Chapter 9: Week 5: Quiet for the time of year

It’ll soon be Christmas and although the season has wound down completely and we have no more than a couple of rooms occupied in the hotel at any one time (if any at all), we’re still fairly busy in the restaurant with Christmas lunch and dinner groups. December was supposed to be quiet because the directors didn’t bother employing a sales manager this year, intending to do all the publicity themselves, something they then forgot to do leaving us with no reservations. In the end it turns out that everyone wants to celebrate Christmas in our restaurant.
Last week I worked every day as normal, after a week in the UK with my lovely, indefatigable gurus Steve and Caroline (thanks!) which WAS a lot calmer than we’d expected, so we ended up eating and drinking in pubs and (French-run) restaurants instead – Pebble Beach is highly recommended, although you pay UK not French prices for French food – venison especially highly rated).
Last Friday was the last Soirée Vigneron of the year, a Caviar/Foie Gras/Truffles/Lobster special for €100 a head, AVC compris (Aperitif/Vin/Café included). Chef had devised special ‘menu dégustation’ to go with each of the seven wines brought along by the various wine producers, which means seven courses, two with ‘doublures’ – under-plates. This is important to me because, with 50 covers, that gives me an extra 100 plates to wash. Thank you, Chef. Although it’s not as bad as our old Dutch Seconde de Cuisine who managed to find a way to use four (count ’em! 4!) plates for one dish during the summer. I’ve refused to tell Chef how she did it because he’ll only go and do the same.
So we finished at about 1am on Saturday morning; Chef came into the Plonge and stuck his hand into the water in the dishwasher and said, “Hmm, what’s this?” Now, the machine’s been a bit dicky recently and the repairman’s been out a few times; right now it’s over-filling with water on occasion, and at this moment there was about a two centimetre overfill. I told him this, and he said, “No, I mean why have you emptied the machine and refilled it?” I hadn’t, and told him so. “Yes, but this water’s clean!” he said. That, I explained, is because I don’t put anything dirty in it. I wash everything first in the sinks, I said. “I know,” he replied, “but after all the covers we’ve done I thought it would be at least a little bit dirty”
It wasn’t, but then I’m a good dishwasher (please imagine a self-effacing grin here). In the kitchen I don’t just want to do the best that I can do, I want to do the best that ANYONE can do. Which is why I wasn’t happy with the Hollandaise sauce I did for him last night.
We’re currently down to two stagiaires, from the four we’ve had for the past three weeks. Only one of them, the German (natch) was any good; right now we have a chatty Portuguese grand-dad and the usual French teenager in the patisserie (although this one does show some signs of waking up now and then); the rule with stagiaires is that two do half the work of one regular cook, and four do a quarter of the work of one cook between them. So while Chef was busy showing them how to cut grapes in half to decorate the dessert plates he asked me to make a Hollandaise for the lobster he was serving last night.
At cookery school we do this over a bain marie, but in the kitchen it’s direct onto the hotplate. You keep the saucepan at the right temperature as you’re whisking up the egg yolks (six, in this case, with a tablespoon and a half of water) by holding your hand on the side of the pan; if you smell burning flesh, it’s too hot. You whisk in a figure of 8 until you can clearly see the bottom of the pan, then you ladle in the clarified butter (one Pochon – a small ladleful – per yolk) slowly off the heat. Now, I started on the butter when, as at school, I could CLEARLY see the bottom of the pan as I drew the whisk across it; but Chef checked one ladleful of butter in and said the yolks weren’t foamed enough. Still, we checked to see if it would glaze by putting a spoonful onto a torpille (a torpedo-shaped metal serving plate) under the salamander, and it came out fine. So, OK, continue with the butter but next time foam those yolks more. And in the end it was a good Hollandaise, the junior French stagiaire told me so (jealously, I have to add, he hasn’t been let anywhere near the stoves in the two weeks he’s been here to do anything other than burn milk).
Because Chef is the only proper cook left in the kitchen (we have no Seconde and the Chef de Partie des Entrées left three weeks ago) I’ve been getting to do more and more of the advanced prep and even some of the cooking, which is fine by me; beats washing up anyway, although I do still have to do that at the end of it all.
For the soirée Vigneron I got to prep the lobster and the foie gras, and de-bone the filets mignons of venison that were served as the main course and de-skin the two joints of poitrine, pork belly, that we used to lard the filets – something I’ve actually already done at school – it’s not too difficult if you remember (a) to keep the skin pulled tight and (b) not to cut yourself.
I enjoy all that sort of stuff a lot, enough to make me think that I’d enjoy working garde-manger in a large brigade; but then I do a bit of patisserie and enjoy that a lot, too. And then I also get to work the hot side and enjoy that as well. After a year and a half in professional kitchens I’ve gained a lot of experience in a variety of bits of the job and don’t know if I want to specialise or not.
I’m thinking of doing a second year at school, assuming I get my Diplôme this summer. They offer a CAP in Patisserie or Traiteur-ship, and the idea of both interests me. For one crazy moment I thought of doing both at the same time, since they’re taught on different days, but I’ve come to realise just how much more tired I’ve been since September than I was even during the height of the summer. The problem is that, with two days off a week, I’ve been spending one of those days working in a kitchen again, effectively giving me just one day off per week. And since September the restaurant has been closing mostly only for half-days at a time, so often I’ve been going in to work on Monday evenings after school, giving me 17 or 18 hours out of the house at one go, and then only two half days during the rest of the week to recuperate. Which really isn’t enough, and now I’m just completely knackered. Yesterday the restaurant was closed for the midday service and I’d intended to spend the day working on the repainting of our new front room. But after I’d gone out for bread and eaten some breakfast I found I was literally incapable of doing anything else at all other than lying in bed and, at most, reading a little. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, unfortunately.
The restaurant officially closes from December 23 until February 14, and doesn’t re-open fully until March. Even then I don’t know what I’m going to be doing; I certainly don’t want to do another full season as plongeur, but would love to go on working with Chef because he’s been so good to me. I’ve learned lots and lots and he’s a great teacher, but (a) I don’t know (and nor does he) if he’ll have a budget for a Commis Chef and (b) in any case I’m not experienced enough to do that job in that restaurant, in my opinion; I’m certainly not experienced enough to do, for example, the entrées, where he will almost certainly have a budget to hire someone.
And, while he’d probably love me to come back to the plonge I, as I say, don’t want to do that; I may come back a bit at the start of the season if I haven’t found anything else, but I don’t want it to become a regular gig. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed doing it for the past year, but there’s other aspects of the job I enjoy much, much more and, frankly, a year washing up is enough.



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