The last semester at Oberlin was bittersweet. I was finally beginning to really like the school. Perhaps I was feeling very much at home at Asia House and enjoying all the cultural offerings of this fabulous school.
My last semester, I had a magnificent room with lots of sun pouring in through the windows. Outside the windows were quince bushes. I picked a bunch of quinces and then made quince jelly, which is so very aromatic. I deposited the pomace on a sheetpan, believing I could let it dry and gradually turn into fruit leather.
I slid the sheetpan under my bed. It didn’t turn into fruit leather but into fruit flies, and I had to pitch it.
I was ready to leave school, so I moved to New York City with still 9 units left in order to graduate. I decided that my time would be better spent in the city, working. I hit the ground, running. I stayed in a dumpy hotel near Times Square, one in which the primary aroma in the room is of roaches, a common aroma in New York City.
I spent days going from one French restaurant to another, asking about jobs. This time, I didn’t look in the newspaper’s Help Wanted section.
I even had the cheek to walk into the Four Seasons Restaurant, and I spoke with the big chef himself and with George Lang, who was a partner in the group that owned Four Seasons and other big-name restaurants. George Lang told me that I wasn’t ready to be hired by his restaurant although when pressed for what attributes I lacked, he didn’t respond. Years later, when I was a faculty member at Cornell, I met him again. He was considered to be a pioneer in the new-age restaurants of New York.
And indeed, Four Seasons was just that. It had a regularly changing menu. It used fresh ingredients, often using locally grown rather than the old and flavorless California stuff. It was multi-ethnic, reflecting New York itself. And who better to be a chef than a Swiss?
After maybe three days, I walked into Quo Vadis and asked to see the chef. He hired me on the spot. Eugène Bernard, the tiger of Anthony Bourdin’s Kitchen Confidential, the subject of an entire chapter.
I would work for Chef Bernard for a good 8 months. I was, others informed me, “the 200th Poissonier that Chef Bernard had hired in the 11 years he had worked at Quo Vadis.
Named after the Christian book of that name (and the schmaltzy Hollywood movie) that promoted the stereotypes of Christians good, Romans bad, Quo Vadis had opened shortly after WWII. It was the brainchild of Bruno Caravaggi and Gino Robusti, who met in Belgium and who left Europe on one of the last liners out. They were hired in the Belgian Restaurant at the 1939 World’s Fair, famous for its prediction of the use of computers in kitchens. After the war was over, they opened their new establishment on the site of the old Brussels Restaurant, at 63rd and Madison. Within two years, they became known as paragons of politeness, and in 1968, Craig Claiborne had given the restaurant four stars.
Chef Bernard was a tyrant. He yelled. He slammed his fist on the counter. The cook staff consisted of mostly Puerto Ricans. The Saucier was Puerto Rican. Short, pudgy, and very bright, he produced exactly what Bernard wanted. He stood to my right. On my left was the Rotisseur, an old Puerto Rican, who had the knack of cooking everything à point. A Puerto Rican who staffed the Garde Manger; I can’t remember what he produced. I know we sold a lot of hearts of palm salads, I’m guessing with a Sauce Gribiche, Bernard’s favorite. And in the back, in his own room, was the German patissier, who ruled his own turf and wouldn’t tolerate any yelling from Bernard. He specialized in lots of petits fours, such as 1 inch diameter Florentines (the best cookie of all time.)
I was Bernard’s primary focal point. I can’t remember what dishes I produced, other than a luscious lobster dish that involved cutting a lobster live into pieces, sautéing it, flambéing in cognac, extracting it from its shell, boiling down the sauce. Meanwhile I had to do all that with my fingertips, which became hardened, like those of a violinist.
One of my first days on the job, Bernard said, “Make me a shrimp curry.” I had no idea how to do it. I started by sautéing the shrimp (right), then adding some tomato sauce (wrong). He screamed, “You idiot!” and flew behind the line, hitting me hard with his hip and sending me flying into the Saucier. He then proceeded to demonstrate how to make a shrimp curry.
I took the abuse, unlike my predecessors, because I really wanted to learn. Also, I had grown up with a tyrannical male figure, my father, who demonstrated his tyranny in Germanic rather than Gallic ways. And a third reason that I could take the abuse: I was used to it, having worked in three kitchens in France.
Chef Bernard taught me how to actually taste food and to cook, just as Miss Truran taught me how to listen to musical lines, bring out voices, and playing close into the keys. Bernard taught me about the importance of reduction, potentiating flavor with salt, balancing tastes and flavors, accentuating notes (which the French call relever).
Every Saturday morning, Chef Bernard would insist that I stand at my station, he sitting at the “pass” and we chatted. For hours. I don’t remember any of our conversations, but we obviously had plenty to say to each other. I know that one of his favorite conversations was about the superiority of the French over the English language. It was his contention that French verbs were more precise. I suspect that in the culinary realm, he may be right. For example, there isn’t an English equivalent to frasage, which refers to initial stages of mixing a dough when the glutenous proteins are hydrating. Vanner is another one, referring to a careful stirring of a liquid using a wooden spoon.
In the culinary realm, he was my finest teacher. But I had to leave because I had bigger fish to fry. Those fish were in Austin, Texas.