1999 in New York City

My first year cooking in New York City was one of the hardest years of my life. In three years I went from literally playing hockey on Foxen Canyon Road in Sisquoc with a flattened soda can, to riding on the the subway to the Upper East Side of Manhattan for work at one of the best French bistros in NYC. It was tough getting to that point though.

In August of 1999 my schoolmate and I decided to move to New York to hopefully work at some of the best restaurants in the world. Shortly after culinary school graduation we jammed everything we could into her car and drove from Colorado Springs to Brooklyn by way of Staten Island in three and half days. We had no place to live, no jobs and no friends there. Sometimes in life you’ll never be ready for what is coming. I find it’s usually best to rush in headlong.

Brooklyn Bridge
Summer on the Brooklyn Bridge

Having no place to stay we had to procure some temporary lodging. After some interrogation of the locals in Bay Ridge we managed to find a hotel in South Brooklyn called The Prince Spofford. We couldn’t believe our luck. The Prince was only thirty dollars a night with a ten dollar deposit for the key. Hourly rates were also available for those not blessed with the beautiful burdens of love.

A man in The Prince Spofford’s black and white ceramic tiled lobby was enclosed in a small screened-in room with a tiny window for transactions. Money paid and key in hand we made our way up to the third floor via the steepest stairs ever. We rounded the top of the staircase and headed to our assigned room at the end of the hall, passing the communal restroom with a broken lock that was shared with everyone staying on that floor.

I put the key in the doorknob and with a swift twist cracked the faded wooden door open and reached over to flip on the light. Illumination brought home the horrors of low-budget city living. Cockroaches scattered across the room like a herd of impalas fleeing a cheetah. It was a studio with a twin bed, a closet and a tiny sink and mirror in the corner that several cockroaches had just disappeared into. There was a small window on the far side of the room that overlooked 95th street. The place was rough to say the least, but we were so tired it didn’t matter.

The next four days were spent pounding the pavement and banging on doors looking for a job at the best restaurants I knew of. It was a frustrating process. In New York City it can be very difficult to get an interview at top restaurants, or even talk to someone on the phone. Especially when you don’t have any previous connections with them. Some establishments will even hire headhunters to find line cooks.

It was time to switch up tactics. Most restaurants have two doors, the main entrance where the customer enters, and a service entrance nearby where employees enter and deliveries are received. In NYC the service entrance is always locked and there is usually a coded keypad that employees use to enter. Instead of going through the front door I decided to wait by the service entrance (just out of view of the security camera of course) for someone to come out. Then hold the door and go in like I belonged there and try to chat up the most senior looking chef in the kitchen. This is how I got my first restaurant job in New York City.

The Manhattan Bridge
A view of the Manhattan Bridge.

Restaurant Daniel is where my sneaking-in tactic finally paid off. My kitchen knives and uniform were with me on the Manhattan street just outside the service entrance of Daniel. Someone came out and I moved in with a gentle nod and a hello as my hand caught the door before it closed on my future. As my eyes adjusted to the indoor darkness the security guard’s desk came into view and a man with a radio greeted me, uh oh.

I told the gentleman in the dark blue blazer I had an interview with the chef (a total lie). He called the kitchen on the radio but thankfully there was no answer. After another failed attempt to contact the kitchen he asked me if I knew the way there, quickly responding “Sure” (another lie). He waved me on towards a ramp and a flight of stairs leading to the Daniel kitchen. That was a close call.

The kitchen was packed full of busy cooks. I threaded my through the activity and noticed a man speaking French who looked to be in charge. That man turned out to be a well-known NYC chef named Alex Lee. With slightly trembling hands I walked over and introduced myself and told him I’m here to work. Chef Lee asked me some questions and we went over to a small office where he made a phone call. The conversation was all in French so I didn’t understand a word. He hung up the phone and sent me to a place called Payard on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Payard Patisserie and Bistro was a rich, attractive space. As you walk in through the large wooden and glass double doors you’re greeted with a patisserie selling all kinds of French pastries and breads. Macaron, Opéra, and Mille-feuille abound. There are several café tables and chairs in the center of the dark wooden floor and a small four seat bar on the right. The bistro is situated in the back half of the room behind the patisserie.

High-backed vertically striped banquettes furnish the perimeter of bistro Payard. Pillows filled the corners and snugly fit tables and chairs populate the center of the space. The room glows with soft yellow chandelier lighting. The menu was a mix of classic and creative French dishes. It was an exceptional place to dine. The kitchen on the other hand, as with most restaurant kitchens, wasn’t quite that way.

After a conversation with the chef he decided to take me on for a week of paid work and see how things went after that. My ego had been seriously inflated by a successful three years of culinary school. I though I was good at cooking…I was not.

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 week at Payard. The Garde Manger station is where the pain of my inadequacies were so clearly shoved into my face, sometimes literally.

Once during a busy dinner service at Payard 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 again.

My neighborhood, Park Slope

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 “Every day I see you I die a little bit”. 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 thrashing of a lifetime and those thrashings were promptly delivered for months on end.

The delivery method of that kick em’ when they’re down system of 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 likely 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 then being dismissed to go back to work just as quickly.

Subway stop in Brooklym
9th St. and 4th Ave in Park Slope. My subway stop in Brooklyn

Eventually I got a lot better at cooking and spent fifteen months working on every station in the kitchen, moved into a better apartment and made a few really good friends. Honestly, one of the reasons I was so successful there wasn’t because of my amazing skill. It was because I never quit when so many others did, and of course the chef’s super human level of patience

New Years Eve 1999 was my final day at Payard. 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.

The chef at Payard is the best I’ve ever worked for. He worked incredibly hard. was extremely creative and put in grueling hours. 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.

Here is a link to one of my favorite appetizer recipes I learned at Payard and still use today Shrimp and Guacamole Crouton with Poached Lemon

Shrimp and Guacamole on Croutons
Shrimp and Guacamole Crouton

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharon Y says:

    Great story and the Shrimp and Guacamole Croutons were delicious! Thank you for sharing with your old family!!!!

  2. CV says:

    Awesome Al, it’s time to right a book! The memories you have and the way you tell the are inspiring. Love it and love you too!

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