It's the Tuesday before Christmas and we planned to give away a signed copy of one of our favorite classic cookbooks but things went awry. So here I sit pondering which book to write about today. There are several great books that have been recently released but I would like to wait a while for those. People tend to do a big PR push when books first come out and then after a few weeks or months sales start to drop and people move on to other books. That's when I like to talk about the books we really like because they deserve to be remembered long after their release date. Hmm, with that in mind, maybe classic books are the way to go for Christmas.
When I arrived at NECI for culinary school I really had no idea what I had gotten myself into. In spite of the fact that I had worked front of the house for years and done some baking and catering on the side, restaurant kitchens were someplace I visited, not the place I called home yet. My roommate was a perky blonde from the Midwest who arrived, boyfriend in tow, posessing the kitchen experience I lacked. She had been working in a small restaurant in her hometown and her trip to culinary school had been encouraged by her chef. We were equally excited to be there but in my mind she had an edge because she had worked in a professional kitchen for a year.
That first evening she proudly showed me her copy of Becoming a Chef, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It had been inscribed by her chef and was her personal talisman to help her stay focused on her goal. I flipped through the pages and was immediately intrigued. So much so that I went out and bought my own copy the very next day. Over the next week and a half we were both introduced to a different world than the one we had come from. She missed her boyfriend terribly and found culinary school to be much more challenging than the kitchen she had come from. He proposed a week after her arrival and shortly thereafter she was driven to tears by her cafeteria instructor and headed back home. I, on the other hand, had found my calling. I loved the challenge and the competition, and knowing that even when I failed at something in the kitchen, I had found something I was truly good at. There is that camaraderie that can be found nowhere else, we are an incredibly dysfunctional family that chooses to be together to work towards a common goal. We voluntarily share that race through (hopefully) perfect mise en place every day, the feeling of elation that comes after a challenging service or that sympathetic ear when you royally f--k up in the kitchen. People come and go in and relationships often disintegrate with distance. But for those hours and days when you work together in the kitchen you know more about the people by your side than anyone else in the world and you are part of their team, whether you like it or not. That is both the beauty and the beast of the kitchen.
This was in 1996 and it was endlessly fascinating to me to read about the different chefs, their histories and philosophies, the myriad paths to the top of the brigade. It was long before chef bios were television shows and we were able to find out more than we wanted to about anyone via an internet search engine. There was still an aura of mystery about becoming a chef and how and why people were able to make it happen. The book made me see how much experience I lacked and it also made me see that anything was possible if I worked hard enough and smart enough in the right kitchens. While until recently I hadn't opened it in years, it stayed with me as part of my library when I traveled from place to place because it was such an inspiration when I began my journey.
We joke about the harder tasks in the kitchen and by hard I mean boring and laborious. Especially in fine dining, there are many, many jobs that are painstaking and take what seems like forever to accomplish to the standards of the chef. We chafe silently, determined to conquer them and relieved when we do because that usually means a step up the ladder and handing off that baton to the person behind you. What if you knew that for an entire season you were never going to climb very far? If, as part of an entire brigade of stagieres, mind numbing tasks were what you had committed to in order to be in the kitchen of one of the greatest chefs in the world? That is the premise of The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's El Bulli, by Lisa Abend. I'll admit that I orginally had no intention of reading this book. When we gave away Volt ink., by Bryan and Michael Voltaggio we asked readers about their favorite food books and one commenter's description made download it and begin to read.
In many ways it is the antithesis of Becoming a Chef because it chronicles the lives of the stagieres, the very bottom rung of the ladder. Of course everyone must begin somewhere and it is impossible to become a chef without being a stagiere at least once and probably many times in the course of a career. It is a unique view of what was a very special restaurant. Perhaps more than any chef, Ferran was an artist, creating individual experiences and using food as his medium. Dinners there are called pilgrimages for a reason and although we never made it, the stories we read and heard about were culinary legend and lore. While people may not always have agreed with his approach, there was no arguing with success. Ferran taught us all that if you believe enough in what you do and work hard enough at perfecting and presenting it, no matter how unusual your passion may be, your audience will find you. HIs restaurant would be impossible without the work of the stagieres and attracting the stagieres would be impossible without immense passion and dedication. It's a perfect circle where one cannot exist without the other in that particular place and time. Lisa Abend's book beautifully chronicles both the routine of days at the restaurant and the motivations of the stagieres who make it possible.
This week we are giving away a set, one copy each of Becoming a Chef by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page and one copy of The Wizard's Apprentices by Lisa Abend. Please leave a comment sharing an experience overcoming an obstacle in the kitchen. Comments are moderated and will not appear immediately. One entry per person please. Winner will be randomly chosen on Friday, December 20, 2011 at 9am EST. The give away is now closed. The winner has been notified via email. Thanks for all your great comments and Happy Holidays!