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"Discovery: Diversity in a Classic French Kitchen"
A Journey of Challenges, Lessons, and Transformative Moments
I was excited about heading into a classic French kitchen to work. But I had no idea how much it was a different world I was entering.
People in chefs’ jackets, baggy houndstooth check patterned pants, clogs, fast-moving knives, stirring, chopping, and stoves with flames combined into a boisterous circus of stimuli.
Once we made introductions and were shown my work area, I started peeling and chopping vegetables.
I told the Chef I had two years of my life to give Toronto. I wanted to learn as much as I could and fast. My short-term goal was to stand beside him and cook meals under his direction. After that, I was heading back to Prince Edward Island and making preserves, but I would need to open a restaurant first.
Preparing vegetables into many classic cuts such brunoise, julienne, paysanne, batonnette, noisette, chateau was beneficial. Knife skills are something you cannot learn in a book.
After time passed, the Chef promoted me to ‘Garde Manger,’ looking after cold dishes. Endive salads, watercress soup, green salad, Salade Niçoise and steak tartar were a few items I learned to plate.
The restaurant operated a separate restaurant upstairs. It had a small, efficient kitchen designed for one cook to work. It had a limited menu; Prime Rib, Baked Potato, Vegetables and Dessert Trolley. I had a few months preparing the food and plating it for servers.
This part of the journey was short-lived and thankfully invited back downstairs.
They promoted me to work on the line with the sous and line chefs. The sous chef was of Italian descent, the line chef was Canadian, and both were great to work beside. I learned a lot working with them.
Nightly we served Classic French dishes such as Bouillabaisse, Truite Au Bleu, Coq au vin, and Sole Almondine. Many plates were completed at the table with the Maitre d’ or Captains, displaying their food knowledge and finesse using their flambe skills.
Working in a kitchen is hard. It can be a stressful environment to work.
For this Maritimer, it was like working in the United Nations. I thought it was great. But time and time again, I would hear negative comments about one’s nationality.
Racism was rampant, and I found it wearing me down.
It is customary for staff to have a meal before service. It starts with the Chef cooking for the Maitre'd. Next, the Sous Chef prepares something for the Captains—the Line Cook for the servers and I for the dishwashers.
There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing, will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts, before and after this. And two experiences changed me forever.
The Maitre’d, who always carried himself with an air of superiority, walked into the kitchen to order his private dinner from Head Chef Theo.
They exchanged brief formal niceties out of respect for their positions within the profession. The Maitre’d ordered a sirloin steak medium rare with vegetables. The Chef acknowledged the order and said it would take 10 minutes.
The cooking area was a bank of old propane stoves with the burners removed. There were large gaping holes in the stovetop. When you needed to cook, you turned the dial, and a roaring flame came through the holes. You controlled the flame by putting the frying pan over the hole. The cooking was fast.
There was an old floor-to-ceiling grill for cooking red meats. The flame came from the bottom like a barbecue and the top like a roaster. It was always on and ready. On the floor was a tall bucket for dumping grease. The swill bucket could not have been uglier.
The Maitre’d left the cooking area. The Chef took the steak from the refrigerator. He dropped it on the floor, stepped on it, swished it in the swill bucket, threw it onto the grill, and proceeded to burn it intentionally.
He prepared the plate and hit the bell calling the Maitre’d to come and get his dinner.
Gus floated in on his air, and for a long moment, he looked at the plate. Then, finally, he looked at the Chef, smiled and said, “Thank you, chef,” he turned around and calmly walked out.
I will always remember that exchange. I was impressed with one person rather than the other.
I couldn’t understand how someone could dislike another human so much to do something like that.
"Hate, it has caused many problems in the world but has not solved one yet."
– Maya Angelou.
My first night cooking for the pot washers was an experience I will never forget.
The custom was to serve old food to staff further down the kitchen brigade's pecking order. As a result, the dishwashers usually received food well past its prime, covered in gravy of some sort to mask it.
I couldn’t cook this way. What will I cook for these men?
The three 80-year-old Portuguese dishwashers worked very hard.
I remember them taking old cigars from the plates and returning from the dining room, wiping them off, lighting them and puffing on them while continuing to wash the pots and pans. They were characters.
It was 4 in the afternoon, so I cooked breakfast.
I pan-fried potatoes with onions, eggs sunny side up, bacon, toast and jam. Then, finally, I rang the bell, and the three men walked up to the counter.
I wasn’t sure how they would respond.
They looked at the plates for what seemed like forever. Then, finally, they turned and looked at each other in dead silence.
Then they looked up at me with tears flowing down their cheeks.
It still gets me when I remember that moment. The three men were so grateful for a fresh meal.
From that night on, whenever I had to shout through the kitchen noise their way, looking for a frying pan, they delivered pans right away.
They always smiled and said a big hello when I entered the kitchen.
I always made sure I cooked something fresh for them.
The three amigos from Portugal loved it whenever I made them Clubhouse sandwiches.
Respecting others is crucial for the well-being of all parties involved. As Confucius wisely stated, "Respect yourself, and others will respect you."
Mutual respect cultivates positive relationships, encourages open communication, and fosters a harmonious atmosphere.
And in the words of Mother Teresa, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them."
Embracing respect uplifts personal interactions and contributes to a more compassionate and inclusive society.
“Respect is one of the greatest expressions of love.”
– Don Miguel Ruiz