Stories

As I See It Now

A feature from Penn Appetit's Spring 2018 issue

Originally published in our spring 2018 issue: See Food

Photos by Ethan Wu

Dining out has always been special. There’s just something otherworldly that blurs the whole experience, encompassing everything from getting greeted by the host to that last, bittersweet bite of dessert. But behind the veil of culinary magic lies something more–the people, the chefs, behind it all–that, for most, is never lifted. But lifted it must be, and the perspective on food that dissolving the barrier brings is as varied as the number of restaurants in Philadelphia. Here, two passionate cooks risked burns, insults, and arduous hours to experience this other world first hand. Put bluntly, they entered the professional kitchen as unpaid interns–stages, in restaurant lingo–and picked up scrapes, techniques, and stories along the way. Their perspectives upon their return couldn’t be more unique.

As I See It Now
by Xander Gottfried

Food has always meant magic to me. Home cooking was something I could always look forward to after a long day because I knew something magical would be waiting for me at the dinner table. When my parents cooked, all I saw was the pretty colors, as if seeing the output from a prism. As I began to cook for myself I learned to see from a chef’s perspective. I saw the input, the beautiful white light that becomes that melee of colors. Instead of seeing the ingredients distorted, recolored, and arranged on the plate in their edible spectrum, I saw it pre-prism, and the experience was only more magical. Being able to cook for myself and understand the care that goes into the prism-like process was the magic in cooking. To continue my exploration of food, I started working in a restaurant kitchen. But, alas. The professional kitchen has taught me much—from how to properly salt to how my bar for “that’s enough fat,” was much too low. It has not, however, shown me more magic. In fact, it has ruined the magical experience that used to be dining out.

Before I entered the kitchen, all food was magical. As a passionate home cook, I pour my heart and soul into my cooking, whether it be for me, a small family meal, or a grand dinner party. My view down on the ingredients as they are prepared is one of a parent gazing fondly down at an infant, adoring the ingredients into their grown up configurations. When I ate out, I had the picturesque idea that every plate was as carefully and lovingly put together, as if the chef poured his spirit into it as well. As if to the chef, every plate was a treasured newborn. I was wrong.

This care and adoration only happens when chefs first design dishes. But every time after that first development, every single time a dish is actually served, I’ve learned that my picturesque view no longer applies. Food is almost always haphazardly thrown together: crudo is hastily arranged on the plate in some preconceived pattern, bread is grilled so aimlessly that half of the orders are burned on the first attempt, slaw is draped over meat with such indifference to the drops of liquid all over the plate that if it wasn’t for the expediter carefully wiping them away the plate would be a pockmarked mess. Your food is not created by someone watching over a growing child but by someone just doing his job. That magical perspective I take when cooking at home—which translates to a magical feeling when eating—is simply not present in the professional setting.

But then what creates the magic for those who crave eating out, who find the restaurant experience far superior to anything they accomplish at home? There is a mask drawn over the diner’s eyes, and mine has been lifted. The restaurant atmosphere creates a faux sense of traveling far away to a place where there is enough care to qualify as magical. However, that only works if you forget the times during staff meal when chefs and servers gather around your empty tables to scarf down versions of what you’ll be having for dinner. A tablecloth-less and paper napkins-full scene awaits. Food piles unattractively on plates, cans of caffeine pass around, and a ubiquitous hint of cigarette smoke pervades the restaurant. No, it certainly cannot be atmosphere which gives the restaurant its allure, at least not anymore. Not once you know what really goes on. Unlike the prism of cooking, once you’re in the restaurant there is no more white light. Only a dirty, displeasing view.

So is it the food that blinds us all? Forget the flavor. That can be achieved with fat, salt, and quality ingredients, no magic needed. There is no art. One night during service, I asked one of the line cooks how I should arrange the taco shells in the oven. Stacked or spread out, top shelf or bottom? I asked when to take croutons out of the fryer. All I got for an answer was the hasty reply that he didn’t care. There was no anger in his voice. All I could detect was pure lack of concern. He was just doing his job. It will still look and taste amazing thanks to the recipe. But line cooks are only coloring in the lines of an excellent black and white drawing. The art is fake, a copy. There is no magic left in that.

I have been to many truly delicious restaurants. But after experiencing the dichotomy between restaurant and home cooking, pure flavor no longer interests me. I can buy a restaurant cookbook and make the food for myself, from the magical side of the prism. Not being rushed, forced, or told how to paint the dish, I can make it mine. It doesn’t have to be a worthless copy. The ephemeral quality I used to associate with restaurants does occasionally exist, depending on the atmosphere of the kitchen. But more often than not, nothing special goes on behind those mysterious, closed doors. Even open kitchens, which seem so magical, are simply better at disguising their faults and lack of care.

My experiences have emphasized the magic of cooking at home. So find that time to cook, to really cook–you’ll love the amazing new perspective.

As I See It Now
by Rachel Prokupek

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to accurately describe my relationship with food in words. It’s more of a feeling – like a secret that only I know and can’t possibly share with anyone else. A transcendental feeling, really, that fuels my drive, my passion, to completely immerse myself in the culinary world.  

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have parents that appreciated good food and were avid home cooks. They cooked seasonally, highlighting the ingredients from our garden — a homemade pesto and caprese salad, for example — or from the farmer’s market just a few blocks away.

My family also enjoyed eating out and exploring new restaurants, and it is a habit I have tried to maintain on my own in college. Eating out added to the allure of everything; I quickly discovered that I wanted to learn more about the plating, the techniques, the creativity behind each dish. I used my time dining at restaurants to learn as much as I could, absorbing everything I saw and tasted, but I still craved more.

I decided that, in order to satiate myself, I needed to work in a kitchen (or two). I bought my first kitchen knife, donned my chef whites, and worked in two different kitchens, an edgy Mexican eatery and a fine dining French restaurant  — both of which have shown me more than any dining experience ever could. Looking at the food from the other side of the pass, I smelled, saw, and tasted every detail that goes into a dish. My picturesque view of eating out only grew stronger – I gained a new appreciation, a new perspective, one I never had before. I learned how to plate Michelin star-worthy dishes. I learned how to respect ingredients and to handle them with care. I learned how much fat, salt, and acid it takes to balance a dish. I learned how to be creative and actually use my palate instead of strictly following a recipe.

Not only did I gain an insider’s view and an appreciation for the food I order at restaurants, but I also gained an immense appreciation for the line cooks and chefs who dedicate their lives to the kitchen. Yes, line cooks are playing the service game. They need to repeatedly and consistently produce dishes for diners days and nights on end. They don’t have all the time in the world, like they would in their own kitchens at home. But I argue that the same care and passion, magic if you will, goes into any and every restaurant dish they create.

One afternoon while prepping for dinner service, a line cook pulled me aside to show me his leek roulades — braised leeks carefully rolled up to enclose a stuffing, wrapped in plastic wrap to be slowly cooked in hot water. He shared his techniques to get no wrinkles in the plastic wrap, which would affect the shape of the roulade. Another time before service, I saw a book on the pass and asked the chef what it was. He stopped what he was doing and showed me The Flavor Bible, which lists virtually every ingredient and what it pairs well with. Think lemon, sole, and butter, or veal, red wine, and caramelized onions. The Flavor Bible is how the chef invents dishes and finds the perfect flavor combinations. I immediately bought my own copy after service that night and keep it in my room to this day. I open it when I want to experiment in the kitchen and create a new dish with the ingredients I have on hand.

I know that every kitchen is different, but the two that I have worked in showed me how much the chefs and line cooks care about the food they serve customers. They taught me how to cook with creativity, with precision, and with passion. My time in the kitchen was absolutely transcendental, and there is no other world like the culinary world. I have so much respect for the kitchen, and I gained skills that I apply almost every day in school (discipline, time management, and handling stress, to name a few). Now, when I cook for myself, I use what I learned from chefs in my own food, adding the same passion at home. I use the same precision and care when handling my ingredients, I use the same fat-salt-acid balance instinct I learned Day 1, and I use the same combination of technique and creativity to make my dishes simple but tasty.

Before I worked in kitchens, all food was special: both the food my family and I cooked at home and the food we ate while dining out. Working in the kitchens showed me food from the other side, from the chef’s perspective. I gained the skills to use my palate and creativity in ways I couldn’t before, which makes it all the more special when I see restaurants doing the same thing.