Monday, June 28, 2010


Call me Ace. Some weeks ago--never mind how long exactly--having little if anything going for me in rural Pennsylvania, I thought I would move to Philadelphia and see what city living was all about. I also thought this would be a great place to learn to cook.

My first week in the city was great. I got a chill job at sandwich shop in Center City. At night there were dance parties, crazy beer specials, awesome shows. My head was spinning (often quite literally) from the nightlife and perpetual action Philly offered. But that initial giddiness was soon to fade.

I came to Philly to make moves, to advance and better myself. And slinging cheese steaks for $8/hr didn't quite fit my definition of self-improvement. So I trolled craigslist and pounded the city's cracked and pot-holed pavement until I found an upscale French-creole joint willing to give me a few trial shifts.

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto, I thought during my first trial. The mise en place in this joint was staggering. Hell, I'd never even heard the term "mise en place" before that night, much less seen such a magnitude of it. The 6 and 9 pans on my garde manger (another new addition to my culinary vocabulary) station were filled with strange names and new flavors that rocketed my taste buds into uncharted territory. Working in the kitchens of rural PA, one just doesn't encounter coulis, aiolis, or remoulades very often. I was overwhelmed.

My first prep task was to cut celery. No problemo. I set to work, as I'd done hundreds of times before, cutting the celery stalks into segments and tossing the end and center pieces in the garbage.

"Hold it right there, young buck," the exec chef said not unpleasantly. "That's my money you're throwing away."

"Oh. Sorry, man. can't serve this," I replied shakily, holding up the inedible base of the stalk. He produced a 5-gallon bucket filled with other vegetable scraps.

"We'll use that to make veg stock," he said.

"You mean you make your own stock?"

That question set the tone for the rest of my time there. I was in the kitchen for less than 30 minutes and already I was labeled a simpleton, an amateur, a kid who likes to cook but has no idea how. When it came time for me to cut chives and parsley I found my knife skills (if you could even call them that) were infantile. The more time I spent in that kitchen the lower my ego fell.

At my last job I was the sous chef at a fairly busy continental restaurant in my hometown. I kicked ass there. The other cooks and I were a well-oiled kitchen killing machine, capable of destroying the craziest dinner rushes and slaughtering 20-top checks like tranquilized lambs. I was the shit. But here, in a fancy place in Center City, a place that serves amuse-bouche and meals in courses, I AM shit, my skills no sturdier than a straw house.

My next shift was a Saturday night. I used my time off to memorize the portions of the menu for which I was responsible. I studied French culinary terms and techniques. I even practiced my knife skills mincing garlic and peppers just for the hell of it. I was determined to land this job. I was going shuck this oyster and lay claim to the pearly culinary knowledge contained within.

That preparation paid off, making the shift go as smoothly as a second shift in such vastly different waters could go. It went so well in fact, that afterward the chef de cuisine shook my hand and complimented my performance, saying things like "I like your enthusiasm," and "I think you'll do well here." The conversation ended by him telling me to bring my ID and social security card to my next shift so I could be added to payroll. Fucking right. I got the job.

On the way to my next shift, I quit my cheese steak job, fully prepared to embrace my new career as a master of French cuisine. "This place can be your pot of gold, kid," the exec chef told me, referring to the fact that this kitchen's alumni have gone on to work in famous joints around Philly and elsewhere. "It's up to you whether you want to reach in with one hand or two."

"Two hands chef," I said.

If I was living a dream, I received a jarring wake-up call the next day. It was the chef de cuisine informing me that he was sorry, but he couldn't hire me after all. So there I was, crestfallen, sitting on my roommate's hard couch, unemployed, broke and essentially friendless in a dark and unfamiliar city.

The following weeks sucked. Like some terrible convergence of misfortune, my Xbox died a day or two into my unemployment. Oh, how lost I was without the warm embrace of 3.2 GHz of graphics acceleration! My loneliness and boredom compounded daily. My bedroom, with it's one tiny South Philly row-home window, began to feel claustrophobic and suffocating. I was subsisting on a college-boy's diet of cheap beer, hand-rolled cigarettes and ramen. I missed my life at home dearly.

I'll end the sob story here. I eventually got a job at a restaurant (to be henceforth referred to as Joe's for anonymity's sake) that puts out high volumes--and I mean colossal, towering volumes--of continental fare. Though it's not snobby, Center City cuisine, their food is exceptional and they've earned an excellent reputation across Philly.

I have a lot to learn, and Joe's has a lot to teach me. Everything but the mayonnaise is made from scratch, and I'm told they can even teach me to make that if I want. I fully intend to reach into Joe's treasure troves with two hands, grabbing gleaming fist-fulls of knowledge.

I invite you, dear reader, to follow me through the culinary school of hard-knocks, to learn with me the ins and outs of cooking. Posts that follow will surely include recipes, rants, reviews and, rarely, kernels of wisdom. Thanks for reading.

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