Turns out my English name literally translated into Chinese is “水晶” or “shui jing.” The Chinese speakers in the kitchen had an easier time remembering my name that way and now I’m responding to it. How’s that for cultural sensitivity?
Another stage concludes again this week. It’s been a full three weeks of learning how Chef Janice Wong operates her kitchen and business. The scope of her ideas have been bigger than any chef I’ve met, especially when it comes to her edible art installations. Luckily I will still be in Singapore to see the final product of her hanging garden exhibition (and some of my handiwork) to celebrate the country’s 50th birthday. I had a pleasure working with her staff and interns; there are some real gems within, those I would (and happily did) spend time with outside of work.
Unfortunately, I would have to say this wasn’t one of the kitchens I learned new techniques in, but I did get a hell of a lot of practice in skills I haven’t utilized recently. Rather, this was a kitchen I began to see how I would like to develop as a chef in my own right.
As I mentioned previously in my travels, I’ve realized that I have knowledge to share as a guest in these kitchens. And it makes sense—as I work with different chefs, I’m going to pick up valuable experience, and I should share what I learn because not all cooks can do what I’m doing. But I kept thinking, “A stage isn’t supposed to teach.”
Quick background in kitchen lingo: stage (n. or v., pronounced with the “a” in “spa”). It originates from the French word “stagiaire,” meaning intern or apprentice, but has morphed more commonly into “stage” in present day kitchens. It takes on several meanings: (1) a green cook, (2) a job applicant in for their hands-on interview or (3) an established cook seeking new techniques and understanding of food. A stage can last one day to one year, however long, and almost always working for free.
Up until my first job, most of my stages have fit into the first category. I knew nothing, so there was nothing to share. I was expected to shut up, do what I was told and be a sponge to everything happening around me. And the stages I’ve done since my first job have fit into the third category, but my mindset was still within the first. I wasn’t used to offering up information so I stayed mum on what I knew. My job was just to watch and learn.
But that’s not the case anymore when the opportunity calls for it. On more than one occasion at JW Sweets Factory, I found myself being a teacher. Almost half of the staff are interns from a local school, so their technical experience is still being cultivated. There were times when the chef de parties (CDPs) were not available, so I stepped in when the interns were unsure how to do a certain task, like hand dip chocolates or shape gum paste flowers, and showed them how. Or when one CDP asked me if I had a tuile recipe to try for an upcoming tasting, I gave her one and demonstrated how to make it, explaining the problems that could be encountered.
To my surprise, they all commented on how well I taught. Effused, really. I had never been told that before. In my opinion, I showed them in the way how I had been taught and how I like to hear steps being explained—not just the procedure itself but also the “because-s” and “if nots.” That’s the driving force behind cooking for me. If I can’t understand why something is happening or not, how am I supposed to know if the final product is right? I need perspective and that’s what I want to provide when I explain things. But I was a good teacher?
That got me to thinking about the great teachers I had. One of my favorites is Pastry Chef Dana Cree from Blackbird in Chicago where I did my externship while in school. She’s probably the first chef who showed to me how to work faster. I remember when I was handed about 30 pounds of Meyer lemons to juice and started on the task immediately without much thought. Within a few minutes she descended upon me, chastising me for my lack of organization, explaining (with what I swear was an air of annoyance, “This girl doesn’t know how to cut lemons?”) that I needed to position everything around me to expedite the flow of my task—cutting board in the center, the lemons to cut on my left, a container on my right for the lemons cut. Then the juicer in front with a empty container to discard the rinds (preferably the now-empty one that held the lemons). Be clean, be quick, be efficient. No extra movements. “That is the most valuable skill you can have in any kitchen,” she advised, “being fast.” I took that to heart and to this day the comment I love hearing the most wherever I work is, “Damn, that was fast.”
Chef Dana taught well and when I met one of her own mentors, Chef Sherry Yard, previously of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles, it was apparent why. I had the chance to work with her at a fundraising event in Ohio, and we weren’t in the kitchen long before she physically straightened my back because I was hunching over the work table. She said to position everything close to me as possible so that I didn’t have to hunch over, or else I was going to have back problems in the future. That meant starting to pipe in the middle of a sheet tray and then rotating it to pipe the other side, or flipping over a deep hotel pan to rest trays on so that they were closer to my height. Chef Sherry probably doesn’t remember me after that event, but she’s always in my head whenever I catch myself hunching over. It sounds simple, but if no one had explained that to me early in my career, there is no doubt I would be feeling the effects of a bad back very soon.
It’s chefs like them that care about the generation of cooks ahead of them, and it shows through their teaching style. They certainly didn’t sugarcoat anything or take it easy on me, instead they were strict enforcers who didn’t mince their words. And if you’re a good cook paying attention, you’ll learn the lessons. As evidenced by above, it doesn’t even have to be about food; general kitchen wisdom is valuable.
That’s the kind of chef I want to be—to teach, not because I’m entitled to for being in a higher position, but because I care about the growth of the cooks among me and the value of sharing information; that’s what keeps the community alive in the food industry. And thanks to the staff at JW Sweets Factory, it sounds like I’m on the right track.
My next stage at The Tippling Club starts in July, and I’m ready to see what Chef Ryan Clift and his team whip up in their kitchen. From what I’ve been hearing, it can be an eye-opener.