It’s 5:15, 120 degrees in front of the battery of ranges, and sweat is pouring down every cook’s back, dripping off their foreheads. This is moment in time, like the starting line for an important race, when adrenaline is pulsing through a cook’s veins, fingers are tingling in anticipation, knees are a little weak, and…
Having finished fabricating his fish for Friday prep, Jake moved on to the other proteins on his mise en place list. Venison tenders and Wagyu beef tenders were trimmed of their silver skin and portioned: three-ounce medallions on the venison and four ounces on the beef. The chain from the beef tender would be ground as part of the burger meat for the bar menu and the boot would wind up as tenderloin tips for the Saturday feature. Pheasant, airline style breasts were removed from the carcass leaving the frames for stock that the commissary-shift would use tomorrow. Finally, Jake removed the braised and chilled lamb shanks from their gelatinized braising stock and trimmed them in preparation for re-heating to order. The stock would be reduced with a caramelized mirepoix, red wine and fresh rosemary to accompany the shanks with a side of polenta. “ There”, thought Jake, “all of the proteins were set”.
It was now 3:30 and Jake knew that time was creeping up. He still had not even touched the prep for his vegetables and sauces as well as the set-up of his line station. While he washed and sanitized his table and reached for a new cutting board, he noticed that the other line cooks and interns had arrived and were busy working on their own “mise”. He felt better knowing that he had arrived early and would some how be ready for the chefs pre-meal tasting at 5:00.
Now it was time for some rapid knife work. To save time, Jake took a few minutes to write down all of the vegetables he would need so that he could make one trip to the walk-in, saving time and energy. He collected onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, Yukon gold potatoes, plum tomatoes, baby carrots with tops, chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms, Italian parsley, apples, asparagus and assorted herbs. Once again Jake drew his knives across a stone and steel, washed them and wiped them dry. He was ready.
Jake was masterful with a chef’s knife and bird’s beak. He had, after all, been going through this routine for many years leading to the point where his knives were simply an extension of his hands. Jake was focused but generally pretty easy going. Everyone liked him and respected him but also knew to stay away from his knives. These were his tools and no one else had any business using them (pretty much the rule of thumb with any serious cook). Jake attacked the vegetables dicing, mincing, cutting julienne strips from the leeks, trimming the baby carrots leaving a 1 inch length of green tops as a visual accent, pureeing the shallots so that they would actually melt in a sauté pan, trimming the stems of the chanterelles to make them tender, peeling the bottom half of precisely cut asparagus spears, picking parsley leaves for a garnishing salad on scallops, and cutting fresh herbs with a razor sharp knife into a chiffonade. In some cases vegetables (like the carrots) would be blanched and shocked in ice water so that a simple sauté movement in a pan would finish them in a few seconds at service time. While all of this was taking place, Jake found the time to start the reduction for the lamb shanks and was keeping a close eye on a beurre blanc that he was working for the fish. Time was flashing by. It was now 4:15 and he needed to finish his sauce work and set-up his station.
Moving to his set-up, Jake washed down everything again, counted out his sauté pans and moved them to a 600 degree oven for tempering, clarified his butter for sauté work, lined up his 9th pans for the roll top mise en place cooler, filled everything as per his standard arrangement (everything has a place and everything is in its place), folded a dozed clean side towels, made sure that his burners worked well, stacked plates under the lamps in his station – ready for service, filled a sanitizer bucket with water and the right amount of bleach, and once again drew his knives across a steel. The last step was to bring out his proteins to the lowboy coolers, strain his sauces, set-up his beurre blanc in a bain marie, soften some raw butter for finishing and breathe. It was 4:45 and the chef would be around in 15 minutes to check on mise en place and taste sauces. Jake scrubbed his hands for the 30th time today and grabbed a sandwich from the staff meal set-up while mentally working through his completed prep. He was ready.
Jake popped open a Red Bull and grabbed another double espresso. He would need to be on fire in a few minutes and welcomed the double jolt. While he waited for the chef he looked around at the other line cooks and interns, still a bit behind. He smiled to himself still realizing that in a few minutes he would need to jump in and give them a hand leading up to the restaurant opening at 5:30. He thought to himself again how lucking the interns were to have the ability to go to school for culinary arts. He wondered how much they really appreciated the opportunity and were willing to do what it took to become a great cook. He knew that if he had the chance, he would give 100% to every opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, it was not in the cards for Jake. He then thought about the chef as he left his office for the pre-meal check. Jake thought the world of this chef, the best he had worked for. The chef was talented, professional, totally committed and very hardworking. He was tough but fair, someone that Jake would certainly try to emulate. He did wonder if the chef still remembered what it was like to be a line cook.
Time to focus. The chef was at his station. “Jake are you ready”? “Yes Chef”! As he tasted his lamb demi and beurre blanc, Jake was confident and although the chef didn’t say anything, the fact that he simply moved on to the next station was a way of saying that Jake was spot on. The chef did bark at a few of the other staff members who were clearly not ready so Jake jumped in to give them a hand. Cooking was, after all, a team sport. It was now 5:15 and tickets would begin to spit from the printer any minute. Jake grabbed another Red Bull while helping others in these final minutes.