First off, I feel like I should mention something personal about me. I do not like titles. They make me feel stuffy and uncomfortable, at least as far a titles directed at me are concerned. I have had a few titles in the past, related to different accomplishments or jobs, and I always specifically asked for people not to use them- “Nurse,” “Counselor,” etc. The most I ever accepted was “Mister” or “Sir” from complete strangers.
It should come as no surprise then that every time I have ever been referred to as “chef,” I took it with a grain of salt. Chef is a title given from having the job OF a chef- running and managing a kitchen and being the boss of a kitchen crew. In my life, the only person I have ever been in charge of in a kitchen is me, so I always referred to myself as either a baker, a pastry cook, or just a cook.
Bearing all of this in mind, flashback to last week.
I recently joined a gastronomy group called the Chaine de Rotisseurs– an international brotherhood of gourmands, chefs, restauranteurs and professionals that like to get together and encourage advancements in the culinary world. Through this brotherhood, I made the acquaintance of a young chef named Joe Muldoon. Joe own and operates a small restaurant in the South Jersey area called Roberta’s, and has quite a revolutionary mind when it comes to food. He combines French techniques with Asian-inspired ingredients and vice versa to create an exciting, vibrant menu. If you find yourself in the Northfield area, I highly recommend getting a table and strapping in. You WILL be blown away.
Recently Joe was asked to host a dinner for the local chapter (or “Baillage”) of the Chaine, meant to seat something to the tune of 50 people. He has it in his mind to offer a mindblowing 7 course meal- but he needs an intermezzo and a dessert.
He asked me to step in.
At first, I was ecstatic and thrilled- I was being asked to serve a dessert to 50 movers and shakers of the local culinary world!
Then I was terrified- I was being asked to step into a strange kitchen, work with people I have never met before, under a chef I liked but never worked with before, AND serve a dessert and intermezzo to 50 movers and shakers of the culinary world.
The first few meetings with Joe went smoothly and easily- we discussed the menu, and exactly what kind of dessert he was looking for to finish it off. Together, we finalized the intermezzo and dessert- a cucumber- winter melon sorbet with plum sake and sea salt, and the dessert an Earl Grey dacqouise tart with truffle honey buttercream, berries, and Meyer Lemon sugar.
Then came the first night I came in for production. Previously, all of our meetings had been just the two of us talking. This night, I walked in on a full house, and his kitchen staff going balls-to-the walls. He waves me in, ushers me into the kitchen, and quickly says “Everyone, this is Chef Matt- he’s helping us out with the Chaine dinner. Matt, ask anyone for anything. My kitchen is your kitchen. Set up wherever. Later!”
Then he’s gone, and I’m standing there almost catatonic.
This time, however, it was serious. For the purposes of pastry, this kitchen and these people were at my disposal. A strange kitchen that I was utterly unfamiliar with, and people I had never met before. Initially, I had no idea where to start.
But when in doubt- bake. I dropped my stuff, popped open my gear, and got to work.
I worked feverishly, my mind constantly bouncing back and forth between getting everything done in the best order and taking up as little space as possible in a crowded, busy kitchen than I still felt like I had invaded. The other cooks and wait staff would come by and eye me curiously- and I had assumed suspicion- as I worked.
Until they started coming up and asked what I was doing. Not accusatory, but interested.
INTERESTED. These people had never seen pastry being made before.
They showed honest curiosity and interest in what I was doing, how I was doing it, and what the product would be. As I worked, I answered them- and it helped me calm down and go through the step-by-step of what I needed to do. Everyone I met in that kitchen was friendly and warm (in their way, of course- the dishwashing guy started in with cracking jokes immediately, which is kitchen-speak for “Welcome brother! You are one of us!” If they hate you, NO ONE talks to you in a kitchen.)
This past Friday was the tasting for the dinner- the head guys of the baillage come in, have the dinner, work out the wine pairings, and give critique on the dishes. It went off without a hitch, and the menu was locked in. My intermezzo and dessert got rave reviews.
As I left, Joe shook my hand and said, “Chef, thank you very much.”
He said it and meant it.
And for the first time, I didn’t mind- I felt like I had earned it.