Fancy People, Fancy Food and Politics

September 9, 2009

If you have ever enjoyed a truly luxurious vacation,  you know what it feels like to be under the impression that you are the king of the world.

Even if there are other kings of the world enjoying the same escape from reality.

A fine dining establishment is no different – if it is truly that.

As you enter the dining room, you are greeted with a smile and welcomed into an atmosphere that is so pristine and divine that you might not even notice the decor or interior environs for the first few moments, rather you are simply swept up in the moment – in the smells, the low cooing lights, and the sensation that you are about to enjoy something truly special. Each dish brought to your table is unique, presented as if a gift from the gods above, prepared with precision and delivered with a smile. The relaxing nature with which your personal feast of the senses is delivered is believable enough that you actually relax into your seat, sip your wine more slowly, and find yourself delving into conversation and enjoyment that might not have been possible if the “mood” the “experience” had not been just right.

It is my personal belief that, when I gracefully float to the ladies room in between courses and drop my omnipotent eye in through the doors of the kitchen, the “mood” would not be upset. Clean whites, relaxed faces as food is produced and plated, the staff is enjoying their work because they know they are working with unique ingredients that are worthy of being honored on a sparkling buffed plate.

For the most part, this is the scene on both sides of Providence – from the kitchen, and as seduced diner in the front. (I should know; I snuck in undetected the other day to enjoy!!) The chefs love love love their work – they love to create, to source, to share with their diners, their friends, and their co-workers.

So, imagine my surprise, just a week or so ago, when I had the chance to peek behind the doors of one of the other four restaurants in Los Angeles that received 2-Michelin stars in 2009 – one of the first and best known Wolfgang Puck outposts, right here in Beverly Hills, Spago – to find that this is not always the case.

A few of you might know that when I arrived in L.A., I was planning to split time as an intern between Providence and Spago, studying under respective pastry stars Adrian Vasquez and Sherry Yard. The first is rising quickly due to his gutsy, artistic approach to haute dessert, the second whom has made her name in the business as the “pastry chef to the stars.” Both had worlds to teach me and I was worlds of excited.

It is traditional for chefs to “try on” externs in a working interview called a “stage.” I completed my stage with Adrian back in July – a long, somewhat grueling day wherein he kept me on my toes, sweating, and asking simple elementary questions about how things were done in his kitchen that made me feel silly, slowed my production and annoyed me. In the end, many of my questions must have been the right ones for he happily invited me into his small pastry shop.

But, I had to wait until I arrived here in Los Angeles to meet with Chef Sherry (where upon I found her to be quite bright, enthusiastic, excited to have me, and firm enough to be the kind of teacher I was looking for. It was not until I arrived to START my externship at Spago to find that Chef Sherry had no intention of letting me in without a good swat at me.

My first day came early and I was dressed in my whites with knives in hand at 8am. The chef wasn’t in at 8am….so I waiting in the dining room until 9am at which point I was called in by one of the “pastry angels” and given a brief introduction to the house. Walk-in, reach-ins, equipment, office, check. “Ask questions! Ask questions!” she advised me. Chef Yard didn’t greet me when she arrived, dingy pink chef’s jacket in my peripheral vision with hair yanked back into an almost ponytail – she was too busy scolding a new pastry angel on the art of lining up macarons in a sheet pan and telling her just how to attach an electric mixing bowl to the mixer itself. Someone whispered “CIA” but I could hardly believe this…..

There wasn’t much joy here, just a bustle. No talking. No music. No discussion of method or technique, no fondling of produce that had just arrived from the farmer’s market or the latest order. No smelling, or tasting. Certainly no “how are you’s” and “wanna try this – I’m trying something new?”

I was invited to slice strawberries in a corner.
I was invited to juice lemons, limes, oranges.
I met a 30lb box of apples, an apple corer, peeler and mandoline. We mingled for most of the afternoon. Until, of course, I had only 45 minutes left in my shift.

It was then announced that three recipes had been assigned to me; pastry cream, pie dough, and pate a choux. Suddenly my flow of questions was not answered anymore and rather my inquiries were met with an “whatever you think is best” nebula. I gulped. Fourty-five minutes to call on the best of my abilities to create for the master of classical pastry. I was being tested, oh was I being tested.

At 4:30pm, when I finished my tasks, sweating and trying to smile, my pastry cream was a bit too loose (I had asked if I should fix it and was advised NO.) My pate a choux was in its “V for victory” stantz but not baked, and my pie dough evidently was to be mixed on an electric mixer (even though I have always always done it by hand -especially in small quantities.) An evilish smirk crossed Chef Sherry’s face as she set to, again, nebulously, critiquing my products.

I stayed another two hours after my shift was complete in effort to learn what I could from “The Yard” but in truth, I felt accosted. Cornered, doomed to fail, not at all appreciated for the honest presence I had carried for the day – that of a student eager to learn, aware of her shortcomings, convinced that it was student status that had bought me space in this kitchen and not at all my spectacular abilities as a chef.

She sat me down before leaving, nearly laughing in my face. An entire day in this “church of fancy food” had passed by me and I had failed to see another chef in the kitchen – Wolfgang appeared for a few moments, not greeting anyone but Chef Sherry. Lunch came and went, dinner was arriving fast as I left Spago exhausted and emotionally drained. Was art being created here? Or an ego?

In retrospect, I remember sitting in the dining room that morning, looking around at the decor of the restaurant, undistracted or impressed by the show kitchen behind glass and visible from the gallery. Art, color from all walks, almost to suit any and all taste adorned the walls and corners. There were no lines for the eye to follow, no central theme.

Perhaps this is the scene all over at Spago, a restaurant certainly involved in the business of fancy food, fancy people and their politics. Maybe the eye is meant to be caught so as not to focus on the lack of love in the kitchen, the dollars being swiped out of your wallet for “market friendly” cuisine that really was revolutionary at some point but hasn’t really changed…..maybe change is not always a good thing either.

I have decided that WP and Spago are not the place for me at all – that there is more to learn and enjoy from this craft than can be offered within their behemoth walls for I am a woman of focus and a culinary scholar and that is simple, unfussy, and to the point. I don’t have time to play games of ego, or reputation — there is a whole world of pastry out there to explore and conquer.

Let’s get to it. 🙂

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