French artist Laurent Pariente took time out of his busy, successful career to pursue his culinary ambitions in 2008 and attended Natural Gourmet’s Chef’s Training Program. Very soon after graduation he landed a job at the renowned Gramercy Tavern. I recently spoke with him about his experiences “on the line” at one of New York’s most venerated restaurants.
NGI: Tell us about a little about your art career, its duration, the media you work in.
LP: I have been working as a professional artist since 1986. I design spaces in galleries and museums in which people enter and have an experience. Each construction is made of specific materials – like soap, wet clay, chalk powder or translucent film – that cover the constructed walls and ceiling and capture the light. The space consists of a succession of corridors and thresholds through which the visitor is invited to walk and choose his own path. As the visitor progresses through the space, he deepens his relationship with that space and what it means to inhabit a space.
NGI: What made you decide to attend Natural Gourmet Institute?
LP: A few years ago I became aware of how food and cooking are central to our relationship with the world. I also found that food was a fantastic material to work and create with. Reading Annemarie Colbin’s books and learning about her approach to natural and healthy eating confirmed that NGI was the right choice for me.
NGI: How was it you landed a job at such an impressive establishment so quickly after your internship?
LP: I initially wanted to do my internship at Gramercy Tavern, but they wouldn’t take me. So I did my internship at Mas Farmhouse. After my internship, I asked again for an internship at Gramercy Tavern. I wrote, I called, and I went there. Finally, I offered to work for free, for the sake of the experience. Michael Anthony, the executive chef, agreed to take me for a trial period.
NGI: What sort of work did you do when you first arrived at Gramercy?
LP: I worked at the bread station, where I also made the batter for fried puff potatoes and warmed up biscuits from the pastry department, both to be used for amuse bouche. Shucking oysters was also one of my duties. I was also responsible for keeping the back prep area of the kitchen clean and spotless. I worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. As I got proficient in my work, I used my extra time to go to the front pass where I began to plate dishes with the cooks.
NGI: As you gained experience, what things were you trained to do?
LP: After three weeks at the bread station, I was given a position at the garde-manger station for the day service, where I worked for six months. I was responsible for prepping and serving all the cold appetizers including the vinaigrettes for the entire restaurant and most of the pickles. After six months I was moved to a hot line cooking station: meat appetizers. This station is responsible for the appetizers related to the meat side as well as cooking for the staff.
Three months later, I was moved to one of the busiest and finest stations, fish appetizers, which produces hot appetizers on the fish side. It’s a station which is responsible for making soups, purees, pickles, and vegetable stock for the whole kitchen. The prep and service responsibilities for this station are heavy.
As you enter a new station, you are specially trained to make the dishes that belong to your station. Working on those dishes gives you a foundation and provides you with techniques that can be applied more broadly to the kitchen at large. Through my experience, various cooking techniques – like blanching, sweating, sautéing, glazing, emulsifying, cooking sous-vide, etc. – have become an exact science for me.
Just a few months ago, I used to taste for doneness the vegetables I cook. Today, I can tell just by touch if a vegetable is properly cooked or not. I had to learn on the spot as I go. There is some initial supervision and quick training, but much of what I learned is through trial and error.
NGI: On the average how long are your days?
LP: I am at my stove by 6:30 in the morning, and I rarely leave before 6:30 p.m.
NGI: Would you recommend an experience on this level to graduates?
LP: I would highly recommend any professional experience in any upscale restaurant. Gramercy Tavern is a 3-Star restaurant, so it means that everything – from the choice of the produce to the finished dish – has to be of the highest quality. Everything has to be right in terms of look, taste, smell, and freshness.
NGI: In what ways has this job been rewarding to you? In what ways has it been challenging?
LP: I’ve been working for almost a year, and it’s still challenging every day because of the amount of work that has to be done, which includes prepping, cooking, serving and keeping the entire kitchen clean at all times.
What is most challenging for me in the kitchen hasn’t been the cooking, but the speed at which everything has to be done while maintaining the highest quality. Things that I used to do in an hour, now take me 20 minutes, whether it’s julienning a quart of carrots or dicing or shaping large quantities of any vegetable.
You also have to know how to multitask, which means being disciplined, focused, and organized in what you are doing. Another challenge has been to keep up with the pace of orders called by the expeditor. Gramercy has up to 160 covers at lunch between 12pm and 2pm. That’s in 2 hours of service.
I really had to develop my memory in order to remember all the orders that have been called out, an essential skill for a line cook. My personal challenge is to get everything done accurately and without effort. I have watched myself in the process of getting better at things, including how to properly sharpen knives to make work 100% easier. I found that persistence and patience are key in kitchen work.
NGI: Any particular triumphs on the job?
LP: One morning the sous-chef told me he read the night before on the Yelp website that 9 out of 10 reviews of Gramercy Tavern praised the duck liver mousse. They said it was not to be missed on a trip to the restaurant. At that time, I was the one making the duck liver mousse.
Among the most famous dish at Gramercy is the warm salad: a salad of 12 or so single baby vegetables, differently cooked – sautéed, sous-vided, blanched and glazed, some are also dyed with beet juice – laid down on a bed of lentils, and served with two different vinaigrettes. Chef Mike Anthony came to me last week and told me that I had significantly improved this dish, saying that the vegetables have become brighter and more diverse.
NGI: Has the experience been like boot camp, or are your coworkers supportive?
LP: The answer is both. But the shock of working the first week at the garde-manger station in the restaurant was so great that I burst out crying after the sous-chef had yelled at me the whole morning. Everyone came to me and said there is no crying allowed in the kitchen. The atmosphere at Gramercy Tavern is both highly professional and supportive.
NGI: Is your future in the commercial kitchen? Do you intend to be chef of your own restaurant?
LP: When I enrolled in the course the Natural Gourmet Institute, the only thing that I knew was that I would never work in a restaurant. On April 1st it will be a year working at Gramercy Tavern, rated by Zagat Survey in 2010 as the #1 most popular restaurant in New York City. During the first six months, every week I thought I would quit, so hard and demanding was the work. I’ve worked at three stations already, and I am thinking about furthering my cooking education and working at every station, including entremet, fish roast, meat roast and saucier. I am not able today to say if I want to be a chef. I am only able to say that I want to keep progressing in the work I’m doing in the kitchen, one step at a time.