by Doug Psaltis with Michael Psaltis
What made me realize I was in the right place [Alain Ducasse New York, aka ADNY -- ed], and that I would fight to stay there, was the kitchen itself. It was levels ahead of any I had ever been in. In just about every other kitchen I had worked in at least part of the accomplishment was stretching to overcome physical limitations. There was no creative rearranging to overcome design shortcomings, and no corners were cut in creating this kitchen. It was not nearly the biggest kitchen in New York, but everything from the hundreds of pen-tip size fiber-optic lights that would provide light above the stations to the hand-crafted stove was designed for excellence. It was clear that the cooks wouldn’t be challenged to exceed the limitations of the kitchen, but to reach the level of excellence it made possible.
When you entered from the dining room, the kitchen’s automatic swinging doors opened to reveal a dazzling black tile floor and gleaming stainless-steel equipment. It was an open kitchen with a large window that overlooked the main dining room, and there was even a private dining room in the kitchen. The massive stove took up much of the kitchen. It had three flattops and one plancha, a mirrorlike metal griddle. All of the stations would work around the stove. The pass would be on the side closest to the dining room. The chef would stand between the stove and an island (the servers’ pass), and the servers would pick up plates that he put onto the island. The dishwashers would be in a separate room off the kitchen, and the front of the house would have a separate room for its own preparations. It was hard not to appreciate the stylish side of the kitchen. It is as much of a show kitchen as those on the Food Network, but this one is truly functional. As a cook, I appreciated the details more than anything.
Attention to detail is what Ducasse is all about. The thought that went into everything was incredible, and this wasn’t just regarding the kitchen. The day after we unpacked the pans, we started moving in the products—dry goods, produce, and meats. Also on the scene that day were some of the staff for the front of the house. Part of their day was spent being fitted for their uniforms, which had been specifically designed for the restaurant. The uniforms, custom designed for Ducasse, were both elegant and stylish. The front of the house would also have a second set of custom-designed uniforms that were to be worn when they were setting up. For a restaurant to purchase uniforms for servers for preservice work was unheard of. These weren’t just aprons. They were full outfits, nearly as fancy as their serving attire.
The first two weeks at ADNY were a blur. From the very first day, though, everyone knew his place in the kitchen. There was a solid chain of command, a rigid order. The positions in Ducasse’s kitchen are based on the traditional French model. There was, of course, Alain Ducasse at the top, then Didier as the chef de cuisine, then Olivier as the sous chef, then there was a chef de partie of each station: the entremetier (in charge of hot appetizers in Ducasse’s kitchen), the gardemanger (cold apps), the poissonier (fish), and rotisseur (meat)—the pastry station, which also baked all of the bread, was separate. On all of these stations, the chef de partie was the saucier (in charge of the sauces) and the manager. He was truly the chef of the station, responsible for everything and everyone, from ordering, receiving, and evaluating the principal products for the station, to the dishes we sent to the pass, to how we cooked and dressed. Then there was a demi chef de partie, who did most of the actual cooking during service, and then there were a few commis—the lowest-level cook, who did whatever was needed. Everyone knew his position, and everyone answered to the man above him and for the man below him. A lot of kitchens are focused and competitive, but this was more like the marine corps than a restaurant. We were there to do a job and to do it absolutely perfectly. It didn’t matter if you were good buddies with the guy working next to you or if you absolutely hated him. All that mattered was doing more than was expected of you.
The first time I heard the sous chef yell in his harsh broken English, “What the fuck is this! You insult me with this shit! This is shit!” it was over a broken sauce, in which the elements hadn’t emulsified correctly. It was a scream of incomprehension, something that you might expect from someone who had just watched a stranger walk up to his mother in public and slap her. This was in the middle of the day when we were only cooking through the menu and plating the dishes so that we could understand them and perfect them. The recipient was a French cook who was the chef de partie of the station I was working on. He hung his head a bit but kept working. The restaurant wasn’t open. We weren’t even serving special guests.
I didn’t know much more than oui and merci when I joined ADNY. I had started at the bottom of the kitchen, as a commis, but after just a few weeks I was moved up. The French guy who had been our chef de partie was suddenly moved off our station. Now I ran the station as the unofficial demi chef de partie, even though I didn’t know French and that was the only language used during service. For the first few days running the entremet station, I’d hear Didier call an order and I’d have to pause as I tried to figure out what he said before reacting. Olivier stayed near me most of the service to translate. “Hey, homard, lobster, vas-y,” he’d say. I was constantly behind, almost unable to keep up. I had to pick up French right away -- à la minute -- or I’d be gone. So, I took one of the first printed menus home. I translated as much of it as I could (mostly by calling Greenie, who had returned to Los Angeles after giving up on a small restaurant in the West Village that he helped run), and after the first service I had learned at least the main ingredient in every course that I was involved in. I went back to work the next day ready to listen for homard, petits pois, poularde, and more. But the menu had changed and only a few of the words I knew remained useful. I was back to memorizing in the time between work and sleep.
Halloween 2000 was in most ways like every other holiday for me: I was working. What made this day different, though, was that by midnight we’d be certain of our fate. I knew by the time service was over that night, when the New York Times was first available on the newsstand, we’d either be celebrating or facing changes.
I’d been in charge of the entremet station for a few months, even though I still hadn’t been given the official title. Just before service that night, while I was working to finish the entremet station’s mise en place, Didier came by the station. “En place, Doog?” he asked. “Doog” was how all the French guys said my name. But I didn’t mind, as it was a lot better than “dog,” which is what they thought my name was for the first two weeks. “Oui, chef,” I replied.
At ADNY just as the service began, while all of the cooks were checking over every little detail, the kitchen’s lighting was changed. All day the room was brightly lit, but for service only the lights that were necessary were used. The lights accentuated our focus. Hundreds of little fiber-optic bulbs shone in the precise locations where we would work while the rest of the space was unlit. All of the distractions were removed. The stage was set, the show was about to begin. Didier began to call out the orders—no one else spoke—and we all moved. First just a few of us and then everyone. There was little noise, except the sounds of cooking.
The level of focus in the kitchen that night, as on most others, was extremely high. I was managing all of the orders we had coming in to our station and what we were sending to the pass, and I realized that we were running out of ravioli. As soon as I recognized that, I had Brendan (“Soda Pop”) start rolling out dough. It would take only a few minutes to get the dough rolled out and cut, so we wouldn’t miss a beat in the service. But, while running the dough through the machine, Soda Pop mangled it. A pasta machine has several settings, with the highest number being the largest space between rollers and the lowest number being the smallest space. When you first start running the dough through the pasta maker you start with the highest number. Then, as the dough is being rolled out and thinned by the machine, you decrease the setting. The process is gradual. If you start by rolling the dough through a low setting, you will likely shred it. When you’re done, you must always turn the dial back up to the high setting so the next person doesn’t ruin his dough. No one had done so on this machine and Soda Pop was left with a mess of green dough. Having no more spinach dough to make the ravioli with, Soda Pop started rolling out the egg dough. Within a few minutes, he had enough ravioli to get us through the night.
I knew that Didier had seen what was going on; he didn’t miss anything. When I sheepishly sent the first egg dough ravioli to the pass, Didier immediately yelled out to me, “Doog, qu’est-ce que c’est cette merde?” (Doug, what is this shit?) He pushed the plate with his hand and nearly knocked it off the pass. His face was bright red. Just then Ducasse, who was with us in the kitchen that night, started yelling his name from another side of the kitchen. I had gotten used to hearing Ducasse yell “Didier” rapidly about ten times whenever he was unhappy with something. That was his way of calling him over to fix something, which could be anything from how a cook was searing a piece of meat to how something was being stirred. The new ravioli were reluctantly used and we were off the hook. They weren’t spinach dough ravioli, but at least we had some and we hadn’t lost more than a beat or two.
What Soda Pop couldn’t have anticipated -- mostly because I was keeping track of the order tickets for the station -- was that we were about to run out of spaghettini as well. So, when he used the egg dough for the raviolis, he had closed the door on making new spaghettini. Telling Didier that we had no more spaghettini for the night, as Ducasse stood right behind him, was easily the hardest thing I had yet to do in that kitchen. I knew nothing about tension before I stood in front of the two of them as they exchanged several heated words in French. I stood there waiting for a verdict. While I hadn’t been directly involved in the pasta fiasco, I was running the station and so this was my fault. A handful of painful minutes later, an alternative was found -- we would stretch each portion of pasta that we had and add more veg to the dish -- and we moved on. After service that night, Brendan was very apologetic and thanked me for being in the middle of the fire. I understood what he meant, but all the same I told him his thanks weren’t necessary. We had withstood the heat, so it really didn’t matter as long as we did better the next time. Regardless of how hard you try, how much work you put in, everything can’t always go as planned. Later that night, when the newspaper came out, the news we were awaiting only confirmed that fact.
This is the second of three excerpts. Part one is here.
Doug Psaltis is the Executive Chef of Country Restaurant, which will open soon in New York City. He has cooked in some of the world’s finest restaurants and with some of the most acclaimed chefs.
Michael Psaltis is a literary agent in New York City. He works with both fiction and nonfiction authors through his own literary agency, and also heads up a division of Regal Literary that is dedicated solely to food writers and cookbook authors.
Copyright © 2005 by Doug Psaltis and Michael Psaltis. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.