– three things I love to do. Come with!
I’ve been working at Martin Berasategui for two months now as part of the BasqueStage. It’s been a significant adjustment from kitchens I’ve worked in the past. I want to take the time to assess my experience thus far in light of my goals and motivations for coming here. Much like the externship manual for the CIA, my blog now helps me to reflect on my experience and remind myself what I am learning, how I can improve, and what I have to be thankful for.
I went back to my BasqueStage application essay, and I reread my reasons for applying:
“One, I want to be skilled at everything I do and a three Michelin star restaurant represents the highest level of execution in our industry.
Two, my work as a farmer has led me to value ingredients very highly. I want to learn to cook at this level because I want to honor those ingredients and the hard-working farmers who produce them.
Three, I want to learn from the rich gastronomic patrimony of Spain.”
In light of the first goal, I have improved my skills on a few very specific tasks, such as blanching wakame, making a sodium alginate bath for spherifications, and tempering chocolate. I have observed while others break down fish, and I have watched plate ups at the pass. Some chefs express frustration with the sheer number of stagiaires in the kitchen, and I share their sentiment. There are over sixty of us, and in the summer there will be more. I continually look for tasks, side work and hands-on activities, but sometimes there is just not enough work to go around. While some of the younger stagiaires may be impressed with standing up for long hours, I would prefer to work more efficiently. I remind myself, though, that this is not my kitchen. I am a guest, and I am trying to keep my eyes open to absorb as much as I can through observation, note-taking and conversation with other cooks.
Another big adjustment for me has been the working environment in the kitchen. I may be naïve to think that other European kitchens have different environments, but I was not expecting as much verbal abuse and psychological intimidation. Everyone has seen Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen, but that type of language does not improve the quality of food produced, nor does it truly motivate the team to succeed. I am often spared from the worst of the yelling because I am a woman and I am a BasqueStage, but my heart breaks for my coworkers when they are belittled with shouts and tongue-lashings. While some say this kind of treatment is just how things are done in Europe, I am finding that hard to accept. This kind of yelling is not a test of my resolve or my stamina; it’s simply an insult to another human being. Cooking great food is not about making oneself feel big by making others feel small; in my opinion, that’s a lack of professionalism. Perhaps I need to grow a thicker skin and shut my ears, or perhaps I need to evaluate the type of kitchen in which I choose to work in the future.
Speaking to the second goal of working with great products and thus honoring the ingredients and the producers, I am impressed with the quality of ingredients in the kitchen. The solomillo for the steak dish is beautifully marbled with great flavor. The fishmongers come right into the kitchen with whole fish to speak with the chef de partie of Pescados when they make their delivery.
Particularly impressive is the array of edible flowers, shoots, microgreens and lettuces that populate dishes from the Primeros station. The gorgeous colors and fresh greens make for beautiful plate arrangements. Thus, while the restaurant does not have its own garden and I haven’t been working outdoors with ingredients as I was in Napa Valley, I feel that I am seeing very high quality ingredients.
Lastly, I am learning a great deal about the gastronomic patrimony of Spain. The BasqueStage staff has been tremendously dedicated to our experience here, taking Elisha and me to meals at specialty restaurants, to lunches with the Sammic marketing team, to pintxos bars in San Sebastian, even to a calçotada– a traditional Catalan spring onion feast– on the Mediterranean coast south of Barcelona.
I was pinching myself all weekend to make sure I wasn’t dreaming that I was in a photo shoot for Travel+Leisure magazine.
Our apartment is furnished with a comfortable kitchen which has served as a great home base for ingredients we purchase at the local markets, like Idiazabal cheese, txakoli, beautiful mushrooms and Gateaux Basques. In the kitchen at Martin Berasategui, we see family meal menus that would rarely- if ever- appear in an American restaurant, such as beef tongue, spaghetti with mussels and Valrhona Guanaja chocolate mousse. Thus, I feel extremely fortunate to be living in Spain, to experience the food culture here first hand, and to have a generous living stipend while I do it.
Tomorrow, Elisha and I start Week 10 at the restaurant. I look forward to more chocolate tempering and crusty Galparsoro baguettes. I look forward to concealed chuckles with my coworkers. I look forward to learning more about myself and how I deal with adversity.
Thanks for reading!