Stages, Stagiaires and Stooges: How I made my bones

Ten months ago I was packing my bags with knives, chocolates and ambitions, eager to embark on the journey of a lifetime in northern Spain. Not knowing what to expect, I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.

By the end of 2011, I will have spent almost a year here with Martín Berasategui, David de Jorge and many other reputable chefs. What I have built here in Lasarte, Spain is more than just a workplace to call home. I have a golden thread that ties me forever to the green pastures, the acorny jamón and of course, my fellow zombie chefs and comrades. Amongst the stages, stagiaires and stooges is the equipo (team) of MB, a cadre of loyal, passionate, devoted chefs.

We are a confluence of eclectic individuals, some who shout, demand, vociferate and others who encourage, direct and pacify. We are a hodge podge of order and disorder but nonetheless, we are chefs. Fiery chefs. Our commonality is Martín and garrote!

What I really learned from working at Restaurante Martín Berasategui is how to work hard. You’ll see with all the jefes de cocina here that they all made their bones over a period of years. Many years. I don’t want to wait years. I set specific goals for myself to accomplish in one week’s time, two week’s time and by the end of the month. When I attained them, I wanted more.

This is not a dash. This is a marathon. Like a coach, Martin tells me this all the time. There are many legs of the race yet to run. To get the most out of the experience here or in any kitchen, I suggest looking at the big picture.

I set major goals for myself from the beginning. For instance, I knew from the get-go that I wanted to be indispensible. I wanted Martín to call my name, to call my cell phone, to need me. I can chop Swiss chard brunoise all day long and do it faster each day, but will it make me stand out? Sure, amongst the stooges, but will it make me unique? No. Along the way, I figured out how to set myself apart, a task all the more challenging if you are a female in the kitchen. Believe you me.

I turned my otherwise disadvantage (of speaking English in a Spanish kitchen) into a tool, an ace in the pocket. Soon I was called upon to answer phone calls, review recipes and translate interviews with international press.

I made strong ties with my jefes de cocina. As Martín advised me from day one, forget what others think of you. If you spend every day worrying what others think, you will not achieve. Listen to those dear to you, those who matter. Forget the others. Let them be envious.

I asked. You learn to ask permiso in a kitchen, and even more so in a kitchen as large as ours. What I learned to do however was deny my cultural habits (of humility and politeness) and ask for things shamelessly. Of course I did so within reason. I gained more confidence with my jefes and grew more assertive. My inner Leo emerged and no longer did I feel abashed to chime in during meetings involving the jefes or introduce myself to strangers that came to the kitchen to dine as guests of Martín. I would not have achieved half of the things with Martín had I not involved myself. I wanted to attend the Congreso de Cocina de Autor to take photos, so I asked Martín permiso. I wanted to cover the Basque Culinary Inauguration, so I told Martín so. I thought I could best organize the trip to NYC, so I told Martín it was imperative that I go.

Congreso de Cocina de Autor 2011 en Vitoria

I gained perspective. I asked myself, ‘If I were Martín….‘ and that’s how the cookie crumbled.

I make it sound simple now because I have to keep it simple. I ask myself ‘WHAT can I do (that will give him added value) to make Martín’s life more simple?’

And I go from there. All the opportunities that follow are a result of hard work and a pinch of luck.

So now, when co-workers, friends, and strangers ask me what I do, which station am I in, what my ‘title’ is, I answer like I always do.

‘Hago todo lo que puedo. Estoy en todos lados.’  I do all that I can. I am everywhere.

I am without bounds. That is how I achieve.

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