Becoming a bistro chef for a weekend seemed like a brilliant idea until I found myself facing a mountain of vegetables with my back to five flaming burners on one of the most stifling days of the year in Paris.
Then I started to ask myself some serious questions. Why had I chosen this labor-intensive version of ratatouille, which requires all the vegetables to be cut into teeny tiny dice and cooked separately? Couldn’t I have picked a simpler recipe than les petits farcis, the little stuffed vegetables whose ingredient list is daunting at the best of times? How would I ever succeed in making six dishes in large enough quantities for at least 40 people? What is it exactly about this job that people find glamorous?
The morning went by in a blur of chopping and dicing with the welcome help of Claire, who admitted to feeling a bit frazzled herself as her much-needed holidays approach. I could see that she was also a little horrified by the number of vegetables that we had to prepare, though her experience allowed her to keep her cool even as the temperature rose well above 40 C in the kitchen. Not much of a water drinker normally, I downed glass after glass of eau de Paris.
The lunch service came and went pretty much unnoticed by me, since my dishes wouldn’t be served until the next night. At 3pm, as the vegetable heap showed few signs of shrinking, Serge suggested that we force ourselves to take a break from 4-6pm. “Otherwise we’ll never make it through the evening,” he said.
My mission during my break was to find a pair of clogs, since the vegetables and fruit in my luggage (I wasn’t sure I trusted the Paris markets to provide sun-ripened produce) had left no room for appropriate kitchen footwear. Claire and Serge had been eyeing my open-toed Birkenstocks with alarm all morning, visibly tensing every time I approached the stove with its huge bubbling pots and fat-spitting frying pans.
A few blocks from the restaurant I came across the answer to my problem: Les Sabots de Marie, a cheerful boutique that sells Swedish clogs in every color of the rainbow. With unusual restraint I chose a navy blue pair before heading to a café terrace with a mist machine for an ice-cold drink. Before I knew it the time had come to head back to the restaurant, though on this first day I would be leaving before the dinner service. By the time I left at 7.30pm, things in the kitchen seemed under control and Claire and Serge were sitting down to a civilized staff dinner with Lorenzo the 16-year-old apprentice, Abdullah the kitchen assistant and Clara who waits tables with Serge in the evening. That night, as I ate dinner with Paule and Anne-Julie at the new restaurant Office (Anne-Julie, who writes beautifully, has posted a review in French on her blog), the heat gave way to a fabulous storm with hail the size of golf balls that bounced off the cars and sidewalk.
By the next day the temperature had dropped by 10 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere had completely changed in the kitchen. With the ratatouille already made, the petits farcis ready to be assembled and the pissaladière underway, we could turn our attention to the relatively simple chicken “bouillabaisse” and desserts. A cool breeze blew through the kitchen and Claire and I chatted easily about life and food as we cooked. At noon we ate a light meal and again the lunch service passed me by as I worked on my own dishes. The phone kept ringing and Serge announced that the dining room would be full that night. By now I felt fairly confident, and we all took a leisurely break from 3-6pm.
The pissaladière and petits farcis were in the oven. The chicken stew was hot and its rust-colored saffron, garlic and chilli pepper mayonnaise called rouille was made. The lemon tart was ready, as was the vanilla custard for the berry gratin. And people were starting to arrive. For the first time, I started to pay attention to the little slips of paper that were stuck to nails above the counter. Claire explained that, working from right to left, we would start with the first courses. Once the plates came back to the kitchen, we would prepare the main dishes. Each time all the dishes for a table were ready, we would place them on a counter near the dining room, ring a little bell and announce the table number to Serge or Clara.
I asked Claire if she prefers that clients show up early or late. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “as long as they don’t all come at the same time.” But she admitted to hating it when people order a main course without a starter, not for profit reasons but because it messes up the rhythm in the kitchen.
“The rhythm is very important. It’s much easier to make mistakes on a slow day than a busy day, because before the rhythm is established your mind wanders.”
With the help of Lorenzo and Abdullah we kept up with the fast pace that night, and I only started to get confused when the first diners were ordering dessert and the last were still on their starters. At 10pm Serge sent me out to greet my friends in the dining room and I spent the rest of the night chatting and sipping a glass of delicious champagne made entirely with pinot noir grapes. I had worked hard, but not as hard as Claire and Serge — who must also think about details like deliveries, menu planning and accounting — work every day.
The next day was quieter, with many Parisians gone on their annual summer holidays, and I was starting to feel like a pro. When I came into the kitchen I knew what needed to be done and had thought of ways to correct little problems from the night before, such as how to serve the stuffed vegetables at just the right temperature (by popping them in a warm oven once the starters had been sent). Lunch was a breeze with just a few clients, and we treated ourselves afterwards to one of Claire’s delicious dishes, rabbit confit in the style of duck with roasted garlic. I finished with a slice of her exceptionally rich and eggy clafoutis with cherries and apricots.
That night, just as I was starting to feel a bit cocky, Serge walked into the kitchen and announced, “There is a Niçois in the dining room.” Knowing how possessive the Niçois can be of their local dishes, I was shaking in my blue clogs. At the end of the meal, I couldn’t resist going to visit that table.
The Niçois cleared his throat. “I still prefer my mother’s pissaladière, but it was all very good and I loved your lemon tart.”
The dinner service had been a little quieter than expected and we ended the night in the kitchen with an impromptu picnic, during which I decided to “taste” Claire’s fondant au chocolat and promptly polished it off. In three days I learned what makes a restaurant tick and got a taste for the buzz of a busy dinner service. I don’t think I’ll be opening a restaurant myself, but I am more amazed than ever by the dedication and energy of people like Claire and Serge. From now on I'll be seeing restaurants with a different eye.
6 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
Well my table had four satisfied customers. We each chose a different starter -- two from the house menu, two from your imported offers -- and they went down well. I particularly enjoyed my tartines de tatatouille au pistou (it tastes so much better in French).
For the main course, all four of us went for the Poulet au pastis, which we loved. But for the dessert, I couldn't resist the house fondant au chocolat, but my wife did let me taste your tarte au citron, which was wonderful -- we loved the pastry in particular.
And you're right: the pinot noir champagne was very refreshing.
I just got an email from one of my friends who was visiting who said this was the best holiday he had had in ages. I know that your meal played a major part in that.
Congratulations on your restaurant debut: looking forward to your return. And "chapeau" to the folk at La table de Claire for the inspired idea of a guest chef.
Thank you so much for your invaluable support, Jonny! So glad that the food lived up to your expectations. That fondant au chocolat... well, I can understand why you couldn't resist it!
Rosa, what an amazing experience you describe - it will give all of us who read of it a reason to pause when dining out. Reading what you wrote felt like being there (I envy you and your party Jonny Jacobsen!).
Splendid account, Rosa! I felt like I was there with you. I'm glad it went off so successfully and I do indeed have yet another appreciation for people who run the restaurants I love. I'm also having an intense craving for chicken bouillabaisse now!
Sonia, I wish you could have been there, but I'll see you very soon in Nice!
Tami, I knew in theory what hard work it is running a restaurant but it's another thing to really experience the long hours on your feet. I suddenly feel like I have an easy life!
Rosa, I'm so glad you conquered such an intense challenge! I'm missing that lemon tart so much I think I'll make it this weekend--it's so delicious!