Food Issue - Origins: Nick Oltarsh and Restaurant Z
An essay by the ROOM at Twelve and Lobby Bar chef about his painful induction into the restaurant industryThursday November 17, 2011 08:00 am EST
I got very lucky after graduating from cooking school, landing a job at what would become one of the most lauded restaurants in the United States. I'll call it Restaurant Z.
Restaurant Z was located in a hotel that was among the finest in New York City. The restaurant was opulent in feel and appearance; the cuisine was cutting-edge and extraordinary. The chef of Z was on the verge of great fame and copious accolades. Being asked to work at Z would be akin to a guy named Monet asking me to help him put some brushstrokes on a painting of water lilies.
Working in a high-end establishment such as Z was like being addicted to the painful pleasure of self-flagellation. Yelling and humiliation made up a great part of the day. I suspect the plan was to reduce my naïve spirit to a burnt chicken wing so I would rise like a phoenix from the cremated ash pile of my soul. I learned a lot at Z. I learned things that I didn't know I needed to learn and the place formed me better than almost any other place I could have landed. Each day I struggled mightily, simultaneously ashamed by my poor performance and incensed by my maltreatment. I had always done well in school, but now, in the real world of cooking, life sucked big time.
The job was demoralizing from day one. I am a tall fellow, and the chef pants that Z provided had particularly low rises, thereby creating the notorious plumber effect on my behind when I bent over. The restaurant's sinister and cruel French sous chef (we'll call him "FSC") seized upon this as a grievous failure of mine and emblematic of everything wrong with American cooks. He didn't say it outright, but he made it abundantly clear that he felt all Americans were fat, dumb, and ugly scalawags better suited to work at Dairy Queen whilst picking moist boogers from their noses. My butt crack issue reinforced these convictions, fueling a tremendous rage and desire to torture me as much as possible. I would venture to say that FSC treated me with about as much respect and compassion as a spotty brown banana peel. He would have been a fine addition to the staff at Abu Ghraib prison. It didn't help that I had very little kitchen experience, that I was not the quickest study, and that I struggled. FSC seemed to smell these shortcomings of mine and seized upon them as if I was a limping doe-eyed gazelle and he a famished hyena.
I dreaded Fridays. Typically I had a partner on the vegetable station every day because there was a great deal of work required to prepare the station for service. On Fridays I worked alone. Same work, same hard station, one newly formed culinarian (me) cooking for my very life in sweaty horror. I wouldn't sleep well the night before and I would feel sick to my stomach on the way to work. Upon arriving one painfully memorable day, I put a batch of lentils on the stove and, in my haste to do all my other chores, I accidentally let the lentils overcook. I put on another batch and then proceeded downstairs to the kitchen's food storage area. In a genius bit of design, the storerooms for the kitchen were three floors below the kitchen, separated by only an elevator: no staircase, no emergency exit, no fireman pole, nada. This same elevator was used by the housekeeping staff who needed to transport heaps of dirty linen from each and every floor to the sub basement and the fancy room service waiters who were busy delivering $30 rip-off burgers to the suites. I waited and waited forever for the elevator and finally it came. By the time I got downstairs, FSC was on hold for me on the house phone. I answered to a spew of verbal French hostilities and scathing venom. Evidently I had overcooked the stupid lentils yet again. I had this vision of FSC watching the lentils as they were cooking, waiting with bated breath — a huge grin on his face — for them to overcook so he could dispatch me like a fatted calf. I returned to the kitchen in shame, put on my third batch of lentils and, in my defeated and distraught state, I overcooked the third batch as well. That is when I found the most remote corner of the kitchen, turned my back to the madness, and released a multitude of bitter-as-endive tears to the glorious delight of FSC. I haven't cried in the kitchen since. Now I limit my tears to TV shows about baby elephants and their crazy little trunks, white-as-marshmallow Weddell seals, and dancing cartoon penguins that sing.
Some of my co-workers offered support and guidance. Others wanted me expunged. I recall one nice fellow saying: "You're the worst cook ever," another, "You're so bad you make me look good," and a third, "You clearly don't give a shit so just quit." These words withered my already tender ego into a desiccated and dusty prune. The worst part was I really did give a shit and I really wanted to do well. I arrived early and stayed late; I took notes and reflected on my performance daily. However, I did not have natural talent, nor was I immune to ego bruising. I had my smarts and a strong work ethic instilled by my parents and reinforced by a vain desire to succeed and be well-liked. Those qualities drove me to stay the course.
The two other sous chefs at Z were kind, fair, and respectful. There was also F, my partner on the vegetable station and the person I most revered in the kitchen. He began the same day as I, yet his learning curve leapt exponentially compared to mine. He had an economy of movement and grace while he worked, a valuable skill in a crowded kitchen, and lightning speed. He played soccer quite seriously and I always wondered if the soccer made him a better cook or vice versa? Even under tremendous pressure, he cooked and seasoned his food perfectly, then gently imparted that knowledge to me. He was also my protector. A maelstrom from Chef could be churning, ready to suck me down with a swell of insults, and F would swoop in and save me. He was patient and humble.
He couldn't stop me from feeling inadequate next to Chef, though. I had the deepest and most profound respect for Chef, even though he was a mean monster and I was only a slug. For starters, Chef always looked great, like a chef should. His white coat was always spotless. Mine was always covered with warm fudge or raspberry jam within nanoseconds of my arrival in the kitchen. Then there was Chef's cooking, which exemplified the highest level of creativity and strength of flavor. Every three months he would present the new menu to the staff, and every time I was astounded at the ingenuity and the complexity of the dishes and the depth of flavors represented. His flavor profiles were bold, unusual and ultimately, remarkable. Somehow, he coaxed these complex dishes out of us, his little marching oompa loompas.
The way he did so was a buzzkill. There was nothing more disheartening then arriving at 7 a.m. to find demented Chef rifling through my mise en place. This is all the stuff I slaved over the day before so that, just once, I would be ready for the next day. When I saw Chef plowing through all my hard work, I knew he was determined to throw away something, anything. In this manner he established that he was the ruler of the food universe, or at least Z, and that he controlled my earthworm destiny.
Each of the stations had their own rolling cart in the walk-in refrigerator. There was a vegetable cart, a meat cart, a fish cart, etc. On those mornings when Chef decided to audit our carts, he rolled them out of the walk-in, lined them up next to the garbage bin, and threw away our work willy-nilly like a garbage man on crack. My friend and co-worker J caught on to Chef's little monthly parade of crazy, and J would actually plant old, discardable prepped items on the cart like mini Trojan horses. Chef fell for this ploy and would throw away the prep that was already destined for the garbage. Meanwhile, J's real mise en place remained safe, secreted away in the kitchen far away from chef's Diablo claws. Once, chef found the secret stash of another colleague. He hissed at her that she was a "saboteur" who was "bent on his destruction." He rocked his head back and forth in disgust, reducing her to a pile of limp turnip peels.
J was my best friend, and he was psycho. He had a thick regional accent, a large unexplained scar extending from his lip, and a biting sense of humor. His hatred for Chef was profound. Every time Chef was mean to J, he would sabotage a $500 jar of freshly cured truffles. Chef bought $20,000 worth of truffles at the height of truffle season, and the sous chefs would cure and jar them so they would last for the entire year. J would slightly open the jars and shove them in the back of the stack so that, by the time they were to be used months later, they would have invariably turned.
Paybacks made the brutality seem almost worth it. One day, FSC was busy berating the waitstaff, which was infinitely better than him torturing me. A situation was escalating with a waiter. To appreciate this story you have to know about our bread-cutting station at Z. It was a small rolling cart with a cutting board on top for slicing the bread and shelving below to store the bread. There was a bread knife attached to the cart by a chain so the knife wouldn't disappear. FSC was busy explaining to a waiter that he was a total knave and the waiter wasn't having it. Each pointed and yelled at the other and then FSC grabbed the knife on the chain attached to the rolling bread station and started chasing the waiter around the kitchen, knife raised above his head, the bread station in tow behind him, wheels churning in FSC's wake. My salad station had a lower and higher shelf. From where I watched, my shelving framed the incident for me like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I was jubilant. Sorry Mr. Waiter, whomever you were, I should have empathized with your plight, but I knew that the human resources drones would have to fire FSC, and that was more important than some waiter getting bread-knifed in the back. It took only two hours to terminate the nefarious FSC, my own personal tormentor. An albatross of French bullying fell from my neck, and I kicked it across the floor.
All my good memories from there aren't about revenge. I remember the sounds of Z: The hiss of properly seared meat as it made contact with blistering oil; the yelling of Chef and the garble of the various languages he spoke; the urban-myth screams of lobsters as we dropped them into boiling water; the resounding marine bellow of "OUI CHEF" heard throughout the kitchen; the soft bubbling of soup, stock, and sauces; the whir, swoosh, bump, and grind of the dishwasher machine; the rattle of expensive porcelain plates; and the chop, chop, chop of knife on cutting board. I remember the roar of excitement after dinner the evening our incredible review came out in A Prestigious Newspaper. The entire staff whooped and yelled with joy. We were now one of four restaurants in New York — the restaurant capital of the world, one could argue — with the highest star rating. I was excited. Still, I thought to myself, "My job is currently unbearable and loathsome and now the restaurant is going to be jam-packed. As of tomorrow, I am going to be wholly, totally fucked." I gave two weeks' notice the next day.
Z was a fantastic success at the time and I was uncommonly fortunate to be part of it. Humor and cynicism aside, do not misunderstand me. I wouldn't have changed a thing about my first real cooking job. You ask, what's the big deal? What kind of dolt gets all lachrymose over some dumb overcooked lentils? Who gives a crap about quince confit, taro root, live baby eels, and squash blossoms? It almost seems wrong when I reflect on how much time and effort I put into what I do. But I love the artistry of cooking. I want to do my job well. Good food is so beautiful and satisfying. I derive great pleasure in watching others enjoy the toil of my work.
Was I a coward for giving notice the day after we got those stars? I gave up on the very day of success. So much sniveling on my part! I was uncomfortable because things didn't go smoothly for me like they had for the first 22 years of my life. I was lucky to have had the job. Z established standards of excellence for me from an early time in my career. Most culinarians are not so lucky to have learned from the very best and to experience the passion of a chef so devoted to his craft. He got the highest star rating because he deserved it, and I say that with conviction and 20 years of hindsight. He wasn't the easiest guy to hang with, but I thank my lucky stars I got to work for him. As for FSC, I hope he's cleaning porto-potty toilets for a living now.