A slap in the face. A swift, broad-handed, bony-knuckled impact that leaves one stunned and in pain. That’s a fitting description of my first restaurant job in New York City after cooking school. The Garde Manger at Philippe Bistro and Patisserie on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is where the pain of my inadequacies were so clearly shoved into my face, sometimes literally. The delivery method of that kick em’ when they’re down public humiliation was as varied as it was painful. A Sizzler salad bar of degradation. Not just from the chef either. Until you’ve earned their respect and trust your fellow cooks are just as like to give you grief. Like having your name called from across the kitchen to get your attention just long enough to be given the middle finger for no apparent reason by an unforgiving Frenchmen. Once during a busy dinner service at Philippe I burned a pan of scallops for an appetizer. From across the kitchen, the chef, who seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, spotted me discreetly trying to dispose of them in the trash bin. He immediately walked over to the bin and gave me a look as if he wanted me dead. He pulled one of the overcooked scallops from the bin. “Here, eat this!” he said, and tried to force that sad little scallop into my mouth. I’m proud to say it never made it past my teeth. My head turned and the charred little mollusk went deep into my cheek. The chef gave up. I had successfully refused to eat garbage. I never burned another scallop in my life. It was a small but short lived victory. New Years Eve was coming and that wretched holiday was bringing all of its culinary suffering with it.
It was the evening of December 31st, 1999 in the tiny Philippe Bistro kitchen. The menu was elaborate. At $450.00 a head it had better be. My partner and I were responsible for two of the courses. My memory is a little fuzzy as to exactly when things at the Garde Manger station spun out of control, but they certainly did. It was the first course that sent me and my Belgian compatriot into a restaurant service death spiral. A plate of seven different amuse-bouche. Things like bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with foie grais, tuna tartare, crispy pigs feet with mustard vinaigrette and shrimp and guacamole crouton with poached lemon. The orders started coming in. Slowly at first, tough but not impossible. Then came the big tables, 5 tops, 7 tops, 10 tops. It was overwhelming. At one point the two of us were trying to cook and assemble over one hundred amuse-bouche in a space barely big enough for both of us to move in. It was a long, slow and painful night. January 1st, 2000 marks the day of an epic Brooklyn hangover. That is a whole other story.
The chef at Philippe was the best I’ve ever worked for. He worked incredibly hard. was extremely creative and put in grueling hours. When I first started there as a young cook we made a deal that I could work there for one week and then decide whether or not to keep me around. Every day that man ripped me a new one. At least once a day he said to me with a thick French accent, “Alan, you cannot cook!”, “You are no cook la!”, or my favorite “Ever day I see you I die a little bit you know”. I arrived in the kitchen on the eighth day and there was no talk of our arrangement. I kept coming into work day after day with head down and teary-eyed determination, expecting the trashing of a lifetime and those thrashing were promptly delivered for months on end.
New Years Eve one year later was my final day at Philippe. With the goodbyes having been said, I made my way downstairs to the pastry kitchen for the last time. At the bottom of the stairs I quietly sank to my knees and raised my hands in celebration. It was a glorious moment of freedom until a coworker coming down the stairs slapped me in the head from behind and uttered some colorful words in Japanese.
Six months at that restaurant had more value than three years of cooking school. A decade later I sent that chef a letter. Thanking him for being so patient and so tough on me. That experience set the tone for my future and prepared me for my entire professional life in and out of cooking. I wouldn’t trade it for anything…and I would never repeat it again.
While in the sharing mood, here is a link to the simplified version of the Shrimp and Guacamole Crouton with Poached Lemon recipe we used during that dramatic dinner service in 1999.
The names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty.