“Get me a knife.” Jacques Pepin said to the assistant event chef who I happened to be standing behind in the impossibly small wedge of a kitchen behind the demo auditorium at The French Culinary Institute.
“Yes, Chef. What kind of knife, Chef?”
“A sharp one.” The Frenchman said as he caught my eye, winked and included me in his joking dismissal of the young chef. The assistant walked out of the kitchen muttering. I went to my knife bag which I had stowed under a prep table in the hallway and took out my paring knife and sharpening stick. I passed the blade back and forth to hone it, then quickly stashed the bag back under the table. I went back through the kitchen into the auditorium where Chef Pepin was checking his ingredients for his upcoming demo.
“Here you go, chef.” I laid my paring knife down with a click next to his cutting board. “Be careful. It’s very sharp.” And I winked back at him. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” And there was. I ground some fresh pepper for him in a mise en place cup. Filled another with salt. I made sure his station was wiped down with white vinegar to degrease it from all the prep cooking I had been doing before he came (frying about 200 2″ baguette slices in clarified butter that would become little “rolls” for an exquisite lobster salad.
“You are cleaning, that’s good.”
“Yes, I heard someone important is doing a demo today.” I smiled and he smiled back.
Pepin, one of the FCI directors was hosting a cocktail party for a group of journalists and PR people who had come to hear all about a cruise line that he had designed the menus for and to watch the old master do a cooking demo. And I had volunteered that day to do 8 hours of on-your-feet-with-no-breaks prep work and hors d’oeuvres assembly for the party, all in hopes of meeting the icon.
And so I did. I was wondering if I was going to have the guts to ask him to pose for a quick picture, but my camera’s dead battery solved that problem for me. Too bad. I would have loved to be able to post a pic of me and the old chef. He was a lot shorter, a lot older than I expected. I have him frozen in my mind as he was in those wonderful PBS shows I’d borrowed from the library. He was older in them…but sort of “Uncle-old”. When I saw him in person I was surprised to see him be more “Grandpa-old”, and taking careful steps around the kitchen. Heck, I’m surprised when I see myself in the mirror lately and I look like I’m knocking on the door of Grandma-old myself, so who am I to judge.
I was glad to have done the event just the same, photo op or not. I learned a few things…particularly some cool finger food ideas…the amazing lobster salad in their butter-drenched rolls, an incredible wild mushroom and cream “bruschetta” on crispy toasts, fried rigatoni pasta stuffed with a ricotta/herb filling, a raw kobe beef roll with kobe tartare and mozzerella in the middle….and I learned I probably will NOT work in a restaurant or full-time catering operation when I’m done with school. I was so bone-achingly tired after my 11-7 shift that I could have cried. Eight hour shifts in restaurants are the norm….ditto in catering.
I guess somewhere along my fantasy loop about what I would do with my life once I graduated school, there was a notion that I might want to intern or work in a top restaurant in NY for 6 mos or a year to experience what that would be like and to have something like that on my resume. Like my son doing his stint at Le Bernardin, I too could find my way into some 4-star establishment and forever have that notch on my apron string. But after the volunteer day, I don’t know if this body can take it. I know…never say never…but Max is looking at 50-60 hour work weeks at Le B….and at 20, they’ll be a bitch, but he probably won’t feel like crying at the end of his day. He’ll be saying…”let’s get a beer!” At the end of my day of volunteering I was satisfied I’d done a good job, I got a chance to meet one of my heroes, and I was ready for a long nap and some Advil.