Thursday, October 8, 2009

Age & Enlightenment (and fennel)

So this morning I got chewed out, for sure. But it was a good thing... or at least, I took something good from it.

This week I am on the 'Primeros Platos' team. Sidebar: I don't know why it's called this, as the dishes that we prepare and plate do not come first in any way. They're not served first, they're not first on the menu... weird, right? No one can give me a good answer as to why they are called 'primeros.' I'd say it's closer to Garde Manger than anything else. But I digress... The team is led by a woman named Sany; five-foot-nothing, in her mid-fifties (I estimate), and a drama queen who seems to have some medical incapability of expressing joy. She's not as bad as Monday, but a close second, and is infamous as such.

Today when we were cleaning the kitchen at the end of the lunch shift, I was mopping, and Christian, another cook, asked if he could see the mop I was using. Taking him literally, I handed it over, expecting it to be returned almost immediately (I figured he had spilled something and just needed it for a hot second). To my surprise, he walked off with it and began to mop another section of the kitchen. I called after him, but amidst the kitchen din, he didn't hear me, and for about 2.4 seconds, I stood there, dumbfounded, with my proverbial thumb up my proverbial ass. In strict accordance with Murphy's law, that's when Sany happened to look over at me (I have learned that in the kitchen, Murphy's law is in decree at all times).

She flipped out at me: "Why do you just stand there while everyone else cleans?! What's wrong with you?! Are you some kind of idiot?" There was more, but the Spanish got too fast for me. I'm sure it was something nice. Anyway, as I made haste for the place we keep the mops, hoping to find another, I attempted to blurt out an explanation (blurting, when slightly panicked, in Spanish, is tough), that I was neither 'just standing there,' nor an idiot. That was a mistake. Sany thought I was giving her lip and her eyes got even wider. Moreover, one of the other kitchen bosses, Felipe, was standing nearby, heard the end of it go down, and though Sany already had her foot up my ass, he managed to cram his in there as well. All I could do was nod, eyes down, and repeat, "Oido... Oido... Oido..." ('Oido' literally means 'heard,' but it's the all-purpose word in the Spanish kitchen for 'yes sir/ma'am,' 'i understand,' 'will do,' 'the order will be ready asap,' etc.)

As much as this was a less than pleasant experience, it was quickly moved past. When we were finished cleaning, I found Sany and explained that I had meant no disrespect; she said she understood but that regardless, when she tells me to do something, I can hold the commentary and just do it. Oido.

Moreover, Felipe came and found me before I left and told me everything was cool, he just had to get Sany's back; he explained that she's the boss of me, and regardless of the circumstances, no matter what she asks, I need to do it and do it fast. Oido. He also mentioned that she's almost sixty years old, and for this, she deserves my utmost respect. And herein lies the takeaway for me. This ain't the USA; kitchen hierarchy aside (in which I presently rank somewhere between used fryer oil and mop buckets), this is a different culture than I'm used to. Age means a lot as far as respect earned. And as much as I may dislike it, there's little I can do about it. Plus, it was all just a big reinforcement of the fact that I am a lowly, temporary peon, and a green one at that, with very little experience in this industry; this is only the beginning of the licks in store for me, fer sher.

As I pondered all this on my walk home, I also came to the realization that I am wired differently than the kitchen demands. My whole life, I have always been a seeker of approval when it comes to jobs, school, work, whatever. I tend to find motivation in seeing that my superiors are pleased with my work, and lose it when I instead see disinterest. Moreover, I've been fortunate enough to have most of my superiors act in accordance with this, ingraining it even more deeply in my persona. But it's time to learn that there are gonna be plenty of people out there who simply don't give a shit. And no matter how well I do, they're not going to say 'good job,' and they're not going to grant me that approval; what's more, these people are going to be doubly pissed if I give anything less than my best. So though I am no doubt learning it later in life than most, this is a great experience for me to learn to build my ability to self-motivate, despite the reactions, or lack thereof, of my superiors. I just need to keep a poker face and get it done.

Though you are probably sick of reading by now (I'm almost sick of typing), my goal has been to mention food in every post, and I'm familiar enough now with the dishes my team is in charge of. Foodies, keep reading...

The first is a fennel 'risotto,' which I've heard is one of the best dishes on the menu. We filet the fennel bulbs (which is as hard as you might imagine) to super thin, then cut them into UNIFORM pieces roughly the size of Arborio rice. Can you say, tedious? These are parcooked in olive oil, then added to a fennel-cream sauce: this is the 'risotto.' It's topped with a nest of translucently thin fennel and a ring of fennel foam, garnished with 4 sprouts of micro-greens.

The second is a BOMB oyster dish: A bowl starts with an aspic, flavored with arugula and another similar green I'd never tasted before that has a citric aftertaste. The aspic is on the bottom, and 2 thin slices of green apple sit along the sides. The raw oyster goes on the aspic, next to it goes a dollop of cream sauce flavored with fennel & lemongrass, and the oyster itself gets a dollop of some gelee (this one is still unknown to me), and it's garnished with black pepper and a single microgreen. I like everything about this dish except the gelee on the oyster: too much similarity in slimy texture for me.

The last one is a ridiculous (I use that word as literally as possible) salad that requires, no joke, about 45 touches before it's sent out. Huge plate, starts with a tomato-water aspic; in the center go 2 slices of avocado, sliced paper thin, rolled into tubes, and stood upright. Into the tubes go a single chive each. Then a ring of frisee around this. Then leaves of arugula and lettuce, placed one at a time, like building a house around the avocado. Then a slice of little onion at either side of the plate. A sprinkling of asparagus brunoise by each onion slice. Then comes the fun part: 4 different microgreens and 6 different colored edible flower petals; there are 4 of everything, and every single green, petal, etc. is placed ONE AT A TIME. That's nearly 30 touches for something that's little more than garnish! After this the plate gets a scoop of tomato meat/seeds (which I think is weird), 2 small pieces of lobster meat, a dressing over the lettuce/avocado house, a squeeze of some green mystery puree, and a quenelle of a crab-lobster-mayo concoction. A mandolin is used to shave a few slices of wild mushroom onto the plate, then 2 asparagus tips get sauteed a la minute and placed meticulously. Finally, 2 manual twists of fresh black pepper. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!

Okay, sorry I went on so long, and to the few of you that made it this far, thanks for reading.

As I reread the paragraph of musings on my own psyche, I realize I may be getting a little deep for a 'This is my trip to Spain' blog, so I apologize if it's TMI. I also want to apologize to my mom for using all the French language, I know she doesn't like it.

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