Notes From the Road … The Home Edition
It\’s possible to hurt my feelings. For instance:
I admit I\’m genuinely annoyed by the occasional internet poster who suggests that whatever I might have to say about food, about travel–about anything–is somehow gravely diminished by the fact that I\’m no longer working in a professional kitchen. That proximity to the line, the actual job of cooking dinner for the public enhances one\’s powers of perception, focuses the mind and builds vocabulary and that \”keeping it real\” necessitates dying behind the stove, a broken, broken kneed and broke-ass geezer in his mid-fifties, long past it as a cook – finally succumbed to stroke or liver disease. It\’s a point of view popular among internet nerds and cubicle geeks who\’ve never done a minute\’s physical labor in their lives, the same people who take photographs of every course at their favorite restaurants, convinced that it\’s Jean Georges himself in there, personally boning out their squab.
My instinctive reaction to this kind of inverse snobbery is normally a raised middle finger and a \”I had twenty-eight years of standing behind a stove – while you were arguing over bundt cake recipes in a chat room, motherfucker! Now, kiss my ass!!\”
But the fact is, there\’s a little voice in my head that completely agrees with their point of view.All those years hanging out with no one but professional cooks, looking out at the world through the narrow tunnel vision of the kitchen – it alters, irrevocably, one\’s value system and ties one\’s sense of self worth inseparably and inversely to how bad, physically, you feel at the end of the day when you roll into bed. While I may want to reach through the computer screen and across the ether to strangle some snarky Comic Book Guy who\’s basically sayin\’ I\’m a pussy, there IS that subconscious connection in my mind between flopping half-drunk on top of the covers, my back, knees and feet throbbing painfully, smelling like Charlie the Tuna after a hard day\’s work – and the sense that I have completed a day of honest, virtuous toil.
Writing and making television DOES feel easier, less useful and frankly less worthwhile than cooking for a living. Maybe these budding snarkologists have a point; I mean … who really gives a fuck what a career \”television personality\” has to say? I mean, MY knee jerk reaction, every time I see Ryan Seacrest, for instance, is to wish him a forced march off to a collective farm/reeducation camp. Surely that would be better for everybody; Ryan – and society as a whole. Wouldn\’t it?
So, with this in mind, and in the grip of a particularly powerful wave of self-loathing, I got the bright idea to return to Les Halles, the restaurant where I spent all my waking hours before the writing and the TV thing took over. I thought to myself: \”There\’s an idea for a special episode! I\’ll go back to the same restaurant kitchen and challenge myself to work the same station as I used to six and a half years ago. In fact; I\’ll go back and work my old Tuesday double shift – where I\’d work the very busy, very difficult saute station both lunch and dinner. Start prep and set-up at eight AM. Twelve noon to twelve midnight service. Let\’s see if the Old Guy can still do it after all these years – even at 51 years old. Even though I was beginning to lose it BEFORE \”Kitchen Confidential\” hit and I got my ticket out. Even though Les Halles has expanded since I left – nearly DOUBLING in size and seating … And I\’ll do this smack in the middle of the Christmas season! The busiest time of the year!! THAT sounds like a great idea – in a self-validating, quasi-delusional, I\’ve-Still-Got-It, last gasp kindofa way!
And it\’ll make good television!\”
As the date grew close, it began to dawn on me that I was not so sure I could actually do what I\’d hoped to do – that I was physically (or mentally, for that matter) up to the challenge. Carlos, my one time protege – and now the executive chef, had serious concerns. He pointed out, among other things, that the menu has changed – a LOT – since 2001. And that the busiest night I\’d ever worked the line at Les Halles, we\’d done 365 covers. That NOW they regularly did as many as 650 – with the same number of cooks!! And that I was suspiciously old – and out of practice – and couldn\’t possibly be serious about this whole enterprise anyway. This was a worrying vote of no-confidence, particularly since my crew would be filming the whole thing. Come victory or total humiliation – the unblinking eyes of three cameras would be upon me the whole day and night.
So I invited a friend along–to share the pain.
Eric Ripert is the chef of the three Michelin starred Le Bernardin in New York City. It\’s easily and inarguably one of the best restaurants in America – if not the world. Eric is also a good friend, prone to making rash decisions when drinking expensive tequila. So I fed him a couple of shots, told him of my plan – and double-dared him to join me.
\”C\’mon, fish boy … Let\’s see if you can work the busiest, most thankless, turn- and- burn grill station in New York. Do you even know how to cook meat? Have you EVER worked a place as busy as Les Halles? Have you ever worked a place where you don\’t even wipe the rim of the plates? Can you handle that?\”
Eric\’s words were. \” It sounds like fun.\” (Add French accent here)
So, that\’s how it went down, friends. Unwitting customers who showed up for their reservations at Les Halles on December 18th (2007) had their gaze wandered over to the grease smeared kitchen window – would have seen an unlikely combo of rookie cooks preparing their steak frites and their pork mignons, struggling and sweating in our jailhouse \”vato loco\” kerchief headgear (obligatory since a recent Health Dept. pinch, says Carlos).
How did it work out? How did we do? Did we bring honor to our clan? Could Ripert restrain himself from wiping each plate and fiddling with garnishes? Did he manage to keep his hands off the tequila? Did the enraged regular line cooks of Les Halles, frustrated by the visiting team of dilletantes, shank the gabachos like jailhouse punks? Did I go under like a drowning man- – swamped by a torrent of orders? Or did I simply decide to screw the pooch, drop my apron and swan around the dining room for the duration?
You\’ll just have to tune in.