We did it guys. We were chefs for the day–or evening, rather–at Canelé in Atwater Village for their rotating Friends Cook feature. What an experience. Neither one of us has spent any time in a restaurant kitchen, so the entire event was full of interesting and slightly nerve-racking moments. Of course, not only the preparation, but also the presentation of a meal to a restaurant’s frequent patrons is just as daunting. We were lucky to learn just what it’s like to work with trained chefs, cooks and waitresses, not to mention prepare meals for refined eaters.
We’d already given everyone a short rundown on the occasion through a previous post, so several people knew we’d be working the kitchen after Labor Day weekend. You were all so encouraging and excited for us, which was great to hear. Believe it or not, we’d never eaten at Canelé before our debut, so we took a ride over to the restaurant for a quick Saturday morning brunch. It would be a chance to take a peek at the kitchen, meet Chef Corina Weibel and general manager Jane Choi and ask any last questions about how everything would happen. We definitely had a lot. Corina wasn’t at the restaurant yet when we arrived, but Jane just happened to be the person to welcome us at the door. When she heard that we were the folks up to bat for Friends Cook, she was genuinely pleased to meet us. Jane tried to reassure us that there was nothing to worry about and everything would go as planned. We had so many little questions about the meal itself, but those were questions only Corina could answer. We’d have to just sit and settle with our food until she arrived.
Brunch was delicious. We both tried something different and tasted the other’s meal. It was agreed that Canelé does a great brunch. The omelet was tender and flavorful as well as packed with fresh veggies. The open faced salmon sandwich was very fresh and light, brightly highlighted with caperberries and a lemony fennel salad. Funny enough, Diana from Diana Takes a Bite tweeted that she’d be there for brunch as well, so it was great to see her again so soon after our recent LA food bloggers happy hour. (She ordered the famous French toast with fig compote and marscarpone, which is next on our list to try.) Diana came to our table and chatted with us, fully expressing her best wishes for our adventure. We promised to give as many details as possible when it was all over. Just as we finished the meal and proceeded to head out the door, Corina walked in. We’d met previously at the Extravaganza for the Senses, and of course we had communicated by email throughout the weeks, but this would be our last opportunity to talk face to face before the big day. She told us to wear something comfortable–clothes and shoes–and just be ready to cook. No need to stress about the menu. Easy enough. By the time we left brunch, we felt ready to tackle the dinner crowd.
Before we knew it, a couple of days went by, and it was Tuesday the 8th–our day of reckoning! Following the weekend’s brunch, the one thing that seemed like the most intimidating aspect was the open, narrow kitchen. As you can see, there’s nowhere to hide. There were no white doors to slide behind, so it was clear we’d have to face the crowd no matter what. Plus, it’s a skinny space, so sliding by cooks with hot pans and sharp knives could prove to be disastrous for clumsy kids like us. Squeezing back there with several other cooks would be tight quarters for sure.
We arrived at 2:00 pm that afternoon to find the first two folks who would be working the line with us that night–Gregory and David. The look on our eyes must’ve said we were fish out of water, so Gregory was quick to take charge and ease nerves by offering glasses of cold water and black aprons. He told us Corina would be in momentarily, so we chatted to pass the time. We got a little background on his culinary training in Pasadena, and he provided an interesting picture of what his experience was when he was a student. We continued to talk until Corina arrived a few minutes later. Then, it was time to work. She welcomed us and let us know that our chicken thighs for the pot pie were on the way, so after a quick run through, we could get started on everything else before they were delivered. She went to the back to put on her apron, gave us bar towels to tuck into our aprons, and then we reviewed the menu.
First course: Sweet Apple and Bacon Puffs with Pomegranate Glaze
Second course: Tarragon Chicken and Grape Pot Pie with Arugula Salad
Third course: Almond and Coconut Cream Fruit Cakes
With the chicken on its way to the restaurant, we decided that working on the pot pie filling, crust and prepping the bacon and apple puffs would be the way to go. But first, a tour of the premises. Chef Corina guided us towards the back where we’d find the rest rooms, an office, the pastry room and food storage facilities, as well as the dishwashing area. A huge fridge full of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs was the initial stop. We loaded our arms with tarragon, parsley, grapes, carrots, celery, onions, lemons and fennel fronds. Back to the line we went where we prepped a large tin of mirepoix and cut up grapes and herbs for the pot pie filling, zested lemons for the crust and peeled and cut apples for the puffs. It was during all this prep that B.J., another line cook for the evening, arrived. We were in his designated spot! You see, with a small kitchen space, the evening of Friends Cook can be a bit dicey for the seasoned chefs who have to deal with a novice or two in their space. Too bad for B.J. Lucky for us, everyone at Canelé was too nice beyond reason to give us their best Gordon Ramsey and send us cowering out of the kitchen. We got lucky. Lucky because B.J. was super nice and watching him whip up dish after dish throughout the night was really impressive, but all of that would come later. We told him to let us know anytime we were in his way and also to fill us in on any tips that would make the job easier. His first lesson? The most efficient way to cut an onion. A bit of knowledge to tuck away!
Once all the veggies were chopped, we split up and took different posts. Amir stayed on the line with Corina to handle chicken, pie filling and apples, while Chrystal traveled to the pastry room to work on the pie crust. Once the two dozen chicken thighs arrived, it was time to get them in the oven stat! Having an extra set of hands–experienced hands mind you–was immensely reassuring and helpful, as Corina cooked the apples in the brown sugar and spices while Amir dealt with searing the chicken. Imagine cooking food on several over-sized pans all at once on top of the biggest stove you’ve ever seen in your life and each burner is set to high heat, shooting out flames at full blast. We’re sweating just writing about it. As intense as it sounds, the whole experience was actually energizing rather than nail-biting. Maybe it was the support of the other chefs with their head nods and friendly grins. Who knows, but standing over the roaring flames of the stove clenching tongs exhilarating. The reality of what we had gotten ourselves into was now clear and without a doubtreal…and it was exciting!
Once the chicken thighs were browned and the veggies had softened, everything went straight into the oven to bake. While the chicken was doing its thing (and Chrystal was churning for her life making the dough), Amir rolled raw bacon slices around each slice of apple and chunk of blue cheese. That would be 100 apple slices to be exact. Corina rolled out a few as well in between finishing off the pie filling and organizing the rest of the kitchen for the nightly dinner menu. She’s quite a multi-tasker! Next up was cutting the puff pastry dough, de-boning and shredding the chicken, and reducing the pomegranate glaze. The minutes flew by, as we ticked closer to dinner time. Finally, the filling was done, and it tasted heavenly. In order to speed up the cooling process, Chef Corina suggested we drop the filling in a large pan and set it over ice.
At the same time Amir and Corina worked the line, Chrystal was in the pastry room. Before we’d even arrived, Corina made the executive decision to have the cake started, so that it would have proper time to cool and set for the evening. Pastry chef Megan was just finishing the final touches on our cake recipe, and as she slid the tray into the fridge to set, Chrystal sidled up to the table to make the crust. If you’ve never made pie crust in a warm room with cold butter, you should try it. Maybe you’ll feel the panic in your heart that Chrystal felt as her first batch of pastry dough turned to mush in the food processor. It literally looked like creamed butter, shortening and flour, which is not a good look for pie crust. Choosing to leave the gadgets aside, she went back to her tried and true hand incorporation method, popping the dough into the fridge to quick chill every couple of minutes. Because the room’s warmth and crumbling dough by hand made it harder for the dough to set up, she decided to half the amount of cold water in the crust. At that point, all we could do was hope that wouldn’t ruin the crust. Obviously a pot pie has to have an amazing crust, and this was not the best time to make changes to a recipe, but you gotta do what you gotta do. We hoped that they would taste just as good as they usually did, which is not what you want to have in mind so close to serving time. It was an ordeal for sure, but after an hour (yes, an hour) of work, Chrystal had five cast iron pans of bottom crust chilling and extra dough in the fridge just waiting to be rolled out for the top layer once the filling was ready and cooled.
Time was slowly inching towards 5:00 pm, and we had to get at least two pies baked. We rolled out top crusts, poured in the filling, sealed the layers, brushed a bit of egg wash on top and slid the pies into the 550 degree oven. Yes, 550 degrees. Hot! One thing we learned is that the kitchen is truly an inferno, and when you’re literally standing less than two feet away from a blasting oven–whether it is open or closed–you will feel toasty. And you may get burnt! Unfortunately, Amir did sustain a battle wound in the form of a two inch burn on his arm. Note to selves: Mind all heat blasting surfaces and orifices at all times.
As the first pies baked, the servers–Ashley, Anna and Laura–and hostess Marta for the evening filed in, and Corina gave us all a short tutorial on how to cut and plate the evening’s dessert for our menu. Most likely we wouldn’t have to worry about that part, but she wanted to be sure we knew how it would look. The servers handled the dessert orders for the evening. We also did not have to plate the appetizer course. That happened on another part of the line headed up by Gregory. He had our bacon and apple puffs looking mighty fine! We stayed on our end of the line nestled between David and B.J. who were busy all night preparing fish, pasta, duck and beef dishes. There were four dishes that were continuously flying out to patrons: Bistro Steak with Pommes Anna and Creamed Spinach, Boeuf Bourguignon with Buttered Noodles, Duck Confit with Red Rice, Plum Sauce and Almonds and Salt Roasted Branzino with Caperberries and Parsley Celery Salad. It is without a doubt that we must return to try each of these. It was more than evident that they were favorites.
The evening flew by in a flash. The first set of diners to come in at 5:30 was a family of four or five, and we were shocked to hear that one of them ordered from our menu. We didn’t even know them! Within the first 30 to 45 minutes, we’d placed five orders for our menu, and none of the people were our friends. That is a good thing of course! We definitely had several friends come through that evening, and we love each and every one of them for it. It just felt great to know that people we didn’t know were going to take a chance on us, and lucky for us, they liked it. We had a few people come up to us during their meal, and after they were done eating, to say that they loved the meal. One of them was Charles, a food blogger who runs 100 Miles, which is an interesting space to share his memories, recipes and travel experiences as they relate to food and sustainable living. Good read for sure.
If you’re curious what people really liked, we can say that by far, the pot pie and cake took home the top mentions from the crowd. Everyone loves pot pie. It screams ‘home’, and we’re just sliding into the fall season, so it’s the best time to eat them. We’ll have to make it again and share the recipe because we know you’ll just die when you eat it! We think the bacon puffs took people by surprise because they do combine really bold flavors–salty bacon, sweet apples and pomegranate glaze and strong cheese. Corina did not have gorgonzola cheese in house, which is what we’ve used before, so she suggested a variety of blue cheese. We actually liked how it worked, but perhaps blue cheese is too strong for some people. To us, it was a nice substitution. We even had a friend who does not like blue cheese say that the appetizer was a delicious surprise to her. By the end of the night, we’d placed somewhere between 25 and 30 orders from our menu, so it was definitely a success in our book.
Throughout this whole process we were happy and honestly stunned to see the efforts the staff and Corina made to maintain the integrity of our recipes. We were asked repeatedly if everything looked, tasted, smelled and felt as planned. Suggestions were made when necessary, but they were exactly that–suggestions. Never did we feel belittled, nor were we told how we should do something. The menu was our own, and in that respect, we felt like it was a little slice of time to shine. It was comforting to see every person there, staff and customers, genuinely invested and interested in our experience. We learned countless things that day, but a few highlights stand out more than others. We learned better ways to hold our knifes. We know that salt, lemon juice and olive oil make an easy and tasty salad dressing. We have stashed away a new recipe to cook whole fish–head and all–in a salt bake. We saw that a slab of butter really does make all the difference. We’ve reaffirmed that teamwork is key. We’ve once again confirmed that you don’t have to be a real chef to cook like one.
Our shift ended around 9:30 pm when Chef Corina said we should take a seat and have dinner. We took a seat at a booth and ate the same meal we’d help serve to people earlier in the night. We were tired. Oh so tired. You could read it in our faces. At the same time, we were definitely happy to have had the opportunity to work behind the line and see how things operate in a true restaurant kitchen. Our biggest thanks go out to Chef Corina, Jane, David, B.J., Gregory, Megan, Ashley, Anna, Marta, Laura and Cesar for their guidance and patience. And letting us become a chef for a day!