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”.