I recently did something incredibly cool.
Something I never expected to do, and that has changed my view of the restaurant business completely.
I worked a day in restaurant kitchen. And not your ordinary restaurant, one with a Michelin star! At restaurant Niven in the Netherlands, where they work according to the 80/20 principle, 80% vegetables and 20% meat or fish. I had the time of my life, seriously.
This day was a present given to my friend M by her boyfriend, it happened to be a present for two and I was the (very) lucky lady who got to join her.
On D Day, M and I were a teeny bit nervous.
Ok, we were really nervous.
But as it turned out, the chefs couldn’t be nicer, to us and to each other (no screaming like Gordon Ramsey, just friendly conversations and a lot of jokes).
So that was one myth busted.
The restaurant is named after it’s owner and chef, Niven Kunz, whose career is somewhat intimidating, the youngest Dutch chef ever to receive a Michelin star, at the age of 23. At 33, 10 years later, he still manages to hold on to that star.
I’m just 1 year older, but that didn’t stop him from calling me Madam all day. The restaurant business is a formal one!
Another thing I learned, is that these men work hard. Real hard. They make loooong days, with little breaks, to make sure all guests have a memorable evening.
Let me try to give you a recap of the day.
12.00 The start of our day in the kitchen, the chefs have been prepping food for more than an hour already, they started at 11.00 since the restaurant is also open for lunch today.
12.15 After we have been given aprons and have been introduced to everyone, I get my first chore, placing tiny slices of vegetables on top of each other. M. is cutting out small round slices of vegetables (cutting out vegetables would prove to be the theme of the day, presentation is everything!).
12.45 One of the amuses is ‘Waldorf salad on a stick’, and I get to coat the celery-apple slices with an apple syrup. I start by doing this one by one, but after a few I decide to use both hands and dip two at a time (I know, that’s what you call innovation! But I feel very satisfied with myself and my dipping skills).
13.00 Meanwhile, the team discovered the red beets they ordered were not delivered. A big problem, and someone goes out to get them. I have started to make small beef tartares, all placed real close to each other. Because even though the restaurant has big professional fridges, space is still scarce and they need make the most out of it.
13.30 The beets have arrived, and I am cutting them on one of those big slicing machines, the one that your butcher uses to cut your ham. This is when I realise I’m a big pussy, as the rotating blade frightens me at first, but I get the hang of it after a beet or two. One of the chefs has just sliced a bit of his finger while cutting lobster, but he hardly even blinks as he just puts on a bandaid and a glove before he goes on with his job.
14.30 As you can imagine, delicious things are being made in this kitchen. And the chefs let us taste everything (actually, tasting was highly encouraged), from freshly baked madeleines, to carrot cake and bread pudding. So much bread pudding! They put a big bowl of bread pudding in the middle of the kitchen, and I eat way more than is good for me.
15.00 When I say they work hard, I mean they work hard. No time to have a coffee break, but they do ask us if we want anything. I ask for a glass of water, as that seems the easiest to handle in a kitchen to me (I mean, a cup of tea could cause all sorts of trouble, right?). To my surprise, they bring in a tray with heavy glass bottles. When I ask where I can find the glasses, the answer is they don’t use glasses in the kitchen. The risk of a glass shattering and messing up the food is too big, so everyone drinks straight from the bottle.
16.00 I’m busy shaping crab salad into neat little rounds, when one of the chefs leaves for a catering job. They have prepared the ‘normal’ stuff and made a 4 course meal for 40 people on a separate location. There’s some advanced planning going on in that kitchen!
I start cutting carrot and beans julienne (or at least I try to) with a dangerously sharp knife. They turn out to be used for staff dinner, a simple but really good pasta.
16.30 Time to eat. The staff eats early, service starts at 18.00 and they have a lot of preparing to do. Just before eating, they clean the kitchen, so that after the meal things can really kick off. They have a surprise for us, we get to have the whole 10 course menu in the restaurant! Great, but I’m a bit sorry I have to stop eating my pasta after a few bites, or I will never be able to fit in the deliciousness that will follow later (damn you, bread pudding!)
17.00 Dinner is over, and I think most of the guys did not sit down for more than 10 minutes, they are in such a rush to get things done. I start preparing the tiny butter cups you get served with your bread. Niven tells me the butter producer used to make a perfect roll and they only had to slice it. But now the roll of butter has gotten bigger, too big for the butter cups, which means they have to cut out small rounds out of the bigger ones. It’s all in the details!
17.30 We start by plating the first cold dishes, and that’s when I discover how annoying it is when your tiny piece of yellow carrot won’t cooperate (Come on! All the other plates look equal, but you just have to be different. Now the whole composition is lost!). Niven takes a look and tells us that as far as he’s concerned there should be some more yellow on the plate, so we start an extra round of placing an extra yellow beet at the exact same spot on all the plates.
17.40 Service starts in 20 minutes, and M. and I conclude that everyone is just as relaxed and calm as they were 5 hours ago. There’s still no yelling (and I don’t believe there ever is).
There is music however, to get everyone ready Niven takes out his iPod. He asks me what kind of music I would like, and I tell him something with guitars would be nice. Before I know it there’s Guns ‘N Roses with Sweet Child O’ Mine blasting through the kitchen, and I can’t stop smiling. Normally they listen to Hazes (a famous Dutch singer) every evening, and my guitars are followed by a couple of his classics.
18.00 It’s time for me and M. to leave the kitchen, but we’re having so much fun we stay longer. Plating is cool and we want to see the action! As it is getting busier, I feel we are getting a bit in the way. And even though the team keeps telling us we don’t have to leave, we leave the kitchen just after 19.00. Also because we want to try this famous food we’ve worked on all afternoon for ourselves!
19.15 We’re sitting in the restaurant (at the bar, which feels as if we are still part of the crew) and enjoying a glass of champagne (those bubbles went straight to my head by the way). As we enjoy one great dish after another, the team is working all evening to get the food served on time.
It’s strange that I had to experience a day in the kitchen to understand how much work and dedication (and love some of the chefs would say ;) ) go into your plate. Of course, I knew this was different than my grilled cheese order at the local diner, but the commitment and amount of work that go into just one course out of those 10 is much bigger than I had anticipated. It made me appreciate the food even more.
24.00 M. and I are going home, we are beat and even skip the coffee. We had a wonderful meal, with plenty of surprises (we worked mostly on the cold entrees, so the majority of the courses were new to us). The restaurant is almost empty. We go to the kitchen to say goodbye and thank our colleagues-for-one-day for a great experience.
We find them cleaning the kitchen, and we know they will start tomorrow at 11.00 again (no wonder they told us they don’t have time for a girlfriend, unless she worked in the restaurant business herself). That’s what I call loving your job.
To the whole team Niven I’d like to say: Thanks guys, we had a great day!
PS Also want to experience what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen? You can, just give the people at Niven a call!