The restaurant was in downtown London, a couple of blocks from the Savoy hotel. Although it was close to a landmark, its side street address gave it the sense of being a hideaway spot off the main road. The interior decor was simple and clean, adorned with colorful paintings by California artists that accented contemporary furnishings. In the back of the dining room, a semi–open kitchen featured a mesquite grill—a new trend in restaurant design in the States and a fresh addition to the London restaurant scene.
From the beginning, I felt apprehensive. It was the first time I would be responsible for all the back–of–the–house operations—from scheduling, ordering, equipment maintenance, and service—as well as the most important, the quality of the food. The departing sous–chef hinted that things might be a little “sensitive” in the kitchen.
After a couple of days on the job, I got the picture all too clearly. From my training in other restaurants, I learned that great kitchens are silent kitchens, the air thick with concentration. The only competition for your own thoughts are the sounds of knives chopping, whisks whisking in stainless steel bowls, and food sizzling in hot pans—all under the hum of the exhaust hoods and refrigerator compressors. I also believed it was the best way to get the most productive work out of a staff.
But each afternoon long before service began, this kitchen was abuzz with a cacophony of endless, needless, and distracting chatter. It was clear the staff enjoyed each other’s company far more than the work. Something else was clear. No one was looking to impress the new guy in charge.
Then again, why should they? They knew I was there for only a couple of months. And I wasn’t confident enough of the support I’d get from the owners if I told everybody to just chill out, that until they heard otherwise I was the boss and quiet was the way I liked it. Or maybe it wasn’t confidence I lacked, but a natural assertiveness.
One afternoon about a month into the job, on what was supposed to be my first day off since starting, I stopped at the restaurant to reassure myself that I could go and enjoy the rest of the day in peace. I was in the chef’s office, looking over the week’s food invoices, when one of the line cooks dropped on me that he had heard Alice Waters had reserved a table for dinner that night. Yes, the same Alice Waters who by any measure was one of the most respected figures in American cooking. I went to the hostess stand and checked the reservation book. It was true. Next to her name, in letters the hostess could not miss, the day manager had written “PPX”—personne particulierement extraordinaire—the restaurant’s version of VIP. My evening’s plans would have to wait.
I had met Waters several years before, first at a charity event in New York, and then again after I moved to San Francisco. One day, while flipping through a popular food magazine, I noticed an article describing a small, intimate cooking school in the south of France run by a self–taught authority of the cuisine, Nathalie Waag. What particularly caught my attention was the article’s description of how Nathalie took small groups of students to open–air markets in Provence to shop for the ingredients that they would use to prepare dishes that evening in her mas, a Provençal farmhouse. It was mornings in the markets, a leisurely lunch at a nearby café or an impromptu picnic made up from market finds, afternoon drives in the countryside, informal classes in the kitchen with aperitifs, and long evenings at the farmhouse table in the dining room. It sounded pretty good to me.
I was working as a sauté cook in one of the celebrated hotel restaurants in San Francisco, Campton Place. By all outward appearances, my life was good and my career was progressing nicely. In fact, a couple of weeks earlier, I had been offered a promotion to sous–chef. I hadn’t yet accepted the offer, but I hadn’t turned it down, either. Among their many responsibilities, sous–chefs are the ones who do the daily food ordering, which requires that they know and manage the kitchen’s inventory of ingredients. I had visions of spending more time with clipboard in hand counting the portions of meats, poultry, fish, produce, and dairy in the walk–in refrigerator, then moving on to counting the groceries in the storeroom, than actually cooking the food.
By comparison, the image of life described in the magazine article was far more enticing, and I wondered if there was some way I might get to speak with Nathalie. The article mentioned that she was a good friend of Waters’s, and that she spent her winters across the bay in Berkeley hanging out at Alice’s respected restaurant, Chez Panisse. I thought Alice would remember me and take my call. She did, and when I asked if she knew how I could get in touch with Nathalie, she said, “Sure,” and passed the phone to her. By an amazing coincidence, Nathalie happened to be sitting next to Alice at that moment. I introduced myself, and we agreed to meet over coffee a few days later at Fanny, Alice’s small café also in Berkeley.
When I arrived for the meeting, Nathalie was already seated. Once the pleasantries had been exchanged, she went about describing the simple ways of Provence. We spoke about cooking, markets, and ingredients. It didn’t take long to realize this was a lifestyle that had to be seen firsthand. Without ever having planned to do so, I offered to be her assistant if she ever needed one.
A couple of months later, it came—an invitation from Nathalie. She suggested I spend a “spring-summer school term” with her. I would be getting room and board—no salary or stipend, but that didn’t matter. Her reputation as a devout practitioner of Provençal cooking was unquestioned, and I knew that working side by side with her would broaden my cooking palette. I accepted immediately, figuring I would work with her for a few months and then see if I could find another opportunity in France, extending my European stay to six months, nine at the most.
A number of my fellow cooks scoffed at the idea of leaving an established position to take an unpaid internship. However, Mark Franz, a friend and well-known chef who ran the popular and busy kitchen at Stars in San Francisco, had a different take.
“It won’t be a waste,” he told me. “Short detours can be good for a career. Even if she has you in the back of the kitchen doing nothing but dicing tomatoes. Forget your ego; forget what the others are saying; just concentrate on cutting those tomatoes and watch. This could turn out to be the most important trip you’ll ever take.”
My excursion from San Francisco to the south of France included a weeklong stopover in New York. It was early spring, a nice time of year to visit and see my parents, friends, and some of my cooking buddies. The trees were starting to bloom, and those pesky dandelions were all over my parents’ yard. Coming from the temperate climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, I realized how much I missed the change of seasons.
During my week in New York I received a message from Nathalie telling me that I would have to delay my arrival at the school for a couple of months. Something about her classes starting late that year. Sitting around and waiting has never been my best game, so I called around looking for something to fill the gap. Within a day Larry Forgione, my former boss at An American Place in Manhattan and one of the true pioneers of the American food revolution, came through for me. He knew of the perfect situation.
A friend of his had just sold the London edition of his restaurant, and the new owners needed an interim chef de cuisine to run the kitchen for a couple of months until their own chef could start. The irony that this job would entail much of the clipboard work I was running from didn’t elude me. But what the heck. It was a short-term job that filled the empty slot in my calendar, and then I’d be off to the south of France. I called Larry’s friend, who in turn put me in touch with one of the new owners, and we agreed to a two-month arrangement.
With Alice Waters in the reservation book, I quickly changed into my kitchen whites, and when I entered the kitchen, I was glad I had. Everywhere I looked things that should have been taken care of had been let go. The walk-in was a mess, dirty pots had built up into a huge pile at the dishwasher station, and the garbage bins were overflowing. Damn it, I thought. I had left the place in good shape only the night before. How fast things can go south in an unsupervised kitchen. Even more troubling was that after I informed the staff that we had one of the world’s preeminent chefs coming to dine that night, everybody from the dining room manager to the pastry chef went on with a “What, me worry?” routine, breezily going about business as usual.
At five-thirty that evening, the hostess poked her head into the kitchen to say that the Waters party had just been seated, half an hour before their reservation time. Their early arrival caught me in a pre-service scramble, not really ready for them. I looked at my line cooks, who held my fate in their hands but had so far evinced no interest in pleasing or protecting me. But hope springs eternal, and I thought maybe, if for no other reason than to impress a world-renowned culinary figure, they might somehow find it in themselves to put out a special effort to match the occasion.
I decided to send a plate of hors d’oeuvres to Alice’s table. I was late getting them out, but at least this gesture would let her know that I wasn’t oblivious to her visit. Jus...
Revue de presse
“Sailing the Mediterranean in summer is the stuff of dreams. And in the company of a chef who plies the bounteous markets and creates food for the gods, this is indeed a heady journey. For the reader, the luscious meals and the ports of call are seductive; for the chef, the summer aboard the luxurious yacht is also a coming-of-age experience, when hard-won accolades and daunting challenges change him into the person he wants to be. A perfect book for the vacation flight to some paradise.” —Frances Mayes
“David has captured the life of a chef in an adventurous way….You will fall in love with the exotic places, fascinating people, and old-world cuisine that is true magic.” —Cat Cora, executive chef, Bon Appétit
“Although David did not choose the typical path to becoming a chef, he gives a very honest account of the thoughts and emotions—elation, happiness, dejection, passion, and moments of inspiration—that all cooks go through. It was completely absorbing.” —Thomas Keller, The French Laundry
“Fast-paced, fascinating, and well-written, this wonderful adventure at sea captures David's quest for the ultimate ingredients along the Mediterranean coast, the total immersion of this young American cook in the French, and particularly, the Italian cultures and, finally, the birth of a talented chef. Bravo!” —Jacques Pépin