By The Foodist
Restaurant Row started with 7 days in Saint Andrews Cafe at the CIA. The seven days I spent there were easy going and laid back. Business was slow and steady and left a lot of time for attention to detail and slower cooking. What happened on my next Day 1 was a complete 180 turn from my experience at Saint Andrews Cafe.
We all knew going into The Caterina di Medici -The CIA's Italian Restaurant- that it was going to be crazy. Students tell horror stories all the time of the first three days there.
"You are going to hate life."
"Prepared to get worked like a dog."
"Chef made me cry."
Now I see why.
The hardest part of starting Caterina is the transition. Day 1 you barely know the recipes, have almost no knowledge of how the kitchen runs, and to top it off you have no idea what the chef is like.
To say that Caterina is a "Learning Environment" is both a reality and a false statement. It is the polar opposite of how almost every other kitchen on campus. You are not getting babied along, no hands are being held here. You are expected to perform. You are expected to work from the time you walk in the door till the time you leave (Which, last Thursday was 1 am, Friday was midnight). Chef pulls no punches during service, and will ride you like a tired horse in a thousand mile race if you so much as make a peep or wrong move.
But like all horror stories and moments of chaos it is not without its lessons -its rays of light that peak out from the corners.
After Day 1 you leave the kitchen fearing the rest of your 6 days in the class will proceed just as that one did. There's a knot in your stomach when you wake up the next day, a nagging voice asking "So why exactly am I doing this?".
But when you arrive on Day 2, there's another feeling that comes with you. Behind all the nervousness, behind the tight ball in your stomach is a single repetitive thought.
At least I know what to expect.
And with that thought in your mind you step forward into the kitchen a push yourself harder, faster, and think things through long before you act upon them. When this happens there's a pleasant surprise that follows. There's another thought that creeps in, I'm actually better at this then I was yesterday.
My station in Caterina is Hot Apps where I am responsible for 3 dishes. Penne, Gnocchi, and Pork Scalopinni. Without a real understanding of how service goes down on Day 1 I had Chef hovering over me like a hawk. There was the constant sound of his voice in my ear as I fumbled around trying to do things right. On Day 2 I noticed I heard less of his voice in my ear then the day before. The conclusion was that I was getting better, slowly, but I was getting better. At the end of the night on day 2 I was tired and beaten. But unlike the previous day I was hopeful and proud of my improvement.
It was not perfect, and it will never be perfect. But striving to perfect the way I work and the product I produce is the goal every chef, young or old, should have. It's a lesson that's really driven home at Caterina. Chef pushes us towards perfection, while we know we can never deliver it.
Here's an irony if ever there was one: After stumbling home on day 1 I opened my email to find this quote staring me in the face
"Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive;
plunge them into a deadly situation,
and they will then live.
When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory."
Makes me wonder if Chef is Sun Tzu incarnate. Nah, who am I kidding? He is however, a damn good chef.