Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Stagiaire's Story


 Share

Recommended Posts

Salut tout le monde,

I had been invited by Mr. Buxbaum to contribute to the French message board here on EGullet. I suppose he felt that an American cook working in a Michelin two star French kitchen (Provencal to be more precise) could be of some value.  I hope the rest of you share his opinion.  

I guess an introduction of myself is in order.  I am a second generation Korean American born and raised in So Cal, who after receiving a double degree in English and Economics from UCLA, decided he would rather hang up the cap and gown for a toque and apron.  Actually, its amazing that I graduated at all since I spent more time watching the Food Network and/or reading cookbooks than attending lectures or reading textbooks (an exaggeration that isn't too far from the truth).  Yet, like many of the recently graduated, I found the "real" world a bit too harsh to jump right into-- afterall, I was just "deconstructing" the parables of Kierkegaard, Kafka and Nietsche, how could you expect me to peel 30 lbs of potatoes, strain 12 gallons of chicken stock and/or peel and devein 10 lbs of shrimp.  So I did like many disconcerted graduates do-- I continued onto "higher education", but unlike them, I wasn't pursuing the masters or Phd from an acclaimed univerisity, I was pursuing a clearer consomme, a more uniform cut, a more sensible garnish from a cooking school.

However, I didn't opt for the highly regarded Culinary Arts Degree from Johnson and Wales or the CIA--frankly I had enough student loans to contend with, and cook's just don't get paid all that much-- I opted for a small cooking school with a knowledgable professor who had strong connections with Wolfgang Puck (if all I learned from college was that it isn't what you know but who you know, I learned enough).  Thus, even before I finished cooking school, I began working at Chinois on Main (Wolfgang Puck's Asian-inspired restaurant in Santa Monica), as a line cook.  This career student was tired of being broke (as a matter of fact, I'm still tired of being broke)--plus, I finally realized that there was no better classroom than on the job training, especially when it comes to cooking.  I liken it to any performing art (especially sports); there is a rhythem, a sense of timing that can only be fine tuned under the pressure of performance-- under the heat of service.

Speaking of heat, my first station can be compared to life on the planet Mercury.  I started at the grill station, where 60 lbs of red hot mesquite radiates temperatures that only the most evil people feel in their illfated afterlife.  Great for searing steaks and grill marking salmon, but murder on one's complexion.  Needless to say, after a year on the grill, I was ready (with skin on my hands that could be made into cowboy boots) to change stations.  If murdering lobsters is considered a sin, I will be condemned to eternity on the grill.  Chinois on Main is famous for its Curried Lobster, where I cut in half, seared and shelled an average of 30 lobsters a night--most always each a la minute.  One can tell when a cook has been working the lobster station for an extended period of time, he/she has a callous where the back end of there weapon of choice (usually a 10 inch chef's knife) has aggravated the skin just under there cutting hand's index finger.  Afterwards, a six month stint working the pantry (appetizer station, or garde manger in French) and another six month stint working as Chinois' butcher/day time prep, and I felt I had the experience, and most importantly the knife/cooking skills to head to France.

I researched the employment scene here in France and the proposition of finding a good restaurant which would accept an American cook with very rusty French language skills and found it very near implausible.  First you have to find a chef who would go through all the red tape (and in France, if you've ever read Kafka, its all about bureaucracy); add in the fact that there is double digit unemployment and that equals big time obstacles.  Thank goodness for connections.  Here is were Wolfgang stepped in.  As it turned out, he had done an apprenticeship at a famous Michelin three star (at the time) in Provence, Oustau de Baumaniere.  Having kept in contact with the owner/chef, Jean Andre Charial over the years, it was just a matter of a phone call, a fax and some emails, and voila, a staggaire's poistion at a highly acclaimed French restaurant-- a dream come true.  Well I wished it was that easy.

If you ever ask a favor from a chef, you'd better be able to repay, or in my case, prepay it tenfold.  Before I was to leave for France, I had to work, in my opinion, the lowest of low positions (which didn't require me to wash dishes) at Spago, Beverly Hills.  Of course, one could be stuck, peeling potatoes or washing lettuce, but at least it wasn't cooking 30 lbs of potatos (20 lbs of russet for the aligot, and 10 lbs of yukon gold, for the garlic mashed potatos)--a proposition which requires cutting the potatos into equally sized pieces, constant stirring, heavy lifting (and I thought I knew how to mash potatoes-- was I ever wrong), passing all the potatoes through a ricer, stirring in cream, butter, salt and pepper, to achieve a lump free, and grit free mashed potato that was worthy of fine dining.  Well, it sounds easier than it is, and when my chef de partie told me my mashed potatoes were overcooked and that I had to start all over again, I nearly took my first life (I could have killed him or myself).  Well with newly found muscles, which ached for weeks to come, I thought I had paid my dues, but as the old Chinese saying goes, "Oh, so sorry."

Wolfgang had decided that I was to cook for him. The Austrian accented voice went something like, "I have to know how you cook before I can send you to France.  I am free after lunch service tommorrow, sometime around one (o'clock).  Make me three things and cook everything here", to which I reply, "But I am scheduled to work tommorrow at 3 (o'clock PM),"  to which he frankly replied, "Thats your problem."  Oh, by the way, this all occured at eleven P.M., just after I finished my shift and was saying my goodbyes.  Obviously, I didn't get much sleep-- researching recipes til 4:30 in the morning and then waking up at 6:30 to go an Asian Market and then off to Spago to start cooking. Remarkably, I wasn't the first person in Spago that morning, but the place was near empty.  I got to work right away, and by the time Wolfgang came to see me, it was about one o'clock.  I vividly remember his words, "I'm hungry, when are you going to be ready?"; translation, "on your marks, GO (there was no time to get set)!"  I prepared three Korean inspired dishes: Korean beef barbeque lettuce wrap with mung been sprout salad, seared black bass in a spicy Korean red sauce atop braised daikon radish, and butter poached lobster in a Kafir lime leaf lobster sauce accompanied by Korean pancakes and avocado.  Fortunately, I had adequate time to prepare, unfortunately, there were still lunch orders coming in and I had to share burners with the other cooks--very cramp.  After much apologizing and excuse mes, the last of the three dishes went out, and I sighed a sigh of relief; a shortlived relief which ended when the waiter returned stating, "Wolfgang would like you to prepare an three egg omelet with smoked salmon."  

Talk about out of left field, I was definately illprepared.  I knew how I liked omelets, but I didn't know the "fine dining" version.  I lightly scrambled the eggs, incorporated some heavy cream, found a nonstick skillet and began slowly cooking and scraping (don't know a better word) the omelet with a rubber spatula, which helps to build volume and to evenly cook the eggs.  When the omelet started to become opaque, I added the smoked salmon, flipped the omelet into a halfmoon, added a dallop of creme fraiche and garnished it with some minced dill.  Boy was I proud of that omelet (until recently, when I discovered the French do it entirely different-- a matter for another post).  After I cleaned up, the same waiter came back and told me to go to Wolfgang's table.  I was surprised to see Wolfgang wasn't alone-- there sat Lee Hefter, head chef of Spago, and Matt (the sous chef, who's last name I can't remember).  Lee was the first to speak, saying something like, "(Y)ou know how to cook Korean, so I guess its about time you learned to cook French.  The dishes were excellent and the black bass was cooked to perfection.  Congratulte yourself."  Then Wolfgang chimed in, "I remember the first time I worked in a restaurant, the chef told me to cook an egg; so as you can imagine, I was so nervous.  I cooked it and it had bubbles around the edges.  He took one look at it and through it on the floor.  'You cannot cook a simple egg,' he told me, 'how do you expect to work here.'  I was terrified."  I didn't know exactly what to take from his story at the time, but I was generally encouraged by the whole experience.  Although now, I understand that was Wolfgang's way of saying, you think its tough here, well wait until you work in Europe/France.  Words of a prophet.

Having been working at Baumaniere for nine months, I can now comprehend the full magnitude of Wolfgang's brief anecdote.  My second day at Baumaniere found me making nearly one thousand chicken, leek and truffle filled raviolis.  My hands are calloused but not blisterproof-- a fact that the ravioli cutter (a cookie cutter thing) pounded home after my first couple hours of ravioli limbo (9 hours a day for four days sraight).  It was great because I had never seen that many truffles (slices) in my life, and my hands were fragrant with its precious aroma-- a peculiar juxtapostion to the blisters.  My first month found me doing all manner of menial tasks-- va chercher this, va chercher that, lave this, coupe that, depeche toi, plus vite and toute de suite.  I didn't gain any ground in the hierarhcy until the demi chef de partie garde manger, a Japanese staggaire, decided he wanted to learn another station some three months later.  To my delight, and now regret, I took over the more demanding position in the French manner, toute de suite.

I say regret because with all the authority I now have over all the other commis and apprentices, I have that much more responsibility-- a fact my chef de partie never lets me forget.  Plus, I take over as chef de partie when my chef isn't there, which he hasn't been for the last two weeks (a cooking event with the gourmet food outlet, Marshall Field, in the Great Lakes region).  The brief breakdown of this means I had just spent three consecutive weeks without a day off, working some 80+ hours a week.  I guess when your the American staggaire who doesn't get paid by the hour, they can go ahead and work you to death.  What exascerbated my predicament was the day before my chef left, the menu underwent its spring makeover-- I had to start everything from scratch.  Plus, the sous chef in charge of creating the menu never ceases to change the dishes--eradicating every ounce of comfort I have with the daily mis en place (means everything in its place, a culinary term for all of your daily preperations) and I have to come up with one new amuse bouche (any little taste that will fit on a spoon) and three new mis en appetit (three small bowls filled usually with a soup, a puree, a gellee or any daily inspired creation) everyday.  A daunting task when one considers I worked with one other cooking student/apprentice the entire time (it still being the offseason, we are highly understaffed).  

Wow, I feel a whole lot better now that I got that off my chest

I really am joking when I say regret because I truly value my experience here.  If one looks at the bright side, I have a nice small room with a closet, bed and sink, partake two edible meals a day, receive a bit of pocket change for all my efforts and normally get a day and a half off everyweek.  OK, without being facetious, I am in a region where excellent olive oil is grown and pressed, where good Appelation Les Baux de Provence wines are produced and where fresh French baguettes are baked daily-- a gourmand's dream come true. Also, I get to play around with some amazing ingredients, cook through a portion of Paul Bocuse's ancient tome, "Paul Bocuse, La Cuisine du Marche," (although I do take tremendous liberties in its interpretation)* and work on my chef skills (especially the yelling--its hard to get these apprentices motivated otherwise). Plus, I get my monthly quota of travel in.  Oh yeah, did I mention that Baumaniere has one of the largest and finest collections of French wines in the world-- 3rd largest restaurant wine list in all of France--well that was before the the 2002 New Years Eve fire ransacked a small portion of the wine cellar.  Luckily, as far as I know, all the fine Bordeaux and Burgundies were left intact.  

With that to chew on, I hope I can add a welcome perspective to a well coordinated and interesting message board.  

Thanks for reading,

Simon Sunwoo

*Having read some of the other posts, there seems to be a generally negative view of Bocuse's cuisine.  Is it too antiquated or stagnant?  Am I missing something here, because it is highly regarded by most of my colleagues?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Simon, thank you for writing. Thank you very much. I hope to see many more posts by you.

"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

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Now that you are here and online with us, let me extend a welcome and thank you for that post. Members should know that I thought an American currently in a two star French kitchen would be a lively addition to our fold even before I knew Simon was an English major. I try to maintain an environment that is open and inviting to a wide variety of interests and opinions, but I have to say that if there are any out there that do not believe your posts could be of "some" value after reading your introduction, I suspect they are in the wrong place.

My greater fear is that you will be bombarded with questions you don't have time to answer. Please don't let them drive you away. For those of you who aren't at all familiar with the world of fine cooking, this has porbably been a good introduction to what it's like to learn how to cook haute cuisine professionally. Simon, have you read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and if so, would you care to comment on differences between his kitchens and what you've seen so far? I don't mean to put you on the spot, but so many people have this impression of a kitchen as a haven for undisciplined misfits.

I've known a few highly literate cooks and chefs. Some time ago when the pastry chef at Picholine, a Yale graduate, left, I understood she was replaced by a Princeton graduate. Our own Steve Klc is a good example of the erudite chef. Nevertheless it's terrific to have your skills here. I really enjoyed reading your intoduction for its style as well as it's content. In spite of the academically well educated cooks I've known and heard about, I have to ask if there weren't those in your first kitchen who didn't express the thought that they'd be gone in an instant if they had your academic degree.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Simon--thank you for sharing in such great detail--I hung on every word--I was with you at Puck's table, imagined lifting a spoon of your amuse and your 3 bowls of mis en appetit.  Keep sharing and contributing.  I wonder if it is rare for such a stagiare to assume a real position--were you just in the right place at the right time? how much of that is a testament to your preparation in Puck's restaurants?

Regarding Bocuse--at least in terms of dessert and pastrymaking, he holds little relevance anymore.  That aspect of his books was never too special given the achievement of pastry chefs from his era, let alone today.  But you do have to understand the classics, why they were "classic" in the first place and it never hurts to be aware of how and why the scene evolved.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you all for the wonderful reception to my post.  Although I rarely have time to write, I will do my best to keep current with the posts--you know the last thing I want to do after work is have to think.  In response to your question Bux, yes I have read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and found it to be..., lets say different to my prior experiences in the kitchen.  Although, I can support his claim that this field usually attracts the odder, and usually "less erudite" segment of the population.  

Thanks again,

Simon

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In response to Steve Klc, since I haven't worked at any other restaurants in France, I do not know if it is extraordinary for a staggaire to undertake such a position.  In actuality, the chef de cuisine never asked me to work all those hours, but it sort of was implied (by huge amount of work to be done).  I considered my time at both Puck's restaurant invaluable, but without sounding arrogant, I also believe you get what you put in.  Of course, I did get incredible coaching and developed knife skills at Chinois above those normally required in other restaurants  (had a Japanese chef for a couple of years- and if you know the Japanese, they are fundamentally/technically sound cooks).

And yes, sleep is a tremendously valuable commodity in my line of work.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

Simon -- Below are excerpts from an interview of Jean-Andre Charial of Baumaniere, appearing in the April/May 2002 edition of Prestige Immobilier magazine:

"Q: Do these [authentic, distinctive] places have an influence on your cuisine?

A: Certainly. Here at Baumaniere, we are in an extremely mineral and very rigorous environment. My culinary creations are surely different from those I would achieve int he Val-de-Loire.

Q: Where do you find your inspiration?

A; In cookery books and from the trips I have made to India and Japan.  India instilled in me several ways to use spices. My Japanese journeys made me sensitive to the ingredients used and the vessel used for the presentation . . . .

Q: What is your definition of luxury?

A: Space, silence and effective but discreet service. . . . also extremely fresh products such as peas picked that very morning."  :wink:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...
  • 1 month later...
  • 1 year later...

I'm sorry we never did get to see another post from Simon. I had one long e-mail from him in the interim, but he asked me not to post it on eGullet as it was a rough draft a post he intended to make later. Unfortunately it appears as if he never had the chance to do that. Those who enjoyed his first post may be happy to know that I just got a short update from him.

Hello everybody,

Just writing to tell everyone that at the end of Sept. I am moving to a town 35 minutes north of Barcelona called San Celloni to start work in one of Spain's great restaurants, El Raco de Can Fabas--and no you guys it's not a tapas bar.

Would like to hear from you all to see whats new wherever you are.  Sorry I've been so bad about keeping in touch but do not have a computer that works for the moment--forced to learn to type on a French keyboard in the local cybercafé.  La galère.  

Well I am officially finished working in Provence and will be visiting some friends around the country before I start my 60 hour work week in Spain.  

Adios,

Simon

Those who never got to read that first post, may be happy to have that articulate post brought to the fore. Once more, I will attempt to prevail upon Simon to post, but this time about his experience at Santi Santamaria's restaurant in Catalunya and on the Spain forum.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Bux, yes, thanks so much for bringing this thread back up - I don't know how I missed this either!

And yes, it is highly unusual for a stagiaire to be given any position of authority - when there are chefs de parties, demi chefs de parties, commis, apprentices, and even other more senior stagiaires waiting hungrily in line - even more amazing when that stagiaire is not fluent in French. So big congratulations Simon - that was a miracle - for better or worse.

As for the French 35 hour work week - like most things in France it's enforced rather sporadically - for French and non-French workers.

My only complaint about Simon's post is that it's my day off and his gripping all too familiar story kicked my adrenaline level back up.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...