Sprawled on the floor was not how I'd envisioned myself during my first week of work at wd~50. But there I was, in my crumpled white chef 's coat, houndstooth pants, and egg yolk-stained apron, while everyone's eyes shifted their focus to me. I tried to ignore the tingling sensation in my left forearm, which I had slammed against the oven after slipping on a small puddle of oil. My cheeks blushed bell-pepper red, and my armmatched. Miraculously, though, the paper-thin Canadian bacon I had just fried was still on the metal sizzle platter I was holding and not on the floor. At least no one could yell at me for ruining the food.
"Are you okay?" asked Brian, the restaurant's sous-chef, from
a few feet behind me.
"I'm fine," I mumbled, and jumped up to deliver the bacon to the garde manger station, where all of the appetizers were prepared and plated for service. Spencer, one of the garde manger cooks, strode by me and said, "Ohhhhh, you don't have nonskid shoes, do you?"
Guilty as charged. My black slip‑on clogs, which I'd worn throughout culinary school without any problems, were no match for this kitchen. "It's hard to find them in my size," I said in a tremulous voice. A plain old "No" sounded too lame. And I did wear a size five shoe. Spencer raised a skeptical eyebrow and returned to his station.
Lesson #1: Before working in a professional kitchen, make sure you own nonskid black leather shoes.
"You're the only pers on I would do this for, Shock," said Chase a few days before the bacon incident. He stood in my apartment's tiny kitchen, gently pouring water over a small brown whetstone and trying not to spill it all over my cracked granite countertop, my landlord's one concession to "gracious living." He continued, "Do you have any paper towels I can use to put under this?"
"No, sorry. How's toilet paper?"
He rolled his eyes at me and then smiled, his brown hair flopping over his forehead as he lined up my knives in a row. I had met Chase in graduate school, where we were both hoping our eventual master's degrees would complement and make our culinary school backgrounds more marketable.
Although we knew each other socially, our friendship had accelerated when we enrolled in "Theoretical Perspectives in Food Studies." The course was much more about theoretical perspectives than food studies, and as a result, we spent most of the time sitting in the back of the classroom writing notes to each other, as if we were in middle school. Chase quickly became my go‑to person for any food-or restaurant-related question, because in addition to attending culinary school, he had worked in several restaurants, for a catering company, and as a private chef. He had recently completed a two-month stage at the celebrated restaurant Momofuku Ko, run by chef and media darling David Chang, who was also a good friend of Wylie's. So when I complained to Chase that the kitchen staff at wd~50 would think I was inept if my knives weren't sharp, he generously volunteered to sharpen them before my first day. I didn't refuse, especially since he was cute.
I sat on my purple love seat watching him as he carefully rubbed the knives back and forth on the whetstone. He explained that he first needed to create a burr, the technical term for the flat line on the bottom of a knife etched into the metal.
"Here, let me show you," he said as I got up and stood behind him, peering over his shoulder at the knife, which was now covered in dark brown residue from the stone. Placing his hands on my shoulders, he stepped behind me and instructed me to hold the knife. He positioned his palms atop my hands and guided them gently up the stone. "Just press your fingers on the blade and push at a twenty-degree angle," he said. Like every chef I had met so far, Chase was convinced that whetstones were the only way to sharpen knives, since they actually rub off part of the blade to create a sharp edge rather than just smoothing out the existing blade the way a steel rod will.
"Why don't you just finish it? You're much better than I am," I said, sure I was doing it all wrong.
"You're doing fine. Just press hard with your two index fingers against the knife and rub up and down. Pretend you're using the knife to smooth down the crease of a folded piece of paper. Just go up and down the stone about fifteen times, then move your knife over and repeat the same motions on the next part of the blade until you've done the whole knife. And then do the same thing on the softer side of the whetstone to smooth everything out."
"I'm so nervous! What if they yell at me at wd~50?"
He patted my shoulder. "You'll do great. Just keep quiet and work hard, but be yourself. They'll love you."
Despite its cutting-edge reputation among foodies in New York City and beyond, wd~50 is marked only by a blink-and-you'll‑miss‑it sign in red and blue neon lights in its window. Formerly the location of a dilapidated deli, wd~50 helped pioneer the transformation of the once gritty Lower East Side into a playground for hipsters (and opportunistic real estate agents).
Wylie Dufresne, its chef and owner, graduated from Colby College in 1992 with a degree in philosophy and the dream of, but not the physique for, a career in baseball. Like me, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute soon after graduation. Afterward he worked at JoJo, celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's place to be seen in the 1990s — and still a safe bet to take a visiting great-aunt afraid to leave the safe and sterile confines of the Upper East Side. Wylie continued as Vongerichten's shining star, this time at his eponymous restaurant Jean Georges. However, Wylie struck gold when he ventured out on his own (with the financial backing of both Vongerichten and Dewey Dufresne, his dad) at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, where he became a key player in making the then up‑and-coming Lower East Side a culinary destination. My mouth still waters when I think about the seared scallops over lentils that I ate there on my eighteenth birthday. Even then, I could tell that Wylie was special.
In 2003, with the help of his business partners, Wylie opened wd~50, a small restaurant whose name is an amalgam of his initials and the spot's address, 50 Clinton Street. The name is also a riff on WD‑40, the household water displacement spray indispensable in any technological setting. Fitting indeed.
As I walked the short distance from my apartment on Essex Street to the restaurant, I reread the confirmation letter I had received: "You will be expected to arrive at work promptly at 1:00 p.m. on each day of your stage, and to work until the end of service, which may be as late as 2:00 a.m. You are expected to bring a baker's hat, a set of knives ... and a pair of shoes suitable for kitchen work." Although the letter stated the restaurant would provide me with a full set of uniforms, I packed my own just in case.
"Hi, I'm here for a stage," I said to the receptionist once I arrived. Because the restaurant served only dinner, the dining room was empty except for a uniformed janitor mopping the floor beneath a row of small square tables.
"Okay, go back to the kitchen. Someone there will help you," she said, motioning behind her.
I looked around, thinking this was not the sort of place that looked like it sold $30 entrees. There were no tablecloths or chandeliers or fancy artwork, except for a large marble slab spanning nearly the entire length of one wall. A communal red leather banquette divided the room in two, separating the three private booths used for larger parties from the main part of the dining
room. Each wall was painted in a different shade of red, blue, and green, illuminated by whimsical, multicolored hanging glass light fixtures. The fireplace in the corner and the exposed ceiling beams added a touch of faux rustic, and I thought that the decor would be right at home in a place like Santa Fe. Not that I've ever been to Santa Fe.
I walked into the modestly sized rectangular kitchen, which was partially open to the dining room, and stood next to a large, custom-built stove engraved with the wd~50 logo. A tall, broad-shouldered chef with a full mop of curly hair and an elaborate tattoo creeping out from under his jacket sleeve introduced himself as Drew. "I'll give you a tour," he said.
As he showed me around, he explained that Wylie and Claire, the only female cook who didn't work in the pastry kitchen, ran the fish station on the left side of the stove, while he and Brian worked the meat station on the right. Each side had a dedicated space on top of the stove for cooking. To the left of the fish station was an aisle where the servers deposited dirty dishes for dishwashing in the back corner without getting in the way of the cooks. And along this aisle was the piece de resistance: the "spice shelves" — rows of white plastic containers with screw-off lids were stacked on top of one another, displaying labels demarcating chemical formulas and names like hexophosphate, N‑Zorbit, sodium alginate, gellan low, and methylcellulose. Though I spotted regular kitchen staples like steel-cut oatmeal, dried pasta, cornstarch, and kosher salt, this part of the kitchen resembled a college chemistry lab more than a restaurant.
Of course, this was what made wd~50 unique and why I'd wanted so much to be here. These bizarre ingredients allowed the cooks to transform mayonnaise into a fried food and yuzu juice into a thick gel and to glue skirt steaks together into a single filet. I admired Wylie's mastery of these powders, but I was also personally apprehensive. Science was never my strong suit; how on earth was I ever going to remember the difference between Ultra-Sperse 3 and Ultra-Tex 3?
After showing me around upstairs, Drew led me down a staircase at the back of the room to another kitchen, this one enclosing a small pastry kitchen in the middle.
"This is Lauren. She's going to be staging with us," Drew said as we approached another chef, tall, tanned, and lanky like a California surfer.
"Hi. I'm Brian, the sous-chef. You'll be with us for five days?" he said.
"No, three months," I said, surprised that wd~50 would take on an apprentice for such a short stage. From what I was told in culinary school, the average stage is about one to three months, but I figured that maybe a one-week stage would cater to seasoned chefs wanting to learn a few of Wylie's tricks to add to their own repertoires.
"Great. Well, Wylie's out of town this week, but you'll meet him when he gets back. This here is the prep kitchen, where you'll be spending most of your time," he said. Then he led me into a narrow walk‑in refrigerator housing the restaurant's produce, meats, and perishable foods.
"Mise en place for meat, garde manger. Fruits and vegetables in these bins. In the Lexans here, we have fish, and in the bus tubs, meat," he said, pointing to the large ice-filled white containers and then the smaller black plastic ones. Closer to us were pint and quart containers filled with sauces, sliced vegetables, cut herbs, and liquids in a chaotic parade of color.
Every plastic container in the walk‑in was labeled with green painter's tape, denoting its contents and the date it was packed. Above the meat shelf was the family meal shelf, denoted by the small label "Familia," where the components of the quick dinner made by the cooks and eaten by the whole staff before the evening service were stored. Brian explained that the staff also kept leftovers from family meals here so that they could sneak a snack when they were hungry. As he talked, I made mental notes of what went where, but I knew I'd forget it all by tomorrow.
Next Brian walked me to the dry storage closet, which held the real spices. Plastic containers bulging with coriander and yellow mustard seeds stood beside smaller quart containers of curry powders, cinnamon, and poppy seeds and rarer flavorings like house-made lime powder and shichimi togarashi, which was a Japanese spice blend the restaurant used to season octopus before it was made into a terrine appetizer. The air in the closet smelled earthy and complex, like the pages of an old and well-worn recipe book. Nuts and grains were grouped in smaller clear plastic containers called Cambros, along with ingredients like tomato powder, deviled egg powder, amaranth, pale green bamboo rice, dried white figs, and chicory. But I noted with a smile that alongside the argan oil and dried buttermilk powder sat Heinz ketchup, Tabasco sauce, and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. And as I learned early on, no
matter what, the refrigerator always held Wylie's favorite food: blocks of sliced processed American cheese.
After the tour, Brian steered me back into the prep kitchen and introduced me to a pubescent-looking cook whose wiry brown curls peeped out from underneath his white cap. "This is Jared, the man who runs the show down here. You'll be spending a lot of time together," he said.
"So you're in school?" asked Jared, sizing me up
"I'm at NYU, getting a master's in food studies," I said.
He frowned. "No, are you in culinary school?"
Oh, right. Obviously. "I graduated from FCI last year."
"Chef went there, too, you know."
I nodded, unsure if I was supposed to ask him about his life and background. Chase had told me to keep quiet, after all.
"Let's get started, then. Take out your chef 's knife and a paring knife, but leave the rest of the stuff in your knife roll. You can put it on the shelf above the meat slicer," he said, pointing to a heap of three knife bags. I did as he said and took a deep breath. I was ready to cook.
Excerpted from Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris by Lauren Shockey. Copyright 2011 by Lauren Shockey. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.