Same, same but different

The time has come when I begin to count down how many days I have left in Bali rather than count how many days it’s been since I arrived. Four weeks have slowly flown by. An oxymoron, but that seems to be the Balinese way.

What has been the same? Task-wise, I’ve done what many stages do. I’ve worked production—wrestled with mangosteens and rambutans to extract as much juice as possible, blended kemangi ice cream and coconut sorbet bases, mixed together white chocolate cake and cashew financier batters, and created foccacia and ciabatta bread doughs. I’ve worked service—organized mise en place for nine desserts, fired tickets for hot items, processed ice creams so the texture stays perfect for the entire night, and interacted with guests to ensure they have a satiated night, both in appetite and conversation.

What has been different? Where do I start? When I’ve tried to order produce, on more than one occasion I’ve been told, “Oh, you don’t need to order that. You can just get it out there. And there and there. It’s everywhere,” with arms gesturing in every direction outside. So when I needed to find alang alang (fresh thatch), I walked down the street with Google images in hand, spotted a cluster and started harvesting. I’ve foraged before, but this seemed much more primitive.

I’ve never been able to let something sit outside for one day and have it ferment right away, I’ve never rubbed daluman leaves together and see natural gelatin form, and I’ve never seen a kitchen without a peeler. Where ice is a commodity, I will never think about cooling things down in an ice bath the same way again. Where safe drinking water out of the tap is almost unheard of, I will never think about rinsing fruits and vegetables in the sink the same way again. And sadly, I will never be in another restaurant that lets me wear flip flops in the kitchen.

But as I reflect on how my experience at Room4Dessert has been different from other stages, a few things stand out—responsibility and the expectation to think about “why” and “how” in pastry.

Usually a stage isn’t asked to think too much. You’re given a task to do, like peeling or chopping, and your goal is to do it quickly and efficiently. You’re not given the chance to be responsible for anything that could have major consequences if done incorrectly. And after many stages, I’ve come to expect that as the norm.

Chef Will is not that kind of chef.

For him, at every step of the way, there is a new question, a new possibility, or a new method to be discovered in the kitchen. I’ve never met a chef whose brain is so scientifically-tuned and inquisitive as his. Even after nearly two decades in the food industry, Chef Will is still asking questions about recipes he’s already perfected to become something even better. It’s quite a contrast—the pace of life on this island and the rate of ideas spewing out of his head. They almost seem to be at odds with each other: how can I possibly keep up with him when everything else around me is going so slow?

Inquisitive as he is, Chef Will hasn’t been able to get many questions answered at his new restaurant yet. Room4Dessert has only been open for nine months, and being the owner pulls him in many directions outside the kitchen. His crew is minimal and their responsibilities are immense. His small team of cooks are focused on service and production, and any cook knows that when your shift starts, you’re solely focused on getting your list done and station ready for service. Rarely do you find the time to troubleshoot and resolve issues in recipes. And recipe development? Forget about it.

Having a research and development (R&D) team is a chef’s dream—a dedicated group of people to have the time to test hypotheses. It’s how new menus and recipes are created—continuous innovation. To Chef Will, it only takes one person: in this case, me, a curious stage with a lot of time.

Chef has been challenging me to think about how I read recipes. Up until now I was feeling confident that I could see a list of ingredients and automatically know the process. Many traditional French techniques are like this: anglaise, pate a choux, pastry cream, sable. If you’ve had good training, you should know how to execute.

But now I need to think about why these ingredients are being used. Why egg whites, butter and milk? Then take it a step further and ask what are egg whites (water, protein), butter (fat/emulsifier) and milk (water, sugar, milk solids)? Then once I know that, I can start to think about what else can act as a protein, fat and liquid, and if substituted, will I get the same result? If I can understand all of that, in theory, I could make everything out of anything. Isn’t that a far-reaching thought?

But I’m starting to see evidence of this. Take for example, foams. In many fine-dining restaurants, you see foam forms of this and that. Usually something extra is added to boost and stabilize foam such as soy lecithin or Versawhip, both expensive, manufactured products. But what exists naturally that can replace them? What about the byproduct of soybean milksoybean scrap? If I understand that foams need protein to help stabilize the structure (which is the main property of soy lecithin and Versawhip), shouldn’t soy scrap do the same exact thing and be the cheapest option? Don’t even get me started on noting the size of bubbles that form and how long the foam stays stable. The variables and results are limitless. I was curious to start, and now I have free range to answer my own questions.

So to say the least, my stage at Room4Dessert has been the same and infinitely different than the others before. It has been physically exhausting like the rest, but the most mentally challenging.

Two more weeks left. Just when I finally know everyone’s names and am, dare I say, part of the sisterhood. No getting sentimental just yet. Can can, but no. There’s a lot left to do in two weeks.

– C


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