The first two meals I ever prepared for my wife were true masterpieces: grilled shrimp on linguine with vodka sauce, followed, some hours later, by French toast with berries and whipped cream.
So, okay, I had an ulterior motive for perfecting these recipes. But I’d been an aspiring chef long before I met my wife. I’m the kind of guy who watches Top Chef and thinks, Hey, I could do that.
Imagine my delight, then, when I received a call offering me the opportunity to work as a line cook for a night at Clio, one of Boston’s best restaurants. My marching orders: to see if my cooking chops could sustain me through a dinner service and, at the very least, to learn as much as I could from the culinary workhorses staffing the kitchen.
And then imagine my terror: Shortly after I’d accepted the challenge, my wife and I checked out Clio’s menu, which included foie gras laquee with hibiscus, aerated molasses, cherry blossom, and bee pollen. I turned to my wife in what I can only describe as a panic. “What’s a laquee?”
Still, I’d been cooking for 25 years. Over the next two weeks, I trained. I sharpened my knives. I caramelized onions. I shirred eggs. I gained 5 pounds and far too much confidence.
(Don’t feel comfortable in your own kitchen? No problem. Check out these 30 Ways to Cook Like a Pro.)
By the time the big day arrived, I was fairly certain that Clio’s owner and executive chef, Ken Oringer, would be so impressed by my skills that he’d have no choice but to hire me.
This delusion ended at the precise moment he asked me to shuck an oyster.
For those of you not hip to the world of gastronomic celebrity, Oringer also helms Toro, Coppa, and Uni restaurants, all in the Boston area. In person, Oringer exudes a laid-back manner and, at the time, sported a handlebar mustache.
It took him six seconds to appraise my shucking technique: “My daughter does it better than you.” She’s 5.
As a form of punishment, or perhaps purely for the amusement of his staff, Oringer next ordered me to disembowel and clean a half dozen live sea urchins. This involved cleaving the top of each creature’s spiny, globular exoskeleton with cooking shears and then gingerly spooning out the bright-yellow gonads, which are apparently a delicacy.
Oringer wisely exited the scene before the carnage got out of hand. He left me in the care of his three line cooks: Joe, who ruled the meat station; Jimmy, who handled the seafood; and Harvard, who took care of everything else.
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They assigned me a series of tasks that might be described, charitably, as remedial. I spooned pasta into plastic tubs. I zested lemons. I loaded pastry cones with gooey gnocchi batter. I spent a good half hour using a wet napkin to dab filaments of singed hay off hay-smoked carrots. I was assured that these tasks were absolutely vital to the night’s success.
This is not to suggest I wasn’t given any sophisticated duties. At one point, Harvard handed me a dense, gnarled sphere of truffle, and a toothbrush. I was to clean the dirt flecks from the microscopic crevices of the former, with the latter. No floss, even.
“How much is this thing actually worth?” I asked, waving the fungus in a manner that I now know must have deeply unsettled the food professionals around me.
“You’re holding about $900 worth of truffle,” Joe said.
I chuckled. “That’s a good one!”
Nobody else was laughing.