Sunday, December 13, 2009

Done and DONE.

Lasarte is officially in my past. WOW.

My last day finished rather uneventfully, with a relatively slow nite at the restaurant, different from other nites only due to the fact that we had to scrub down the giant grills and hoods in the carne and fish partidas. It took an extra 45 minutes of manual labor to end the shift, but I couldn't have cared less, as I knew each aggressive move of the sponge on the grease-caked steel brought me one moment closer to freedom. As everyone filed out, I said my goodbyes to various cooks, bosses, dishwashers, etc. Then I walked out the doors and breathed the most delicious breath of cold, Spanish nite air that my lungs have ever tasted.

There was an informal and impromptu 'mini-fiesta' at my apartment to celebrate the end, and while I thought it would be three to five people with a couple of beers, it ended up being more than 15, which was fantastic. We drank, smoked, laughed, and recounted the restaurant's stories, both mundane and absurd, into the wee hours of the morning. Some time before 4am, I declared that it was time for bed, and the last few stragglers made their way for the door. Saturday I woke up nice and late, feeling rested and ready to get the hell out of dodge. I got a haircut and some lunch, packed my bags (with some difficulty), and caught a ride to the train station in SanSe from Giovanni. By the time the clock struck five, I was G-O-N-E, gone.

The train ride passed quickly enough and by 10 I was in Madrid. One overpriced cab ride later and I was at Ceci's apartment. We made a quick trip down the street for two bottles of wine and two pizzas, then returned to her apartment to finish all of it, naturally. When there was nothing left to eat or drink, we put on Land of the Lost, starring Will Ferrell. Definitely not Oscar material, but there couldn't have been a better cap on the nite. Wine? Check. Pizza? Check. Cheezeball American comedy? Check. I was a happy boy.

Today we woke up around 1 and headed to a restaurant for comida with a bunch of Ceci's classmates. It ended up being around 20 people, which was a blast. Tons of food (octopus, calamari, bomb croquetas, best tortilla I've had in Spain), Sangria, pitchers of beer, and lively conversation. It also didn't hurt that most of the group was beautiful women, which was a welcome sight compared to the troll population that inhabits Lasarte. Everyone was super nice and warm and welcoming and the meal was absolutely perfect. We weaved through the city to a bar afterwards, and then, realizing we were tipsier than we'd intended, Ceci and I made our way back to her apartment.

While she napped, I prepped my things for my upcoming travel plans and enjoyed some much needed rest and downtime. Tomorrow I wake up at 7 for the trip to Morocco. Going solo is definitely a little intimidating, but after the last few months, my adventure confidence is high. I plan to see as much as I can, eat the most bizarre street food I can find (mmm, camel), and just go for broke, figuratively and literally. Thursday I return to Madrid for half a day before my departure to Pisa to see Julia. It's approaching midnight, so I should probably start thinking about sleep.

Africa, here I come...

Monday, December 7, 2009


So it’s my last weekend here in Lasarte. Wow. Can’t believe I’m this close to being finished. As long as some of the days may have seemed, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t fly by. And now, looking back at the road behind me, I must admit, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Yesterday was, by far, the best day of service I’ve had at the restaurant. I awoke with relative ease, fueled by the knowledge that it was the last weekend I’d be working. A quick cup of coffee after my shower and I was off and running. The morning flew by as we prepped for the busy day, and lunchtime arrived before I knew it. Incredibly, there was a surprise in store: instead of the usual Sunday lunch of what I call "grease soup" (chunks of chewing-gum-consistency beef and diced peppers in a pot covered by 3 inches of oil and grease), we ate what was, hands down, the best meal we’ve been served in the kitchen. Ever.

Gabi (the friend who took me to Asturias last month) and his dad often hunt wild boar in the mountains around their town. With incredible generosity, Gabi brought one (‘javeli’ in Spanish) to the restaurant on Wednesday, butchered, broken down, and ready to be cooked. He spent his spare time during the week prepping, marinating, and stewing this glorious beast, and yesterday we were served a huge, mouth-watering pot of stewed boar, in all of its so-tender-it-falls-off-the-bone glory. This was my first time trying boar, and naturally I loved it. I had two huge bowls, sopping up every last drop with hunks of bread. Oh, and I can’t forget the honey ice cream that the pasteleria served us for dessert. At the end of the meal, I could do nothing more than stretch out on my chair, rub my full belly, and grin in satisfaction. De-LACIOUS.

Full of fuel from the lunch to end all lunches, I spent an hour shucking and cleaning my oysters. As I neared completion, Giovanni (who plates the oysters with me during service) was called away to empty and clean one of the walk-ins in preparation for the restaurant’s impending holiday. This would take at least a couple of hours, which meant I would be solo during service. On a slow day, such circumstances would be insignificant, but with the books full, it was slightly daunting. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the challenge.

The rush began, and the restaurant was slammed within 30 minutes of opening the doors. I have to admit, I did nothing but kick ass. I reiterate that the oyster dish is not overly difficult or complex (a mere five touches and it’s done), but when you start the day given five different tables, simultaneously, it’s easy to fall into the weeds. Nevertheless, the weeds remained at bay for the full length of service. I kept track of everything myself, I caught errors that Sany missed, I helped out at the other stations, and every plate went out like an impeccable gem. Not once did I miss a beat, break a sweat, or let a mistake occur. Sany stayed out of my way and let me do my thing, and I reveled in the whiplash ballet that a busy service becomes: the pressure, the competitiveness, the poise, the attention to detail, the necessity to move with both grace and speed, the ability to act without thinking, to anticipate timing... you gotta love it.

At the end of the day, minutes away from the freedom of the weekend, Sany called us together for our usual end-of-week huddle. "Hoy fue un servicio brillante," she beamed. Today’s service was brilliant. To hear this sentence come out of the mouth of someone like Sany is like hearing George Walker Bush recite a Shakespearean sonnet. I was taken aback, floored, and elated. I thanked her with heartfelt words of "gracias" and headed out the door, already feeling my body start to relax and go into chillout mode. I got home, changed into sweatpants, and sank into the couch, smiling from ear to ear as my muscles instinctively began to relax.

The next few hours were spent listening to music and drinking Rioja as we (Giovanni, Jay, Romina, and I) reflected on the past week and the fact that we were almost done. At one point, Sany came up in conversation (as she often does), and Jay paid me a huge compliment: "Some said it was impossible," he said with a grin, "but I think you’ve conquered Sany. You won." And as a smile crept over my own face, I nodded my head in agreement. I’d been thinking about it over the past week, noticing how she almost never yelled at me anymore, how she stayed off my back for the most part during service, how she continued to make pleasant conversation, ask about my girlfriend, laugh at my jokes... hell, she even calls me "Senor Hinojo" ("Mr. Fennel") now due to the fact that I have become the go-to guy when we need an excessive quantity of the infamous and meticulous fennel ‘risotto.’ And, she has promised coffee every morning next week since it’s our last week before closing! Jay is right; whether on my own or with the help of my partida, I have won Sany over. That fact is most likely the biggest accomplishment with which I will leave this place. Fuckin’ A.

Anyway, I look forward to enjoying the rest of my final weekend. Cooking some American food for dinner tonite (sorry, Jamo, I spell how I wanna spell): Mac n’ Cheese and Chicken Nuggets. Tomorrow Jay and I make one last daytrip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim (this time when it’s actually open), and then I have three days of work before I pack up and head back to Madrid. And then Morocco. And then Tuscany. And then... HOME! Home for takeout Thai food, family, friends, Christmas, a bed that wasn’t issued by a correctional facility, my dogs, HBO, and a house in which I’m not scared to walk barefoot.

Wish me ‘buena suerte’ as I push through the final three days at Restaurante Martin Berasategui...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Coming down the home stretch...

So today marks the beginning of my last full week at Martin. Which is sort of mind-blowing. Just throwin' that out there...

This past weekend was somewhat uneventful; I had intended a day-trip to Pamplona, but the combination of a hefty bar tab Sunday nite and torrential downpour on Tuesday & Wednesday yielded a weekend spent mostly in cozy sweats watching movies on the couch. Oh yeah, and EATING. Shocker.

It was Vaughan and Kevin's last weekend here, so Saturday nite was their big 'adios' dinner. We snacked on clams and beer while we cooked, and dinner itself was appropriately excessive; it had to be in order to commemorate their send-off. Surf 'n Turf was the name of the game: ribeye steaks, sauteed tiger prawns, mashed potatoes, sauteed wild mushroom medley, and a creamy roquefort sauce to go over... well, everything. Sauteed chard and leeks on the side, a few bottles of teriffic wine, ample beer, and we were as good as it gets. Seventy-five percent of the table could not finish their plates, which, for this crowd, is saying a lot.

Like I said, the rest of the weekend left little to blog about, but I wanted to take a chance to look back and reflect aloud (or, as aloud as one can get when writing and not speaking) on that from whence I came. My initial reactions to almost everything around me, upon arriving here, were not far from despair. I was hating my crowded apartment, the restaurant kicked my ass up and down the street, I wasn't sure about my roommates, the town of Lasarte was far from what I had imagined... I thought I was going to struggle pretty hard to get through this experience.

Now I look around me and cannot believe I once felt the way I did. My apartment, though not the most spic n' span I've ever inhabited, has truly become a comfortable place and feels like my own. My roommates turned out to be truly good friends and incredibly fun people, and I am genuinely sad to see them go. The restaurant is a breeze now, all of its original challenges bested and then some on the road to becoming a significantly better chef. Even Lasarte, though admittedly still kind of a lame town, has grown on me; at least Naiban, the bar I come to every day, has grown to become a favorite spot of mine. Plus, I have done so much amazing traveling and seen so many unbelievable places and things that when I do have a day or weekend when I stay local, I kind of appreciate having my tiny, crappy, little town that I know so well.

I still have seven work days (15 shifts) left at the restaurant, so the battle is far from over, but I'm starting to get that excited flutter in the pit of my stomach that signifies a change on the horizon. Gotta keep my head down and keep moving forward, but it won't be long now...