“You never told me you got fired from a kitchen job an hour after you started,” my brother blurted into the phone today, after we talked about various subjects, including the annoyingly pleasant weather in New York this spring. “Yeah, I saw Christoph,” he said.
I have not seen my Swiss/French/British (now living in Amsterdam) friend Christoph, who I always called “Frenchie” because he hated it, in almost 20 years. It seems he is visiting New York, however, and connected with my brother.
Christoph grew up, for a time, in a French alpine town famous for cheese, skiing, and nervous sheep. I visited him in the summer months of 1993. The town emptied, and the employment I had hoped for proved to be difficult. It became apparent that, notwithstanding the near failing French language grades I received in school, I could not speak French, at all.
Not to be deterred, I scanned the help wanted ads, with Christoph’s help, and after weeks of finding nothing and funds running low, I decided to apply for a chef position in a restaurant at the base of town. I had no business even considering a “chef” position. I was fortified though by the mean ugliness of the restaurant, which was neither quaint nor clean. The menu was simple, and after eating there, I realized that the foods, mostly processed, were not cooked from scratch. I figured I had worked in restaurants before, I knew how to cook, at least in a rudimentary way, and I needed the work.
I spoke with the owner, an awkward smiling woman with good English, who revealed her desperation for a new hire by asking me to start the next morning at six.
That night I spent a good part of my remaining francs on supplies and practiced making many of the items on the restaurant’s menu in preparation for my new job. Pasta hung drying on coat hangers. Poorly cut fries dropped into pots of tepid oil. Hamburgers burned. My preparations left me despondent.
Without much sleep I arrived at the restaurant. In contrast to the smiling owner I had interviewed with, an unfriendly and poorly fed server awaited my arrival. Without speaking, he led me through the dining room back to the kitchen. He explained my duties to me in French, which I mostly did not understand. I nodded, and he left. Unsure, I began doing what I knew how to do—that is, I turned on the lights and pulled everything out of the cooler.
When he returned, he found me staring with my arms straight at my sides and the counter filled with food. He became animated and put everything back in the cooler, except a large clod of veal, some eggs, cream, flour, and a pile of aromatic vegetables. Amongst his frustrated ranting, at close proximity to my face, I discerned the words “Blanquette de veau” multiple times. I nodded again, and again, he left.
I began doing what I knew how to do—that is, I peeled and cut the vegetables and cracked the eggs into a bowl. This time when he returned, with arms sharply crossed, he was not alone. The still, awkwardly smiling owner was with him. She explained that while Blanquette de veau was not on the menu, she wanted to see if I could cook a simple French dish. Without saying a word, he pulled me past her smiling face, back through the dining room, and to the door.
Since then I have learned to make Blanquette de veau.*
Fast-forward to my first days interviewing for my current job as a culinary instructor: My now-employer wanted to see how I deal with students. He explained my duties and told me I would help judge the student’s final cooking project. To graduate, they had to demonstrate certain skills and present classic dishes to a panel of instructors.
The first nervous student approached the table and carried a thinly sauced, if not well-prepared plate, still steaming, of a dish I truly hate.
*Adapted from Escoffier. To make Blanquette de veau, start by poaching cubed lean veal with mire poix vegetables until the meat is tender. Strain the resulting veal stock and discard the vegetables, saving the tender meat. Bring the stock to a boil and thicken it by whisking in chunks of cold white roux to make a veloute. Lower the heat and simmer the thickened sauce. Finish the sauce with a liaison of egg yolks and cream tempered in a bowl with some of the sauce and then added back to the pot. Add a little nutmeg and the seasoning. Strain and pour the sauce over the tender veal. Serve with rice pilaf and garnish with poached mushrooms, pearl onions, and chives.