Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting reviewed

If you're going to fail, do it in front of several hundred thousand people. That way, you can get the crippling fear of not just failing, but doing it in front of several hundred thousand people, out of the way and get on with your life. 

I had my first critic's review 5 weeks after I started my first job as "Pastry Chef." My biggest achievement at that point was getting the desserts onto the plates. And figuring out the chef's brioche recipe. No small feat, since he had a habit of handing me a piece of paper with some ingredients on it - and nothing else - and saying, "Here, make this." I had also talked him out of serving a darkly nauseating cocoa sorbet. My argument: why not just send out a spoonful of unsweetened baking cocoa and an ice cube?  

My professional experience thus far had been in a pastry shop, where we made whole tarts and cakes. There were no squiggles of sauce or fanciful garnishes or curly caramel doodads to put on the plate because there were no plates. Everything left the shop in a box.  

So there I was, 5 weeks in, an hour before service, and the chef walks over to my station. He hands me the newspaper and says, "Read this." The kitchen was bustling. Cooks were prepping their stations, servers were folding napkins. The co-sous chefs were nervously pacing. 

I looked at the review. An impressive 3 stars. That rarely happens three weeks after opening. The review began something like this: "Chicago has waited a long time for this illustrious chef to open his own restaurant....." As I read on, it became clear that there was some serious, swoony man love going on. The arctic char made him giggle with delight. The lamb was not of this world. Everything the chef touched turned to edible gold leaf. Now I was riding this groovy wave of unconditional love. Then I got to the desserts. 

"The desserts, although fine, are the weak link in this kitchen........"  My heart sank, along with my pancreas, gall bladder and one of my kidneys. I wanted to cry. But you don't cry in the kitchen. If you lose your finger in the meat slicer, you don't cry. If you lose an entire arm or leg, maybe you can cry. A better choice would be to lose consciousness and forgo the crying altogether. 

So now, I'm the guy who ruins it for the whole team. I'm the receiver who fumbles on the 1 yard line, only to have an overfed defensive tackle named Jumbo pick it up and hobble it back for a touchdown. Better yet, I'm Steve Bartman. 

I now know the chef had me read the review in front of the whole kitchen to humiliate me. And he succeeded. But lest you think it ended on a sour note, there is a happy post script. Several months later, when Chicago Magazine was putting together their annual Best Restaurants issue, we were chosen as one of the best new restaurants of that year. Much to my chef's dismay, the critic picked one of my desserts for the featured photo. So there. 


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