At the time I started my 3 month stage in Younvtille, I could not realize the impact the experience would have on my career. I had some previous experience in bakeries and restaurants, but I consider this to be the “beginning.” With the discipline and attention to detail, there could not have been a better way to mold me. I only had good habits to pick up. Their core value are deeply implanted into my memory – modesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, awareness, initiative, collaboration, consistency, impact, success, legacy.
I thought my role would be insignificant as a stage, but I was wrong. We were all integral parts of the team and very important in making memories for the guests. Stages here didn’t just pick herbs or clean, they really did learn. Pastry Chef Courtney Schmidig deserves a lot of praise because she’s pretty much a bad ass. I would find myself tying shortbread alone in the “red room” many days, never expecting company – but most days, I had company. Every task was just as important, and not just “stage” work. She may not know it, but she gained a lot of respect from me. As did most of the staff. Wendy Sherwood of la forêt, now a Napa chocolatier, held me very accountable. I am glad they were strict with me, which kept me under a fear of failing – it made me more aware of my actions and surroundings. It’s not just coincidence that many of the new(er) great chefs in this world have walked this path.
After staging abroad for the past 3 months, I realized that working clean and organized is not inherent to all – being cleaner than most is not good enough (for me). In Yountville, we had deli trays where we could put our trim from our prep so it was a quicker and easier clean up. In many other kitchens, we use deli containers/condi box/old baking paper. Many kitchens will do a big clean right before service, but I have found that cleaning up after every task is just as important. I find it easier to focus when my workspace is not cluttered. I was taught that towels should always be refolded after every use. At AOC when I went to go help Justin for New Years, I noticed that they even have silver containers that hide them. A wadded up towel just freaks me out. I feel as if this is just an extension of your discipline in the kitchen. I find myself refolding a lot of towels here. That brings me to my ultimate kitchen peeve – the dish pit. It should always be organized – like things stacked together and really dirty containers rinsed off. If you have a second to load, by all means, load. Justin made another astute observation, as he always does – when others are stressed about the messiness of the dish pit, they will eventually control their frustrations by organizing it themselves. I will mention again that I am a bit OCD.
It is important to greet your peers by saying good morning and good-night/afternoon/bye, whatever is acceptable by the culture’s standard. (I learned you never say good-bye to a Dane, unless you will really never see them again. You are to say, “See you later” or “Hej Hej” which sounds like “Hi Hi.” Here in Denmark, they care about how your weekend was, how your wife is doing, what you plan on doing next weekend, or just how you are. Greeting is a sign of respect. Why is it so much easier to greet your co-workers than your in-laws?
Sense of Urgency – this may have been my favorite lesson. A sense of urgency is a discipline, a focused mindset, an awareness. The top kitchens always work like they don’t have enough time in the day. I feel like if you have a sense of urgency during prep, you’ll have a better service because you’re focused and ready. I like to wear a watch when I’m in the kitchen – it keeps me in check. I have been told I’m too intense and sometimes it intimidates my co-workers. I apologize to all I have ever worked with, but I was raised by Chinese parents (no I did not play an instrument, but I was once a math champ in my elementary years). Personally, I like to skip the bs and get to work. I don’t like it when smokers get smoke breaks while I get no break at all. I don’t mind music. Just as long as I don’t have to hear “like a G6” or “Barbara Streisand.”
“What would you do if you knew you could not fail.” – TK
Those are words I am trying to live by every day.
The pastry team under Pastry Chef Courtney Schmidig definitely left a lasting impact on me. Hopefully I brought a little of it with me to Belgium and Denmark.