The author at home

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Face First, Straight into My Own Limitations--PT. 3

Gerard Viverito was one of the first instructors I had at cooking school. He was the fish guy and he taught us the fine points of identifying aquatic specimens and butchering them. He was a tough bastard and we were all frightened of him. He was also one of the best educators I’d encountered and I admired his intellect immensely. He was known as a monster of a cook. And he was almost exactly my age.

After I was out of his class, I’d bump into him at the supermarket or in the hallway. I began to get to know him a little better and, by the time I graduated, I was pleased to count him as a friend.

I was also pleased when one day he emailed me and asked if I’d work a party he was catering a few towns over in Millbrook, New York. I agreed with no hesitation. That was how I found myself running face first into my own limitations.

When we got to the party site and set up in the kitchen, the first thing he had me do was sear crab cakes. The party was all about kids and the menu was supposed to be kid-friendly; so there were crab cakes, chicken satay, sliders, and a few other crowd-pleasing items. When I put the pans on the heat, we had a few hours before the party began.

“Don’t cook these,” Viverito said to me, referring to the crab cakes. “Get me good color, but don’t cook them through. They’re going into the oven right before we serve them and I don’t want them dried out.”

“Got it,” I said. I splashed some oil into the pans—four of them—and started searing. I probably had 25 crab cakes going.

“You’re cooking these!” he said a few minutes later, visibly annoyed. “I told you: just color them. Into the pan and out. In and out. In and out.”

I was jostling the four pans. They were smoking from the high heat. Oil was splattering all over the place. Okay: In and out. In and out.

I was not fast enough. I put in a new batch and let them sear for a second. Then I went to flip them. By the time I got done flipping them over, the cakes in the first pan were already past done.

Viverito was at my side, bumping me out of the way. “Jonathan, man, you’re killing me here.” He pulled two of the pans away, removed the crab cakes, and placed the two pans into a nearby sink. “Don’t work with more pans than you can handle.” I finished searing the rest of the crab cakes exactly as specified, wiped up the oil, wiped out the pans, and asked, “Okay, what’s next?”

“Nice,” Viverito said, looking at the last of the cakes I’d just done. He piled up a few large trays of small, thin hamburger patties. “Same deal with these: I just want color. Don’t. Cook. Them.” For some reason, I fished the third and fourth pan from the sink and set them on the burners, too. I waited for all the pans to heat, and started getting color on the burgers, not cooking them. But these things were thin; I could tell they were cooked before they had colored. I cranked the heat higher and started in on more.

“What is it about this concept that you’re not getting?” He was at my side again. “Didn’t I just say, ‘Don’t work with more pans than you can handle?’”

I ditched one of the pans and kept cooking. The rest of the night went well. A few weeks later, he hired me again, and that went fine, too.

But I was bothered beyond measure that things had gotten away from me, that I had lost control of what I was doing. Line cooking. Juggling many things at once. Finishing cooking school without that missing skill was like owning a computer and not knowing how to access the Internet.

Afterwards, while I was cooking us dinner, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I think there’s no avoiding it: at some point I need to go back to a restaurant for a little while. There’s something crucial I missed at school. If I’m going to make a go of this, I need to fill that gap.”

So I’m going to have to fill that gap. More to come...


  1. Hey Jonathan
    First off a very heartfelt thank you for 'Beaten, Seared and Sauced' - I devoured it in about two sittings. I graduated from the Greystone campus in 06' and have had my fair share of good days and bad in the Kitchen. Lately, fear has outweighed my ability work and cook - too much thinking on my part. Your words were exactly what I needed, out of all the books on the CIA experience. I found a lot of myself in the pages of your book, your written account is an honest one and had me in hysterics in every sense of the word. Can I just say kudos to Nelly, I mean wow what an incredible woman! Wishing you both success wherever you both find yourselves hopefully with a string of good meals not far behind.

    Yours truly,

  2. I just finished your book and I enjoyed it a lot. I went to the FCI and we had some tyrants, though to be honest I did not dislike any of them, though many of the other students did. I felt like the real meanies (and they were almost all frogs from the Old World) were ensuring that I got my money's worth. But they were nowhere near as bad as what you describe. And what is with starting class at 3:15 am? WTF??

    Anyway, unlike you I did not do the program in order to become a pro. I have worked in a restaurant kitchen for free in order to get better and have mostly been treated well. What you describe about Tabla made my blood boil. "Do X" from one person and then "Do the opposite of X" from another, and then getting yelled at by both, it's like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. I have to say, I was sort of pleased when I looked up Tabla on the NYT site and found that they had closed, presumably shortly after you left. I couldn't help but feel that the bastards had it coming.

  3. PS: I'm going to review your book (as part of a long review of several books) for the Claremont Review of Books. It won't move the needle much but it might generate a sale or two.