(Part one starts below this entry)
I stopped myself for a second, watching the medallions sear. I tried to bring to mind what it was I knew I needed moments ago. I had no idea. The heat on the onions was back to what I wanted, but the rings I’d thrown in a minute ago were no good—just by looking at them, you could tell they were oil-soaked and terrible. The oven was on, the flattops were going full tilt, most of the burners were on; it was pretty hot. I felt two trickles of sweat run between my shoulder blades and I very much wanted a drink of water. I got the old onions out of the oil and tossed some new ones in; they began to brown right away, and I suspected maybe they wouldn’t be entirely done when I had to serve them in five minutes. But then again, five minutes—as fast as they were evaporating right now—was a pretty long time.
I flipped the medallions, and they looked great: a nice, dark brown sear. I put the broccolini in the appointed pan, dribbled some water over them, and tossed in a generous pat of butter. The butter melted, started to emulsify with the water, and I pushed and pulled the pan so the vegetable would jump and flip and coat itself with the glaze. I seasoned it quickly and put it aside. One task down. It was 5:36.
Some pools of red juice showed on top of the medallions and they came out of the pan to rest. I would have preferred they rest for 10 minutes, but it wasn’t going to happen. The oil in the pan was almost smoking, and I poured it out in the compost bin positioned right behind my station. I deglazed the pan with a healthy shot of wine, ladled in some sauce chasseur, checked the onions—another minute, maybe two—and realized what it was Id forgotten. I grabbed a plate and threw it in the oven to warm up. There. As simple as that: problem alleviated. The sauce was bubbling nicely; the pan came off the stove. 5:38 and counting. I pulled the onions out, shook the basket, tossed the rings into a bowl and pelted them with a handful of salt. The clock said I had about 90 seconds. The plate came out of the oven, a ladleful of sauce went on it, with the two medallions set on top. The gratin—I’d spaced that one—out of sight, out of …—so I cut a wedge with my paring knife and shoveled it alongside the medallions. The broocolini got plated. I bit into an onion ring—maybe it could have gone another minute, but it was a minute I just did not have.
What I did have was about 30 seconds. There was some sauce on the edge of the plate and I wiped it off with a clean paper towel. Then, strangely, I put the towel to my lips and tasted.
Shit, I thought. Dammit.
It hadn’t been the warm plate I’d forgotten about. The sauce was sharp on my tongue, very acidic. I’d completely forgotten to swirl some butter into it. I’d done some pretty good cooking that afternoon, and it was about to go to ash because I’d forgotten one simple step—one of the most basic steps in finishing a sauce like this—and the doneness of the broccolini, the perfect medium-rareness of the beef, the beauty of the gratin was all going to be overshadowed by the lack of a tablespoon of butter.
In the instantaneous way that your mind can do these sorts of calculations, I figured it would take me 90 seconds to get some butter into the sauce still steaming in the pan, wipe the old sauce off, and replate. That would be ten points off of my grade. How many points do you get docked for missing butter?
I carried the plate over to the skills chef. I’d take the risk.
I was the second to last person to be evaluated, which meant 16 people had gone before me. I stepped up and the evaluation began. I was already angry at myself, and feeling seriously defensive.
“Nice meat—just the right color,” he said after cutting into one of the medallions. He ate a forkful of gratin. “Okay, the potatoes are cooked just right.” The fork went to the plate. “I might have taken the broccolini out 30 seconds earlier. It doesn’t have the bite it needs. The onion rings—maybe a little longer in the oil next time. It’s not the end of the world, just a tiny bit underdone.” Finally, he ate a tiny morsel of the beef. “Consistency of the sauce is good, beef is tender. Okay, nice job. Really nice job. Just watch that broccolini in the future.” He scrawled something down on his grade sheet.
I stood for a second and almost told him, “Hey, man—come on. Bust me on that sauce. It sucks. It’s really sour. Come on.” But I went back to my station instead. I tried the sauce on the plate again. And it did suck. I heated up the sauce in the pan, swirled some butter in, mopped most of the old sauce off of my plate and ladled on the new. I started eating my dinner. And then I figured it out. The guy had eaten 16 bites of meat, 16 bites of gratin and broccolini, and 16 onion rings. His palate had to have been sapped. He'd only mentioned textures during the critique. He probably couldn’t have really tasted a thing.
The gargantuan (in myriad ways) Fernand Point, whose book Ma Gastronomie was reissued just this past week, wrote, “Success is the sum of a lot of little things done correctly.” I roasted a chicken last Sunday at home and forgot to take out the wishbone. Just tonight, I was making chicken stock in my kitchen, was preoccupied with all sorts of things I needed to do, and forgot to rinse the bones. When I served some homemade pasta to some friends the other night, I neglected to top it with the garnish of fresh basil I’d chiffonaded. I just simply forgot.
“If you take a shortcut now, you’ll be taking them for your whole career.”
So I didn’t lose any points, at least not for the most glaring thing on my plate. I ate my food, and it tasted great. But still: I’d done some pretty good cooking that after noon and it was all going to be overshadowed by the lack of a tablespoon of butter.