Working the Line

I had spent the first two weeks at Restaurant Martín Berasatégui observing lunch and dinner services, noting every slice, scoop and pivot in each micro-station within my pescado partida.  I consider myself an apt observational learner and told my impatient self, “Your turn will come in due time. Learn now from the triumphs and failures of others so maybe later, you won’t drop the ball.”

On the other hand, there’s no knowing until you [physically] do. So finally, I did. Last week I had the opportunity to work the line, to prove myself as a chica in the kitchen. The pescado partida is testosterone-heavy and to infiltrate the male hierarchy is nearly impossible as it is based on seniority. Meritocracy has little weight in any of the partidas. Lucky for me, Sammic beca + Asian charm have some leverage and I wriggled my way between the plancha (grill) and the foam micro-stations. I figured even if I can’t eliminate male chauvinism, at least I can show what this girl is made of: hustle, accuracy, resilience.

Aire de Espardeña (Sea Cucumber Air)

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve felt the adrenaline rush of service. It’s great to be back. It’s great to be me again. As the week progressed, I gained more responsibility. At first I started out just aerating the foam to be plated, an important task but one I considered rather simple and boring because frothing foams at O Ya was such a minimal part of my various responsibilities. I wanted to take on more, so I did what I thought I should—I asked. By the end of the week I was grilling txipirones and espardeñas (sea cucumbers) to order, and plating sauces, espumas (foams) and my favorite, the crispy-scaled salmonetes (red mullets).

Back in my O Ya days, this would be no feat. In a tiny restaurant of six chefs, the Renaissance woman is often called upon to perform in prep, line, plating, dessert and anything else. However in a Michelin kitchen with 60+ stages, it’s a whole different ball game. Line cooks are often assigned one task and one task only per dish, especially when the restaurant is fully booked. I suppose with such a huge staff it makes sense to allocate tasks one by one to ensure each one is given due attention. The logic is there but you’d be surprised to see that this does not always hold true. I’ve witnessed fellow stages struggle to aerate foam sufficiently or emulsify a pil-pil adequately. It’s a combination of inexperience and pressure, the heat of the moment where your chef de partida is yelling at you to move faster, every other word out of his mouth a ‘puta madre’ or some other colloquial curse. Some stages hate it but I think though it’s not necessary, it’s great discipline for young chefs that aspire to be great. Like former coaches, it’s the ones that push you so hard you stumble, that make you a great athlete in the long run. My Chinese upbringing comes to mind, where my parents taught me that to be successful, one must learn to 吃苦 (to bear hardships or literally translated, to eat bitter). Plus, I’m a tough cookie. I can withstand the profanities of the Spanish, the French, whoever.

Then again, I’m also growing numb to the shouting. And I’ve discovered a loophole! Scolding and cursing is less menacing when you naturally have poor hearing or can’t catch the Spanish quick enough. A quizzical expression or a “mas despacio, por favor” really takes the heat off the moment. Just because I have to hold my tongue and can’t be a wiseass in the kitchen doesn’t mean I can’t be wise.

I wouldn’t say the pressure is equivalent to working the sushi counter with diners watching your every move, but there is a certain comparable pressure when all sixty pairs of eyes are on you on the line or in the plating pass. Sixty comrades = sixty possible substitutions if you falter. Likewise, when you’re serving top dogs like Pierre Hermé and you’re trusted to plate a dish, which usually involves five different people to compose, speed and accuracy are your best friends. Sayonara, shaky hands.

Looking back at the past few weeks, I think I’m assimilating well into the Martín Berasatégui culture. The recipes, techniques and preparations are not rocket science. The greatest challenge is mind control. It’s the greatest asset I can have here. Whether I’m prepping, plating or conversing with fellow stages or chefs, I can’t help but think of how ‘zen’ I should be. ‘Zen’ and ‘tranquilo’ have become my go-to buzzwords here in moments of confusion, contemplation and joy.

2 thoughts on “Working the Line

  1. It is interesting that you are referred to as “stages”. I wonder if “stooges” is a better term. I am reminded of an “I Love Lucy” episode wherein Lucy and Ethel tried to work at a chocolate factory line. I hope you have not committed any major gaffes.

  2. Pingback: stages’ week in review | BasqueStage

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