The first day at a stage is undoubtably the hardest. You’re always in the way because there’s never enough room, you never know where to find anything, and no one knows you. Mentally it’s a lonely day.
Now compound this with being in a foreign country where there are language and cultural barriers. I was treading new territory and feeling a bit of trepidation.
I should have known better in Bali.
My first days at Room4Dessert (R4D) were unlike any other I’ve experienced at a stage, and I’m certain my time here will be distinctive for many reasons. First, the staff and kitchen.
Luckily, English is spoken in the kitchen in varying amounts of understanding. I can work with that. If all else fails, hand gestures are a good substitute, and they can read my many facial expressions faster than translating actual words. Even better, I have all of them at my disposal to learn Bahasa and vice versa; I can help them with their English. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I hear “bathroom” when Grace, a cook, actually says “bottom.”
The staff are a sweet bunch and we’re already having great fun together. The locals are the most polite and helpful people I’ve met. It’s not just how the kitchen is—it’s how Bali lives. It’s also the first time I’ve been in a kitchen where females dominate. Besides the chef, bartender, general handyman, and night-time guard, everyone else is a woman. A sisterhood, as the chef calls it. It’s refreshing.
In some ways, R4D’s kitchen is like any other kitchen in the world. There are never enough tools, equipment or space. It has only been open for eight months, and at the start there was no proper oven, KitchenAid mixer, limited pots and pans, one whisk, one spatula—the list goes on. No KitchenAid mixer? Wow. I can whip cream and knead dough by hand, but something like a meringue? I can’t imagine. But you adapt—you work smarter with what you have, like drying things in the sun or making granita if there’s no Pacojet. Over time, the kitchen has been able to stock up on its inventory of equipment and by the time I arrived, it looked more or less fully-equipped. But to all you cooks reading—that Vitaprep and Robot coupe you use are luxuries. Or even more basic, plastic wrap. Be thankful.
On my second day, the power went out within 30 minutes of my arrival. This happens often during the rainy season and no one even blinked an eye. The trusty handyman arrived to turn on the generator and the entire restaurant was running on it for most of the day, but there would still be occasional blackouts. Can you imagine what that would do to your frozen mise en place? But it didn’t seem to hamper anyone’s responsibilities and service went on without a hitch. The staff have no idea but their level of stoicism would blow everyone away in Western kitchens.
I’ve been struggling to delineate what aspects of R4D are unique to Bali and its way of life, or if it’s how Chef Will Goldfarb runs his restaurant. After some time, I realize it’s him. For example, I and most cooks come from a kitchen experience that focuses on speed at all times, blowing through family meal and taking no breaks. You are almost expected to run yourself into the ground to prove yourself. Naturally, working in Bali, the pace will be slower, but never in my kitchen life have I been given an hour to sit down and eat family meal with everyone, and use the rest of my time to do whatever I please. I asked another cook if this was unique to Bali. She said no, it’s because of chef. I felt quite useless my first day during this break—you never want to feel that way in a kitchen. But I had to get it into my head that I wasn’t being useless; I was taking a true break. It sounds ridiculous to anyone who isn’t a cook, but it was earth-shattering to me.
Chef Will Goldfarb is something else all together. A man who expects you to push hard, but instills a generous break time because qualify of life and work is important to him. His cooks are no slouches. I see the interaction between them—his mentoring and their respect for him—and I could be in one of the best restaurants in NYC. The way he forces them to really think about what happens in a recipe and what they can do to make it better. Not a lot of chefs do that or are even able to do that themselves; they’re lucky to be under his guidance and they know it. What an incredible environment to grow in.
On my first night, Chef invited me to sit and enjoy the 9-course dessert tasting menu. As I ate each course, I thought about what he was working with, or more accurately what he was working without, when R4D first opened—it was like he made wine out of water. What I was eating looked like it needed the equipment and man power only the best restaurants can afford. But it didn’t—a clear testament to how he thinks about pastry. His ability to understand the process scientifically and experiment with local ingredients to create an inventive and delicious menu. You don’t need the best equipment; you need the brain. I want that kind of brain.
And what a generous personality! This is a man who wants to share as much as he can: his knowledge, his friends, his life. Chef makes it very clear my stage will not be just be about working in the kitchen. We’ll take a field trip to meet his cocoa producer and watch how he processes cocoa, which I’ve never seen. And then to Seminyak to visit Mejekawi, a kitchen lab and restaurant with equipment a modernist chef dreams of and where he previously worked. I never imagined a stage could be like this. This will be a powerful two months here.