Alarm. Start to wake up. Try not to wake Andrea – with whom I’m still gratefully staying – she can sleep for another precious 45 minutes.
Stumble out of bed. Wash up. Clothes, make-up, hair. Make bed. Phone, coat, shoes.
Out the door. Cobblestone streets – gardiennes putting out the green trash cans. Cross Rue Mouffetard. Place Monge. On Wednesdays wend through the vendors setting up for the thrice-weekly market - good thing I’m used to the smell of raw fish first thing in the morning. Carte Orange out. Descend to Metro.
Trains come every two minutes during rush hours. Line 7 to Palais Royal – change to Line 1. Out at Concorde – Rue Cambon exit. Up on Rue de Rivoli. Walk next to Tuileries gardens – hopeful to see happy morning dogs.
Clock at American Embassy corner runs a few minutes slow. Look ahead to see Eiffel Tower in the distance. Then all the gold – the dome at Invalides, the pyramidal top to the obelisque in the Place itself, and all the glittering streetlamps. Madeleine’s to the right. Turn the corner at the Crillon. Slip in my card to open the door.
Women’s locker room door to unlock, then locker. Hang my coat. Grab the bundle that’s my jacket and pants from the night before. Rush over to laundry to change out for a fresh jacket, pants, two aprons, four sidetowels, and two neckties. We’re only supposed to get one necktie a day, but when I started I asked for two – I like to change for dinner service. One of the laundry ladies told me there’s not enough for everyone for two a day – but since then she’s always given me two – without my ever having to ask again. Out of the civvies. Get suited up. Pants on – blue and white houndstooth check. Chef’s shoes – with green Superfeet footbeds. Hair twirled up and secured with two black elastic terrycloth hairbands. Necktie. Nike back support belt. Jacket – with blue Crillon “C” over the heart - buttoned left over right. Apron. Sidetowels – one on each side – towards the back. Black Professional Sharpie and Pilot G-2 05 pen clipped to the front of my jacket. Moleskine from my backpack. Go to cafeteria to get a cup of hot water from our free automatic espresso machine – which is an amazing thing but I gave up coffee. We can have free breakfast too – croissants, pain au chocolat, brioche, baguette with butter and jam, café au lait – but I can’t eat so early.
Go around the kitchen and say “bonjour” and shake hands with everyone – shake wrists if hands are dirty - kiss cheeks with a few close kitchen comrades with whom I worked at the Plaza. Pull out my knife tray. Put on my toque. Set up stations - cutting boards and countertop waste bins. MEP - mise en place - about 20 different things – and sometimes only two of us – me and the ranking chef de partie. I’ll either start with the crayfish or the nightmarish herb salad. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a truly beautiful thing – a mélange of mesclun, fine frisee, wild arugula, chives, chervil, mache, purple and green basil, mint, tarragon, marjolane, and three other herbs I’ve yet to identify. But it’s a painstaking process to prep – each element no bigger than the size of your thumbnail – some smaller than tip of an eraser – it’s like building a beach from individual grains of sand. For the crayfish I first check if we have any left in BOF – Buerre Oeufs Fromage – the Butter Eggs Cheese walk-in – or if not get them from the morning delivery that’s just arrived in the fish prep room. I count out what we need according to the number of covers for lunch and dinner and put them into a deep pan – so they can’t jump out. Back in garde-manger I pull heads from tails then devein them. I heat a large copper sauté pan with some vegetable oil to smoking hot, then add the tails with a few cloves of unpeeled garlic and parsley stems, then stir them around. Off the heat I add a little cognac – so it doesn’t flame up - cover to steam for a few minutes, then pour them onto a tray. Put the tray over ice, then start to shell. Once shelled, I check that they’re deveined well, then arrange them on a tray, film them, pop them into the fridge and move on to the rest of the MEP. The foie gras custard, the truffle butter, the scallop carpaccio, the langoustine siphons, and of the course the crazy fucking salad – and so forth and so on.
The chef – M. Piège – comes in around now – usually comes around and says good morning and shakes hands with everyone.
Stop MEP, start cleaning. Put everything away. Wipe down the counters, hose floors.
Set up service stations. Put down the cushioned plastic mats – so plates are protected from the stainless steel counters. On one side it’s the plates, salads, langoustine condiment, and foie gras station. On the other side it’s the scallops and leek garnish station. The center island’s reserved for the blancmanger – a savoury black truffle blancmanger – an impossibly delicate soufflé. It’s made with egg whites, lemon juice, salt, finely chopped chives and truffles with an egg yolk in the center; baked for about three minutes. It’s topped with a crown of black truffle rounds - plate garnished with a chive oil. There are two of these to an order – and we always bake one extra as a safeguard – sometimes that’s not enough.
Toques off – go to lunch. We have a nice employee cafeteria. Food is basic French – sometimes with banquet extras. At lunch a lot of breakfast extras – like sectioned grapefruit and smoked salmon. I always try to have fruit, yogurt – an artisanal whole milk yogurt – the veggie of the day, the meat of the day, maybe the starch, and always but always dessert. My first choice is chocolate – either the pair of molleux cakes ringed with candied Clementines or the wedge of Black Forest cake or the not-bad brownie – even if it does have walnuts. If there are macarons, I’ll double up on dessert. We can also have hard cider, beer, or wine, but almost none of us in the kitchen ever do. But most of them wolf down their food fast to take a long smoke break right outside the service entrance – the cafeteria’s smoke-free during meals.
Back to the kitchen – toques back on - finish MEP. I make the final check of the stations – loosening the tops to the caviar tins – 250 grams of Kaviari golden Iranian oscetra which retails for about $1000– because a new, full caviar can be a bitch to open.
The first orders start rolling in. The sous-chef calls the orders - loud. The chef-chef – M. Piège starts cranking. We don’t get that many orders in garde-manger during lunch – since we have a 70 euro lunch menu that doesn’t include us. So that’s when I move over to entremets – which is something outside of cold, fish, and meat. Right now that’s where we’re doing the most expensive item on the menu – the fried langoustines with caviar – at 100 euros.
Garde-manger gets hit first so we finish first. We can usually start clearing – saving the salad for last because there’s a side salad with the pigeon – and meat rolls out last.
Service is usually over by now - toques off. We start the full scale cleaning. Everything’s cleared and counters, stoves, and floors scrubbed.
Hopefully we can leave soon for our midday break. We wait for the sous-chef’s OK – and then race out. In the locker room I toss my apron and sidetowels into the hamper, hang my jacket and pants, toss my necktie to the bottom of my locker, then change into civvies. Most of the guys rush home for a nap. The guys who live too far have a regular card game in the cafeteria – feuled by coffee and cigarettes. I’ve tried going back to Andrea's to nap when we break a little earlier but it’s too hard – too long on the Metro and then there’s that jarring alarm again. I just need to go outside and sit for a while in the Tuileries.
Back in the locker room. Get suited up again.
Back in the kitchen – toque back on. Replenish MEP. This is usually when we do the black truffle work and slice the foie gras terrine - into small precise thumb-length rectangular bars – and the scallops into a round of carpaccio. And then there’s the salad – check the levels on for the salad.
Stop MEP. Start cleaning.
Set up service stations.
Toques off - dinner. Almost the same as lunch, but with some more banquet extras, especially alcohol - last night there were bottles of Corona – but usually no more fresh fruit and most disturbingly no more chocolate dessert – this is when I’ll usually have to settle for a caramel crème or two.
Back in the kitchen – toques back on - finish MEP, final check, help other stations with their MEP. Brace for battle.
First orders. We get slammed at dinner – early and hard – especially hard if there are lot of the blancmangers - each table is a la minute – there’s no way to prepare for those ahead of time at all. During service I'll do the langoustine condiment – which is the langoustine cream out of a siphon, into a chilled bowl, with a sprinkle of langoustine coral powder, a bit of caviar, all carefully folded together, spooned into a Chinese teacup, and garnished with a final sprinkle of coral. And the leek garnish – a tube of brik filled with a bacon cream out of a siphon, and three tiny pain de campagne toast squares garnished with mi-cuit egg yolks – eggs cooked at 68C for 50 minutes in a steam oven – and julienned leeks and black truffles. And the crazy fucking salads – god help the person who overdresses the salad with the truffle vinaigrette – which means that we have to dump it. God help them. And the foie gras and scallops. The foie gras is plated with a perfect strip of corn gelee and four bars of foie gras – alternating with sautéed, chopped corn with a touch of black pepper and chopped popcorn topped with a whisper-thin layer of sugar, caramelized with a small torch. The scallop carpaccio is brushed with balsamic vinegar, filled with julienned celeriac dressed with truffled mayo, twisted into a ball – about the size of a golfball - and garnished with microscopic pale yellow celery leaves and a shower of julienned truffles. The foie gras and scallops are just the cold elements to a hot and cold presentation which comprises the entire dish – the hot elements come from entremets. M. Piège gets cranking again – often stepping into the line at the fish station to do some special dishes himself. That is fucking amazing at this level – chefs at his level never usually get on the line.
Garde-manger can start clearing – except for the crazy fucking salad.
Service is about over. Toques off - we start the full scale cleaning.
The sous-chef makes the final checks – looking into our fridges – making sure everything is properly cleaned and put away. He gives the sign and we can go. Some of us stay to shake hands and say good night to the chef and the sous-chefs.
Toss apron and sidetowels into hamper – jumble the rest into my locker – change into civvies. Grab a cup of hot water on my way out. Walk back up Rue de Rivoli to the Rue Cambon entrance to the Concorde Metro station. Down to Line 1. Trains come around every 7 minutes at night. At Palais-Royal change to Line 7.
Exit at Place Monge. Escalator up – walk across the empty square. Cross Rue Mouffetard – pass the sidewalk tables still dressed with lit candles, no matter the weather. Quiet cobblestone streets.
Door code into the courtyard, hit the lights to the hallway. Unlock the door. Try not to wake Andrea who’s hopefully been asleep for about an hour now. Change shoes to slippers, wash Metro hands. Shower. Pajamas. Prep clothes for morning. Write journal. Plug in phone to charge. Set alarm clock.
Alarm. Start to wake up.