In the Beginning
THIS IS HOW you butcher a duck. Make a slit down one side of its backbone, then insert your knife and scrape down carefully along the breastbone, swinging the tip of the knife in smooth arcs while pulling the breast meat away with your other hand as it comes loose. When it’s free, slice it off. Repeat on the other side. Trim off fat, sinew and vein. These will be everywhere. Things will be slippery. You could make the wrong cut. When the breasts are trimmed and set aside, remove each leg from the body by bending it back and cutting through the joint. You will feel as if you’re wrestling with someone covered in oil. Put the legs aside for confit. Then stand up the carcass and, with a big cleaver, chop it down the center so it falls into two pieces. Cut each piece crosswise. Put the four pieces in a pan and into the oven to roast for stock. Repeat with nine more ducks until the breasts are coming off a little less raggedly and you think you may be getting the hang of it.
The next day, try to trim your one-year-old’s fingernails. Things will be slippery. You could make the wrong cut. You will feel as if you’re wrestling with someone—a small someone—covered in oil. As you try to hold him still, reflect that it was much easier to cut his nails when he was a newborn and couldn’t move, then on the startling fact that a duck is about the same size as a newborn. Realize with surprise that you genuinely feel it’s easier to butcher a duck, something you had never done before yesterday, than to give a one-year-old a nail trim. Realize, too, that your life since you became a parent has been one long learning curve with no end in sight. That you long for a sense of accomplishment and that maybe butchering ducks is a way to get it. Scrape, slice, trim, cut, chop, and you’re done. When a duck is butchered, it’s butchered.
In the applewood kitchen there is no busywork. Just as there is no unusable part of a bird or other animal, no fruit or vegetable too unfamiliar to cook with, so there is no time wasted, no resource untapped—not even the amateur on her first day. I was there to serve my own purposes—I had suggested the arrangement, which involved a few days a week at the start but grew to include more later on, and was still somewhat amazed at the ease with which David had agreed—and I was not being paid because I was, after all, researching a book for which I had been paid. But from the moment I arrived at one o’clock for my first dinner shift and was told to go downstairs to the lockers and change into a chef’s jacket and pants (which in my mind was tantamount to impersonation and thus probably a crime in at least a few states), it was terrifyingly clear to me that I was going to serve David’s purposes as well. That is, I was going to cook, which seemed reasonable except that it meant the food I prepared would be served in the dining room that very evening. In a matter of hours, I would be transformed from a person accustomed to watching the food she offered either go untouched or get thrown on the floor to one making food for paying customers—people who sat on the other side of the swinging door warmed by the lovely atmosphere and the assumption that there was an actual chef in the kitchen preparing their meals.
I was posted, with no fanfare and little introduction around the kitchen, at the garde manger station. Garde manger, which means “keeping to eat” or “keeper of the food,” traditionally referred to the cold room in which meats, fish, and other foods that had been preserved were stored, and also to the art of that preservation in forms like charcu¬terie, terrines, and cheese. It also included using produce creatively. In other words, coping with all the stuff that goes bad if you don’t figure out what to do with it in fairly short order, the stuff that in my household gives rise to remarks in front of the open refrigerator along the lines of, “What could we make tonight with beef, heavy cream, kale, mushrooms, and a bunch of radishes? Oh, and also chicken.” (One of the skills I hoped to gain at the restaurant, where the chefs stand in the walk-in refrigerator every afternoon in exactly this same way, was how to answer this question with words other than “Um.”)
At applewood, garde manger is the station that makes salads and cold appetizers during the dinner service, and it consists of exactly one person. Once things got under way at five o’clock, I would be able to ask questions of anyone I could grab between tasks, theirs and mine, but otherwise I was on my own.
Fortunately, having correctly assumed they wouldn’t let me anywhere near the stove on my first day, I’d studied up on my subject the night before. I’d gotten hold of Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen (2000), published by the Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson River valley. David and Laura had both gone to cooking school at the CIA—they’d met there, in fact—so I figured its book was a reasonable place to start. I pored over it the night before my first shift and found certain passages popping into my head the next day.
“The opportunities and challenges of the area of cooking known today as garde manger are fascinating,” it trumpeted. I couldn’t have agreed more. “It is in this specialty that artistic sensibilities can find their outlet.” I liked the sound of that. “The quality of the food is still the most important key to success.” Check, thanks to applewood’s commitment to fresh local products. But then came this. “The visual appearance of the food is a close second. Presenting foods to look their best is a skill that you can spend a lifetime perfecting.” Hmm. This must be where the artistic sensibilities came in. But somehow I doubted that David really wanted me to take a lifetime to perfect my salad-plating technique when he had a full book of reservations that night.
I had no chopping skills, I’d never even heard of some of the vinegars I was using, and I had heard of but never seen some of the vegetables (ramps, morels). It hadn’t occurred to me to bring my own knives. (When I did the following week, their dullness produced looks of barely suppressed hysteria. Liza, David’s other full-time chef, marveled, “It’s like they’re not even knives!”) Apparently there were chefs commuting all over the city with bags of freshly sharpened cutlery—a realization that gave me new perspective on whom to seek out in a crowd during an emergency.
On my list of cold starters that first night were a pea shoot salad with crawfish and brown butter vinaigrette; marinated yellowtail with beets, cilantro, and black bean purée; a cheese plate; and a plate of house-made charcuterie (already prepared, luckily) with garlic crostini. On my to-do list were making the vinaigrette; roasting, peeling, and sectioning the beets; making the black bean purée; and making crostini, which involved cutting loaves of bread into very thin slices, drenching them in garlic-infused olive oil and salt, then baking them in the oven. In other words, a long list of things I had never done before.
But my inexperience didn’t seem to faze David, who was used to having externs from cooking school in the kitchen and had once let an art student work garde manger because she wanted to learn about the aesthetics of food. Tall and broad in his chef’s jacket, navy-and-white-striped apron and pants, and tortoiseshell Buddy Holly glasses, David thoroughly enjoyed himself in the kitchen and would often ask me, “Did you have fun?” at the end of a night of disas...