CHEF FOR DAY: GRILLINGS AND JUST DESSERTS
“Four a.m.? What kind of a dream come true is that?” John Alexander asked incredulously. Alexander’s company, Dreams Come True, specializes in making wishes into reality. When he discovered that many people long to work at the side of their favorite chef, he started a program called “Chef for a Day.” It sounded like a dreamy idea . . . but Alexander had some surprises in store. Accustomed to dealing with dreams that involve diving with dolphins or carousing in castles, Alexander soon discovered that those who dream of cutting up in the kitchen are actually interested in the work.
The cost is $570, which includes a day in the kitchen at Spago, Chinois on Main or City Restaurant, chef’s whites from the restaurant, a videotape of yourself cooking at City, a cookbook at Chinois or Spago--and a meal for four with wine.
“I can eat any time,” said Shirley Barris, an avid cook who was given the chance to be chef for a day at Spago as a Mother’s Day present. Although the program includes dinner, Barris wasn’t even interested in sitting down with her family. “She was amazing,” said Spago/Chinois owner Wolfgang Puck. “I was a little worried when she drove up in her customized gold Excalibur. And then I looked at her fingernails. . . .” But Barris proved her mettle: She spent from 8 in the morning until midnight at Puck’s side, on her feet the entire time. “I had a job to do,” she said.
Barris and Puck began the day at the markets. The flower market (“Do you know he spends $120,000 a year on flowers?”). The fish market (“He let me buy a whole tuna and a whole salmon to take home.”) To Chinatown, where Puck buys ducks from Nelson Le Moy. (“It was fascinating--I saw the way they blow air under the skin of the duck.”) To the wholesale meat market.
“And then we went back to the restaurant and the work really began.”
Barris spent the morning with the pastry chef, ate lunch with the staff and then assisted the prep chef all afternoon. “You should see the quality of everything they use,” she enthused. “It’s all top drawer.” With 10 hours under her belt, Barris was still raring to go; at 6 p.m., she was presented with a chef’s uniform and off she went to man the grill in the exhibition kitchen.
“It was fascinating learning all the little secrets,” she said. “There is one waiter who does nothing but deal with picky people. He takes the order and then he comes back and tells the chef exactly what to do. Julio Iglesias, Dinah Shore and Angie Dickinson were all there. At one point, the waiter comes up to say that they are displeased with something, and asks me to straighten out the celebrity table. So I went over and asked if there was anything we could do to make them happy. It was such fun!”
Personally, my idea of a good time does not include dealing with disgruntled diners. Fortunately, I never had to. I decided to do a little consumer research and test the program, but when I was chef for a day at City Restaurant, my day unfolded quite differently.
“What would you most like to do?” asked chef Susan Feniger when she called to make arrangements. The options included everything from fileting fish and butchering meat to learning the business end of the restaurant. “We do want to work out a recipe with our guest chefs and put it on the menu for the day,” Feniger said offhandedly. I quickly changed the subject and said that I’d like to start the day in the produce market.
“We go early,” Feniger warned. That sounded fine with me; at 4 the next morning, it seems a lot less fine. I do some conspicuous yawning until I find out that both Feniger and her partner Mary Sue Milliken had been in the restaurant until after midnight. “Do you do this often?” I ask.
“We try to do it a couple of times a month,” Milliken replies.
“That’s what makes them different than most other chefs,” says Ivan Jacobs, owner of Full Sail produce. “Everybody talks about wanting to see the market, but when morning comes they change their minds.” Jacobs is escorting us through his domain, pointing out tiny ears of baby corn still in the husk, edible flowers and Easter egg radishes that come in a bouquet of colors. When the chefs spot a huge puff-ball mushroom sitting in the walk-in, they grin with delight and carry it off like a trophy. Standing right there, they decide to put grilled mushroom sandwiches on the menu.
The chefs seem more like school kids on a field trip than the owners of a million-dollar business. Their enthusiasm is infectious. “Every time we come here, we come up with at least six new things,” Milliken says. By 6:30, we have sniffed around a tortilla factory, listened to the din as a few tons of potatoes were sorted and stood in the warm mist that shrouds the sprout factory. We end up in a little cafe eating fried rice. (“This is the real reason they come down here,” Jacobs teases.) But the meal is short; it is pushing 8 a.m., and the chefs are anxious about lunch.
Back at the restaurant, they dash to their office to plan the day’s menu. “Have you thought of what you’d like to cook yet?” they ask. I haven’t, but I’ve got time; the menu is not printed until 11. Meanwhile, Milliken is talking to the fish purveyors.
“Black cod,” she says to Feniger. “Let’s do that stew we did before.” It turns out that neither of them can remember the recipe, so they improvise one on the spot. “We’ve got to do something to make it sell,” Milliken says. “What if we served it on fried pasta?” I am of the opinion that it still won’t sell. “You never know,” Feniger says. “It’s amazing how you can control what entrees sell by what you serve with them.”
By now the kitchen is swinging into gear: There are pies in the oven and stocks bubbling on the stove and what seems like dozens of people vying for space. The fish comes in and Feniger runs her hands across a yellowtail, looking at the eyes, the color of the blood, the gills. “See how fresh it is,” she murmurs, fileting it in a few swift strokes of the knife.
For an hour, we concentrate on stocks and staples. Meanwhile, I am desperately attempting to invent a dish. I decide that I will do something in the tandoor oven. The next time Feniger asks what my dish will be, I inform her that I plan to make a stuffed sandwich of nan (Indian flat bread), pickled tomatoes and cheese. “Why don’t you try making one?” Milliken says.
As I am soon to discover, this is easier said than done. The tandoor is an open oven, and to make the flat bread you have to reach your arm down inside and pat the bread up against the wall. The first time I try it, the heat is so intense that I am convinced my eyebrows have been singed from my face. I jump back, dropping the sandwich into the bottom of the oven, where the fire quickly consumes it.
“It’s easier if you put your arm in a bucket of ice water and get it numb,” says Milliken, demonstrating. I try, but even with a numb arm the oven is so hot that I don’t have the courage to keep my arm in for very long.
After about 10 tries, I finally manage to get one stuffed bread out of the oven. I taste it; it’s not bad, but it bears a depressing resemblance to pizza. Do I want my name on this thing? Absolutely not; I am thrilled to discover that while I was learning to use the oven, the deadline has passed. The menu has already been printed--sans special.
At noon, the lunch rush begins. I stand next to Milliken and Feniger on the line; my job is to supply all the tandoori dishes. The steak is easy (well, I do tend to be a bit cavalier about the difference between rare and medium), but the science of nan continues to elude me. When four orders come in at once, a waiter asks sarcastically, “Do you think I’ll be able to pick up my order anytime today?”
There is one triumphant moment, towards the end of the shift, when Feniger and Milliken step away for a moment and I alone manage to make nan, grill two orders of tuna and simultaneously saute chicken. (The trick here, I soon discover, is to throw the strips of chicken into the oil so that it splashes away from you instead of onto you.) To my great surprise, not a single order is returned.
By 2:30, I am hot, exhausted and covered with smoke and grease. My lovely white chef’s jacket is filthy. I am also absolutely exhilarated, and I understand why Shirley Barris said she was too keyed up to eat. The crowning moment comes when I go out to the dining room and find some friends who have actually eaten food that I cooked; a surge of ridiculous pride sweeps over me.
It was hard work, it was a lot of fun and--considering what dinner for four at these places can cost--it was a bargain to boot. If you think you want to open a restaurant of your own, you ought to try it. But it only takes a few minutes in the kitchen to get rid of the illusion that you are merely free labor, and then you can’t help wondering why the chefs put up with the bother.
Feniger and Milliken say that they both love teaching, and this seems like a particularly appropriate way to do it. “Besides,” Feniger adds, “it’s fun for us.”
Puck has reasons of his own. “I think it’s good if people learn about what we do,” he says. “They become more critical--and then they’re going to frequent better restaurants.”
To be Chef for a Day, contact Dreams Come True, (213) 661-1300. JOHN