot of quarter-pounders with cheese. All in a beautifully and very sophisticated old Parisian building that used to belong to a relative of Napoleon. The restaurant is known for its outstanding service and re-innovative haute-cuisine scene. To boot, last year it was voted the Best Restaurant in the World by leading culinary critics. Even the celebrities come to check out our grub. Ask Brad Pitt and Angelia-Jolie.
As you can imagine, the demand for perfection, pressure, and expectation takes its toll on the Head Chef, who, by the way, eats his staff food like a bear does a newly snatched salmon. I really can’t blame the man. Anger and pressure can be hard things to control in the heat of the moment, and believe me, this is “in the HEAT of the moment”. After our kitchen acrobatics has just ended, the owner himself, Monsieur Vrinat himself, comes back and says the Veal dish for 2 that just went out (over 250 Euros a pop) wasn’t cooked to the right degree of doneness. Very no bueno. So as the Head Chef grabs the next person closest to him by the coat-collar, explosion barking at him to “Hurry the …….. (you know) up and do it perfect” while simultaneously appearing to have invoked a real-life demon (of which is perfectly justifiable in our kitchen culture due to our recent cook-victim is on the lower side of the chain-of-command), everything whirlwinds back to the present moment and everyone gets the point, continuing on. As you might already have imagined, I have by now gotten used to witnessing some horrendous physical abuse as well as the most foul, coarse, and insulting language possibly known to mankind. It actually frightens me more that I didn’t even flinch. There’s consistency.
Right now, nothing else matters at this moment other than me preparing what vegetables, garnishes, pots, butters, utensils and other mise-en-place is necessary to complete this “culinary perfection” along with all of the other ones in line as the constant wave of orders rush in. All this happens now without thinking but by second-nature reaction and all while somehow keeping my station immaculately clean and organized; a skill I now realized has benefited me for what is to come later in my life.
As if from a distant memory, “the new guy” shadows his way back with his tail between his legs. The rest of the kitchen is just too busy to react or care, but a few wry smiles are seen. In the soaring heat, so much that you want to shield your face from it even 5 feet away, we sequentially hack away at the orders, all kept mentally by our poisson team, until the night grows late and we can begin putting ourselves full-time into the mandatory storing and clean-up chores that are the light at the end of the tunnel. We can then make our way home, or, to the night life activities.
Another day done. It’s 12:30am and there’s enough time to take my walk home and get a decent 4 hours of sleep before I have to be here again at 5:30am. I circumambulate my way around the Arc de Triumph as a light and elegant snowfall begins to veil the Champs Elysees away on my left. I stop in admiration and awe at the fact and present-moment feeling of life in the city of love. The night is so quiet and calm when paralleled to the kitchen. I keep my eye out for the small blue sign with Avenue Victor Hugo in bold white letters which will lead me to my small one-room attic home. I pass the small soothing cafe shops that permeate the feeling of “Being in Paris” until reaching the entrance of the building where lies my small shelter. I am not allowed even to enter the main stairwell to the building’s old and aristocratic floor size apartment homes. My access level sees its limits at the main inner door forcing me to veer off to the enclosed secret walkway at the right and hobble my way up the old wood and paint-chipped back-staircase which, after a 15 hour day on your feet, feel mighty fine on the knees and thighs. Optimistically, I seem to be getting used to it.
I rank open the door and walk over to my closet-size shower area to open the hot water tab for de-frosting the old metal pipes. It takes about 3 minutes to even begin to see water start drizzling from the shower faucet, a sight that reinforces a hope that I will be able to go to bed after a warm shower, shave, and some fresh clothes. Meanwhile I glance at the corner of the room to the refrigerator, I see the remnants of my lunch: a quarter of a French baguette fresh from the bakery downstairs, some Beaufort cheese, and an apple. Today’s 3 hour lunch time off was spent in the apartment. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out and home is warmer than the park.
I feed the bad habit of snacking before bedtime as I get into the shower to clean my shoulder length brown and wavy now-oily hair (which I wrap in a net for work if you were wondering). The warmth of the water massages my body, relaxing me before bed-time.
This night seems to need a little more power and depth that Harry Potter though. That’s the problem with people who are truth-searching, especially young western ones with not yet enough guts to really follow the calling, and who are adept in thinking instead of just simply doing. We all have our own problems I suppose. The kicker is having these thoughts and feelings yet knowing you have to wake up the next day to go to work in order to “get your career moving”. That’s the norm our society seems to plaster on media and advertisements anyway. I say my prayers and fall asleep in reflection of myself and my situation. Anybody know what I am talking about?