Lessons from a World's 50 Best Restaurant
I am tired.
The exhaustion was the first thing that hit me. With a daily schedule involving 6 hours of prep, 4 hours of cleaning, 5 hours of cooking and plating, and 15 hours in frantic motion for five, sometimes six days a week, the kitchen life took a toll on my body. My legs turned to jelly from all the standing and running around, my appetite shrunk, and I became numb to 250°C oven burns and oil splashes. My Gmail inbox reached a peak of 103 unread messages, sleep was just a temporary reprieve from the exhaustion and coffee became my best friend. Add to this bouts of borderline sickness (the kind bad enough to affect your performance but not quite enough to send you home) and recurring allergies giving me Jolie-esque lips (I’ve never had an allergic reaction prior to this, so this was quite worrying), and you have a positive feedback loop worse than Taylor Swift’s cycle of hit songs and exes.
I am broken.
Within the first few weeks, I had a massive emotional breakdown, partly due to the stress but mostly due to this one incident. Long story short, I accidentally poisoned half the restaurant staff with a mango lassi. Key word: ACCIDENTALLY. I was racked with guilt for weeks. Despite it being an accident (I still have no idea what went wrong), in everyone's mind, this was probably the defining moment in my Blue Hill career. (SORRY GUYS.)
Aside from that, being new to the restaurant industry and all, I was naturally curious about the whats, whys and hows of the kitchen. What is the Traulsen? Why are the lowboys called lowboys? Why are there raw potatoes in the family meal bin? What is the recipe for pickling liquid? (The answer – 2 parts vinegar to 1 part water to 1 part sugar, or 5 to 3 to 1, or 9 to 5 to 3 to 1 part salt, depending on who you ask.) Why can’t we use the washroom during service? Where did my social life go?
While most questions were entertained, others were dismissed with piercing glares and sharp words, which were super effective in shutting down my usually headstrong, question-everything Cantab spirit. Furthermore, discussions and disputes were more often than not settled by hierarchy, which made breakdowns in communication and understanding commonplace, especially in our kitchen that seemed to thrive on chaos. (There is no set menu at Blue Hill; instead, each course is written on the fly in the kitchen based on each guest’s food preferences and restrictions. Cue chaos on the pass.) So, the system broke me.
I am changed.
I soon learnt not to speak out too much, for fear of crossing some chef-stage line that only I failed to sense, and my vocabulary eventually consisted only of “yes chef” and “no chef”. Case in point: how can I fire five burritos (three with goose neck, one vegetarian, one gluten-free) while plating two charcuterie boards going with two-by-four turmeric teas, all the while pushing for three mushroom salads which should've been sent 30 seconds ago? Ah, remember we also have a next course out on a five-top trout dish, along with two-by-three raw winter veggies, and five-by-two-by-two goose boards. And oh gosh please keep watch of the sweet potatoes in the fryer that is probably burning as I process this thought! Ah, also Jun, give the guests at the kitchen table your experimental squash spiel right now, will you? “...YES CHEF.”
My initial fortitude of treating people with (perhaps too much) patience and empathy eventually cracked too, giving way to passive aggressive glares, curt comments, and much frustration. I’ve caught myself losing my patience and harboring negative thoughts too, which really disappointed me. Hopefully now that I’m out of the kitchen, I’ll be able to find a balance between these two opposing personas (preferably leaning towards the kinder, more empathetic one).
Despite the insanely tiring, at times soul-crushing, pressure-cooker work environment, I’m not complaining. Everyone in the kitchen endures this grueling exercise every day. Everyone gives it their all. Everyone pushes. Burning out is expected, but so is pushing past your limits. You push, almost get crushed by the workload and pressure, and push some more; Quitting is not an option.
This is what the kitchen life is all about, and we thrive on it.
Through the (literal) blood and sweat and yes, tears, we get to cook with crazy ingredients and create insanely flavourful, beautiful dishes. Through it we get to hone our skills as chefs and think about food on the daily. And through it we get to imbue and educate our guests with a sense of child-like wonder and glee. So through the madness there is certainly a method. And through it all...
I am grateful.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a small cog at one of the best restaurants in the world (#11 can you believe it!) Grateful to have worked with a bunch of incredibly driven cooks who push and crush the line every night; I have so much respect for them, more than they can ever know. And most of all I'm grateful for Chef Dan and Chef Bastien’s trust in me to actually cook and plate and serve despite my lack of experience, and for pushing me hard to execute dishes with precision and finesse (heck, I even got to run a station on my own like a CDP *yay me*).
I am also thankful for the little things. For the idyllic farmland that surrounds the restaurant. For parsnip-harvesting days and squash-tasting sessions. For the mecha-esque outdoor grill that smothers everyone and everthing with the awkward stench of bone char. For taste-altering, flavour-“hugging” wine lessons from the sommeliers. For those insanely sweet, perfume-y grapes that the pastry team lets me smuggle home over the weekend (I fear grapes will never taste as good). For the Thursday family meal talks with farmers and influencers from all around the States. For the front of house staff who are always so warm and uplifting, even when us cooks mess up their orders. For the boundless energy and hilarious antics of the potwashers and primos. For those addicting chocolate truffles and chocolate bread and chocolate strawberries (Yes I have a problem with chocolate.) And for being able to work with insane ingredients you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world - from sassafras bark and NY150 potatoes to experimental squashes and ancient Egyptian grains, to non-gavage foie and waste-fed pigs.
Most importantly though, I’m grateful for the moments of kindness and empathy in and around the kitchen. For the unexpected smiles that get me through the most stressful of days. And for all the chefs (Pris and Leo especially) for making me believe in myself.
So thank you my Blue Hill family, for