A day in the life
21 August 2014
Walk the walk
It all started off with a bit of curiosity – my curiosity leading me to utter “I wonder what it’s really like in there,” a bit too close to the kitchen. Our always obliging head chef Bernard turned to me and chuckled an invitation- to work a day in his kitchen and find out what it means to belong to the team of one of the busiest restaurants in Dublin.
Without a moment’s hesitation I accept, and before I know it I’ve scheduled a date to work side by side him on the pass. Equipped with only the vaguest idea of how to hold a knife, I opt to put on a white jacket and step into another world.
Here’s what became of me:
Let me be very clear- I can’t cook and I mean it. The extent of my knowledge is to hold whatever I’m chopping with my fingers turned down, and that is the only shred of confidence I carry into the kitchen with me.
I arrive promptly at 10:45, ready to show off my finger tucking know-how. I am bequeathed a knife and shown to my station. The morning time is, as you might imagine, dedicated solely to preparation for the day’s lunch and dinner services. For me, that meant chopping piles upon piles of herbs, mostly chervil but also a fair sized mound of both parsley and tarragon.
Happy as, I plug away at what I think is a fair speed until I look over my shoulder to see Bernard already through a pile twice the size. “Speed is really important,” he comments with just a hint of a smile, “If you don’t get through all your prep, you’re setting yourself up for a terrible service.” I dice on, slightly competitively, to prove that I’m able to keep up.
Once we satisfy our herb quota for the day, it’s on to shallots. First peel, then dice, then sauté in a pot so large one could nearly climb into, if one were so inclined. Down to my lack of experience, I’m shuffled on to a mound of carrots that need peeling, and the morning passes by quickly as we whittle away at our prep lists.
The peace doesn’t last long, though, and before long lunch orders are flowing into the kitchen. Bernard calls out the first order: “Two burgers, in and away,” so I’m safe for the moment. A “Yes chef,” is all it takes, and two burgers are on the grill.
Moments later, the second docket: various RAW bites followed by two halibut and a tuna. The time has come for me to get involved.
Once the server calls the order away that we start on the fish. First, the chutney and garnish we spent the morning preparing come out of the fridge. We’re warming the walnut relish and Bernard hands me two fillets of halibut to put on the grill to seal alongside a beautiful purple piece of tuna.
The minute passes quickly, and he snaps the oven open, picking up what I can only describe as a shovel, and three 400 degree stones are out of the oven, landing instantly on to their wooden planks. Bernard secures them on their bolts, adjusting them with a towel like its second nature. I don’t even have time to wonder how many times he’s burnt himself before our next order comes in.
“Two fillets of beef in and away!” The docket goes up as the fish comes off the grill and on to its stones. The pace is quickening now, with dockets flying in- orders for the delicious but time consuming RAW food, and of course plenty of beef and fish on the stone.
Bernard is, to me, the picture of calm through all this. He’s a hawk, with his eyes on every section ensuring the food is cooked both properly and precisely on time. Not only does he take responsibility for the grill, monitoring the oven and dealing with the stones, but he has to check each dish as it leaves the pass- all while ensuring the team are working together at the same fast pace.
We send out what feels like hundreds of plates of food, and as I sigh and fan myself, Bernard can’t help but laugh at me. Lunch service is nothing compared to what he’s used to, both here in Rustic Stone as well as in Fade Street Social.
Lunch ends abruptly, with all of our guests heading back to their busy lives. Bernard is merciful, sending me on a break and giving me a pat on the back for at least sealing the fish properly. We sit down to eat and I want nothing more than to know how this has become so natural for him, or for any chef.
“You just have to figure it out,” he tells me. “When I learned how to run the Rustic pass, I worked side by side with Dylan for 3 months. You have to coordinate with every member of your team, you have to know what they’re doing at any given moment. It takes a lot of focus.” And when it was time for him to run the pass on his own, he learned the true meaning of “to sink or swim.” “There’s no real way to test the water, you just have to jump in and do everything you can to make sure it works. I was really wound up for the first few services I ran alone, but over time it becomes intuitive. I don’t think just anyone can run the pass, and it takes even the most talented chefs awhile to get comfortable with it.”
After a bit of dinner and a pep talk from Bernard, we go return to our section ahead of the 5 o’ clock opening for dinner. He wants to teach me how to get the stones out of the oven safely.
Despite our relatively gentle start, I’ve proven myself worthy enough to move at a faster pace, and Bernard hands me the shovel. “The trick,” he tells me, “is that you can’t go so fast that you start scraping your arms on the top or the sides, but you can’t be tentative or waste time and let all the heat out of the oven.” So, channelling Julia Child’s fearlessness, I plunge the shovel in and extract a burning hot stone, drop it (more or less) onto the wood and wrap a towel around it, wiggling it onto the bolts that secure it.
I let out a squeal of excitement. Though it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I wonder if I’ll feel the same when I’ve got 6 of them to take out, other chefs bringing their most recent creations to the pass and Bernard calling out an endless succession of orders.
Next he runs me through the process of organising orders, showing me where dockets belong during each stage of the meal. I build up my confidence by shouting out a few mock orders, and to my delight the team respond “Yes chef!” in return.
Finally, we set about checking our fridges, ensuring we have plenty of each type of beef and fish cut and weighed, and do a check around the kitchen to each individual section. Bernard’s energy is infectious, and I’m excitedly awaiting the first orders.
One big blur
By 7 o clock we’ve served our first round of customers. I worked the oven without any major hang-ups, no burns, and started to feel like I was getting the flow of the kitchen.
My optimism was quickly crushed though as that feeling of calm didn’t last long. As the orders fly in and the heat in the kitchen rises, I step aside, letting Bernard take his natural position and organising his team. Between 7 and 9, everything is a blur. I’m later told we served over 100 guests in that time frame alone, and somehow it doesn’t surprise me to hear it.
As we settle into our late seating, I once again take my place at Bernard’s side, calling out orders and helping him checking the food as it’s brought to the pass. Quality control comes a lot easier to me, and we push through to the end of service. It was a busy night, with just over 180 customers served in total.
I entered into this trial out of sheer curiosity. I wondered how our team manages to produce the quality of food that we are known for with such speed and precision. I’ve wanted to find out, for many years, how they keep their cool as the dockets fly in and how they really react when servers come in confessing mistakes.
What I found in my time in Rustic Stone’s kitchen is that they have truly captured the essence of team work. Each member of staff is completely aware of their role and how their performance affects the kitchen as a whole. I’ve learned that the chef leading the kitchen has to work a lot harder than one might assume at first glance, and that the focus it takes to run the pass is a skill not quickly developed.
While my role didn’t involve an exceptional amount of cooking, I was able to see that the contribution, or lack thereof, of one person has the power to effect the entire team. With a pat on the back and an invitation to come back for Friday night service I exit the kitchen, gently declining.
I’m feeling a mixture of complete mental overload, pangs of hunger, and what I can only describe as a buzz. And as I head home, I’m sure it’s this buzz that brings these chefs back to the kitchen, night after night.