I have been very fortunate in my short culinary career to cook with and meet some great chefs. Last week, I got to cook for Marcus Samuelsson of the Red Rooster in Harlem and author of two wonderful cookbooks and a super autobiography, which I am reading now.
Chef Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia. When he was a baby, he, his older sister, and his mother all had tuberculosis. His mother carried him, and walked to the hospital, holding his sister's hand for 17 miles to the nearest hospital, where the line for treatment was very long. Sadly, she died, but the children died. A Swedish couple adopted them, so they soon moved to Sweden. He became a very good soccer player and played on the national junior team. All he did was go to school and play soccer. All he thought about was soccer. But one day, to his absolute amazement and disbelief, he was cut from the team for the new season. It was because he was small, not because he was not good. Ethiopians are not a big people. Now he had to rethink his entire life's plans (at the tender teenage years), as his dreams were crushed. So he went to culinary school instead of university.
That is a little summary of Marcus Samuelsson; I think he is very interesting. He was soft spoken, well mannered, gentle, and had a perfect palate. He did not arrive until past 2:00. When he came in, he said hello to me first, as I was closest to him and shook my hand. It kind of took me by surprise. All of a sudden, there he was! He arrived with a small entourage: his photographer, his p.r. person, his sous chef, and someone who I had no idea what they did. He asked a few questions of Chef Bin Lunn and Arron, the head cook, and then disappeared to autograph the books in the gift bags. His sous chef stayed to guide us, but we did not see Chef Samuelsson again until right before appetizers. When we were plating the appetizers, he suddenly appeared by my side. He tasted one and liked the taste. He watched us plate them and said nothing to me, so I guess that meant he approved but he did correct a girl next to me, in a very non-threatening manner. A few friends came into the kitchen to say hello and some people came in and took photos. It was really fun.
After all of that, things got serious, fast. The kitchen is a quick paced, no-nonsense world. We set up the plating tables in the front kitchen, which was really hot. When Rick Bayless was there, we set up the plating tables in the back hall, which was spacious and cool. But Marcus Samuelsson was not such a drama king and kept a lower profile. He plated with us at the head of the table. No dish left the kitchen without him looking it over first. A few he gave back to us to do over. All plates were cleaned perfectly before leaving with damp cheesecloth. He always kept his cool, even when we ran out of plates or someone turned on the oven accidentally as the plates were warming in it, making the plates totally unusable.
After it was all over, we went out with him to greet the crowd. That made all the hard work and the 14 hours worth it. I was sooooo tired, but then I got pumped up again!
Here are some interesting and not so great things I learned when I cooked in the kitchen. I don't cook in a conventional kitchen, so that world is always a big surprise to me. Perhaps that is why all the kitchen competition shows are so popular. It is such a foreign environment to most of us! It has a definite hierarchy and women are still at the bottom. You may look at your calendar and say it is 2012, but in a professional kitchen in the United States, it is 1812. Here are a couple of examples from that night, but I could name many more from the years before and countless stories from other chefs, many of whom are men. I was making the tarts for the dessert and I was the only woman in the back kitchen. ( The other three were in the garde manger station). In that kitchen were some very healthy personalities, but no one really talked to me. I still was enjoying myself, listening to all their antics and verbal sparring, and they were nice to me, don't get me wrong. It's just that they didn't say, "hey Laura what do you think about this or that?" Do you know what I mean? Anyway, things were going along until around noon, when they realized they did not have two very unusual ingredients that Samuelsson's recipe's called for. They called a few places. I said, "why don't you try the Great American Spice Co?" No answer. They called a few more. Nothing. Again I said, "why don't you try the Great American Spice Co? I bet they'll have it." No answer. I turned next to the guy beside me and said, "Am I speaking a foreign language?" They called everywhere and no one had it. Finally I said, "I don't understand why you are not calling them." Aaron said, "they don't have a store front, do they?" I said, "no, but they will bring it here for this event or you can go get it." He just started scrolling on his phone and ignored me. So when Marcus Samuelsson returned, he asked why they did not use those two spices. They said they could not get them. I just said nothing. I feel that they did not try my suggestion because I am a woman.
The other thing is that when we first began to plate, I was asked to get off the line because it was too crowded. I was told I could wait and do the pastries. Then a few men stepped in, making it very crowded! So the next plating session, I stepped on the line and I said, "I am not moving from here." There was no argument after that. All of girls plated the rest of the night along with the men.
One thing I did love was meeting some of the people in Samuelsson's entourage, particularly his P.R. girl. She was the epitome of class and I could tell that they were on the same wavelength at all times. She talked to us, but not too much. She talked to him, but only at the exact right time. He depended on her, and she was there for him with the information, but never pushy. it was the most perfect assistant I have ever, ever seen. Several times during the night we were side by side and she small talked and she remembered little things I had said an hour or so ago. What a memory . He seemed so sincere and not fake in the P.R. sort of way. That woman is the best thing he has on his team, in my opinion.
I liked meeting some of the other chefs. I am going to donate la Dolce Vita for a day to the Boy Scouts for a cooking class through a chef I met there. It is a weekend long fund raier culminating in a cooking class taught by a chef they bring in from out of town. I met a private chef who works for three families in Chicago. One family has 5 nannies and 3 bodyguards. So it was interesting, tiring, and educational for me.