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.