Thus far it has been a ritual of mine to post a picture album at the end of each trip that I take, but this time I am trying something different. For the first time I am going to include some pictures, write about it and possibly include a video.
Coming to Chicago for me was an experiment in trying new things and sticking with it. Some might call this growing up. I think I will look back on this period a few years from now and remember it as a time when I applied myself to something for the first time. I have dabbled in many things, but never actually stuck to anything. But cooking might be the thing. There is something magical about transforming death into something palatable that if done properly will be remembered for years to come.
I spent the last 7 months working at Alinea. It’s a restaurant in Chicago at 1723 N Halsted. It is in a rather unassuming building with no sign outside. The first day I went by there I passed it a few times before I realized it was there. But the food that comes out of there makes you wonder why the food we eat day to day is not as interesting.
I started working in the morning crew as a commis for 2 months mainly doing prep for my chef de partie (CDP). Then a little later moved up to CDP on the pastry station for 5 months even though I was reluctant. I enjoyed the days as a commis much more than CDP. There was time to taste, cook family meal, work on primary prep for the station and really learn at a comfortable pace. At the time, I did not understand that the pressures you are under as a CDP can’t be understood by a commis who hasn’t worked it. You have to perform your specific tasks by a designated time each day. It doesn’t matter that someone didn’t show up, or an order didn’t come in or you messed something up because you forgot to taste it. The show must go on. You push yourself to your physical limits each day regardless of how you feel in order to produce iconic dishes that will be etched into peoples memories and taste banks.
There were many days after I became CDP at least once a week where I wanted to quit. I get yelled at for something I forgot, or get frustrated because something doesn’t work. The mixer broke, or the shards are clumpy, or the sauce is the wrong color. The problems are endless. I used to think I was stoic and unable to feel emotion but I have now learned that the right situation will bring any emotion out of you. It is all about doing your best work and being honest with yourself and fixing things you know are not right before they become problems.
I learned so many things within that short period. Although at the core a restaurant is the food, it does not exist without the people who carry out the vision. It was amazing working with a true group of misfits who knowingly or unknowingly taught me so much about life and hardships of working in a creative space everyday. It’s those people I will miss the most.
On one of the last days of Alinea Madrid, there was a girl in the dining room that must have been around 5 who got got balloon taffy on her face, hands and dress. As she was walked to the bathroom by the head of front of house and the girl stood and watched as we blew up balloons and it made me wonder. If as a kid, I had experienced a real Willy Wonka food experience what kind of person would I have grown into.
I won’t lie and say the time there was pleasant because there were some days when the waxing was true enough that it hit the core of my being. At the same time though, I do not think that good things come out of being comfortable and for that I believe it was worth it. Now that I am reflecting on this year, I really wonder the next step on my journey will be towards the big picture I have in my head.