Tuesday, July 19, 2005

My first 'kitchen internship'

You might have read about my dinner date at Saint Pierre (post titled My Weekend of Indulgence) - a French restaurant in Singapore renowned for its fine French cuisine.
What i didn't mention was that i had asked the restaurant manager that night if they allowed people into their kitchen for internships. I was surprised at how open they were to the idea. She had asked me to email the owner/chef- Emmanuel Stroobant to propose the idea to him.

And so I did. After an email, a phone call and a chat, we agreed that I could come on Monday night to 'help out'. He warned me that 'you should know zat when you are ze guest, i divide myself into four to pleeze you, but when you are in my keetchen, you work for me and i am tough. In my keetchen, it's very hot and my cooks are like aneemals. it eez like a Zoo.'(imagine french accent, spoken at a fast pace).

Objective of doing this?
I went home and had to think very hard about what i wanted to get out of this 'expeerienze'. I really did not want to cop out after 1 session but I also needed to know what this was all for given that i have no aspirations of owning a restaurant. I concluded that:
1) I might learn some valuable lessons on cooking / plating/ baking / chopping / ingredients etc
2) I would have a really good understanding of what it's like in a kitchen of a fine dining restaurant. If not to put to use, then just to know. (Besides, it makes for good dinner conversation!)
3) It might just change my life. I had no idea in what way - but what did i get out of not committing to this? (apart from one more thing i'd be ignorant about?)

Monday Night in the Kitchen
And hence i found myself on a Monday evening, waiting nervously for Mr Stroobant himself at the restaurant reception area to meet me. i was a teeny bit worried about what i had signed myself up for when the alternative would have been comfort food in front of the tv. I will henceforth refer to him as Billy Idol. He really does remind me of a rock star. All spiky peroxide blonde hair, alert blue eyes, brimming over with energy such that he looks like he's ready to pounce on stage and PERFORM.

He looks at me, smiles and says 'you need a chef uniform?' i nodded thinking 'wow! chef uniform! i get to wear a real one!' and he comes back with a heavy black 2 piece that i put on in the toilet. Made from material that is thicker than winter curtains, i later learned that they are made from material that don't catch fire, protects you against spitting oil and boiling stock and any other kitchen mishaps.

The Kitchen
Billy Idol introduced me to the kitchen and his staff. There was the souz chef, a burly guy with a goatie. A thin gaunt looking french man overlooking the meat and fish section, another younger french man overlooking the vegetables and pan frying section, a chinese man overseeing the garnishings and 'fine art' of the dishes and the one lady in the kitchen that overlooked the pastries, desserts and breads. Finally, Billy Idol -the conductor overseeing his powerful quintet.

I walked into the kitchen to 'We will Rock You' blasting from a corner of the kitchen. The men all looked up, gave me polite smiles and Mathhiue (french man - young,kind face) gave me my first job. Putting salmon into a plastic bag and placing in vacuum pack machine to shrink wrap it. He showed me how - then i tried it myself and it didn't work.
The other french man overlooking the meat and fish section hurried over and did it for me, putting his finger to his lips (suggesting that i should not tell Mathhiue i could not even do such a simple task.)
Great, i thought. First job and i couldn't even get it right!

Other jobs for the night:-
Cleaning (de-bearding) European Mussels (i suspect this is a job someone hates because i was soon splattered with lots of sea mud and tried very hard not to scream when i saw a slug wiggling about amongst the mussels).
- Plucking the vines from a container full of cherry tomatoes from Sicily.
- Peeling potatoes and chopping them into square sticks.
- Slicing puff pastries into 2.
- Wiping down a kitchen counter that had been soaped.

A spot of bullying
I had just finished peeling five potatoes when Billy Idol came over to show me how to 'handle my knife' to slice an onion. As he was saying 'no, no, no - your finger here eez too close', Raphael (thin French man) dumped the peeled potatoes on my chopping board and yelled 'This is WRONG!! Like ZIS!!' and starts peeling away furiously at the potatoes, shaving away the little brown spots i had left on them.
Billy Idol gives me a look that sorta says 'you're in trouble' and quietly says i shouldn't leave any spots on them. As i'm apologetically peeling away at them again, Raphael marches over and starts chopping up a potato into square sticks and says 'cut like zis! now!' so i try my best to follow his instructions, but before long, he's marching over again yelling 'no! no! NO! WRONG! Zees! (he says holding up one of the sticks i had cut') is WRONG! SQUARE! not rectangular! like zees! (holding one that he had cut to demonstrate earlier) Do it right and do it NOW! (shouting)
i sort of see Billy idol looking down with a small smile, and i'm getting the idea that this is part and parcel of the 'initiation' of newbies and I take it all in good stride, head bent, trying REALLY really hard to cut regular square sticks.

Five minutes later Raphael yells again 'I want more potatoes! Quick quick QUICK! NOW NOW!', and i start scrambling to peel more when Billy Idol says 'there's only one order for fries. Stop. Enough'. A look up - look at both of them. Billy idol is smiling.

The potatoes go into the deep fryer and 15 minutes later, i'm handed a bowl with a few french fries and salt by Raphael (tormentor of potato episode) with a wink and a smile.

I think about Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and note that perhaps Anthony's stories were not exaggerated after all!

The atmosphere in the kitchen is high energy, a pace that starts as a slow rumble, builds up to a crescendo with the men shouting at each other a lot (a lot of it in French - and they sure sound like expletives!), Billy Idol shouting out orders and getting a lot of 'yes CHEF's!' in reply, testosterone boiling over in bucketfulls.
Billy Idol is the epitomy of the alpha male, in his movements, his speech, his commanding presence, his energy. (can i just say - yummy?)

In summary, i ended the night feeling good. There was certainly a sense of family amongst the group (despite all the yelling and cursing), and when the desserts starting coming out, the music came back on with the guys nodding away and singing along. Billy idol offered me a glass of red wine and we all sat outside over a ciggie getting to know each other a little bit after the cleaning up had been done.

So this will be a weekly endavour - every Monday night at Saint Pierre. And i promise my next entry on this won't be so lengthy. I just wanted to describe everything i saw that night- it was all so new and interesting. And hopefully, given more time, i'll actually get to learn a few tricks or two (with a lot of yelling in my ear)


  • Wow, Chin. It sounds like you had such a great opportunity! I'm not sure if I would have the courage to walk into a really well-known restaurant and ask to volunteer. Thanks for posting the story!

    By Blogger Nic, at 7:38 PM  

  • yes i'm rather thick skinned! i am due for a lot of humiliation i suspect (given that i'm such a new cook having the nerve to plonk myself amongst people who have been cooking for 20 yrs!)
    But i guess this is the best way to learn. Either that or completely lose my dignity!

    By Blogger Chin Ru, at 11:42 PM  

  • wow, i loved that article! that sounds so real!! ;-)
    How long are you gonna be doing this internship for?

    By Anonymous kobe, at 2:51 AM  

  • well done girl, a very brave endeavor but i'm sure humiliation will make you want to learn more and learn fast. sounds like a horrifying episode from "hell kitchen" alright! ;-)

    By Blogger Steffles, at 8:24 AM  

  • That was an awesome recount of your internship!
    I'm glad they were willing to let you in their kitchen to do an internship.
    Looking forward to your next post.

    By Anonymous Nicholas, at 9:47 AM  

  • hey Kobe
    i've made a commitment to myself to stay for at least 8 weeks. and every Monday might not be enough (i have been advised to come on weekends where the 'real action is'), so i might do twice a week. I will keep posting my experiences so hope you keep checking in!

    By Blogger Chin Ru, at 6:04 PM  

  • hiya!
    this sounds amazing! i'm not having an attachment but not in the food industry at all! Oh how I envy you!
    Looking forward to your next experience! This is the next best alternative to doing it, living it thru your eyes and words =)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:05 PM  

  • thanks for the encouragement Daffy! i found your site- you seem to have a great attachment job too! : )

    By Blogger Chin Ru, at 2:04 AM  

  • heya chin ru! wow... this is seriously a great opportunity! and it was very interesting reading this post of yours. haha ya this really reminds me of anthony bourdain's early years in the kitchen. anyways have fun interning there! i'd love to have such a chance next time.... looking fwd to more posts about your 'internship'. =)

    By Blogger the baker, at 8:01 PM  

  • hi .. new to ur blog here ...

    Really like ur post on the internship and tink it is a one in a life time chance to experience being kitchen hand in such a pretegious resturant ...
    Makes mi even wan to try it out too ..
    Keep it up and thanks for sharing ...

    By Blogger Sonya, at 12:36 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:27 PM  

  • Cool blog, interesting information... Keep it UP here

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:18 AM  

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