CULINARY: My first night at Pigall's

 

After working on the details for several months, on Saturday (January 8, 2005) I worked at Jean-Robert at Pigall’s restaurant, which serves French-American cuisine in a modern Parisian setting, with a little New York ambiance and plenty of Cincinnati charm. Chef and owner Jean-Robert de Cavel’s innovative prix fixe menu features a delectable array of appetizers, entrees and desserts accompanied by an extensive wine list. A five-course degustation menu is also offered and wine pairings, suggested by the sommelier, are available for all menu selections. 

I arrived at 2:00pm, introduced myself to the sous chef who spoke with me for a few minutes before taking me upstairs to the kitchen where a group of guys (Bob, Matt, Mirko, Zack, Thomas, and Dave) were working ‘prep’ — preparing items for service later in the evening. The kitchen was an English-speaking kitchen, which was mildly surprising to me since the restaurant is run by a Frenchman. I was surprised at the youthful appearance of the workers… I didn’t ask specifically, but it seemed to me that all of the workers were in their early-to-mid twenties. I was impressed by the skills these guys had and their non-pretentious focus on putting out excellent product.

The staff enters the back-of-house side of the restaurant through an alley into the ‘basement’ of the building where the freezers & coolers, locker rooms, and fabrication areas are located. Climbing the stairs and making a sharp left at the top, you enter the kitchen. The kitchen is a large room, and the cooking and prep areas are configured in a reversed “L” shape. The door into the kitchen is at the end of the bottom of the “L”. From there, the stations in order are desserts, cold appetizers, hot appetizers/soups. Behind these stations, behind a wall, is the dish tank. The hot line makes up the long side of the “L”. At the top of the long side of the “L” is a “Chef’s Table” where up to six diners can enjoy their meal in the kitchen, receiving special attention from Chef. The interior of the “L” is where finished items are presented to Chef for his final touches before being taken to the dining room.

After being introduced to everyone, I set up my prep station and began cutting vegetables, from leeks to shallots, snow peas to mushrooms. My knife skills were good though I was slower than the professionals (which I expected).

A bit later, Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel arrived and introduced himself. He explained to me that I was welcome to stay around as long as I wished. Additional kitchen and front-of-house staff arrived for the next couple hours. The ‘family meal’ (meatloaf, banana bread, and poultry soup) was served around 4:45. I learned an important lesson during family meal — do not delay! I saw the meatloaf, but by the time I finished the bit of prep I was working on, it was all gone! The soup and bread were good, though.

After prep was done, I was told that I could stand where the short & long sides of the “L” meet as to have the best view of the action during service. I was closest to Bob, Mirko, and Zack. Bob was working cold appetizers that evening and offered to show me that station. That station was in charge of (in addition to some other things), a crab appetizer (Jonah Crab Salad with Avocado, Fennel, Cauliflower, Kentucky Caviar and Lemon Dressing), a tuna appetizer (Tartar of Tuna in Classic Ni篩se Style Salad with Quail Egg), a goat cheese appetizer (Warm Indiana Goat Cheese with Dried Fruit, Field Greens, Onion Marmalade), a scallop appetizer (Nantucket Cape Scallops with Grapefruit and Pomegranate, Celery Root Salad), and a bibb lettuce salad (Bibb Lettuce, Hearts of Palm, Artichoke and Red Beet Barigoule with Avocado Cream). Before the orders flew, Bob showed me where everything is, instructed me to “Work Clean”, to put everything away the moment I was done with it, and to stay out of the way.

The lights in the kitchen dimmed at 5:30, indicating that service had begun. I believe that we had about 100 on the books for the evening, described as a “6” on a 1-to-10 scale of busy for the restaurant. Shortly, the first orders started coming in. For the first few minutes, I stood by and watched the guys work until they established the rhythm of the evening. Eventually, Bob showed me components of various dishes he was preparing and allowed me to participate in preparation of orders. Of course, I got my ass kicked and am not sure how much (if any) help I was to Bob, but I deeply appreciate his willingness to show me the ropes (and to put himself into the weeds in doing so).

After Bob’s station got out of the weeds I watched the other stations get hit, one after the other. The kitchen staff handled the crush gracefully and without sweating — even the guys standing on the hot line (which was hot enough to give you a tan) seemed to work cool. Service at the restaurant occurs in two seatings with a “halftime” in the middle. During that halftime, Bob restocked and got ready for the second half.

There was a constant parade of customers coming into the kitchen to greet Jean-Robert. It was interesting to observe them… They didn’t seem to see the guys working the line at all and focused entirely on Chef, who greeted every guest warmly.

Throughout the evening, Chef looked at each and every dish that went out, making last-minute adjustments before sending it on to the dining room. Very few were returned before going out for a re-plate, owing mostly to timing errors (the soup was ready too early, for example). There was little waste, little conversation beyond the calling of orders (and the occasional bark from Chef), and tremendous economy of motion by the guys on the line. At first, I felt very much like the square peg, but by the end of the evening I was much more aware of the ‘dance’, if not a participant in it (or at least not an idiot bashing around recklessly).

As the second half’s rush slowed, around 11:00pm, I spoke with Chef for a few moments to thank him for allowing me to visit that evening. I asked if it would be okay to come back, and he seemed agreeable.

It was an amazing night… Physically, I was worn out, but my mind was going a mile-a-minute, which made it hard to settle down for the night. The ache in my back from standing for 9 hours straight made it hard to get out of bed the next morning.

UPDATE: They asked me to come back down and work some more (hard to argue with skilled labor that is willing to work free!)! I’ll go back at the end of January, and perhaps Chef & I can talk about making this an ongoing experience. More as it develops…

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