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Diary: October 6, 2002

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Thursday, October 3

A very, very long day today. I got up early enough to get to school and make a braid out of the challah dough I started yesterday. It was a fairly typical school day, but once class let out I went downtown and trailed at Café 15 rather than hitting the gym and going home as usual.

Café 15 is situated in a newly renovated hotel. Its kitchen is fairly large as restaurant kitchens go. The chef, Philippe Piel, is very French and has designed a very French menu for his restaurant. I think Café 15 may be the only place in DC that sells a lot of frog legs. Café 15 currently has two L’academie externs, one from the pastry course and one from the culinary career training program. I recognized both immediately on sight, but had not really spoken to either before coming to the restaurant.

Chef Philippe started me off with the man who worked the fish station; he wanted me to work on garde-manger but the person staffing that station had stepped out briefly. I helped to debone frog legs and chatted with the fish guy, whose name I have since forgotten. He was friendly and chatty, and told me about what he’d done before Café 15 and what sold well of the fish items on the menu.

One thing I did that was fairly boneheaded: I left my knives at school. This meant I relied on other people to loan me knives they weren’t currently using to cut things, which was frustrating to say the least. It got worse when Robin, the cook working garde-manger, showed up. Robin works mostly with a cleaver and doesn’t keep a chef’s knife at his station at all. I have never used a cleaver before, and I ended up getting pretty sore on the pad of my right index finger from holding it (possibly improperly, I don’t know).

I don’t think Robin was especially thrilled to have to work with me all evening. I don’t really blame him; I’m not the most adept person in a restaurant kitchen. Robin set me to work on plating amuse-bouches: thin puff pastry crackers with onion compote, sun-dried tomatoes, an olive chip and a sprout. I set up a tray of them for him, and then I dished a mixed vegetable brunoise into small fluted china cups to go with the crackers. When orders for amuse plates came up, Robin prepared a tiny pan of crabmeat and had me spoon it on top of the brunoise to finish the amuse.

I cut a bunch of the olive chips for the amuse crackers for future use. Each chip is a cut of about 1/3 of a black brined olive, and the chips are supposed to be oval…meaning the cuts cannot overlap. (Overlapping cuts lead to straight, rather than curved, sides to the chips.) Then I did a fine brunoise of shallots for Robin, and when I finished with those he gave me some asparagus to trim. “Cut off the bottom three inches, and then cut off the nibs to right below the head.” I immediately cut three to show him, and he responded strongly. “The nibs! The little triangular leaves! Nip them off! Not the HEADS! I’d like to be able to use the rest of those!” I apologized and did the rest as he’d asked. Later I remembered Suzanne F’s suggestion that I ask to be shown how the restaurant wants me to do a job before starting in on it, and I felt rueful. Lesson learned.

Robin went down to a storage walk-in on a lower level and got a bunch of vegetables for me to brunoise for the mixed vegetables I’d plated earlier. He came back up after a few minutes and started me to work on some carrots. He gave me a mandoline to use and showed me how to use it for cutting planks. He demonstrated how to use his cleaver for cutting the planks into julienne and the julienned strips into brunoise. It seemed fairly simple at first, but it took me a loooooooong time. I think I spent almost my whole evening on those damn carrots. The biggest problem was the cleaver, which was so heavy and unfamiliar to me.

After a while I was getting tired and somewhat irritated. Nobody had offered me any food, even though I saw people eating as they worked, and I hadn’t eaten enough before arriving to carry me through the night. I was too shy/nervous to ask about food, so I went without. I had been placed at a table that was way too low for working, and even though Robin tried to help out by setting up empty glass crates on top of the table the situation was awkward at best. I’d been running since awakening at 6am and hadn’t sat down for more than five minutes since the morning demo wrapped up at 9:30am. I didn’t mind working, but I had wanted to get a sense of what the kitchen was like and Robin only gave me monosyllabic responses to my questions (I gave up on asking pretty quickly). I got a sense of the garde-manger station from watching Robin, but I didn’t see much of anything else. Chef Philippe did briefly show me the other stations before service, but that was about it. The culinary program extern who I’d recognized seemed somewhat shy, and didn’t say much more than Robin in response to my questions.

The pastry extern saw what was happening and took control of the situation after a while. She was there to plate desserts, and as garde-manger was slowing down she started getting pretty busy. She sidled over to me and said I should leave the carrots behind and go help her. Things got much more interesting from there, and I enjoyed helping her plate the sweets. I tried my hand at quenelling ice cream with one spoon (the preferred Café 15 method), which I wasn’t too good with. I still form only an adequate quenelle with two spoons, which seems much easier to handle than a single spoon.

I did have a brief moment of triumph late in the evening. There was a diner who had a birthday, and the pastry extern was asked to write “Happy Birthday” on a plate for him. The patron hadn’t ordered a dessert, so the idea was to write the message on a square plate and then send the requisite petit fours out on the same plate. The extern said she was terrible at writing with chocolate and didn’t want to do it. She asked if I could do it instead. So I did, and I’m pleased to report the plate looked quite nice by the time I finished with it. Chef Philippe seemed somewhat nervous about trusting me with the pastry bag, but he didn’t stop the plate from going out so I suppose it looked fine.

Around 10:30pm I was exhausted, and the orders had slowed considerably. I asked Chef Philippe if I could leave, and he said that would be fine. We talked briefly about whether or not I will actually work there. He suggested I compare his kitchen with a few others before making a decision, and promised to keep in touch with me about my possibilities.

Saturday, October 5

Today was L’academie’s semiannual open house. We spent the last two school days preparing for the event. Here is what we served:

Lamb merguez sausage

A whole roast suckling pig, deboned and stuffed with a pork-veal-apricot stuffing

Raclette with potatoes, pickles and bread


Egg rolls, vegetarian and with chicken

Chicken satays with peanut sauce


Smoked salmon

Grilled vegetables

Eggplant roulade

Quail Scotch eggs

Build-your-own risotto

Assorted breads

George more or less took over the pig from beginning to end. Several students made the sausages, which looked like a fun project. I spent much of my time on over the past few days on preparing the grilled vegetable platters and fixing mini spanakopitas, which somehow fell by the wayside and never went out. The pastry students set out their own buffet of goodies, which was quite impressive considering they have only been at school for a month or so.

Chef Peter assigned us to our jobs early this morning. I was selected along with Jessie to work as a “runner,” bringing people who stood by food whatever they needed and otherwise standing around and welcoming people. The open house started at 11am; friends and family were to appear starting at noon to ensure prospective students had an opportunity to talk to us before our own guests took over our attentions. There were actually two prospective students who wanted to become food writers there, both of whom came to me with their questions about the field. It felt odd to be asked for advice on the field when I haven’t yet earned any income from my labors, but I enjoyed chatting with them nonetheless and they seemed to feel like they got some good information from me.

A little later, my partner Erin showed up, and so I took him around and introduced him to my classmates, Chef Peter, Chef Somchet and Chef Francois. My housemate Abi and friend Irene appeared later and enjoyed a quick tour through the kitchens. I enjoyed meeting some of the people who my classmates are connected with; at this point we have all heard references to significant others, family and close friends from one another, so it was good to connect names and faces.

The open house wrapped up at 1pm, and it took surprisingly little time to break down and pack off all the food. It has been a very long week for me, and I am glad that it is over.

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Thanks Rochelle. Was this the first time you'd used a mandoline?

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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... Was this the first time you'd used a mandoline?

If it was, CONGRATULATIONS! I assume from the lack of mention of a trip to the emergency room that you used it without loss of limb or digit. Brava.

Rochelle, bubbula, always listen to Mother Suzanne. :wink:

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I've used a mandoline before. See the "Gaufrettes, Rockfish" topic. Yes, I gouged my thumb the first time. But I didn't hurt myself at all at Cafe 15, unless you consider the aforementioned finger pad that got sore from the cleaver.

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The only task that those F*%$#ng!!! kevlar safety gloves are good for is using the mandoline. You'll be suprised how much faster and confidently you can work with it.

Consider yourself fortunate in your trail. I know several "Very French" chefs that wouldn't even consider letting a female into the kitchen unless she was carrying a waiter's tray. Sounds like you held your own though.


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