“Look. If she can hold a knife, send her over.”
Susan McCreight Lindeborg was desperate. Chef of the Morrison Clark Inn in Washington, DC. since 1990, Susan’s reputation soared and the restaurant was so popular that by 1998, Gourmet magazine rated it number three in the city.
But she had a problem: three weekdays with no cold station cook.
The cold station refers to the preparation and cooking of first courses as well as plating desserts. In French restaurants, cold station is called the garde manger which means pantry. The impression one might get is a cook aimlessly grazing through some cupboards.
Cold station cooks have a list of ingredients for each appetizer. This is classically called the mis en place.These ingredients – raw and cooked – must be prepared, when possible, in advance. They might include steaming mussels, constructing phyllo triangles, cooking risotto and baking biscuits.
For the lunch shift, cooks arrive at 8:00 and work until 4:00. An August 17th, 1997 mis en place list contains 63 items to prepare, assemble or cook. And that didn’t count desserts.
Susan was covered for dinners and weekends but she needed to fill three lunch shifts. She called Bonny Wolf, her friend, food writer and reliable source. Bonny said, “I know a woman who might be able to do this. She isn’t a professional cook but I think she’d be a good fit.”
So that’s how I landed a job at the Morrison Clark. And it was a good fit; I had started a catering business. My events were mostly on weekends and I had time to cover the lunch shifts.
Susan wasn’t concerned that I hadn’t been to cooking school or had ever set foot in a restaurant kitchen. She was a born teacher and patiently showed me what to do. And she was no nonsense. “There’s not a lot of testosterone here but on the other hand, I don’t like tears.” Okay.
The kitchen was small: the cold station ran along one side with a range, oven, salamander (broiler), small refrigerator under the counter, and a sink. The counter top contained a hooded cooler with compartments for salad ingredients, chopped vegetables, and condiments. The work space had room for a chopping board and a shelf for knives.
I learned early the small space was very effective. Working sequentially, the mixing, chopping, baking and frying somehow came together.
It wasn’t the smoothest start, however. Laura, the elegant Peruvian sous chef, stopped at my station after a week and said, “It’s a good thing I like you. Because you: Know. Nothing. You don’t even know how to stand!”
“Show me!” I countered and she did. (Place your weight equally on both feet. Do not lean.)
Laura worked the sauté station alongside Jose Martinez, the grill chef. Valerie, our pastry chef worked with Beth, her assistant. Hector, our dishwasher, often doubled as a butcher, being a meat-cutting genius. With Susan, who arrived around lunch time and worked through dinner, we were six.
The dining room was upstairs and the waiters would run down with the orders. Laura would call them out and I would make some quick notes. The others cooks simply memorized them.
It was a great crew. If you shouted, “I’m in the weeds!” one or more of your cohorts would rush to your station and help get the order out.
I had never worked at a job that was so adrenaline-based. Prepping the food was pleasurable but the uncertainly of how many and varied the orders would be made me nervous. My cold station experience made me irritated with customers who gaily say, “Oh I’ll just have some appetizers.” Grr.
As weeks became months, I relaxed and began to enjoy the whole process. I loved watching the miracles that Jose, Laura, and Valerie turned out every day. I loved hearing Jose shout “Marijuana!” as he sprinkled parsley on a dish that the waiter scooped up. I knew Hector had a good weekend when he tied a napkin around his neck to hide his hickeys.
Valerie was a pastry genius but a lousy teacher. Plating her desserts could be complicated (caramelizing crème brulees, cutting a pie into seven (?) equal slices, balancing tiny sticks of chocolate over a passionfruit mousse…). Her instructions, sputtering and then anguished, “Just.. just DO it!” We reached an understanding: she showed me what she wanted and I copied it. No words needed.
Susan was the opposite. She taught methods, techniques and the history and culture of foods. She explained how no recipe can be copywritten because recipes are universal. Apple pie is apple pie even if your Aunt Margie puts peppercorns in it.
However, she was adamant that credit be given. If she used (and then changed) a recipe, she credited the cook who inspired it. Susan was known for Southern cooking but her cooking drew from all over. ‘Biscuits with Virginia Country Ham and Corn-Black-eyed Pea Relish’ stood side by side with ‘Grilled Sea Scallops with Moroccan Chermoula Sauce’. Her food was a wonder of taste and beauty without pretense or fuss.
Working at the Morrison Clark helped my catering business enormously. When schedules permitted, I had a great source of cooks and waiters for my events. Susan allowed me to order food through her providers, sources I would not otherwise have had access.
And then there were the rabbit livers. ‘Bunny and Bourbon’ was a popular dish: pieces of rabbit served over Swiss chard with a pecan bourbon sauce. The rabbits arrived with their livers which did not go into the dish. Susan gave me the rabbit livers and a Michael Field recipe for chicken liver pâté.
“Follow this recipe and you will have an outstanding pâté.” She was right and rabbit liver pâté became a standard on my menus.
Working in a restaurant has many parallels. The time crunch at mealtime is similar to a newspaper deadline. The importance of making a dish exactly the same way every time requires surgical precision. It’s not the time for creativity. As a cook, you follow orders. What your chef wants you do. That’s what makes customers return and order their favorites.
But can chefs be open to suggestion? Susan was and everyone benefitted.
My fellow cooks were from El Salvador, Hawaii, Korea, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and upstate New York. Susan was a listener and teacher. Her food reflected that: we all had a spot in the mix.
My cold station years were a great experience.
And I never order two appetizers.