Marie Antonin Careme, the French chef who invented Grande Cuisine, was booted onto the streets of Paris by his father at the age of 10. The old man's only advice was, "Go with the talents God gave you." Those talents eventually made him a prosperous and celebrated man, but I believe these harsh beginnings left an impression on the young Careme.
As evidence, I cite the militaristic model he brought to professional kitchen management. It's called the "brigade system." When I first encountered it while training last year at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, the name suggested orderliness, high purpose, colorful parades. I didn't know then that the word brigade comes from an Italian term for "strife." This was what Careme was really getting at.
L'Academie doesn't look like a boot camp. There are no obstacle courses on the tiny campus, and instructors don't demand one-armed push-ups when your hollandaise sauce breaks. But a lot of the elements are there. We had to scrub kitchen floors and wear uniforms with kerchiefs knotted around our necks at all times. We peeled lots of potatoes.
The real test of fire was yet to come: the required front-line tours of duty in working kitchens, known as externships. I was lucky and unlucky enough to land an externship at Restaurant Nora, a fine organic foods place in Dupont Circle. There I got my first bitter taste of the nightly struggle, often as fevered and desperate as battle itself, to satisfy customers who stormed the doors like a cunning and very hungry enemy army.
My commission was cold foods. Above me were several line- and prep cooks, two sous-chefs, and the chef de cuisine. (Nora Pouillon, the owner and executive chef, figured into the hierarchy, too, but at a remove, since she no longer works "on the line" every night. I thought of her as the queen for whom our little army fought.)
The only people subordinate to me were two Korean cousins who worked appetizers and desserts as well. Ostensibly I had authority over them due to my culinary training, but we all knew the real reason was that I could more easily read the orders that came spitting out of the ticket machine at our station. Joo Ho and Jyung Hyen worked faster and harder than I did, but they were still struggling with English. Had they been any more fluent, I would have been lowest man on the totem pole.
Before culinary school I had been a slow cook, happy to drink beer and listen to bluegrass music while I worked. My instructors at L'Academie had put the lash to me, but I couldn't seem to catch the rhythm. I felt a lot like Gomer Pyle looked in the opening scenes of the old sitcom, grinning like an idiot and trying good-naturedly to follow Sgt. Carter's vexing marching orders.
In those first few nights at Nora it looked like Gomer was a goner. Suddenly everything was real, the food, the crush of bodies, stoves and dishwashers in the small kitchen, the heat and the noise, and the unrelenting need for speed. My station was the bottleneck that slowed the pace of the whole kitchen night after night, and everyone knew I was the cause. Waiters, who normally dip into the kitchen for 30 seconds, were standing at my station, hands on hips, wondering aloud how it could take eight minutes to form a tower of roasted beet slices on a plate and shoot some sauce around it.
The expediter, an affable man named Gilberto who oversaw the proper presentation of all plates, was reduced to screaming that I was causing the whole kitchen to collapse. Even Joo Ho, working right alongside me, decided I was useless. He never stopped, and in fact moved even faster to make up for my inadequacies, but he resented me for the dishonor I brought to the station. At times, he couldn't even look my way.
The political campaign and consulting work I'd left behind for cooking school suddenly seemed a lot less pressure-filled. I could go back to it easily enough. But to quit Nora meant not graduating, admitting defeat, and I guessed I wasn't ready for that even if I hated practically every moment I spent in that little kitchen on R Street.
Paradoxically, what saved me was spending even more moments in the place. I finally realized that what made my station the slowest was that one of us was constantly heading to the back cooler to restock empty containers, whipping vinaigrettes together while orders backed up.
And the customers at Nora were a lot like Robert E. Lee; they seemed to possess an unerring talent for locating and exploiting our weakest point. Whatever items were running short were the items they would order in the greatest numbers.
So I learned the value of advance preparation, and it saved my career. I came in earlier each day, working without cease, until I was able to stockpile everything we would need before the first customer arrived. Historian James McPherson talks about a strange phenomenon among Civil War soldiers. Sometimes they grew so weary of the hard work of preparing for battle they'd beg permission to charge though it might mean death, rather than dig another trench or erect another barricade. I could relate. After nearly five hours of prep each day, six days a week, I'd approach the thought of slicing even one more cooked beet or pureeing another batch of chickpeas with the same dazed ambivalence. Then I'd remember the fierce glare from the chef--my commanding officer--when I'd run low on an item during the most intense moments of the dinner rush, slowing the whole kitchen, dragging my brigade single-handedly toward defeat, and I'd puree more chickpeas.
Eventually I gained speed and learned to hold my station on the busiest of nights. I even got a nice send-off dinner when my externship was over. I look back on the experience now with a certain amount of pride, though I'm not so impressed with myself that I can't see the difference between war and what I suffered in a restaurant kitchen.
Reflecting on the experience he and his Civil War comrades shared, Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Our hearts were touched by fire." My heart wasn't touched by fire on the Nora Brigade; but my arms, fingers and butt sure got burned a few times.