One hour after I landed at Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, I arrived in the city only to depart straightaway, from Southern Cross Train Station, and arrived in Birregurra two hours later.
I wheeled my belongings behind me through a shack of a train station to the parking lot—a thin layer of gravel spread over dirt. I surveyed my surroundings and dry farmland spread before me for miles, with all the hay bundles and cows that come with it. I didn’t see people, cars or buildings. I was in the middle of nowhere.
Two guys who alighted the same train as me were chatting with each other and waiting for someone to pick them up. One of them asked, “Are you waiting for Damien [the sous chef]?” “Yes,” I replied. “Yeah, I figured,” he responded. “No one comes out here unless they’re staging at Brae.”
Welcome to the Brae way.
If that sets the scene of my stage to sound like an idyllic country getaway where time ticked by slower and my colleagues worked at a leisurely pace, I should clarify. My month here was a mental marathon that forced me to question my abilities, along with daily physical sprints designed to make me—if I wanted to survive—a master of time management and efficiency.
I did not work on the pastry station at Brae; in fact, I never touched sugar, butter or flour. Instead, I was assigned to the larder station. In most restaurants, the larder station is responsible for savory items or dishes that are served cold or room-temperature. Despite my predominantly pastry training, I was pleased to be on the “other” side of the kitchen.
Savory and pastry cooks are different breeds of people. They are opposites in the truest sense. Savory cooks work with heat, force and feel. Pastry cooks work with coolness, dexterity and precision. They train differently, think differently and thus operate differently, so when there is crossover, it can be a difficult transition. Savory cooks are impatient when it comes to scaling ingredients in recipes, and pastry cooks have rather pathetic knife skills. Savory cooks have a difficult time piping with consistency and fluidity, and pastry cooks are not accustomed to the intense heat of the hot line. But I knew becoming adept at both sides of the kitchen would be advantageous in all manners of speaking—skill, thought-process and efficiency—so I tackled the challenge head on.
I was woefully ill-equipped and possessed little experience with the tasks at hand—shucking oysters, peeling asparagus, picking lobster meat, cleaning raw fish skin, de-boning duck legs—jobs that cooks learn in culinary school or at their first job. As a pastry cook, I have no use for a turning or boning knife, but as a savory cook, they are utilized daily. My on-the-job training was memorable, even comical, and I thank my fellow cooks for being generous and willing teachers. When faced with 20 ducks to break down in a method specific to Brae—neck, wings, thighs, tail and wishbone—I slapped on a pair of gloves and told the cook next to me, “Alright, you’re just going to have to show me how to do everything.”
But I held my own with little to no setbacks, and after observing me for three weeks, the chef and sous chef decided I needed to be further challenged. That is when the plancha and I met.
It took me by surprise that I graduated to this level. To work with and cook protein takes a particular sense of touch that takes time to develop, which is why being the chef de partie of the meat or fish station is usually the highest position for a cook in a kitchen. So the fact that the only time I cook protein is in the privacy of my own home for a single-diner (me) with no formal training, and I was about to sear fish in a three-hat restaurant (the highest ranking in Australia) for diners paying a hefty sum for their meal, kept me on my toes. I was sweating even before I stood in front of the plancha.
The plancha is a stainless steel flat-top heat source. It generates very high, even heat and is ideal to sear just about anything. Its surface, commonly 2 x 2 feet, is large enough to sear several portions at once rather than using multiple pans on a range. It is crucial to keep its surface clear of oil and remnants from the previous sear or else it will continue to burn and leave a marred canvas for the next sear. Like any other heat source, such as a grill or gas range, the temperature of a plancha can reach upwards to 260°C (500°F). And with a kitchen that can heat up to 30°C (86°F), sweat from my face would evaporate immediately while the sweat dripping from my knee pits was constant.
I learned the importance of keeping the fish dry for a better sear, to oil every surface to keep it from sticking, but not in excess. I discovered which side to sear for the best presentation and which direction the grain of the fish should be placed on the plancha. I trained my hands to ignore the heat and splattering oil in order to press my fingers across the fish for an even sear, and the motion in which to lift the portions up without tearing the corners. And how do you know when the sear is done? Timing, but mostly intuition.
At the beginning of the week, I felt like the plancha was a roaring monster, breathing fire in my face, daring me to tame it. And it undoubtably singed me, physically and mentally. The oil splatters were easy to ignore, but the self-reproach I felt for uneven sears or torn corners on fish deemed unusable was not. But this is how a cook’s character is tested—redemption by persistence—and I pushed through my mistakes. With each order, I became cognitively aware of each movement, each step, trusting my intuition and fostering my abilities. By the end of my stage, I was doing what any savory cook could do—putting a good sear on fish. Self-reproach turned into self-confidence, and my time at Brae marked a significant point in my career.
I could not have landed in a better restaurant to conclude my year-long sojourn through the kitchens of Asia-Pacific. It was not an easy place to work; even in my one month, I had seen others come and go, but it was the best environment to prove what I was capable of. In the end, I was proud that I wasn’t even classified as either a pastry or savory cook. Rather, they saw me as “perfect” and “one of the best.” What an honor to hear and to be acknowledged in such a manner. Thank you to the Brae way for uncovering that.
Photo: The “Chateau.” An incredibly tongue-in-cheek term to describe my housing on the outskirts of Birregurra. But the view, sunsets and starlit sky will live forever with me.