A little excerpt on my first day at in the In de Wulf kitchen (which was highly debated in my head on whether or not to post), and some closing thoughts on our foray into Belgium:
First days are always exciting. Nerve-wrecking, but exciting. And this being our first full day in Europe, my stomach was doing flips, not only from adrenaline but because I may have had a little too much fun the night before with my first sips of Belgium brew while being heavily jet-lagged.
But at the very least, I think my first day went pretty well. I got my first experience at cleaning the little film off of sepia that makes it chewy, which goes down in my books as some of the most patience-pushing tasks on this trip, and I got my first, first-hand experience at an European 1-star kitchen (I feel there is a difference between European/Japanese and “the other” Michelin guides, but that’s for another discussion) as well as what goes along with it.
But if there was to be a starting point for my stages, it happened on this night. And that starting point was that you *have* to be humble. I had learned this from Chef Pera a long time ago, but on this night, it was not to be ignored.
Its starting to be an interesting and positive trend where the chef and his cooks start to run food to the customers. I’ve heard that noma does such things out of general interest to the diner, and at Schwa in Chicago, Trio in Sweden, and when we did the Just August Project, the cooks ran the food out to the diners out of pure necessity. I think at In de Wulf, it was a hybrid of both. There was one member of waitstaff, one sommelier/manager, and a back waiter, so for a mostly tasting menu format which included at the very least four amuses and three desserts, there were a lot of plates to go out to the guests and not a lot of hands. As such the cooks not only needed to take the plates out, but it many times enhanced the experience because they had instant answers and (most of the time) enthusiasm about the food they’d been working hard at all day. It was everyone’s job.
Including Karen and I.
It was a long day, my energy had been worn down from lack of sleep and my unwillingness to ask for water the first half of the day (stubborn? yes. dumb? really yes.) and the last plates were going out for the last table. I had started to clean my prep station where I had been hovering over sepia for the last few hours, stopping only occasionally to run plates to tables and to observe the cooking and plate up process. And the last few plates came to the pass. Anxious to get it out and the kitchen scrubbed down, I hurried to the pass to follow Johnny, the cook from Wallonia, who had taken the last main out to the dining room. I wasn’t sure if these plates were to follow, so I looked at Chef Kobe, who urged me to hurry so the food didn’t reach the table far behind.
Now I have had a bad habit my entire life. I drag my feet. My mom has always fretted on me about, Karen hates it, and Seth once told me when I was doing my stint at C-House to stop dragging my feet because”not only does it bother your wife– you’ll have to buy new shoes faster, but it drives me f**kin’ crazy.” It’s just something I haven’t been able to stop.
I grab the plates off the pass, and whether it be my weariness, my over-enthusiasm, or just the fact I drag my feet, I take about three long strides.
And trip over the step leading up to the dining room.
The two plates hit the ground, and in my mind, blow up into a bajillion of pieces because it was the loudest sound I had ever heard in a kitchen. I pretty much land on my face.
I must’ve been on the ground a good five seconds wondering whether or not I should just die right then and there. Then in my head I start to wonder what I just had done. What if this was a Michelin inspector’s food. Or if they had another piece of duck seared off so I wouldn’t be stuck in the corner, never to touch the food again.
But in the end the first words out of Chef Kobe’s mouth were to ask if I was okay. Johnny came back and probably did the fastest replate-up I’d ever seen in my life. There was a little bloody scratch on my finger, but mostly it was a bruised ego. Not to say it didn’t really, really, *really* suck for all parties involved, but in the end, everything turned out alright. I didn’t let myself touch another plate till the second half of service the next night. The step I tripped over became my biggest worry in the kitchen, most of the time.
You really can’t start much more humble than that.
I start my stage at AOC on Thursday, but I can’t say enough about In de Wulf, what they stand for, and the people that they are. It’s a business about the people first, and the common goal a very close second. Just like every restaurant, there are things you like, and things you don’t always care for, but at In de Wulf, much can be looked over because of the way they take care of their staff and the food. There’s a Chef that’s constantly curious and not afraid to take new steps and listen to his peers and staff, and people there that are passionate, witty, and talented. Heck, they were even willing to try the sweet potatoes with marshmallows we made for our Belgium Thanksgiving dinner for staff meal. There were lessons there I couldn’t have ever learned anywhere else:
Local isn’t the trend. Cooking within the boundaries of where you are shouldn’t be a point you’re trying to make, it is what it is because its right (plus it makes you a better cook and your food a helluva lot more interesting).
Not everything needs a long cooking process with a lot of steps. The shortest path is the best one if you walk the path.
Be serious about every plate you put out.
The stars and the press don’t make the restaurant, it’s the staff and food that the restaurant strives to do that makes the restaurant.
And most importantly:
Pick up your feet.
And because I’m sure some of you want to see more of the food. A few more food pics courtesy of Karen, our photographer.