Sunday, February 11, 2007
It's funny how this Nobu opportunity came along. It wasn't through FCI or through the few chef friends I know. It wasn't the job board or monster.com. Thankfully, it was the one thing that always comes through for me...family. My cousin's cousin's roommate is a line cook at Nobu
Tom is a FCI '05 graduate, but has been working at Nobu for over two years. He started as a prep cook working for free and eventually moved up to one of the most senior line cooks. He attended FCI while at Nobu, alternating working 12 hour days, and working 6 hour days plus 6 more hours of class. In short, he's a machine and one of the nicest guys I've had the pleasure of meeting.
Tom guides me through the kitchen to the locker rooms in the back. We walk through the upstairs line kitchen, the dishwasher's station, then down a narrow staircase to the prep kitchen, the walkins, dry storage and dessert station. He points out the Nobu jackets and pants and the girl's locker room. I change and head back upstairs to the line kitchen. I squeeze by the other line cooks and stand next to Tom. For lunch service, the line consists of fry, grill, saucier “middle”, garde manger “salad”, and pastry. There is one person per station and they share a small kitchen standing about a foot from each other. Some specialize in one station, while the more senior line cooks can work all of them (with the exception of pastry). There are three "Chefs" in the kitchen - Head Chef Ricky and Sous Chefs Frank and Marlowe. These, along with the sushi chefs, are the only ones actually referred to as "Chef".
Tom is on the grill station for today's lunch service and when I arrive he is prepping the most popular item on the menu - Black Miso Cod. The sliced cod has been marinating in a miso sauce for four days. (I find out later that it is actually Sable, not Cod.) It is then transferred to sheet trays, browned under the salamander and deboned. For service it is cooked in the oven, browned again under the sally, and served with more of that wonderful miso. I help out by prepping the dish's garniture - pickled ginger root and pickled shallots. By the time I finish, it's 11:45am and lunch service has started.
Typically when a student is trailing at a restaurant, they are either told to just watch or they are given only prep work tasks - cleaning, peeling, cutting the mise. So you can imagine my surprise when lunch service comes around and I'm not kicked off the line. Not only that, I actually worked the grill and plated! Tom let me heat the shiitake mushrooms, grill the Washu (
When a lull comes over the station, I watch the other line cooks plate - the new style sashimi, the squid pasta, the rock shrimp tempura with spicy creamy sauce. The cooks are nice enough to let me try a bit of each dish. The fry cook in particular was very generous and my shame at accepting food evaporated the second I crunched down on a rock shrimp tempura with spicy creamy sauce. The fry cook's name is Caesar. He's 18 and the youngest in the kitchen. His father, whom everyone affectionately refers to as "Pop-Pop", has been working as fry cook since the restaurant's opening 12 years ago right along-side Chef Nobu himself. Caesar shared stories of him and his brother running around the kitchen when they were younger. When they were old enough, they started to learn the fry station from their father. Caesar's older brother developed an allergy to shrimp, so he moved on to another job. Today's lunch service was Caesar's first service solo and although he did burn himself in the fry oil once, he did an impressive job. What's more impressive is that Caesar doesn't even want to be a chef. His career goal - what he wants to be when he grows up - is to work at Con Edison as a technician. Strange since he's achieved my career goal at age 18.
Lunch service ends at 2:15pm and I help clean up. Family meal, referred to as "comida", is served buffet style at Nobu Next Door. I line up for shumai, fried rice, stirred fried vegetables and chicken curry. Pretty good, but I'm still full from snacking on the line, so I don't eat much. All the chefs and cooks sit around Nobu Next Door. The sushi chefs sit amongst themselves, pastry is at another table, waiters at another. I'm sitting with the line cooks and they are, hands down, the loudest, most rambunctious bunch. They're joking around, throwing things, hiding each other's keys and wallets. We chat about movies, basketball, and spend about 30 minutes on knives. At that point, I look around and realize it's a boys club, as I'm sure are most kitchens. The only girls are those that make up pastry, one line cook, a few waiters and the hostess. The kitchen is also very diverse - White, Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean. Tom as well as the Head Chef and the two Sous Chefs are Filipino, which I guess helps in my case, but would help more if I spoke the language. They ask me several times if I speak Tagalog and were obviously disappointed with the response. My biggest regret makes its way into my biggest passion. ::sigh::
Break ends at 4pm and everyone makes they're way back to the Nobu kitchen. I steal a few moments to check out the dining room and try not to wake the waiters napping around the restaurant as I take pictures and snoop around. Back down in the prep kitchen one of the line cooks, Kevin, is butchering the Washu. Kevin is a graduate from CIA, where the Head Chef and both Sous Chefs also attended, and tells me there’s a world of difference between working in a Nobu kitchen and a corporate kitchen. His previous job was at Legal Seafoods where he says all the food was pre-prepped at a warehouse somewhere and shipped to the restaurants already portioned. He said it’s similar to boil in a bag and expressed his concern of something similar happening if Nobu ever chose to go corporate. He then goes on to explain to me the difference between regular beef and Washu as well as the difference between Washu and real
I give many thanks to Tom as he leaves for the day and I'm assigned to trail the Garde Manger “Salad” line cook, Jason. Jason is a recent ICE graduate who, upon completing his externship at Nobu, was promptly hired. Another ICE student was currently trailing at Nobu under Jason, but he left at 6pm, so a space was open for me to trail for dinner service. Jason takes me on a tour of his station as well as the walkins and dry storage areas. He explains to me that some of the mise is performed by prep cooks - the garnishes, sauces and oils - but that for the most part the line cook is in charge of making sure everything is prepped and ready at his/her station at service time. As a result, there is a real sense of ownership over the station - from prep to plate on every single dish that goes out. Jason also tells me the one thing that surprised him most about working at Nobu was how informal it was. He imagined a militant Japanese chef throwing orders around the kitchen and using corporal punishment for bad knife skills. He was pleased to see the kitchen run by a gang of kids playing hip-hop music and calling each other by silly nicknames. But this gang of kids really do know their stuff and they love what they're doing.
The dinner service line up is a little different as there is a new station on the line - the Omakase, or Chef's tasting menu. The responsibility for creating the Omakase rotates among the more senior line cooks and they say it's the most fun position since you get to play around with Washu/Wagyu beef and foie gras.
Dinner service starts at 5:30pm and Jason puts me to work. He demos the first plates to go out (and lets me taste!) and then for most of the night we're working as a team. He'd push over to me the plates he was confident I could do on my own and work on the more complicated ones. He's quick and impressed that I'm able to keep up. By 8pm I'm plating a number of different dishes - new style sashimi, new style oyster/shrimp/beef, lobster salad, salmon skin salad, miso cod butter lettuce, miso tofu, miso asari, kelp salad, edamame, spicy tuna chips, ceviche, spicy seafood soup, lobster endive salad, mushroom soup, moroheiya udon salad. On two occasions, Jason actually steps out of the kitchen and leaves me in charge. Head Chef Ricky is expediting and I'm hoping he notices that I'm plating on my own. I must say, I do a damn good job!
Here's a little taste of a Friday night in the Nobu kitchen:
By 10:30pm, the last orders are coming in and we start to clean up. Head Chef Ricky passes around
My first day at NOBU was a happy confirmation of what I always knew I wanted to do when I grew up. Let's hope it's the first day of many to come!