Big task, bigger lesson

I have had a hard time translating my days in the kitchen into words to share with you. It’s not that I don’t like my work, or am feeling uninspired. It’s, well, I have had a hard time making it feel exciting.  My work is challenging in it’s own right, but it’s the large scale that makes it difficult, not the individual steps.

For instance, last Wednesday I made potato salad. For 6 hours. Save the half an hour I used to plate up a banquet with the rest of the team, and the hour I rolled 50 dozen spring rolls with Ellpedio and Tom, the morning banquet guys who couldn’t leave until the spring rolls were finished, my day was devoted to prepping potato salad. This enormous amount of potato salad was part of a banquet for last Friday that was to feed 500 people attending the Single Malt Scotch regional tasting.

The hours added up like this. Quarter 150 pounds of baby red potatoes; 2 1/2 hours. Boil and peel 50 eggs; half an hour. Pickle 10 pounds of tiny tiny radishes after cutting each into eight tiny wedges; 3 hours. 10 pounds doesn’t seem like much, but when you start taking the time to cut each grape sized radish into little wedges, the uncut pile looks bigger and bigger each time you look at it.

Large tasks like this also have a hypnotizing effect. Like staring at the road for too long, repeating the same motion and staring into the abyss of what seemes to be an endless task sends you into a coma.

Working with a partner is valuable not only in cutting the task in half, but in keeping your mind from entering this hypnotic state. A little conversation keeps your mind in the present. And lets face it, a little competition keeps your speed and efficiency up. It’s not that you are racing them, but the competitive drive that brings most cooks into the kitchen keeps us acutely aware how many potatoes we have cut compared to the guy standing next to us, if our potatoes look better or worse, and if our particular method is more efficient.

Large banquettes like these don’t come every day. Last week was unique in that we held a plattered hours d’ourve reception for 500 on Thursday. The event was the wake for Mr. Diamond, who’s name has been seen for half a century across Seattle above the parking lots he owned. This banquet was back to back with the Single Malt Scotch dinner, making it a very full week.

The full buffet style dinner featured 24 roasted turkeys, 150 pounds of tri-tip beef, roasted, sliced, and covered with bourdelaise sauce and crumble blue cheese.  150 pounds of potato salad.  50 pounds of Greek salad with house prepared artichokes.  100 pounds of penne pasta with red sauce.  50 pounds of orrichette in pesto cream sauce.  Endless bowls of caesar salad.  6 different breads.  And endless platters of desserts featuring lemon bars, chocolate raspberry bars, rhubarb bavarians, hazelnut financiers, spicy molasses cookies, and itty bitty trifles of poppy seed cake, blueberries, and mascarpone mousse.

My head is spinning just rattling this off. But that was not the case in the kitchen that day. The kitchen at the Rainier Club is beyond organized, and so prepared for the task, that big evenings go off without a hitch.

I suppose this is the real lesson in all this. Spending an entire day prepping potato salad is less than glamorous, and when I return to pastry, I may never make potato salad again. But learning how to prepare for events like this in such an organized manner is a lesson I’ll draw from every single day in my career to come, sweet or savory.

5 Responses to “Big task, bigger lesson”

  1. Rocky says:

    I’ve come to breathe organization in a kitchen, it helps so much it’s ridiculous.

  2. Michael says:

    Your story reminds me of my personal love/hate relationship with shucking english peas and fava beasn. When things are organized and on track i love to dig in and spend some time on the peas, just mow threw them, not really having to think about the shucking, but thinking about ‘things’ On the other hand when i’m next to the dishwasher showing him how much faster i am than him on saturday night at 6 pm, hoping this inspires some speed on his part. Well, i don’t like peas so much at that point.

  3. elarael says:

    Um…I actually enjoy posts about the actual daily activities behind the scenes in the kitchen. It is interesting to me that it takes 3 hours for someone to cut radishes for the potato salad into eights…I don’t know why, I suppose because it serves to further build the appreciation I have for the food I eat that is prepared by someone who cares enough to do that. Standards in America are so subjected to shortcuts, both to serve some notion of cost effectiveness and because I’m guessing that many are so accustomed to factory food that they’ve ceased expecting their food to be prepared with the care and love that comes from a commercial source.

    Thank you for sharing your story on the work and attention to detail and yes, the love, that goes into a mainstay like potato salad. I appreciate it anyway, so much, when I discover a detail beyond flavor that indicates that someone who actually cares has made what I am eating. Especially for something seemingly simple, like pototo salad.

  4. bill says:

    well dana…you are right in many ways. Is it a glam job…no. Is it monotinous…yes. Is it an essential skill one needs to develop in order to be able to manage oneself and others in our pursuit of becoming a chef, and more importantly in this day and age~ one who knows how to make money at it in order to continue to play with the best of ingredients, staff and tools…Absolutely. It is jobs like this that test our skills and abilities. It shows us who we are and what can do. It also allows for a great challenge as you indicated, to strive to do better, go faster, complete more and in less time, and all the while, getting better and better than wee had in the past. Keep working at it. It won’t kill you, I hope :) cuisinier

  5. I loved your post.

    I have found that it is often the unglamorous and laborious tasks in the kitchen is what helps us hone our skills and become efficient.

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