What once was lost….

After my third day at WD-50, a strange thing happened.  I found something I thought I had lost; my reason for cooking.

Years ago, I worked for Seattle’s most talented chef, Scott Carsberg.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many very talented chefs in this city, doing very nice things in their restaurants.  But Carsberg has a spark, a rare gift that very few in the world have; an intuition for flavor, and the restraint to present it perfectly  He also runs a kitchen as tight as they come, setting the bar higher each day than the last, never letting standards for himself or his staff drop below that.  In this kitchen I was born as a chef, and in this kitchen I thrived.

When I tell people I worked for Scott for nearly 3 years, they look at me with hungry eyes.  He has a reputation for being a big personality, and they think I must have seen more than they can imagine, taken abuse like a soldier, witnessed bizarre and violent outbursts.

The truth is, it was a pretty quiet place.  Sure, he barked a bit, I’ll admit that.  But for the most part, he and I came in, did the best work we possibly could, put out the most perfect plates we knew how, and ended the night talking about how we could do it better the next day.  Nothing was forsaken if it made the food better, no matter how much extra work it made for us.  Conversation was left to a minimum while we focused on work, and no music was played lest it distract us.   So literally, it was a pretty quiet kitchen.

I went into work with a clear vision each day, to make the most beautiful food possible.  I took that to The Fat Duck, being enlivened even more.  But somehow, somewhere, I lost that without realizing what had happened.

But after my 3rd day in Alex’s pastry kitchen, I saw food created for the same reason I once knew.  It was after spending the later part of the evening watching the plates go out.  Each plate was created to be as perfect as possible, not to go out the window as fast as possible, not to get out of the way so you can work another ticket.  The food was not dumbed down so more of them could be made, nor was any plate any rushed, ignored, pampered, or given different treatment than the one before it.  Every plate was simply the most perfect dish it could be.

It hit me then and there, that there is nothing I can gain in my own life right now that fills me with satisfaction the way working to my fullest potential does.  There simply no reason for me not to be out creating desserts as beautiful and perfect as I know I can, each and every night.  I know what I can and want to do, so why am I holding back?

To work at WD-50 would have been a dream, likewise many of the great kitchens in that big city where you don’t have to argue to set standards.  To have stayed at The Fat Duck would have been heaven.  But for every choice we make in life, life makes one for us, and life has told me I live in the pacific northwest.

Thus, I am breaking free of The Rainier Club.  Not to say that there is anything lacking in this kitchen, but the kitchen runs on another chefs vision. Bill creates symphonies, grand dishes with a myriad of melodic flavors.  I am Scott Carsberg’s child, a minimalist through and through.  I am ready to express that, or work along side another with a vision to match.

Now comes the hardest part, finding that place again.

12 Responses to “What once was lost….”

  1. Any Harold McGee sightings? I thought I read somewhere that he pops in to WD-50 with wacky ideas sometimes.

  2. Jill says:

    As someone who has not listened to my inner self enough when it came to professional decisions, I applaud you. From reading your post, it’s obvious you are making the right decision. It’s scary to take the hard road, but I can tell you that I usually chose the easy one, and now, in my 40s, I regret it. Fight for your dream and don’t be discouraged by the difficulties you may encounter as you search for the right place for you.

  3. Matt Wright says:

    Good luck in finding that place again. You don’t want to go back to Scott? You talk about it with such affection.

    I completely agree about working to your full potential. My career job ebbs and flows.. One minute I am pushing what I can do, but then I get months where I end up doing monotonous tasks all day, every day.. And that well, just drives you crazy, and in the end drives you to look for something else.

    Sure, you have to take the rough with the smooth, but I you have to be challanged, and challanged daily.

  4. Michael says:

    wow, dana, these last two posts have been very thought provoking, and have lead to alot of introspection on my own part. I’m starting fresh, after following other peoples ways in the past, and heading the kitchen of a new gastropub/small plates/tapa bar in Cleveland. The Wonder Bar is yet to open, and i’m begining on an existing chef’s vision for the space as time does not permit my input, but does require my expertice. Your desire to do the best you can every day, and improve, and inspire the cook/chef next to you is very inspiring. While the Wonder Bar will not come close to the cuisine of a wd-50, i’m willing to put my best effort forward to produce the best food possible on a daily basis, and i hope this is something like you, i too can find fulfilling.

  5. erin says:

    hallelujah! great post dana- sounds like a wise decision! good luck in the job search, sounds like any restaurant would be lucky to have you.

  6. dana says:

    Michael N. No, no Harold McGee sightings, just a few Sam Mason sightings, and one Will Goldfarb sighting. But then again, maybe I only know my pastry chefs by sight.

  7. dana says:

    Jill- I am a glutton for punishment. But that where us artist types draw our inspiration from, our struggle.

    Matt- There are times I seek refuge from the kitchen in monotonous tasks. But for months on end, well, that would drive me to lethargy and apathy, and eventually resentment. That’s not good for anyone involved.

    Michael- Good luck with Wonder Bar! It doesn’t matter if the food is avant garde or comfort food, you can bring the best of yourself to every plate you make. Passion shows at every level. Honestly, it’s almost more exciting to get amazing low brow food, because there’s a surprise element. You expect going into one of Kellers restaurants to have an amazing meal, but to find that same level of passion in something simple is even more beautiful.

  8. Tim says:

    Hey Dana, your struggle sounds like it will be fruitful for you in the future. I admire your integrity. Why not try Lark or Sitka and Spruce? Both of whom leave their pastry department on a level below that of the rest of their kitchen. why not throw yourself out there and own your own place?

  9. Julie O'Hara says:

    i love reading your posts. Of course, I secretly wish I could be a professional chef, but I know that’s not what I’m meant to do. It’s great that you’re figuring out what makes you most happy!

  10. dana says:

    Tim- All great ideas, and I do adore Matt at Sitka. The biggest problem I am facing is that many of the best restaurants are too small to afford a full time pastry chef. The profit margins on a restaurant are so slim, that most that are small chef owned high integrity restaurants will always struggle to stay afloat. The last thing a restaurant adds when it is trying to get afloat is the salary of a pastry chef, and the first thing they cut when it suffers is just that.

    So I am definitely looking hard, taking August off to make sure I can find the right place, and my husband is helping me put together a business plan to see if that is the route I want to go.

    Julie- At times when I am tired of all the sacrifices, the weekends and evenings, the extreme stress of the kitchen, the low pay, and all the drawbacks of professional cooking, I come to the realization that I don’t know how to do anything else!

  11. Rob says:

    Sounds like you are very grounded. I applaud your decision as well. I have seen the All About Apples electronic cookbook, and the dishes look incredible. I would like to replicate some at home and do the paper-thin apples, but I don’t have the equipment. Any recommendations on a Japanese ceramic slicer, or mandoline to get the thinnest possible cuts?
    Dana, what are you doing now?

  12. dana says:

    Rob- It is very difficult to do the paper thin apples without an electric meat slicer. However, I believe Hillel found it worked to use a nice sharp mandoline, and if the apples were not flexible enough, to let them sit in ice water with a bit of the acid from a lemon for a few minutes.

    Currently I am working as the pastry chef at Veil Restaurant on Lower Queen Anne in Seattle.

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