by: Chad Minton
We started the plate-up on time in the main kitchen. Like every banquet service, the Chief Steward had the hot boxes loaded-up with plates & lids. The Banquet Captain was in the kitchen and communicating with his team via walkie-talkie. The lead cook fired all the proteins, individual Beef Wellingtons, each enhanced with a slice of Foie Gras in their center, while the Saucier heated the vegetables and finished the sauces. Garde Manger was already half way through serving the first course, a chilled crab salad wrapped in a cucumber ribbon garnished with baby field greens and avocado fans, when we started plating the entree. For 350 guests we averaged 15 minute "hundreds" meaning it would take us roughly one hour to plate and serve all of the guests. The Banquet Chef was busying himself setting the line for plate-up. The Executive Chef was readying the sauce, of which he would apply to every plate, at the end of the line while encouraging the team to go faster, work cleaner and to be quiet. The last three cooks and myself were lined shoulder to shoulder waiting to start plating. I wasn't allowed to cook anything. My job was very clear - I put things on the plate, quickly & quietly. Move two or three plates at a time - never just one. Do not turn the plate, do not twist or spin the plate. Wipe the plate as needed.
I'd never bought a fifty-pound bag of potatoes before. None of the small grocery stores in my neighborhood had more than a handful of potatoes at any time. So, I started walking to the Marina because I'd heard there was a big supermarket there. It was about a two mile walk from my place in Nob Hill, most of which was Polk Street which gave me the opportunity to stop at the International News Stand. Every month on my half day off I'd go there to read all the new food magazines like Australian Vogue, Art Culinaire and Food Arts. Sometimes Chef would let us have an old magazine but going to the newsstand was the only sure-fire way to keep up on trends back then. I liked Upper Polk Street. It was such a dramatic change from Lower Polk, the stores were nicer, the sidewalks were cleaner and everyone seemed generally happier. I always looked into the window at La Folie - hoping to see Chef Roland, hoping to get a glimpse at the cooks there, some were friends and we all shared the same struggle.
Walking back to my apartment, with my fifty-pound sack of potatoes, my destiny was becoming clear. A week earlier I had been tasked to help the Banquet cooks with their Tourne. For those of you not steeped in late 19th century French Cooking terms- Tourne refers to the meticulous cutting and trimming of vegetables or potatoes into - in this case - seven-sided perfectly symmetrical oblong footballs with trimmed ends. Tourne was the standard vegetable garnish for all banquet plates. One Carrot (they were the hardest) one Zucchini and one Yellow Squash per plate - of course there were variations along the way but this was our standard set-up and through this hardcore old-school technique Tourne masters were abundant in our kitchen. I was not one of them, not by a long shot. In realizing I had no idea what I was doing - after the cooks had their fun with me - the Chef took my carrots away, replacing them with Shallots and told me, "If I ever want to fucking stop mincing Shallots I will need to learn how to fucking Tourne correctly" his advice "stop being an asshole - get a fifty-pound bag of potatoes and figure it out at home."
We were about a quarter of the way into the plate-up when the cook next to me called out "More veg soon Chef!" The lead cook replied with a quick "Yes Chef" when I noticed him looking. He ran up and down each speed rack he was working from - looking for something - it had to be the vegetables. The Chef - seeing my eye wander immediately scolded me "MR.MINTON! EYES ON THE PLATE!" "Yes Chef!" And I was back to looking down - but out of the corner of my left eye I could still see the lead cook looking - now frantically - for something. The dish-out kept moving forward, a human-powered conveyer-belt system where each cook placed components on the plate while simultaneously sliding plates, two at a time, to the person on their right, ultimately stopping before the Chef for his saucing & approval. "FASTER PEOPLE! WE NEED TO MOVE OUR ASSES!" Meant just that, we were all head-down & full steam ahead when the lead cook leaned into my ear and whispered, "fucking run to the walk-in & get 10 carrots & 10 zucchinis - we're sixty pieces short on Tourne!"
"Having party?" My 89-year-old first generation Chinese / San Franciscan landlord asked while I walked my bag of potatoes down the long hall to my apartment. "No, Johnny, I'm practicing - to be a Chef." I said as I closed the front door - him laughing at me in the distance. I quickly went to work filling a 4-gallon plastic tub with cold water. One of the restaurants I had staged at let me take it home as a "thank you". A pickle bucket in a previous life: It was now paired as an ottoman to my milk crate club chair. Those were my only two pieces of furniture outside of the questionable second hand futon I slept on. Once rinsed I had the potatoes peeled in no time (peeling potatoes had become quite a specialty of mine) and shortly after that had them all cut, soaking in cold water and ready to Tourne. The first several attempts were not successful. I had a tattered thirty-year old French version of Larousse Gastronomique the Chef de Garde Manger had given me. It was the kindest gesture anyone had done for me but looking back, I'm pretty sure it came with a message like "Here. Read this, maybe you will get better, maybe you quit. I don't care." Of course, I couldn't actually read it, but I studied the illustrations and on this day - specifically the Tourne pages. Three hours into it and they were looking slightly better. By bedtime were right and by the following day, while I wasn't wining any land-speed records, I could do them quickly enough not to draw unwanted attention in the kitchen.
I instinctively ran around the line to the walk-in exactly as the lead cook told me, Chef was yelling at me, I ignored it and was back on my station with the carrots & zucchini without missing a plate. At this point the Banquet Chef knew what was up and began speaking to the Executive Chef in French. The lead cook was almost done in the ovens, the final 2 sheet pans of Wellingtons were out and resting, which allowed him time to quickly set up a blanching station and a small space for us to cut the remaining veg. He told the Chef he was taking me off the dish-out - which meant something serious happened and the two guys on either side of me would just need to go faster. I couldn't believe my luck, a perfect opportunity to bust-out my new-found Tourne mastery in-front of the whole banquet team! The Lead Cook & I got them all turned, blanched and quickly sautéed in butter before it presented a problem - so much so that none of the guys or the Chef, for that matter, even saw my new Tourne skills or if they did, no one said anything. We finished the last thirty plates and I was sanitizing the line, feeling good about myself, until I heard the Chef say, "Mr. Minton, you come to my office now. We need to have a discussion..."
"You know why you are sitting here?" "No Chef." "You are here Mr. Minton because you are not working with the team very well. They don't like you because they can’t count on you, I can’t count on you. I am not sure what kind of "cooking" you were doing in Texas or what even counts as "cooking" in Texas but you sure as hell are not cooking to our standards. You are slow, you talk too much. You are messy and you think everything is a fucking joke. You have no dedication, you are not serious about this trade. I do not know what we are going to do with you but I can tell you one thing, I regret the day we hired you." Head down, gutted, I went back to the banquet kitchen and cleaned my station, I rolled-up my knives, I thanked everyone and walked out of the kitchen. As I passed the time clock, the Chef who was not yet done with me exclaimed "What the hell is wrong with you Mr. Minton?! You didn't clock-out! You know the god damn rules - You must clock-out!" To which I replied, "I never clocked-in Chef, today was my day-off..."