I start my first job as a line cook tomorrow. After completing my culinary school training, and a voluntary externship with a well-established restaurant group on the Upper West Side, I’ve accepted a position at a small fine dining restaurant in Brooklyn. I’m not new to restaurant work, having waited tables during and after college, but I’m still glad I took a culinary externship because the back of house world is very different.
Even if the externship is unpaid, you still need to trail, which is basically an interview and audition. I arrived for my trail with my knife roll and uniform. It was around noon and the kitchen was in the middle of lunch service. A sous chef of the dark haired, thin framed, straight no-nonsense type, greeted me and showed me to the women’s locker room (a rare luxury I now understand). I emerged in my uniform and a line cook set a few cases of broccoli rabe in front of me. He demonstrated how to separate the leaves from, and trim the florets of each stalk. The executive chef arrived shortly after. He greeted me with a warm smile and a handshake and jumped into service.
Over the next 5 or 6 hours, I continued trimming and peeling multiple cases of broccoli rabe, asparagus, and baby turnips. From the prep kitchen had a good view of the line and could observe the cooks as they transitioned to dinner service. There was a second sous chef, surrounded by his team – the meat cook and the fish cook to one side, and the vegetable cook and hot appetizer cook to the other. Against the far wall, two cooks were preparing salads for the garde manger (cold appetizer) station and a pastry cook was plating desserts.
During service, Chef sent me a plate of house made charcuterie to try. This included one of my favorites, pate grand-mere, a country pate of pork, liver, and nuts I was looking forward to learning. During a lull in service, chef pulled me aside and we agreed that I would come in two evenings after school, and a full day on the weekend for the next three months or so. That meant 8 hours Tuesday and Wednesday after school and 12 hours on Saturday. For me going to school full time and externing 28 hours a week was often really taxing, but was just enough to be really involved in the restaurant without affecting my performance at school.
During my externship, I prepped a LOT of vegetables. It was summertime, and crates of fresh produce would arrive daily. There would always be more broccoli rabe to be trimmed, asparagus to be peeled, and baby turnips, radishes, Thumbelina carrots to be peeled and shaped, and herbs to be picked. Sometimes line cooks would run out of items during service and I would drop what I was doing to help them. All the chefs were supportive and patient. A quiet, “What are you doing there, Chef?” was code for “That’s not quite right,” and they would simply demonstrate for me again. Gradually I was allowed to take on new tasks – rolling potato dauphines, prepping ratatouille, blanching vegetables, poaching eggs, making gazpacho, and flavored oils. Occasionally Chef would just give me a recipe to test, like pissalidiere dough, or squid ink pasta.
I also spent a lot of time helping the garde manger station execute service. They had a rotating door of externs, but all the cooks were really warm, and made me feel welcome whenever I was there. After about a month, I knew all the dishes and became more and more involved in service. I started to get the hang of producing consistent plates, shucking oysters under pressure, and listening to the expediter and sous chef to call orders. Toward the end of service, I would find myself working the station alone as the others made their prep lists for the next day. As an extern, it was the perfect place to reinforce basic skills like knife work, speed, and consistency, and get exposure to working service at a restaurant that does a considerable amount of volume while making an effort to maintain a high level. As I neared graduation, I was offered an entry level position there.
I probably would have transitioned happily from my externship to a job, but one of the instructors at school was recruiting for an alumni-run restaurant making beautiful food in Brooklyn, and recommended me. I trailed there three times before making a decision. I’ve already made friends at the externship and enjoy the camaraderie, but the Brooklyn joint has a smaller tightly knit team that works so well together they barely have to speak during service. So this evening I head to the Upper West Side to decline their offer in person. Chef seems genuinely understanding, wishes me the best, and asks me to keep in touch. It’s the middle of dinner service, so I don’t linger too long. I briefly say goodbye to my new friends at garde manger and pastry, but I hope it’s not goodbye for good.