I have been on a roller coaster of adventurous eating lately. After I got home from the freelancing trip with Scam on the Street, I hopped right back into the life I’ve become accustomed to leading for the past four months. One of wanderlust. And I’m not speaking of your common interpretation of this word that typically denotes a yearning for freedom and travel. Yes, I do partake in both of those things often…but here in New York, I’ve been volleying between jobs (the wandering bit) that offer me part time hours yet let me follow my passion for food knowledge (the lusting part). I’ve been fortunate enough to volunteer for several events recently, eaten in parts of our country that I’d only hoped to visit, and all the while have been mentally storing ideas and recipes which at some point I hope will resurface at opportune moments.
My first few days back in New York were amazing. A few weeks back, I bumped into an old friend I used to work with at Jean-Georges. He had mentioned a dinner party he’d be hosting in a few weeks and I casually mentioned I’d love to help him with it. He said that he couldn’t afford to pay me, and I said “where do I sign?”. I find myself working for free more often than not…I’ll have to change my not so entrepreneurial ways one day! But in the meantime, these events give me the opportunity to learn one on one. So when I returned to New York, Sam called to see if I was serious about my offer. I replied a little too eagerly and ended up being reeled in for a day of prep as well. And let me tell you, I overloaded my already challenged memory with so many recipes that my mind is still aching from the sensory excitement!
We hit the ground running Friday morning. Sam was holding a fourteen course tasting dinner in a friend’s loft and there were lists and lists of mise en place to knock out. I arrived at ten in the morning and we immediately got to prepping. We slow roasted lamb, made jus, butchered and brined proteins, segmented and juiced citrus, trimmed, diced and minced vegetables, seasoned dressings and placed out only the bare minimum, leaving the majority of the items to be finished the next day. We worked for eleven hours with a seven minute coffee break, and loved every minute of it. It was like being back in a restaurant, surrounded with the finest ingredients…but being able to voice an opinion, or make a suggestion about a flavoring component or cooking method. I had only ever dreamt this scenario before. It was wild!
I floated home on cloud nine. Working with Sam had all the fun aspects of a kitchen minus the constant barking and barrage of name calling. Sam didn’t even call me useless once! He even said I was great!! I may have choked up a bit when I received this compliment. A girl could get used to this kind of appreciation.
I woke up the next morning even more excited about going to work for free. I made my way over to the loft and readied myself for a day of finishing up all loose ends and mentally preparing for 24 guests. Our first job of the day was to smoke trout belly. Sam turned on the fan, lit some cedar chips and gently smoked the belly. About the time that we were on our third or fourth project of the day, we heard the door open to the living room. It was nine hours too early for any guests…so who could it be?? I turned around and was surprised to see a man with a giant flashlight and pick ax in his hand standing in the middle of the kitchen. It was our dear friends from the fire department, showing up to keep us company. Shortly after, four more of these burly men sauntered into the kitchen, sniffing around and suspiciously eyeing our arsenal of food and prospectively dangerous kitchen utensils. Apparently a neighbor had gotten wind of our smoking shenanigans and called 911. We pleaded not guilty to starting fires and tried to explain that we were just enhancing the flavor of the fish belly. The men looked slightly amused/mostly annoyed that we had only been cooking–and then one man offhandedly remarked that we should have just used the fireplace in the first place instead of the stove. Genius idea.
The whole incident was pretty entertaining, minus the fact that we lost precious time on our prepping. Service was only eight hours away and we had to be ready for an aggressive line-up of dishes and a bombardment of mouths. We put our heads down and only occasionally chatted. I felt like we were preparing for battle…not dinner service. Though I imagine they feel like the same thing.
We readied our stations, mapped out a plan of attack and heavily laid on words of encouragement. “We can do this!” We can send out perfectly seasoned, gorgeous, and imaginative food. Sam had the ideas and we had the follow through. And then it started. We passed out cocktails, sent out the first course and then steadily built momentum, leading up to the center stage entrees, and then bowed out sweetly with desserts. It was pretty exciting to be able to see the customers’ reactions. I normally only get to see the reactions when I do catering. But I’m not invested in the catered food. I’m not inspired when I’m re-warming food or re-plating hors d’oeuvres. This, on the other hand, was the best of both worlds. We were cooking in the kitchen and getting to hear all the murmurs, moans and exclamations that emanated from the diners mouth about the food that we had prepped, seasoned and re-seasoned, and checked for perfect temperatures before it left the pass. We knew the food was incredible, but it was up to the diners to make the final verdict.
Sam’s dishes caused a commotion. Actually, they caused several commotions. People asked for seconds of the oyster with fermented purple cauliflower, hazelnut oil and hazelnuts, and toasted caraway. Plates came back wiped clean of the ‘three alarm’ smoked trout belly with watermelon vinaigrette and a garnish of watermelon and pickled cranberries. I hardly wanted to let the poached chicken leave the kitchen because it was the most glorious poultry I’d ever tasted…and a cry from the dinner table insisted that because the lamb dish was so succulent that he would only be satisfied with a follow up course of lamb ice cream!!
We pushed through fourteen courses and filled 24 stomachs with a wide variety of flavors, textures and combinations of the unexpected. We were wiped out after 14 hours of prep and service…but if I could do it again tomorrow, I would. I could care less about working for free. Sam filled me with amazing ideas, I pilfered a few recipes and I left with only the most amazing feeling of having satisfied so many appetites…including my own.