On the ground floor of a tall Manhattan building, a nuanced seasonal menu crafted by A-list chefs like Jean Georges and Dan Kluger welcomes diners with open arms. A sophisticated experience, yet far from pretentious, the waiters arrive at your table in a uniform of plaid shirts and jeans. Hip music plays in the background and twinkling light comes from chandeliers fitted with those old timey light bulbs where you can see the filament. ABC Kitchen was named Best Restaurant in the Country and a solidly packed reservation book of diners is consistently lining up to find out why.
The title was well deserved as I found out in the basement kitchen of the restaurant. ABC truly has an uncompromised integrity in buying local, sustainable, high quality food that is prepared by a meticulous team working in unison to the point of perfection. For a brief moment, I was part of this well-oiled machine. Granted, as an intern, I was merely a peon in the chain, but still. The chef for whom I worked held a tight grip on his staff and operated with speed and seriousness at all times (I would try to crack jokes and ask him things like “what’s your sign?”, but most of the time he pretended not to hear me and he certainly didn’t think I was funny). Toiling away in the damp maze of a basement, we worked at a fevered pitch. My co-workers and I literally ran from place to place, wielding knives, plowing through prep work. The pressure was palpable, as the chef barked orders, expecting an ever-faster turnaround.
I arrived every morning to find a timed list of things to accomplish that day. A typical list of tasks might include ‘pick 5 quarts of herbs, finely mince two cups of garlic, bias cut 10 lbs of squash, hull one flat of strawberries, crack 300 eggs, separate egg whites from 150 eggs, stuff bass, confit 2 quarts of lemon rind,’ and on and on. Of course, these were just the written tasks and, as an intern, you are officially everyone’s bitch so anyone can ask you to do anything. “Hey, what’s your name again? Oh yeah. Can you run down and bring me the jalapeños?” Up and down the stairs I went, grabbing things along the way.
It took me a couple days to figure out my routine. The first few days I didn’t once pee, eat, drink or sit. Then I figured out that there is a “family meal” twice a day and that I can use a quart container as a cup for water and that the world would not stop spinning if went to use the bathroom. The sitting part, I never figured out. You are literally on your feet for 10 hours a day. As odd as it sounds, I got used to that. My legs stopped cramping, my back stopped being so sore– but I would nearly lose my mind when some little kid took a seat on the subway, because when my shift was done, boy were my dogs barkin’!
Most of the people were negative Nellies, Debbie downers, bitter brontosauruses and/or angry negative assholes– you get the picture. (Okay, some of them were nice; I just really needed to write that rant). I worked my magic on some with the tried and true lesson of ‘kill ‘em with kindness.’ I did my best to remember people’s names and greet everyone with a happy “Good morning Nate!” or “How’s it going, Emily?” As my face became more familiar, people began to open up a tiny bit, giving me a hint of a smile here and there. I consider these moments as my biggest victories.
I took solace in the knowing glances of the Spanish speaking prep-crews. My Spanish lessons paid off and I even learned a few new phrases. I was able to try my hand at pasta making, sausage stuffing, sauce making and lobster killing. All of those were great learning experiences.
For me, the biggest takeaway is knowing what it’s like to be in a full-on industrial kitchen. There is an epic amount of work that goes into your roasted carrot salad. I can never eat in a restaurant in the same way again and I certainly can’t romanticize about how “fun” it would be to have my own restaurant. It’s incredibly demanding work and requires a very specific brand of gruff diligence–one that I have tremendous respect for after having experienced it all first-hand.