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Thoughts on staging in Paris

I haven’t written in the longest time and many things have happened since my last post about school. First of all- I’ve graduated :). LCB was an amazing experience and being in Paris, learning the art and technique of french cuisine in France itself, and meeting all of my fellow foodie friends, is something I would never trade for anything. But we’ve all moved on, and pretty quick at that. Everyone has returned home and is making progress with their lives, moving forward. I spent 2 weeks back in Singapore catching up with the family and friends that I haven’t seen in the past 10 months. Then spent another 2 weeks traveling around Berlin, Copenhagen, and Gothenburg, gaining a new perspective on the food scene in different countries and a new perspective on life, living and culture (not as deep as it sounds, actually). But more about that in another post.

What is really on my mind right now (and actually, occupying most of my time) is my stage in Paris. I’ve spent about 90% of my 5 weeks in Paris staging in a pretty amazing 2-michelin star restaurant. I’ve witnessed how a big kitchen brigade (and I do mean big) is run, how the whole traditional hierachical kitchen ranking system thingamajig works, seen and worked with some amazing ingredients and learnt some really cool, traditional techniques that are slowly being phased out simply because cuisine like that is too time-consuming to make, or just no longer in demand now (what with all the nouveau-bistro and molecular gastronomy trends).

One of the chef-de-parties asked me that day, whether or not I was enjoying myself and what I thought of my stage at Taillevent. Up until then, I hadn’t given it much thought- I hadn’t had much time either considering that working hours were 8am to 3pm, then 5pm to 11pm (at least) from Monday to Friday. Yes, I was enjoying myself, but without much conscious thought– I enjoyed being at work, being able to handle food everyday and just be in the mere presence of all the preparation, the energy, the cooking, the smells and aromas, made me look forward to being in the kitchen everyday.

But the more thought I give it, the more “flaws” I find with the stage I’m doing, and although it might not be anything too damaging or too negative, I think it stems from my initial desire to use these 2 months to get as much experience and learn as much as I can, instead of just being able to put a good restaurant name on my resume without any real substance or backing.

Mainly, I wish there was more of a teaching culture in the kitchen. While there are a couple of chefs that are willing and really open to sharing whatever they know, most of them are more concerned with getting their work done and rightly so for that matter! All it really takes to get to know how something is done is a question actually, but I sometimes feel out of place being so “nosy” when it’s so busy in the kitchen. I don’t expect to be cooking on the line or doing anything too major as a stagiere who is only there for 2 weeks, but there are some tasks that I could be entrusted to do (I know this sense of entitlement might be misplaced but I’ve worked in a couple of kitchens previously, so this really isn’t my first stage and I am no idiot, if I do say so myself) like toasting hazelnuts or frying some chips. But I guess this is what happens in a big kitchen like ours- everyone has a set list of tasks to do and take care of, and it’s the same every single day. You fall into such a rhythm with what you do, and the chefs probably do the task better and faster than I could. I get it, I understand the system and the fact that I will not be as fast or as good as the chefs now, but given that November is such a slow period for french restaurants (I heard it’s vacation time for the french now, as it is with every other month), it would be nice to be taught and shown more things.

Otherwise, I’ve fallen into some sort of a rhythm with the kitchen life too! Mornings are filled with bulk prep work- shallots, onions, carrots, garnishes, etc. One of the chefs at the poisson station has entrusted me with finishing up “his work” during service time, going through tourteau meat to find shells, cleaning, separating and packing the boudins, breaking up lobster carcasses, etc that I don’t even have to ask anymore when I see ingredients come in the morning, or when I see bowls of prep work in his fridge. I really like this feeling of being entrusted, and he does trust me. He used to be really skeptical when I first arrived, rightly so- he would go through all my garnishes and inspect my brunoise so closely, but trust is earned and over time, I guess I showed him that I was worthy of being entrusted with more and more work! 🙂

 

Overall, I still wouldn’t have given up this opportunity. Spending 2 months in Paris working in a huge restaurant like this is a pretty incredible experience. I’ve learnt to work faster, more efficiently, to think ahead and plan before beginning on a task, learnt how to organize myself well, how to clean clean clean and CLEAN (a pretty important habit in the kitchen and something that we do to a really really crazy extreme here) and gotten used to working the long hours that are so required in the kitchen. If anything, this might have been a try out or a test to see if this was what I was really cut out for, and at the end of the day, all I can say is that this has only fueled the fire in me to pursue what I’ve always wanted to do- to cook 🙂

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Stagiere

My time in Paris seems to coming to a close too quickly. We’re already into the last of our three semesters here, and I’ve barely done half the things I set out to do (e.g. visit Lens and the new louvre museum, visit the art galleries in Paris, travel all of France, etc..). One thing I can strike off my list is staging at a restaurant in Paris, and a helluva sick restaurant at that.

I spent my two week break between intermediate and superior cuisine doing a stage at Bones, the restaurant I wished I had opened. If you’ve talked to me recently about my eating experiences in Paris, you would have heard me rave about Bones, a restaurant opened early this year by australian chef James Henry (previous chef at Au Passage) that focuses on fresh, locally sourced ingredients without sticking to any particular cuisine per se. (Although I would argue, it is definitely quite australian, considering that they have an indoor bbq aka the big green egg). They make their own butter, ricotta cheese, charcuterie and breads amongst all their other delicious and delectable dishes, which is very impressive considering that it is only a 4-person team in the kitchen. They also have a sick standing bar area, about half the size of the restaurant, serving seafoods and shellfish, and an amazing suckling pork sandwich! They proudly display the entire suckling pork on the bar in a hotel pan eveyr Thursday and Saturday night, which is pretty damn genius if you ask me. 

Anyhow, I was lucky enough to be granted the opportunity to stage there for 2 weeks. Learnt about a whole new philosophy on cooking- without being bound to a specific cuisine, the team at Bones are not bound to strict rules about cooking or any of their dishes. They have a rather clean and ‘simplistic’ look on cooking, as in they don’t throw 10 different ingredients in a pot and try to build a heavy or overly sophisticated dish. They treat each ingredient on the plate as it should be and how it should naturally taste (with the occasional smoke treatment), dress it up with simple garnishes that complement the visuals or the entire flavor profile of the dish, and then finish off with the freshest and most beautiful herbs ever! Unpretentiously delicious is what I would call the food, with a subtle punch or attitude.

Hours were long, of course. But I enjoyed every moment of it. Everyone was so willing to impart some knowledge or share some information and to just teach, while they had the time of course. And I have so much respect for the entire team at Bones- they work tirelessly and without any complains (I almost never heard “omg I’m so tired today” or “I just want to sleep” or anything of the like) even though they got in earlier and left later than me on most days.

I don’t know if it was confirmation for me that being in the kitchen was something I wanted to do for life, but I definitely was super excited to be there every day. Then again, it was only a 2 week period, you never know if that excitement will last after a year in the kitchen with those hours. I have a long way to go in terms of building and gaining experience in the kitchen, but I’m glad I managed to get my start at Bones 🙂

 

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Le Chateaubriand, Paris

Le Chateaubriand has become THE restaurant to talk about or refer to when talking to fellow foodies in France. If you’ve heard of it or been there, you’re probably assumed to be “in the circle”. Headed by Chef Inaki Aizpitarte, who is/was one of the pioneers of the whole casual fine dining bistro concepts, basically, good food at good prices in a non-pretentious atmosphere. One could always argue that the lack of decadent decorations and the mismatched silverware, the peeling wallpaints, server’s sneakers are in and of itself pretentious. But people seem to enjoy that, it fits in with the kind of atmosphere and concept he is trying to acheive. Works for me! Eve managed to snag a reservation for us during her visit here.

There are no menu choices. You have one prix fixe menu for the entire restaurant. I guess the only choice you would have here is your wine. Here’s the line up of the menu of the night:

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Gougere with poppy seeds

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Gazpacho shots

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Boudin noir with fried shrimp. Loved this dish, the deep fried shrimp really accentuated and complimented the earthiness of the rich and creamy boudin noir.

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My dinner date 🙂

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Squid, bouillabase, radicchio, almond powder

Personally, I was not a fan of this dish. Something about how the texture and taste of the squid really brought out the fishiness (in a bad way) of the entire dish. The radicchio was way too bitter for this dish, maybe it was supposed to cut the fishiness? But for me, it just made the dish even more fishy. :/

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Some sort of smoky bacon dashi broth (take on miso soup maybe?) with sliced radish and langoustine

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Pan seared scallops with an assortment of cereales, passion fruit, creme fraiche and dandelion greens. I absolutely loved this dish! From it’s beautiful presentation on that flat white ceramic plate, to the colors of the greens and the cereal tuilles, to how refreshing the creme fraiche was with the perfectly cooked scallops, to the bright hit of passionfruit!

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Lieu jaune (Pollack fish), pleurote mushrooms, poutargue (salt preserved roe of fish) that tasted like brown butter, pomelo.

Another pretty ingenious dish!

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Seared beef, thinly sliced celeriac “noodles”, shaved truffles, oysters. It was so strange how the texture of the oysters mirrored the texture of the rare beef, a pretty interesting dish. Did not go insane over this, but still, a prretty interesting play on textures.

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Quince, topinambour (jerusalum artichoke) and almonds. A dish that tasted so wierd in it’s individual parts, but kind of good altogether.

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Star of the night: Tocino de Cielo. Basically candied eggyolk on a meringue base (I think) with chocolate and peanut powder. Beautiful globe of awesomeness. You basically pop this entire bite-sized ball of glory into your mouth and ENJOY. I mistook it for caramel initially because of how sweet it was! Almost fell off my chair when the waiter said “candied egg yolk”. I was so blown away by this dish that I came home to google it and find out the secret to how it’s made. and it’s insanely simple. Almost frustrating because you wish you had thought of and made it first!! damn, how I wish I could steal this recipe for my future restaurant.

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Longans with fennel seeds.

I think I really enjoyed my experience at Le Chateaubriand. There’s always some hits and misses with prix fixe menus and I guess that’s part of the experience at a place like Le Chateaubriand. You don’t have a choice, you’re forced to try everything the chef puts in front of you. It did surprise in every way, there was always something about a dish that was new and exciting or interesting. I guess one of the best things about being at a place like Le Chataeubriand where the everyone receives the same dish is that you don’t have to share! 🙂

HAHA I kid. (but not really)

If you can manage to snag a reservation for the first seating at 7:30pm. it’s definitely worth the visit. Otherwise, you can always wait for the second seating at 9:30pm (no reservations taken). When Eve and I left around 9:45pm, there was quite a line out the door, and because you are  never told to leave your table by a certain time (which I completely agree with), one who is waiting for the second seating might end up eating only at 10:30pm.

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