The morning sun shining through the small windows at the top of the room served as a wake-up call for my first day. I was still wrapped in the blanket someone had laid on me just four hours ago. Sleep had not come easy and there wasn’t much of it, so getting out of bed wasn’t a problem. Max, short for Maximillano, the kind soul who had put that blanket on me, came up and introduced himself. He told me to keep the blanket. Max was with a group of culinary students from Argentina. A month later he said that he considered me a friend from the time he covered me with that blanket.
I started getting dressed for work with items picked up the previous day at a small restaurant supply shop called Servi-Hotel in Donostia (the basque word for San Sebastian). No uniforms or equipment were issued by the restaurant. So jackets, pants, aprons, towels and knives were all purchased and maintained by the stagiaires. Ready as one could possibly be, I headed upstairs for my first experience at a three star restaurant.
The kitchen was massive by any restaurant kitchen standard. Pastry and appetizer stations were on one side of the kitchen, adjacent to floor to ceiling windows and Laurel trees. You could see hills in the distance. The hot food stations in the center of the kitchen were made up of cooking suites; Self-contained cooking islands where the people cooking faced each other as opposed to working on a line of equipment all in a row.
I was assigned to the pastry/amuse-bouche section and the first day was just spent in observation. I learned that the staff was comprised mostly of students doing their externships, and only about forty percent of the kitchen staff were actually employed by the restaurant. The first day was pretty tame except for one thing I noticed and was very familiar with. The constant, unrelenting sound of people being screamed at for hours on end for the slightest mistake. Uh-oh.
The next day I was assigned to the prep station. It’s customary for the new people to start with prep, which is basically starting at the bottom. You don’t get to touch any plates of food. It’s mostly tedious and menial prep work like cleaning mushrooms, peeling onions, carrots and making terrines and raviolis for the weddings held every weekend in the banquet space. Prep work is an absolute necessity in cooking and it’s the thing that most people want to do the least of. That’s why the newbies get stuck with it.
I was stationed there with five other externs, most were from Mexico and Argentina. The chef de partie of the prep station is named Monday, like the day of the week. My first day at the prep I spilled a cup of water on the table and received an unholy thrashing from Monday for being clumsy. It was a really difficult time for me because of the language barrier, and I was just plain nervous. One moment that stands out in my mind is the first time I prepped a whole chicken there. I cut it open and was totally confused by what was in front of me. It was the first time I had ever seen a chicken with the eggs still inside of it. The days at prep were some of the longest days I had at the restaurant, especially given the work schedule
The restaurant was open Wednesday through Sunday. Saturdays were dedicated to weddings or “bodas”. Sunday was lunch only. The work day typically started at nine in the morning, but sometimes earlier as a form of punishment if things didn’t go flawless the previous night. We worked until five in the afternoon and had a two hour break, a.k.a. the siesta. Came back at seven and worked until we were finished with dinner service and cleanup, which was usually anywhere from midnight to one in the morning.
It wasn’t all work though. The day came with two meals, typically called “family meal” in the restaurant business. Twice a day we all sat down and ate a meal together. The family meal is one of my most enjoyable times there. It offers a great opportunity for the team to bond and get some relaxation and sustenance in before the upcoming service. Every great restaurant that I’ve worked at allowed time and money for the family meal. There was a family meal schedule so we ate the same food on specific days of the week. My favorite was the breaded, pan-fried ham and cheese rolls. That always seemed very Spanish to me. Whole fish day was a big downer. The fish were never boned. Just pan-fried whole and garnished with a salad or something. If you didn’t get in early you might get nothing but a carcass for dinner. Not great.
All the staff went out on the weekend of my last day at prep. There was a fair in town and everybody said it was going to be a chill night…not. There was no fairgrounds in Lasarte so it just happened in the streets. There was food, drinks, and live music playing to young and old well past two in the morning. At one point nearly the entire staff of the restaurant was dancing and drinking behind some drummers and something struck me. Those people I met in Spain were the freest people I’ve ever known. They don’t have possessions like we do here in the U.S., but they have a different kind of freedom that we rarely enjoy here. It’s more like a common sense and openness that they share with each other. No fenced in beer gardens, heavy police presence or big signs serving as legal disclaimers. It was like…trust.
To be continued…