food

Where the Magic Happens: My Trail at Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad

Forward

It’s not everyday that a young aspiring chef is given the chance to trail at some of the world’s best restaurants.  This unlikely opportunity was bestowed upon me. A few weeks ago, I staged at Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, which are both part of Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s Hospitality Group, Make it Nice.  For readers who do not know the meaning of stage, it is a cooking apprenticeship. I had the honor of trailing at Eleven Madison Park for two days, and The NoMad for three days.  In order to get a clear picture of what those two restaurants are like, it is important to understand their slogan, which is the name of the brand itself. All of the Make it Nice restaurants are hospitality at its finest because their chefs and service staff create delicious food that is served in the best way possible.  Eleven Madison Park is inspired by its New York City location, featuring dishes that put a French twist on traditional New York food. In short, Eleven Madison Park was number one on the 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017, named the best restaurant in North America that same year, and has countless James Beard Awards.  The NoMad serves French-inspired modern cuisine with more worldly influences. This restaurant has received numerous James Beard Awards and has a slew of other recognitions that prove its excellence, in addition to one Michelin Star.

At the one and only Eleven Madison Park, I spent my time doing preparation work with the culinary staff temporarily and the remainder of the two days with the pastry staff.  At The NoMad, I received more responsibility which involved a great deal of baking and measuring out mise en place. It is amazing to be served at restaurants of this caliber, but the experience is taken to a whole other level knowing how exactly the ingredients on the plate became art.  I was lucky enough to get an indulgent taste of both parts of the restaurant experience. While the glory of my stage may seem like it was short lived, the knowledge and value that I was able to draw from that week is something that is now on my metaphorical utility belt; to be used throughout my journey in the culinary world.  After this eye-opening week, I decided that it was important to share this experience with the world.

Just Another Week at the World’s Best Restaurant

“We got a bunch of random [stuff] from Dairyland today… figure out where that’s going.”

As you can tell, your restaurant experience at the award-winning Eleven Madison Park begins when shipments are received in the early hours of the morning.  Everything from greens, fruit, citrus, meat, and, apparently, a lot of dairy must be unpacked, re-packed, and labeled meticulously until everything finds a place.  Every. Single. Day.

At Eleven Madison Park, my first job was joining the savory staff in organizing their food, which has made me quite familiar with the process.  I began by husking kale very carefully (or so I thought), before a staff member took a piece out of my “done” container and instructed me to try again, removing every single bit of the husk, down to even the thinnest part.  He then proceeded to do just that, with three leaves at rapid-fire speed.

Next up was nettle — cue the scary movie track and offensively loud thunder.  While it seems like a harmless dandelion-style green, nettle is actually in the same family as poison ivy.  Chef Alex informed me of this before recommending that I put on three pairs of gloves prior to washing, drying, and trimming the greens.

Lesson number one in working at Eleven Madison Park: You must be able to do the work very well and very quickly — there are simply not enough hours in the day for three-Michelin-starred restaurants to dwell on small tasks, but nonetheless they must be done.

I was planning to write an article about people and establishments — including Make it Nice — in order to find out what exactly drives and motivates them to spend so much time perfecting their processes, but after my experience, it was clear that these two restaurants redefine my meaning of excellence entirely.  In general, people seem to separate the food they eat in restaurants from the journey the food takes to get to their plate. In my five days as a trail, I witnessed the care and level of perfection that the staff strives for.  I experienced the process by simply watching, learning, and completing the many small tasks in the kitchen that are imperative to producing an amazing final product.

I came to appreciate EMP’s high standards, when I was asked to label a bunch of containers filled with pieces of angel food cake.  Prior to that, a chef showed me the proper way to rip apart the cake, putting aside a few example pieces for me to model mine after.  Every so often, he would come back to check my work and remove a bit from a piece to adjust the size.

After I was done, the chef told me to label the cake bits that I had broken off.  Doing what I was told to, I grabbed the label board, pulled pieces of tape off the roll, pressed the adhesive on the surface of the board, and began to write “Angel Food Cake 6/22/18 S.A.”  The chef had moved onto something else, only returning once the majority of the labels were done. I was a bit surprised when he ripped off all of the labels that I had just finished and used an X-ACTO knife to cut new tape into equal-sized pieces, starting the entire process over.

At the moment, I questioned why something as simple as label size mattered so much, but then I remembered how clean, organized, and carefully labeled the walk-in fridges were, leading to my realization that this attention to detail is why they are at the top of the ladder.

I feel as though I cannot continue writing without sharing my other experience with angel food cake that would be the subject of many nightmares to come.  Before the previous task, I was asked to use tweezers to break apart angel food cake bits into crumbs of a specific size, which I then worked on for the next two hours.  This tedious task was just another example of how vital every single detail is to a successfully run restaurant, proving that everything done there is done for good reason.  The situation was reminiscent of that iconic Karate Kid scene that everyone knows, “wax on, wax off,” but the chef’s version.

There were countless other unique projects that I was assigned during my two days at Eleven Madison Park.  While I was working with the savory staff, I weighed out a couple hundred tins of the relish that goes into EMP’s New York cheesecake-inspired dish.  Each little metal tin had to weigh exactly twelve grams and then be tapped down so that it spread out evenly. Of course, since we’re talking about EMP, not your Joe Schmo deli around the corner, something that might normally be seen as mundane tastes spectacular enough to be its own dish.  Just take a moment to imagine every aspect you taste in a dish having this kind of miraculous quality, but then bring them all together to be combined into one.

Another mission I was given was to hull and sort several hundred strawberries into groups of small, ugly, and the ideal-looking berry.  A note for concerned readers: no need to fret, the strawberries that aren’t blessed with good genetics are still used for family meal, jams, and sauces.  In fact, I would later discover the tiny strawberries beautifully poached in the angel food cake dish I was served.

I will never forget my first job in the pastry department — cutting out 500 cheddar crackers.   I was pleasantly surprised when I got to sample the fruits of my labor, which ended up being a small black and white cookie with a savory filling and apple chutney in the center, all sitting on top of the cheddar cracker.  The black and white cookie aspect was familiar since I had witnessed a pastry chef using several tools to paint on the icing, ensuring that each cookie featured the perfect bold separation of black and white.

It was the absolute best feeling in the world to finally see those little bits and pieces that I helped create in a dish.  Every single minute spent toiling became worth it when I saw that my hard work actually helped complete these dishes and add to their beauty (not to mention deliciousness).  I cannot even begin to describe how incredible the tasting menu I got to try was — well, actually I can. Everything I ate evoked a feeling of amazement with a hint of melancholy.  Being served the food right in front of those who had worked so hard to create it felt more like destroying artwork — the culinary equivalent of viewing “Starry Night” or the “Mona Lisa,” and then ripping them into pieces while Van Gogh and Da Vinci watched.

After trying each plate, I went back to my station to continue working, and then to my delight, someone would come up to me again and say, “Chef Sara, your next course is ready.”  Now, for the purpose of professionalism, I tried to contain my excitement, but in my head, I was doing cartwheels. While sampling each dish, I tried to make sure that I truly savored and appreciated each new flavor.  When I brought my empty plate (once containing the lemon poppy seed dessert) back to the chef who had served me, he asked me whether I enjoyed my food. It was apparent that somehow he didn’t think I did. I was so caught off guard that I just looked at him for a second before replying, embarrassed, “Oh my gosh, I thought it was amazing. I mean, it was the best meal I’ve ever had!”  When he responded, “To me, it did not look like you enjoyed it, but it seems as though I misinterpreted that,” I started to realize that in trying to really interpret the flavors, I must have made some weird faces.

After that moment, I was given time to stand in front of the plating station.  If you haven’t ever seen pictures of EMP’s remodeled kitchen, this area is located in front of the exit leading to where guests are seated, and has a rectangular island with hot lights hovering over it.  To the left of the station, servers stand in a line while Chef Dmitri inspects that every last dish is crafted to perfection. The chefs/artists who are plating use the uniformly rolled cloth napkins placed at the end of the table to wipe any excess off of their canvases.  The most interesting part was how they used specific techniques on particular dishes — the duck for example, was removed from the plate for a few seconds, while a swift hand wiped a small amount of sauce from underneath. For me, there was a moment of excitement when my eyes met something familiar being plated — the nettle that I had so carefully worked with was placed on top of the duck in the form of a salad.

While observing my surroundings, I noticed how there was a kind of loud quietness in the kitchen.  Even though people were constantly moving around, the looks on the chefs’ faces were of deep concentration — something I had never seen or experienced before.  There were ever-present sounds of kitchen tools, low voices, and the occasional sizzle of a pan, but few people actually spoke out loud because of their “quiet” policy.   Somehow, despite this “silence,” their teamwork was as effortless as it was efficient.

A kitchen that communicates and works well is imperative to success, which is then seen in the food that is served.  Of course, this is something that the staff at EMP has in mind all of the time. As a trail, I was able to be a part of pre-meal at both restaurants, where the lead chef addressed concerns and also praised the team for their outstanding work.

At these brief meetings, the lead chef would signal everyone to wipe down the kitchens, after which the entire kitchen staff would gather around him.  Many of the points that were brought up served the purpose of making the kitchen as efficient and clean as possible. Part of achieving that harmony in the kitchen is ensuring that everyone works as a team.  One thing is certain, the staff really understands the value of small favors, which come in the form of doing things such as holding the freezer door for others when they are carrying large loads.

Even though these meetings cover a large range of topics, a few things particularly stood out.   I vividly recall one conversation switching to how work in the kitchen affects the experience of their guests. Chef Dmitri reiterated the fact that their guests flock to Eleven Madison Park for a profound experience, making it a sort of haven for guests, where they are treated with great hospitality and served thought-provoking food.

During the meeting, someone informed Chef Dmitri that in the cooking line, there is a bit of competition amongst the chefs.  He recounted there is an unspoken race between his fellow chefs, with the goal being to put together the most delicious food in the shortest amount of time.  Chef Dmitri responded by turning the discussion into a learning opportunity, explaining that competition is beneficial because it strengthens the team by adding a more refreshing approach to their work.

In both restaurants, the chefs would respond to most instruction with a loud “Oui, Chef!,” meaning “Yes, Chef” in French, which reinforced this common theme of correspondence and teamwork.  While the kitchen could get heated and a bit stressful at times, there was also an ever-present spirit of caring hospitality, which I witnessed through a few instances, like when a service staff member would come around the kitchen offering water at EMP.  At The NoMad, there was one chef who would always check in to see if everyone was hydrated enough and equated anything negative to an insufficient intake of water. “Your biscuits didn’t rise correctly? You were probably dehydrated when you made them.”

Not surprisingly, there were some moments that seemed almost too stressful to handle, like when a wedding cake that needed to be finished in two hours was made incorrectly the day before, creating a crazy rush to start over from scratch and then to have it decorated within two hours.  The feat was only made possible due to the incredible coordination of two pastry chefs. One of them was standing at the counter separating egg whites and yolks like there was no tomorrow, while the other measured dry ingredients with the same quick precision. All the while, I was standing at the same counter measuring mise en place for the largest quantity of biscotti I’d ever made, but my stress suddenly felt minuscule.

On my afternoon shift at The NoMad, I was present for a smaller meeting with just the pastry chefs.  They gathered in the tiny space behind a cooling rack, where a dry-erase board listed their tasks for the night.  All of the chefs divided those tasks so that each person felt confident and comfortable with their workload. To end that meeting, everyone put their hand in the middle, did one of those “Go team!” huddles, and then ran off to do their work.  This team dynamic remains the same in and out of the kitchen, according to my co-workers, who said that they frequently go out together after work.

During the week, I met many people who gave me words of advice and knowledge that will always stick with me.  During family meal at The NoMad, I remarked that the week was flying by and that I could not believe it was already my last day.  “That’s how it is all the time here. The days go by very fast” one of them told me. Though I already had an idea of the answer, I asked whether coming to The NoMad felt like work, and the table gave me a resounding no.

On my first day, while I was separating peas from their pod with tweezers, I was talking to a chef who surprised me with inspiring guidance.  Our conversation centered around how challenging, but mostly rewarding a career in the culinary industry is. He said that “there are going to be days when you are crying.  There’s going to be days when you are sad, happy, or frustrated. Whatever you do, do not give up.” He told me this the first day, before I got a more three-dimensional view of what it is like to work in restaurants of this level.  Reading those words off the computer screen may register as something cliche to readers, but it was advice that clicked for me, as I got a taste of this career.

I arrived at The NoMad scared to use a scale and make pastry in large quantities, but I left the restaurant having forgotten that those things once plagued my mind.  From making meringue, devil’s food cake, pie fillings, and cookies, to doing tasks that appeared insignificant, like topping focaccia bread with potatoes and onions, I learned to own it all and have a blast.    Small things lit up my world, like being told to take home as many unwanted croissants as I wanted.  Even when I left the kitchen, I caught myself accidentally using kitchen signaling — the words used to navigate a busy kitchen, like behind, in front, corner — in the streets of New York.

On my last night at The NoMad, I was being served part of the tasting menu by a woman who was also training a new member of the service staff.  He had created a label for something, but stopped in his tracks once the woman began explaining that all of the restaurant’s success is really found in the details, and that if they just ripped the tape off of the roll, it would look like they just didn’t care.  I smiled at her words, as I thought back on how far I’d come.

In reality, most people will not get the chance to experience the best restaurants in the world, but there is so much to discover and learn in terms of the food you eat and appreciate at your local restaurants.  My advice to readers is to ask questions about your food, take time to think about what’s on that plate, and appreciate it. Let me just say, it does not just appear magically.

 

 

The following pictures are from my incredible meal at The Nomad Hotel.  Unfortunately, I was not able to photograph my food at Eleven Madison Park.

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Sources

Cover Image:  © ERIC PIASECKI PHOTOGRAPHY

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