Nov 19, 2012

Learning from the Masters at Chez Panisse

When you play with food for a living, sometimes it’s hard for people to take you seriously. But the truth is, restaurant people are like any other professionals — it’s vital that we continually educate ourselves on what’s new or, more importantly, what’s better. Sometimes it’s an ingredient we know and love, but could use a refreshing take on how to prepare it; sometimes it’s the latest and greatest technique (we never know what to expect next from those molecular gastronomy guys).

Instead of continuing education in a classroom, we stage (pronounced “stahzje”) — that’s when you work briefly for free in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. The term originates from the French word stagiaire meaning trainee, apprentice or intern, but it’s not uncommon for professional chefs to stage.

Heirloom recently sent Stephen, Chef de Cuisine at Pizzeria 712, to stage at several restaurants in San Francisco — including Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. Read below about his time in the hallowed Chez Panisse kitchen, an unforgettable dinner at Incanto, a sketchy night in the Tenderloin District, and more.

Stephen Lott:

           A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to explore; to eat, to drink, to learn. The fine gentlemen at the Heirloom Restaurant Group offices tempted me to learn what I could about what other chefs and restaurateurs were doing outside of our lovely little Utah County. It was something of a “Fear and Loathing in San Francisco” experience—it was fun, it was tiring, it was quiet, and it was a ruckus. Of course, not all of it at the same time..

           While talking with tables in the dining room at P712, I had heard many times that our food reminded them of trips to or former lives in San Francisco. Looking at the Alice Waters quote on the wall, I figured that would be my start. I packed my bags, threw in my headphones, and boarded a plane.

           As a 6’6 guy who looks like he could use a 15 oz. steak deep-fried in butter, boarding the plane was about as fun as climbing into the blazing dark crawl space under the oven to stack wood. The flight was short and sweet, and I filled the time reading from David Tannis’ (formerly a chef at Chez Panisse) new book, “Heart Of The Artichoke”. I was trying to cram in as much knowledge as I could so that I would not walk into the doors of the infamous Chez Panisse the next morning and embarrass the people who had sent me.

           It was a beautiful day when I landed in Oakland, just a train ride across the bay from my destination. My stomach was growling, so I stopped into the beautiful space occupied by Judy Rogers and her staff at Zuni Café. I had a very wonderful meal of house marinated olives, frisee and fig salad, and an amazingly simple pot roast pork on toast with arugula and a fried egg. I finished with the Caramel Pot-De-Crème and was absolutely wowed. I have always hated when grown men use the word “yummy”. So I will say it my own words, this thing was damn good, and when you come into P712 for the next month, you will see a Bourbon-Caramel pudding on the menu….wonder where that came from.

           The next day I pulled myself out of bed and hopped back on the BART. It was another seamless train over to Berkley, where I was staging that morning. Where SF was exciting, packed, and city like; Berkley was just simply stunning. I now knew why Alice had planted her feet there, and dug in. It was so like her food. It was elegant, clean, simple, and friendly. Almost like I had stepped off the bus in front of my own home in Orem.

           I was so nervous when I glimpsed the place of my daily labors, but I soon felt at ease when I walked into the kitchen. If you ever have the chance to eat at Chez Panisse, or even to stare through the windows, do it. It is the most beautiful kitchen I have ever seen. It is like taking all the best qualities from 100 grandmothers’ kitchens, and tastefully stuffing it into a restaurant.

           I did many things that day: I browned some mirepoix, I prepped some pepperonata, and I cleaned what had to be 500 tiny squid. I am always telling my dishwashers how easy they have it. That sometimes I would love to just be cutting onions, scrubbing dishes, and leaving the pressure and stress to the higher ups. Well, here was my chance. It is funny how fast you can forget the joys, and frustrations, and tire from things like cleaning that many squid. How fast we forget the hard work that builds the castles and empires. I loved every minute of it, but after 9 hours of prep, I wanted so badly to be sweating out my daily preparations on my own hot line in front of my hearth. After the shift, I sat around with a few of the daytime cooks and had a shift beer (one that is provided by the restaurant as a thanks to all employees after they complete their shift) and shucked shell peas. There are no idle hands, on or off the clock, at Chez Panisse.

            I was almost shell shocked on my way back into downtown San Francisco, but  not from the peas. My next stop was Chris Constantino’s hot spot, Incanto. Incanto had such a different feeling. The dining room was small, but had plenty of room to breath, drink, and laugh. The food was playful and executed perfectly. I sat alone at the bar and knocked down course after course while sharing battle stories with the bartender and general manager. I just recently found out that Chris won the title of “Top Chef Master” from the hit Bravo television show of the same name, but that is not what drew me to his food. His food was honest and gutsy…literally. I had braised lamb’s tongue, sweetbreads, and tripe. I plowed through 6 courses, a few drinks, coffee service, and dessert all by myself. I hopped a cab ride back to my hotel, but decided to get dropped off a few blocks away so that I didn’t feel too guilty for crawling into bed without walking my new found pounds off. Enchanted, I walked through the streets and alleyways with a sense of awe and terror. I am just a small town boy, I kept telling myself; do not get too connected, don’t follow the sirens. I could not help it though; it is a crazy, terrible, vibrant city. Unfortunately, and just like in most instances in life, when I let my guard down, I was pickpocketed. I lost my ID, my cash, and my company card. I looked around and realized I had walked right into a bad neighborhood.

            Now I know I this may be getting long, and I may be losing you. You may be thinking, “why did I start reading this? Now I am morally obligated at this point to keep reading. I would be an awful person to stop now, right when the story takes a drastic twist”. For those of you who have jobs to get to, or a better book to read, I will tell you that everything was all right. I still made it on the plane and you will still see me the next time you come into Pizzeria.

            The next day, I was back in the kitchen at a place called The Wayfare Tavern; a very fun, lively, and massive restaurant. It has 4 floors, 2 dining rooms, and a private dining room including a bar and pool table. The food was straight home cooking, and tasty. This was a different kind of beast than my tiny kitchen in Orem, or the unassuming Chez Panisse; there was a different staff on every floor, a different vibe on each parapet, but still standing united by the same thing: organization, and the passion for pleasure. Each level was designed to please their guests, and they do a good job at that goal. It is almost like an out-of-body experience going from my humble abode to this tyrant of food service, but just like everything in life, if you take the liberties of jumping right in with full force and confidence, you will surprise even yourself. I had fun, and being the modest person that I am not, I think I did a pretty good job. The next day I found equally terrifying. With almost no money, no personal identification, and a plane to catch, I thought that I may have to pack myself into somebody else’s golf club bag to get home.

            Luckily, with a police report, and a grabby hands security check, I made it. I lost some things in San Francisco, and I gained just as much if not more, but inevitably, I came home myself. I learned, and I grew, and I experienced the height of food culture in the western United States; but walking into Pizzeria that next day, I realized that it is not so bad being me. On the contrary, I was so appreciative of such. Everything about that morning was just as beautiful, if not more so, than that morning in Berkley, or gorging myself on a top chef’s menu. I have it good: rolling my own dough every morning, knowing at that instant that the pizza is going to be exceptional today. The smells coming off my ciabatta bread as I pulled it out of the pizza oven. Pulling mozzarella just right. Looking in my refrigerator for the right combination of ingredients for my daily salad. I was euphorically efficient that day. I tell myself every day since returning that if I continue to do that, the profits will come, and the publicity, and fame if it is wanted. Most important, the guests will come, and they will be happy, and that is the moral of my story. Cliché I know, and I hope this does not disappoint you. What can I say, I am a Utah boy, and every story should have a happy ending.

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