I don’t expect to feed more than twenty people on this slow Sunday night, but that’s twenty more than I’m willing to welcome. While the other cooks chat and check the clock, I pace the line, wring my burn-splotched hands, and remind myself to breathe. The kitchen printer ticks to life with the night’s first orders—squab and antelope. I’m ashamed to find that my white coat already sticks to my back with sweat.
Two orders don’t ordinarily make my chest pound. During Friday night’s first rush, for instance, I browned two lamb racks, coated them with brioche crumbs, and slid them into the convection oven, then spun on my heel and dropped a chicken ballotine into simmering water to poach. Meanwhile, four of my duck breasts sizzled in cast-iron pans and two more roasted in the oven. I had yet to fire three beef tenderloins and hadn’t even started to assemble vegetables and starches for these dozen dishes, which would all be served in about twenty minutes. Controlled chaos. I’ve cooked these entrées on my station for months; they’ve become my comfort food.
But my chef, Peter Platt, cooks the squab and the antelope. He’s off tonight, leaving me to cover his station for the first time, placing his reputation in trembling hands. Moments later, another order: two steaks au poivre, also from the chef’s station. While I’ve cooked steak at home perhaps hundreds of times in my life, I’ve never cooked Peter’s steak au poivre for paying customers who expect nothing short of excellence.
There’s a high incidence of alcoholism among chefs. Right now, I understand why. I need a drink. Call it a crisis of confidence, but at a moment like this, I feel I have no business being here. I’m not a chef—I’m a sham.I started cooking professionally here at The Old Inn on the Green three years ago, interrupting my journalism career to pursue my passion for food. A skilled home cook, I was well versed in basic technique, capable of emulsifying or reducing as needed. I had no formal culinary training. But like many talented home cooks, I believed that what separated me from a restaurant chef was simply that the chef cooked for many more people. I now shudder at my naiveté.
Two core impulses spur the home cook: hunger and pleasure. He has the luxury of preparing food at a leisurely pace, loosely assembling his mise en place, and moving freely through an unconfined kitchen space. He’s cooking for himself and people who will forgive—perhaps even expect—errors in presentation and execution. These latitudes don’t exist in a fine-dining restaurant.
Regardless of the size of his kitchen, the restaurant chef often maneuvers in an area not much bigger than a bathtub. His hyperorganized mise en place keeps every ingredient he’ll need that night within arm’s reach, from blanched vegetables and truffle oil to fresh chervil sprigs and yuzu sauce. He moves in tight choreography with the cooks who surround him, all wielding sadistically honed blades and white-hot pans. If a chef worked as sprawled as a home cook, he’d maim his colleagues.
Generally, the chef’s internal clock tells him when food is ready to pull from the oven. His multiple orders must be not only impeccably prepared but plated in synch with other cooks’ dishes that are headed to the same table. And so he combines a juggling act with a trapeze artist’s sense of timing, maintaining this feat for five or six hours of service every night. Orders roll in like waves; pressure mounts, dissipates, then mounts again. The experienced chef develops carbon-steel nerves, which I find myself distinctly lacking at the moment.
A waiter now tells me he’s ready for the squab and antelope, adding that a vip table ordered the steaks. “I guess nobody knows Peter’s off tonight,” he teases. I curse him, then fling a squab bone into the kitchen laundry bag, located well to the left of the trash can. Under stress the sense of humor is the first to go. You don’t count on losing your sense of direction as well.
The squab and antelope dishes are plated except for the meats themselves, which remain resting and—if cooked properly—growing more juicy and tender. I already second-guessed myself and put them briefly back in the oven, worried they were still raw in the center. I finally summon the courage to slice them: they’re both medium. Squab tastes like liver at this stage of doneness, and antelope turns dry as sawdust around the edges. I sauce both dishes liberally and pray for forgiveness.
My first job in this kitchen was the garde manger station, preparing canapés, amuse-bouches, salads, and cold appetizers. These dishes involved very little actual cooking—“Some Assembly Required” could best head the job description. But it was the perfect segue into professional cooking, allowing me to learn restaurant rhythm without the fear of frying. Several months later the Inn was first named to Food & Wine magazine’s list of the top fifty hotel restaurants in the country. I can say without exaggeration that I had absolutely nothing to do with the achievement.
But I showed promise and was soon given the chance to train on the sauté station. The chef at the time, a veteran of the Inn at Little Washington, watched over me as I prepared my first hot line dish—red snapper. He instructed me to heat the pan to a point that, at home, would have made me dial 911. I added clarified butter, laid down the fillet, then watched in horror as it buckled and hissed. “Press down on it lightly to crisp the skin,” he said, and as I complied, the hard reality hit me: now acting as a chef, I was expected to cook like one.
“Once the fish is about cooked through,” he continued, “flip it onto the flesh side, then just kiss it on the heat for a few seconds. And don’t forget to breathe.” He wasn’t being snide. I gulped for air and realized I’d actually been holding my breath, like a rookie skydiver waiting for the parachute to open. For all the knowledge I’ve gained since then, I’m reminded tonight how much I have left to learn.
I push the squab and antelope incident from my mind and resolve to keep the pepper-coated sirloins from suffering the same near-death experience. They’re resting now. I pulled them from the pan just as they reached the far end of rare. Accounting for residual heat, they should be textbook medium rare by the time they’re served.
The waiter calls for a pickup on the vip table. I plate the dauphinoise potatoes, haricots verts, and baby carrots. I check the consistency of the sauce. At last, I poke the center of each steak. The meat doesn’t resist, nor does it yield. It springs back, shedding tears of glistening juice. Despite my uncertainty this evening, I’m sure of this—the steaks are perfect.
I finish the plates and watch like a proud new parent as they’re carried from the kitchen. The printer churns out more orders. But for the moment I allow my thoughts to roam, anticipating the vip table’s reaction. They might send their compliments to the chef. They could even say it’s the best steak they’ve ever eaten. I won’t hold my breath.