Week 3 done at Osmosis, 1 more to go

22 Jun

So, this is my third stage and next week will be my 4th and final week at Osmosis. I was thinking about all that I’ve learned over the last 3 months (much Spanish not being one of them) and what I would tell people like me who are interested in career changes to the culinary world and what I would tell any person who went to culinary school about doing stages. So, below, here’s a quick list of what I’ve learned in regards to staging (if you’re not interested, scroll to the bottom for some pics of the Osmosis kitchen and a quick recipe for making foams):

1) Age helps, in terms of experience and confidence. I was thinking about why I got so lucky to have my picks of the stages I wanted (including at Can Fabes, which I turned down) and I do think my resume, although very weak in the restaurant department, helped. Luck was a factor, of course, but I know the chefs who offered me stages looked at my resume and could tell I was older than the average stage. I was super nervous when I embarked on this journey that my age was going to be a negative factor in people wanting to give me a shot in the kitchen – and it still may be in the U.S.- but so far, it hasn’t been an issue in Spain. And, for as conservative and male-driven this culture is in many ways (and in restaurant kitchens), I would have thought both my age and gender would have been a factor. Surprise! I think they take me more serious. And, I think a good cover letter (emails, in my case) which was full of confidence I don’t think I really had at the moment, really helped open the doors, as well. So, being “a little older” helped, in this instance 😉

Can you do what I’ve done if you’re in your 20s and fresh out of culinary school? Absolutely! But you’ll be competing with all of the other 20-somethings doing the same thing. So, you’ll need to stand out. Be #1 in your class, enter some competitions and win (young chefs do that a lot in Spain), do something that shows your maturity or skills that make up for your lack of experience and young age. Go meet chefs in person and network. Then, when you get the stages, be quiet, listen, and work your butt off, which leads me to my next point.

2) Don’t be cocky in the kitchen when you’re not the chef. I’ve worked with other stages and the chefs talk behind their backs, especially about the young ones who are cocky, and the cocky ones have been yelled at and put in their places way more than I have. And, it’s not because I haven’t screwed up just as much – I have forgotten some crucial things, I have dropped plates, I have run into people, I have done all the things in a restaurant kitchen that every single person will do at one time or another. But, I say mea culpa (my fault, my bad), I try really hard to not make the same mistake twice (which means I write stuff down!), I ask questions, I’m silent when I need to be and I never brag. If you’ve learned something that you think is a “better” way, say something like, “what do you think if I did it this way?” and demonstrate. You might surprise the chef or s/he may tell why s/he prefers her way. It’s all good learning from that conversation, no matter what.

3) And, watch EVERYTHING. Do your work as fast, as meticulous, and as well as you can, keeping one eye on your knife, of course, and one eye on what everyone else is doing. If all you ever do is work on your own stuff, you’ll never truly understand how a restaurant kitchen runs. If being a restaurant chef is your goal, then you need to watch what everyone else is doing. You need to put it altogether in your head. Ask questions. If you don’t, they likely won’t tell you what they’re doing, as you’re a grunt and many times everyone else is super busy. But, you’re there to learn, so watch everything.

4) If you are working 12-16 hours a day for free as a stage and you can’t manage to watch anyone else, ask questions or learn anything other than how to prep for mis en place or clean, you’re in the wrong place. Staging is definitely about you gaining experience. Expect to prep, expect to clean, but after a week or two, expect to start doing recipes on your own and to plate. I politely backed out of a stage at a 2 star Michelin restaurant in the U.S. (which shall remain unnamed) when, early on, I was told to scrub jerusalem artichokes for 6 hours with steel wool. No one gave me gloves, and when I suggested that there were other ways to clean them equally as well and more efficiently that wouldn’t rip my hands up, they weren’t interested. If all the restaurant is interested in doing is getting free prep labor, you’ll learn that in the first week and that place isn’t for you. Here’s where I give cudos to Commonwealth in San Francisco. I had a short run of staging with them during culinary school and it was awesome. They encouraged me to get involved from day 1 and jump in, help plate, actually make recipes. This set the tone for my expectations of other stages. This is the type of stage you want. They’re out there. That leads me to my next thought…

5) How do you know if a restaurant is right for you? Do some research, ask people if they can put you in contact with prior stagiers at that restaurant (assuming the restaurant has had any), and when you approach the restaurant make sure to set your expectations clearly at the beginning, in a cover letter, on the phone or in person. That means, know what you can handle and what other commitments you have in your personal life that may impact the hours and days you can work. For example, “Here’s what I know how to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, here’s how many hours I can work and on what days.” Some restaurants, especially Michelin-starred ones, will likely have contracts that they’ll ask you to sign saying the hours and days you’ll work. Have a conversation and tell them what you’d like to do. If they say it’s the same for every stage and they’re unwilling to accommodate your schedule, ask for details. If it’s 12+ hour days without breaks, pass. There are so many things wrong with that, but the main thing is that it’s a sign that all they are interested in is free labor and that’s not the environment that you’re going to thrive in, no matter your age. Times are tough all over and that means that any employer is going to try to get free labor where and when they can, but don’t take the place of what otherwise should be paid position, or at least not for long. Have some dignity!

6) It’s about the people you work with and networking, so never ever blow a connection. If you quit a place, or quit it earlier than you told them you would, find a way to politely get out of the situation. It’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself in a situation you hadn’t expected (like me), but then think hard on what is the proper approach to leave. I always say thank you for the opportunity to have learned from you – always! What else to say? Ask a trusted friend, another chef/cook, your confident. But, bounce it off someone before you just quit and walk away. Sometimes the truth doesn’t need to be said e.g. “I’m working 16, *#@$)#@(! hours a day for free with no breaks. You’re understaffed. Your cooks don’t like you.” None of that needs to be said, as much as one may want to say it 😉

Having said all that, 2 of my stages in Spain have been amazing. 2 chefs are incredible teachers, are interested in teaching, are respectful, share all recipes and are super psyched that I ask questions. Actually, I’ve had such great learning experiences at all my restaurants, just not all fun learning experiences. Fun is part of it. Never forget that. I don’t! After all, at the end of the day, if you’re rich and lucky enough to choose your own food and to cook it for other people, it should make you and others smile.

Okay, enough advice for the moment. Here a couple pics of the Osmosis kitchen. I have learned a ton about how to work in small kitchens and how to make “do”. For 3-5 people working in the kitchen at once (depending upon the day), the Osmosis kitchen is not all that small. But it’s all about being able to plate 15-20 plates at the same time, sometimes. And, they don’t have a ton of counter space to do that. Nonetheless, it all works because after a certain amount of time, the chef and all the cooks just gel and it’s like an orchestra, with each person moving in synchrony with the rest, each using his/her own instruments.

Kitchen view 1 – the 6 burner stove and the only oven – it’s an all-in-one convection/non-convection:

The chef’s counter for plating, along with the fridges (the stoves and oven are 4 feet directly behind the plating station):

If you look at the head just beyond the chef’s station, that will be where “the pass” is. The pass is where the waiters pick up the food. Just to the left of the pass is the cold apps, dessert, and prep station.

The cold apps, dessert station, and prep station:

Here’s where I start my day. As an example, this morning I blanched and shocked the tomatoes and peeled them to make tomato juice and also tomato confit for under this week’s fish. I cleaned (no water) the rustiñol, which are chanterelles, which I do every morning. It’s kind of a zen thing and I ask to do it, especially on hang-over mornings. I peeled and confit peaches, I made flat bread to hold the foie in place on the plate, I trimmed the fat and other ukie parts off the ox tenderloin, I scraped the peal off the roasted red peppers for this (and last) week’s pepper cream. Then, I moved to the burners and did the razor clams a la plancha; blanched and shocked the baby carrots; and did basically whatever else the chef asked. Sometimes I don’t understand a thing Frederic says because he says it in a mix of French, Castilian and Catalan. So, when he asks “Vale”? (okay) and I shake my head not and say “no entiendo”, he points and makes gestures with his hands. Thank goodness for kitchen sign language!

At top are my chanterelles and the tomatoes ready for me to play with at the prep station.

Oh oh, the Greece-Germany futbol game just started, so I’m wrapping this up. One quick recipe and a shot of today’s favorite chocolate…

I talked about fresh tomato juice foam on top of fish. Here’s the fast and super simple recipe, if you’re into foams. Some may criticize and say foams are so 1985. Okay, you haters. Try this with fresh tomato juice from excellent tomatoes and tell me you don’t like it.

2 cups fresh tomato juice. If you get it from the store, it’s too thick and you’ll either need to add some water or strain it. Add to it about 2 tablespoons soy lecithin. You can get this in any health food store. It comes in powdered form. Hand blend with your hand blender right before you serve it. Take a tablespoon or soup spoon, fill it up with just the top of the foam, and push the foam off with your finger onto the vegetable or fish or meat of your choice.

Here’s the soy lecithin. Scroll through my prior posts to see me blending it:

And, the chocolate…

Buen provecho!

One Response to “Week 3 done at Osmosis, 1 more to go”

  1. Jorge González July 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    amaaaazing blog rachel!! suuper nice! your perfect and profesional diary! jajaj nice 🙂

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