Steve’s Chef Cuisinternship: Day One
Editor’s Note: Our Chef Cuisinternship Winner, Steve Loh, recently completed his week long adventure with Chef Gabe Rucker at Le Pigeon. Steve has graciously agreed to let us peek behind the scenes of his week in Portland. We’ll be posting his recaps over the next several days. Enjoy!
I’ve always wanted to be a chef. Not for the glamour, or to host my own TV show, or just to help me achieve my other lifelong dream of marketing a signature line of ginsu sporks. I’ve always wanted to be a chef because, plain and simple, I love to cook.
In my youth, before the advent of modern frivolities like Food Network and chow blogs, I learned how to cook from my mother and PBS. Now, thanks to the folks at Oregon Bounty and Le Pigeon restaurant in Portland, I’m getting the chance to up my skills a few belts on the culinary kung-fu scale under chef Gabriel Rucker. Yes, Gabriel Rucker, chef and co-owner of Le Pigeon… 2007 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef… 2008 and 2009 James Beard Rising Chef of the Year finalist… We’re talking world class, touch-of-death, master-of-the-flying-dragon-technique type of chef.
So imagine my surprise when I walked into Le Pigeon to find a tall, tattooed guy in t-shirt and jeans and a baseball cap who greeted me with an impish smile and warm handshake. Not the uptight, white-coated, food-snoot-who-collapses-your-soufflé-so-he-can-belittle-your-worth type. Instead, the kind of guy you’d grab a beer or whiskey with. Or, as I found out later that night, both beer and whiskey.
Early this morning, I hopped aboard a Horizon Air flight from L.A. to Portland with a cooler bag carry-on containing six In-N-Out Burgers (animal style, of course) which I’d promised him. OK, bribed him with. Chef Rucker is a real guy. And real guys love In-N-Out burgers (animal style, of course). Before I left, he reminded me of two things: “Bring your knives. And bring those cheeseburgers.” Gotta love it.
Some refer to Rucker as Portland’s enfant terrible, but c’mon, people, that just ain’t right… He’s clearly a full-on adulte terrible.
My cuisinternship started as soon as I arrived. After giving me a few Le Pigeon t-shirts to wear — official uniform — he set me up with a prep space on the cutting board and had me slice up some garlic and cabbage. No problem, I’ve done that before. Then saute them in a giant pan with rendered bacon and duck fat. OK, that’s new.
In case you had any doubt, I can officially tell you that cabbage cooked in bacon and duck fat is stuff-your-face-a-licious.
As I did my tasks, I tried to take in everything around me. One guy was straining a rich veal stock that slow-cooked in the oven overnight to be used in the Beef Cheek Bourguignon. Another was butchering a whole goat to be marinated and later roasted, then stewed in a ragu to sauce the Ricotta Gnocchi. Yes, I had to ask what kind of animal it was. The pastry chef was baking profiteroles to be filled with foie gras ice cream and topped with salted caramel and foie gras sugar. Foie-gras-tastic.
I tried to observe as much as I could. After all, when do you ever get the chance to peek behind the scenes and see how the pros do it? Right now.
When the doors opened for service at 5pm, it was time for the real fun. Le Pigeon is a small, cozy place, unlike the cold, massive restaurants I’m used to in L.A. And the cooking actually happens in the open kitchen, not like those fake “show kitchens” you sometimes see where they only toss some salads but the real food comes out the back. That means that Chef Rucker and his crew are not only moving at lighting speed to apply their cooking magic to dozens of dishes, pans, plates, and bowls with the choreographed movements of a precision dance troupe, but they’re also interacting with the customers, especially those seated around the 10-seat chef’s counter. And when I say his crew, I mean just two or three chefs on the line, making everything. It was an awesome sight.
I stood in the corner, trying to stay out of the way and fetching items as needed. And I figured that would be the extent of my role, which would’ve been more than enough. But Gabe, either because 1) he likes me, 2) he was one man short tonight, or 3) he’s just that cool (I’d like to think #1 and #3), he actually had me get right in there and plate up some dishes.
After service ended, we cleaned the kitchen and walked to a bar down the street for a drink. Chefs work long days — 12-14 hours on their feet, which is why they wear those silly-looking croc clogs — so a post-work drink is well-deserved. A chef from another restaurant also came in after his long shift, and they all just kicked it up for awhile.
And I sat there, relaxing right along. Almost like I was one of the guys. If this is what Portland’s all about, I’m loving Portland.
A whiskey, a beer, and a warm fuzzy feeling later, I headed to the Best Western to rest up for the next day, the smile still plastered on my face.
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