I shouldn’t have had dinner before heading to Gemelli’s that night. I know that chefs who get questioned about their line of work are benevolent when it comes to sharing the flavors they create. They desire to feed you and feel you experiencing the tastes that may have taken them hours — sometimes days — to develop. I should know; I was one of them.
But I would quickly correct anyone who would refer to me as a “chef” — such a title is reserved for those who work ridiculously hard to earn it. I willingly entered the organized chaos of a professional kitchen the summer after I graduated high school, and for three years, I lived in “the back-of-house.”
I used to work at Piping Rock Country Club in Locust Valley waiting tables in the dining room. The manager there realized I had tired from filling water glasses and preparing breadbaskets for seated guests. When that work was done I would often assist pastry by scooping ice cream and restocking ingredients on the dessert buffet. Eventually I handed in my waitress uniform for chef whites. The transition was almost seamless.
Growing up I’d fill my hours after school watching the Food Network. With the help of Bobby Flay, Ina Garten and Giada De Laurentiis I became familiar with a dense dictionary of culinary vernacular. I was drawn to foreign ingredients and cuisines, and ordered offbeat dishes that would confuse the average diner. I was a foodie before it was cool.
While reporting in Gemelli’s kitchen, I was immediately brought back to my stint as a pastry assistant. I pulled my hair off of my shoulders and twisted it into a low bun. I kept my arms locked at my sides to keep from taking up too much room. As I watched Patricia garnish the grouper I noticed her nails were unpolished — a custom that prevents food contamination. But I knew I was helpless if a soup or sauce jumped out of a ladle and on to the tops of my exposed feet. Wearing open shoes in a professional kitchen is just plain stupid.
As the Gemelli team plated each course assembly-line style, I was reminded of the frantic feeling I’d experienced “behind the line” — that is, the kitchen space where the cooking is done. For big events with a large number of guests each cook was assigned a component to plate for a particular dish. When the manager yelled, “order fire,” the plates passed between the cooks with rushed efficiency. In less than a minute, the plain white plate was transformed into a gastronomical beauty.
Since I was designated pastry I didn’t get to play with fire much, but the multiple burn marks that scar my arms suggest otherwise. Most of the burns were the result of turning a hot sheet tray the wrong way while pulling it out of the oven; another occurred while I was placing a bowl of whipped cream on the dessert station from behind the table, forgetting the hot crepe pan I had just used was in my way. But during service you became someone who is unconcerned with burns.
Flambéed crepes are the quintessential choice dessert among Piping Rock’s membership, specifically Grand Marnier crepes, which we often left swimming in the syrupy orange liquor if someone indicated they wanted them “wet.” And even with a line of foot-tapping, sweet-tooth-aching, patience-flaring members eyeing me down, I never wavered.
I’d melt an indecent amount of butter in a pan until it foamed, which alerted me it was time to sprinkle in the sugar. Before it erupted into a full-on crackle I’d add our homemade crepes. The heat made them wriggle on the surface of the pan like an electrocution in slow motion. Removing the pan from the heat, I’d swirl a few gulps of liquor around the pan, sending it steaming. When I moved the pan back onto the burner, the alcohol ignited in a glowing pillar of sweet-smelling flames.
My obvious excitement for this part of the job warranted me the nickname “crepe siren” from a member who would consistently turn down my offer to prepare him a plate. I didn’t hate it.
It’s been exactly a year since I left Piping Rock, but my time in pastry feels almost like a different lifetime — a sugar-drenched dream. And for all the hours I scorned cutting strawberries, portioning dough, measuring ingredients and getting locked in walk-in fridges (true story!), there were a million more moments to be grateful. I was learning under the stewardship of some of the most talented and passionate chefs in the industry. They became my second family.
And while they may not have the fame of Flay or Garten or De Laurentiis, they taught me more than any celebrity chef ever could: they taught me how to cook.