This Week in Culinary School: Externship Week 2

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Top Three Things I Learned This Week

Last week, I was so overwhelmed by my first week working in a restaurant– ever– that I was at a loss for words.  That, plus I was exhausted.  I have done, observed and learned so much over the last two weeks that it is hard to encapsulate in a post.  But here are a few highlights:

  1. Restaurant Work is Hard.  Really Hard– Everyone knows this in theory, but spend a day in my clogs and you’ll really appreciate that meal you so easily order off a menu every time you go out to eat.  Shifts are 10-12 hours, there may be a day or two off a week, and if you work dinner shift, you’ll never see your family.  And these are not the 10-12 hours sitting at a desk that office workers consider hard work, these are hours spent standing, bending, lifting, chopping, cooking in front of a very hot stove.  “Front of house” (i.e. servers/waiters) is not any easier, and may be harder, as I experienced during Restaurant Week in culinary school.  “Runners” are called that for a reason.  The more time I spend in the professional culinary world, the more parallels I see to the world of medicine, specifically surgeons and the operating room.  The same dedication, hard work, standing, long hours, teamwork, salty language and overall culture.  I have so much admiration for these cooks, who are dedicated to the pursuit of perfection.  And as busy as they are, they’re not to busy to teach me and show appreciation for my assistance.  My takeaways from this: 1) respect 2) tip more 3) I hope I can make it through the next few months!

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2.  There is Joy in Menial Tasks– I have been getting to do more in more, including the plating of the kanpachi appetizer in the first photo (that was last night, and I feel very proud!).  But for each tiny bit of artistry I am given the privilege of doing, there are 10 more “menial” but essential tasks.  Whether it be chopping a quart of candied nuts by hand into very fine pieces (a task that can take hours, believe me), wiping down counters, sweeping the floor or snipping herbs and trimming into perfect pieces for garnish, I have come to find these tasks relaxing, meditative and joyful.  Snipping herbs is in fact my favorite of these tasks, because it means a few minutes outside for a breath of fresh air and a few rays of sunshine, far from the constant din of the kitchen.  I also understand that all of these little tasks are not grunt work, but absolutely crucial to the efficient operation of any restaurant.

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3.  More Than Just Salt and Pepper– One of the reasons I am so excited to be doing my externship at Mourad is their spice pantry, which is not just extensive but full of spices that are new to me.  This is a tiny fraction of the spices in the kitchen, of which the black long pepper is new to me.  I haven’t learned yet how they use that, but I did learn about what one of the chefs explained to me are the Moroccan “mother sauces”: red charmoula, green charmoula and harissa.  These are used widely in many of the entrees and all are made fresh at the restaurant.

Take-home point: to get the best flavor from your spices, buy only whole spices, toast them to bring out their flavors, and grind them as close as possible to when you’re using them.  And refresh your supplies often! It’s best to buy small quantities for freshness, so if possible get yours in a spice shop or in a grocery store where you can buy from bulk bins in the smallest quantity you need.

 

Thanks for coming along on this journey through culinary school! If you’re curious to see what I learned in school, please scroll back to see my weekly posts over the last four months. And come back for more highlights from my externship!

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