PDA

View Full Version : My stint as an intern



mano
09-30-2012, 03:04 PM
Since June I've spent most Fridays as a prep cook intern at Lacroix Restaurant at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix had enough clout to get a huge kitchen with six walk-ins and top-of-the-line equipment. He retired five years ago and there have been several executive chefs since then. When my wife and I celebrated the 30th anniversary of our first date current executive chef Jon Cichon came by to congratulate us. We chatted about Japanese knives and work ethic and when I asked to intern for a day he agreed and left his card.

I arrived in my chef’s coat, checkered pants, sneakers and knife bag. By the end of the five hour shift I learned why back of the house (BOH) professionals wear good clogs. My legs and feet were so sore I could barely walk. Chef had me work with Jesse, a young prep cook who demonstrated how to do each task and on the corner of my cutting board left examples of how the food should look. Lacrcoix is one of Philadelphia’s fine dining restaurants where everything was presented perfectly. It took a while to settle in as I worried the quality of my work was crap. That a patron would complain and the fault would be traced back to me. When we were breaking down our stations I asked to come back again.

Most everyone in the kitchen is young enough for me to be their father, and in a few cases, grandfather. Anyone who watches television knows most kitchens have screaming, prima dona’s and a few thrown pots. Not so at Lacroix. At 29, Cichon’s crew is focused and calmly intolerant of mistakes. I don’t see the paper towel I dropped and the sous chef picks it up and reminds me; a line cook explains why my par boiling pot should be bigger and everyone keeps an eye on the entire kitchen, jumping in to help if needed. When it was clear I couldn’t cut a watermelon into perfect 1” squares a line cook gave me something else to do. At home the next day I tried with a watermelon and cantaloupe with a 50% success rate.

They’re also an unusually friendly bunch. All kitchen, room service and front of house staff have to pass by my work station and on the first day most introduced themselves. By the end of my second shift (I’d bought a pair of recommended Sanita clogs) BOH were giving fist bumps saying, “See you next Friday.” As the line cooks got to know me they offered more interesting jobs other than the “Mind numbing prep work.” In late September people asked what was wrong that I wasn’t returning (I had to devote more time to my day job) and Chef Cichon took time to go over my menu for a wine group dinner we were hosting at home.

Among family and friends I’m considered a pretty fair cook and over the past few years I’ve acquired some excellent Japanese knives that have been custom rehandled. Pro cooks are notorious for using dull knives but at Lacroix the BOH know their cutlery. They admired mine but usually demurred when I asked if they wanted to try them. Before using one of my knives to demonstrate something they always asked permission. As far as my home cooking abilities are concerned, I’m reminded of how Bill Burford regularly got his ass kicked in his book Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave.

Before I left I asked myself if I would hire me to prep at Lacroix and the answer was no. In fact, the longer I worked at Lacroix the difference between home cook and professional become more obvious. Work there was rarely fun. A pro kitchen is intense and for me there was some blood, and plenty of sweat and frustration that my hands wouldn’t do what my brain told them. My skills improved 100% but I was still slow and unskilled by comparison.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

wenus2
09-30-2012, 03:18 PM
Hah!
Great story Mano, such a fun read.
Sounds like a really cool experience, and a nice place to fall into for the opportunity.
Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed it.

Johnny.B.Good
09-30-2012, 03:38 PM
Hah!
Great story Mano, such a fun read.
Sounds like a really cool experience, and a nice place to fall into for the opportunity.
Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed it.

I couldn't agree more.

Mano, is your day job in the food/restaurant business? What was your motivation to do this? The experience alone? To become a better cook?

Really interesting story; thanks for sharing.

mano
09-30-2012, 04:22 PM
I'm a psychologist. Yeah, just wanted to be a better cook.

sachem allison
09-30-2012, 04:36 PM
Truth is I don't think I could stage in a place like that any more. These types of kids today are so much more knowledgeable than we were. They often are very well traveled and very well educated about what they are doing. Frankly, I don't know one single thing about molecular gastronomy and sous vide and all these cook something for four days and then serve a nugget of it. Sure, some of it is amazing, but not any better then doing it old school. I can't keep up any more and each time I do a stage it takes a little bit longer to recall the things I do everyday for 20 years. I'm finally starting to feel old. I can still outlast anyone on my line, but these young guns might get me one day.lol I'm going to take a bunch of them down with me, though. I applaud you for taking the chance. You earned their respect and that is hard.

RobinW
09-30-2012, 04:47 PM
Cool story, I've been thinking about trying something like it, but the time is currently not available.
Anyway, I wish i had known about Lacroix last week. Stayed at Radisson on 17th and had dinner at Parc beginning of this week.

Zwiefel
09-30-2012, 05:57 PM
I've been wanting to do something similar...finding the time is the problem for me...well, and finding someone who'd want to take a chance.

pitonboy
09-30-2012, 06:48 PM
Wow. The thrill and the priviledge of doing that kind of work would be amazing to experience. I wish I could have the same opportunity and free time to do the same. Makes me want to be reincarnated as a pro.

stevenStefano
09-30-2012, 07:04 PM
I am happy for you that everyone was so nice to you. I've had trials at quite a few different places, some very fancy, and quite a lot of times the other Chefs were basically dicks to me and there was a very negative atmosphere in the places

knyfeknerd
09-30-2012, 07:27 PM
Great job Craig! My hat is off to you for doing this. A lot of home cooks wouldn't have the guts to do it. I know you had some past experience with Bayless long ago(another great story BTW) and I would be happy to have you do a stint in my kitchen any time.

Crothcipt
09-30-2012, 07:36 PM
I miss working in a place like that. Also I wouldn't be to hard with yourself, you worked 1 day a week for a shift. Your skills got better with each time. Honestly that is all you can ask for someone new in the enviorment. Even better you got their respect, which like Son said is very hard to do.

The Edge
09-30-2012, 07:38 PM
Sounds like an awesome experience. Thanks for sharing, and glad you had a positive experience.

Johnny.B.Good
10-01-2012, 01:54 AM
I'm a psychologist. Yeah, just wanted to be a better cook.

Awesome.

Was your wife cool with the idea?

pumbaa
10-01-2012, 02:37 AM
I am glad someone is honest and understands what the people in this profession do. I applaud you for going at it and taking on the challenge. I will say the kitchen and staff I work with is the same. Chef de Cuisine was showing me on my first week how he wanted his orange peel confit prepped and asked to use my knife it is refreshing knowing that people respect you and your belongings. I would love to show you around where I am at if you ever take Knerd's offer. You can see what a pastry chef does every morning. And knerd I'll come work with you a couple of days for the fun of it when I am out of school.

mano
10-01-2012, 08:55 AM
Awesome.

Was your wife cool with the idea?

I tell people I made two good decisions in my life: Marrying my wife and choosing my business partner. I'm pretty quiet about things I do and it was my wife who told family and friends about interning. My business partner on the other hand said enough with the restaurant, we need you back in the office.


I would love to show you around where I am at if you ever take Knerd's offer. You can see what a pastry chef does every morning. And knerd I'll come work with you a couple of days for the fun of it when I am out of school.

If I'm ever in your neck of the woods I'll take you and knerd up on your offers. Next year come to the ECG at my place with Knerd.

Interestingly, the BOH invested in and maintained good knives, but they weren't knife knuts like youse guys. Cichon and the three sous primarily used suji's to break down everything from whole fish and pigs, sides of beef and the rest of their prep work. The one who did most of the fish didn't know from a deba. The line cooks mostly used gyutos. Sure, they used other knives -mostly Japanese- but their kits were utilitarian. None were collectors.

Lest you think the atmosphere was always serious, it was really lighthearted. I chuckled when one of the line cooks pretended to corn hole another. When the recipient yelled, "Craig, that's not funny!" I laughed even harder.

Cutty Sharp
10-01-2012, 09:28 AM
... Work there was rarely fun. A pro kitchen is intense and for me there was some blood, and plenty of sweat and frustration that my hands wouldn’t do what my brain told them. My skills improved 100% but I was still slow and unskilled by comparison. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Not sure what you meant here - Were you saying that pro kitchen work seemed generally not fun, or generally not fun for you? I had some fun doing it, but the disappointing thing was not many others seemed to. Makes a big difference when people you work with are generally positive at work.

Carl
10-01-2012, 11:43 AM
Mano, you have done what I want to do, and you've experienced axactly what I would have expected. I suspect that the kitchen would eventually become more fun as you gained skill, when you're more confident in your ability to perform to standard, though not less focussed. I've also learned, first in the Army and then in the remainder of my life, that who you're with has as much or more to do with enjoying your job than the job itself. Congrats and thanks for sharing.

Cutty Sharp
10-01-2012, 11:52 AM
Mano, you have done what I want to do, and you've experienced axactly what I would have expected. I suspect that the kitchen would eventually become more fun as you gained skill, when you're more confident in your ability to perform to standard, though not less focussed. I've also learned, first in the Army and then in the remainder of my life, that who you're with has as much or more to do with enjoying your job than the job itself. Congrats and thanks for sharing.

+1

Korin_Mari
10-01-2012, 12:00 PM
Thanks for sharing. Thats such an awesome experience that people without any professional kitchen experience are rarely given. :)

kalaeb
10-01-2012, 12:06 PM
What a cool experience! Kudos for going through with it.

Cutty Sharp
10-01-2012, 12:13 PM
Thanks for sharing. Thats such an awesome experience that people without any professional kitchen experience are rarely given. :)

If you'd really like to try, I don't think it takes much. Ask for a one-day trial. Offer to work for free. Promise you won't be in the way and you want to learn, and they can kick you out after 30 mins if you're a clutz. I mean, this trade takes in all sorts, so... On the other hand, I think Mano did well to spend his time in such a professional and pleasant kitchen with food that, even after you've been involved in making, you probably still want to eat.