It’s amazing what real hard work can do for a persons’ soul. I’ve always looked up to people who have the truly tough jobs in life; fire fighters, service men and women, the folks from those Alaskan king crab shows and well now I can add commis to that list. What is a commis you ask? Under the french brigade system designed by Auguste Escoffier, a commis is a new chef, typically the term given once entering a restaurant after formal training, and yes smack dab at the bottom of the proverbial food chain.
Being invited to work for the best restaurant in town is a no-brainer, you say yes. Then you give yourself a few weeks to mentally prepare, say goodbye to friends, free time, sleep and any money you might have because you won’t be seeing these things or the daylight for awhile. Small price for an experience of a lifetime.
I entered Menton completely naive. If I thought my stage was an indicator of the work ahead, I was kidding myself. In retrospect the stage was the easiest 14- hour- sweaty- busy- hectic- nerve- racking- day I ever had at there.
Since leaving Menton for a completely different opportunity at America’s Test Kitchen, my friends and family have been asking “what was it like?”
Menton is a nationally known fine dining restaurant, world ranking even with its addition to the Relais & Chateaux standing of the worlds best restaurants. In Boston, we only have a few restaurants offering unique, seasonal, and well executed french technique at its best and Menton is certainly at the top of the list. It holds such a reputation because they give their diners the full experience. Not only is the food memorable, exciting, and visually different, the dining experience is top notch. I once had a friend (before I started working there) tell me that it was as if the waiter knew he had to use the restroom before he knew he had to use it. This might have been an exaggeration on his part, however, this was still the kind of impression Menton gave him. Most recently, Cat Silirie the wine director for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo just won a James Beard Award for her idea and direction of their wine program. Not only is the wine and food excellent, the staff, atmosphere and attitudes of the front of the house play just as important of a balance. Without them, the food would not matter as much, the wine wouldn’t taste as good, and the atmosphere wouldn’t play such a unique presence. This is why I came to work here.
Showing up for my first day of work was intimidating; I was nervous, excited and questioning my ability to be there, since, I had never actually worked in a restaurant before. I showed up in my own chef pants, rookie move number one. I had to remind myself that Chef Colin and Chef Wyatt saw something in me during my stage and that they knew I could do it. Setting up my station in the midst of 10 extremely well trained cooks (all men) sent nervous twists to the pit of my stomach, but I knew if I showed it, they’d eat me alive. In this business, if you are told to do something you do it, so that’s what I did. Head down, eager to learn, just.do.work. As a commis, a big part of my daily tasks was to get the list of herbs needed for each station that day, Chef de Partie (CDP) and Garde Manage, meat entremet, fish entremet, meat CDP, Fish CDP, and anything canapes needed. 7 stations ranging with a list from 5-20 herbs each x the amount of garnish per plate times the amount of covers equals thousands of individual herbs a day. It’s amazing how fast these fingers can move. The first few days I spent a lot of time finding out what each herb was. I had no idea what persulane, oxalis, or stelaria looked like! (Culinary school fail here). After 5 hours of hustle and rapidly plucking plooshes, leaves, flowers, and micro greens, roughly 40-60 plastic black to-go containers would adorn a perfectly cut (not torn) green label with the stations name on it. Out of the herb “weeds” yet again. Now for the hard part…
At 4pm each day we had family meal, which I most often dreaded, it meant I had to stop working no matter if I was finished with the herbs, that I had to sit and eat, and wait for our pre service meeting to adjourn. Between the end of this meeting and the start of service was do or die time for me. I had to finish my projects, and also sometimes those of the other cooks, peeling walnuts, turning artichokes, blanching asparagus, getting pots, pans, towels, oils, salts, stocks, more garnishes, you name it! It had to be done 10 minutes ago.
Sweating, always, and running on pure, head-spinning, adrenaline is sort of a great feeling.
From about 6pm to close I had to help the dishwashers run the clean and dirty pots and pans up and down the stairs. All Clad pots to be exact, very heavy, most often 400-500 degrees hot and spitting with oil. I cannot say this was fun, however night after night I had to make a game out of it, how much could I lift? How fast could I run down and back up again? How could I not burn myself? After awhile I treated it as my workout, this part of the job wasn’t going away anytime soon, so I had to make the best out of it.
After about 5 weeks, I was moved up to Canapes. Done with picking herbs and on to something new. This was an exciting day for me, however the work and hustle only got harder. My prep list included: making madelines, onion macaroons, cut fish of the day for tartare, fry potato chips, prep and make mushroom leek tarts, steam off clams for butter soup, make gazpacho, gather all my garnishes; fried capers, chive tips, chervil, goat cheese, creme fraiche, caviar, onion/carrot/herb powders and be set up for service at 5pm not a minute late. Afterall, my food was the first bite the diner would taste and I need to be ready on time. After slingin’ canapes for 5 hours I’d clean up my station and resume pot and pan running, although by now I’m a pro and carrying much more weight than I could during week one.
When service finally came to a close, we’d clean the molteni, polish, shine and scrub until everything sparkled again. Everyone’s remaining mise en place came downstairs again, the low boys were cleared out, the pass was turned off, and the mops hung to dry. And now for my favorite part of the day, beers. We’d spread out the dirty pass linen and throw hunks of cheese, leftover bread rolls and iced down cambros full of miller high life. Finally I stopped sweating, cold beer, even miller high life tasted like the best thing of earth. Left over cheese from the cheese cart felt like my first meal all day, and the bread rolls, oh the bread rolls. The day was over, we’d discuss prep and service, highs and lows, call outs and things to change, each cooks with visible exhaustion on their faces, relished in their soon fate, sleep.
Looking back, this experience has taught me a lot. I couldnt write about it at first, I had to let the moments sink in, settle, and rest from it. It was physically tough, demanding, mentally draining at times, but it also was extremely rewarding, fun, exciting, and hilarious. It only took a few weeks to feel part of the family, and the camaraderie in that kitchen was the most fun I’ve had since playing sports in high school. Good people with common interests. But also because I was working with some amazing talent. Each person with their own story of where they came from, how they started cooking, where they’ve worked, traveled, eaten, and where they’ll go next. On the few days when I thought I wouldn’t make it, I was in the weeds, burnt badly, or just plain exhausted these guys would keep me going, they’d always say “get your shit done, but if you need help, no one will let you fail” and they never did.
I learned so much while working there, from even better work efficiency to meat and fish butchery to doing the best you can or not all. Simple things, like chive squiggles, shelling lagoustine, peeling walnuts- (yes they individually peel walnuts!), making pea veloute chlorophyll, and all things foie gras.
As my time at Menton was coming to an end, I was actually sad to leave. A part of me was relieved it was over, but another part of me knew that if only I had started in this business 10 years ago, it’d be amazing to see where I’d be today. But that’s life, things change. Personally, I feel accomplished with my time at Menton, I was pushed hard, worked harder than I ever have in my life, and also met some of the most amazing people. I wouldn’t change one day of it. I discovered that I’m f-ing great at time management and I can hustle. I can learn and be taught quickly on the fly, that my food memory is stronger than my actual day to day memory, and that I’m so happy I decided to change careers. Food, in whatever capacity that holds going forward, is where I belong. No, I don’t think I want to be a chef in a restaurant setting, perhaps in a private home, yacht (ha! one can dream..), or for my own friends and family but the restaurant world is tough and for the right kind of person. I’d rather keep being a rolling stone in this culinary journey.
A big thank you to Chef Colin, Chef Wyatt, Johnny, Lou, Jeff, Clarice, Matty, Aaron, Oz, Brian, Chef Ian, Chef Chris, Chef Bethany, Kelly, Katherine, Creepy, Ben, and C, it was a lot of fun to work with all of you and thank you for allowing me in your kitchen.