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Into the Fire

In the culinary arts, the only classroom is the kitchen—of a busy restaurant

by B.A. Nilsson on May 2, 2013

 

My first sense that this would be no easy course of training came not when I donned my set of chef’s whites, nor as the chef who would be training me displayed a menu and explained the tasks that would be expected during my inaugural weeks. It came as I haltingly sliced my way through a basket of mushrooms, as lunch swung into gear and order after order was barked across the steam table. The chef rushed to my station to holler, “What the hell are you doing? Slice those things!” Whereupon he seized my knife and blitzed through a handful of mushrooms, his blade a blur.”Like that!” he shouted, and hurried back to the stove.

The kitchen of the Elms Inn, Ridgefield, Conn., c. 1977, about a month after I was hired. (l-r) Byron Nilsson, Mario Scala, Haziz Likovic.

I was 21, a college dropout who’d just quarreled my way out of a nicely paying job as a waiter at a fancy Westchester County inn. One of my first work-seeking stops was The Elms Inn in Ridgefield, Conn., a highly regarded restaurant with a 25-year history. “We don’t need anyone on the floor,” the maître d’hôtel told me, “but talk to the chef. He’s looking for someone.”

“I’m looking for someone who’s been in the business but hasn’t cooked,” Mario Scala told me. “I’m tired of know-it-all hotshots.” I explained my background and he hired me.

“We’ve got people who’ve been coming in for years and expect to have things the same way,” he said when I arrived early the next morning. “The same way every time. If you want to experiment, we’ll put it on as a special, but anything on the menu gets cooked my way.”

The Elms had been purchased in 1951 by Mario’s father, Giancarlo, who caused a small scandal by being the first Italian to own property on Ridgefield’s Main Street. He taught his son the traditional southern Italian fare he’d grown up with, and also sent him to culinary school. My training was a combination of classic French and rural Italian, an amazing grounding that I merely took for granted at the time.

Mario looked like Jack Klugman and rarely broke a smile. Although he was superb at bellowing invective, he was as likely to greet my mistakes with a weary, “What are you doing, helping me?”

After that first lunch shift ended and Mario left for a nap at his house next door, Manuel, the soft-spoken pantryman, hurried to my side. He spoke little English, but clearly demonstrated how to hold a knife, how to hold a mushroom, how to slice, how to pick up speed.

Not that Mario wasn’t generous with his knowledge. During that first week I learned to make gnocchi, which wasn’t on the menu but had been requested by one of the regulars. I learned to make stock, a pot of which always simmered at the back of the six-burner stove. I learned to make a marinara, his way, shredded carrots a must.

I learned that the menu had carefully evolved to produce little waste. We broke down whole chickens, and nothing will better teach you how to de-bone those beasts than prepping 200 of them for a wedding reception.

We broke down legs of veal, which also taught me anatomy, producing cutlets for the parmigiana and an original dish, veal Venus (named for a local), which topped a breaded cutlet with mushroom purée and Hollandaise. The bones were roasted and turned into sauce Espagnole. Without realizing it as such, I also learned the other Escoffier foundation sauces.

Nothing was measured in this kitchen—except for the 8-ounce serving of filet mignon, sliced from the tenderloin, which Mario insisted I weigh during my early weeks, “until you learn what 8 ounces feels like in your hand.” It wasn’t long before I could eliminate the scale.

All chefs develop internal alarms because cooking times are inculcated day after day—inculcated in overlapping sequences. If a table ordered a number of different entrées, the roasted duck had to go in the oven first, broiled chicken was cut and seasoned and sent under the salamander next. Veal parm cutlets were breaded at the start of the shift, but they had to be sautéed and then cheesed and sauced and finished in the oven. Sautéed filet of sole was prepared last, when the waiter was there to wait for it.

“Know your seasonings,” Mario said. “Taste them alone. Taste them in combination with food and other seasonings. Taste the difference between dried and fresh.” (Fresh came from his backyard garden.) I did as he suggested, with occasionally excessive enthusiasm—as happened the week I concentrated on cloves, and rendered a batch of chicken stock so cloves-heavy that a resultant batch of soup was inedible. “What are you doing, helping me?”

Mario’s assistant was a pleasant Montenegran named Haziz Likovic, who had served in his country’s military before coming to the United States. He gave me a suggestion for increasing my work tempo that he learned on board the ship on which he served. “An officer saw me cleaning the deck and said I was too slow,” Haziz said. “So he asked me, ‘What’s the music in your head? Think of something faster.”

There is no training like repeatedly working the same tasks under pressure. It’s not something you can get in culinary school. You’re learning the business inside out: tasks first, theories later. After you’ve made a Hollandaise a couple of dozen times (on the stovetop, not over a double boiler), you gain an instinct for the science of the procedure. I can tell when it’s breaking, and know how to revive it.

Chefs speak a language that can be maddening to civilians. A typical recipe is a measurement-free list of ingredients, because any other chef can figure out the quantities and procedures. And that’s how I try to teach cooking to others. There’s plenty of room for improvisation; many errors need only be renamed. At the very worst, I hear myself sigh and say, “What are you doing, helping me?”