I’ve been cooking at home for years now. Ever since college, where I had to fend for myself, I have cooked for myself and others. I can remember cooking up my mom’s chicken cacciatore for some friends and making matzah ball soup during Passover. After college, my love for cooking grew, but again, only a hobby I enjoyed at home. This past Sunday, a dream I’ve had for a long time finally came to fruition. My good friend and former college roommate Andy, who works at Le Barricou in Brooklyn New York, had me come in and trail with him at the restaurant.
Working in the industry for six years, Andy would often tell me to go to a random restaurant and ask to trail. Often apprehensive, I never ended up going to any restaurants with this request. On Sunday I finally learned what it was like to cook in a professional kitchen. The stakes were higher, the burners were hotter and the knives, they were sharper.
Prior to arriving at the restaurant, I was a bit nervous. I knew I wasn’t going to be asked to take on too much for my first time in a kitchen, but it was still a world of unknowns. My preconceived notions of a professional kitchen were all formed watching Top Chef and other cooking shows — where they seem to always appear more glamorous.
Pushing through the reversible kitchen doors, seeing the chaos from a long brunch shift, I began to see what I was in for. As I descended down the kitchen staircase into the basement, I quickly donned an apron, a bandanna, and received my allotment of kitchen towels. It was time.
After some introductions to the dishwashers, restaurant owner, and the other guys I’d be working with it was right to work. “Let’s go to the walk-in and see what we need,” Andy explained. The walk-in just refers to the large walk-in refrigerator next to the kitchen were all the meats, veggies, stocks, soups and everything else is stored. Grabbing chicken, steak and pork by the dozen, I was given my first task: clean up the chicken breasts and slice them.
With chicken, pork chops, and hanger steak ready to go, it was time to make the sauce for the pork chop and prepare a few other items for Andy’s station — The Grill. With the sauces out of the way and the lull in between brunch and dinner fading into a distant memory, it was time to set up the station. When I get ready to make dinner at home, you grab the ingredients you need for your dish, but in a restaurant, you’re grabbing what you need for 10, 20, or 50 dishes.
Andy works the grill. That means making burgers, steaks, filet of trout, coq au vin, etc. and all of their accompaniments. As the early orders started coming in, I watched closely to see what to do for each particular dish. Now and then I’d get the chance to toss the chicken and other pieces into the sauce pan with the coq au vin sauce and baste until the thick delicious glaze was formed.
The head chef at Le Barricou is Chef Soto and at one point needed to break down some chickens — debone them for a chicken wrapped with fennel sausage inside. After watching chef demonstrate several times, ultimately my attempts ended in utter failure. Maybe next time. Rather than be discouraged, I continued to stand waiting for another chance to try to make something or plate something.
Over the course of the night I noticed and learned a number of things about professional kitchens: it’s damn hot in there! Make sure your hand towel is dry or if you touch a hot pan you’re going to get burned. Patience, patience, patience. Food takes time, it’s not instantaneous, so let things go while hovering with a watchful eye. After your first time in the kitchen, your feet are going to hurt — not many other jobs have you on your feet for 9 hours straight. Always say “BEHIND” when you walk behind people with hot stuff and sharp knives. I’m learned plenty more than this, and I think after my next time in the kitchen (next week!), I’ll be more prepared and have a better idea of what is going on around me.
The experience was a great one, not just to actually experience what happens behind the scenes, but to feel the heat (literally and figuratively) in the kitchen. There is definitely a rush when you’re back there, in the zone, getting tickets, firing orders, plating steaks and everything else. I will never look at a restaurant the same, and I definitely have even more respect for cooks and those who work in the depths of the restaurant.