Facing the Fire in the Abacus Kitchen
What happens when a magazine editor enters the famed Abacus kitchen in an attempt to exorcise some long-simmering cooking demons? More important: will she find a boyfriend in the process?
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT: I learned how to cut the gills out of portabellos, season the truffle fries, and plate the hamachi appetizer. As for posing near cute cooks, that comes naturally.photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Please don’t break. Please don’t break. Please. Don’t. Break.
With a cramping wrist and beads of sweat forming on my upper lip, I furiously whisk chunks of butter, willing them to emulsify with the champagne vinegar and herb mixture before me. Finally, the butter is in, and from what I can tell, the sauce is holding together. I allow myself to exhale for half a second. Omar, one of the chefs, dips in a spoon and stirs my sunflower-colored creation.
“Hmm,” he says. “It looks a little loose.” Oh, no. Loose means the sauce is close to breaking—the culinary equivalent of a fourth-quarter goal-line fumble. “But I’m sure it will be fine. If not, we’ll both be in trouble!” He smiles, slaps me on the back, and walks away.
I close my eyes and begin to pray.
It’s the second night of my first stage, and I am as scared as a Pentecostal teen on her wedding night. A stage is essentially a French term for an internship. Cooks and chefs might do a stage for a few nights at a restaurant to gain experience or try to get hired. Mine is only two days long, and it is at Abacus, Kent Rathbun’s ballyhooed restaurant on McKinney Avenue. For two months I anticipated my kitchen time with a mixture of dread and more dread. I had a recurring nightmare about cooking fish. This piece of fish remained rare in the middle no matter how long I left it in the oven, and chef Rathbun stood over me screaming, “I need the SEA BASS!!”
I had only myself to blame. The whole thing was my idea, springing from my previous experience in a professional kitchen—which had been nothing short of a culinary disaster. In 2004, I graduated from the California Culinary Academy, in San Francisco. Going to culinary school had surprised just about everyone I knew, because they had never seen me do much more than melt Velveeta in 24 years. The truth was, I was dying to write about food. I had become obsessed with restaurants, chefs, recipes, ingredients—anything food-related. But with no kitchen experience, I knew I didn’t have the knowledge base to write about food. So I enrolled in the CCA.
It was a life-changing year. I learned more each day than I could process, and each night I would walk up the hill to the market to buy handfuls of potatoes and a bundle of carrots to tourne while watching Iron Chef. I bought eggs by the dozen and spent nights poaching them and whisking batches of hollandaise sauce. Sadly, though, I was still an awful cook. I couldn’t grill a chicken breast without drying it out. Pie crusts burned. Vinaigrettes tasted overwhelmingly of raisins (no idea why). But I made a few friends, and little victories kept me going.
When it came time for our required internships, I headed to New York City to work at the Food Network. I was successful in the prep kitchen, because I could follow a recipe by this point. (Except for that time I forgot to plug in the food processor. Sorry, Emeril!) I met Bobby Flay, and he hooked me up with an internship at his original NYC restaurant, Mesa Grill. I found the kitchen cramped and hot, and the game of bumper cars we played while wielding knives in the tiny space wreaked havoc on my body, not to mention my mental state. I kept wondering when I would start liking it. The low point came during Restaurant Week, when Mesa did about 500 covers (meaning it served 500 people instead of the usual 300). I couldn’t keep up. Orders piled up, and the cooks screamed at me in Spanish. They eventually had to jump in and help me, and, needless to say, they were not happy about it. At the end of the shift, I was shaking and trying not to cry as I cleaned up. One of the cooks handed me a Bud Light, and I dropped it. The bottle shattered on the floor. “Just leave,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.” That was the last time I set foot in a professional kitchen.
The day before I was due to start my stage at Abacus, I realized I couldn’t find any of my old chef’s pants. You know the ones, the MC Hammer-ish pants with black and white checks? I drove to Ace Mart to buy some new ones, thinking, Surely in the past three years the fashion industry has made some advances in culinary work wear. I tried on three pairs before I realized that, no, I was going to have to purchase another pair of tapered, elastic-waisted genie pants that were designed to make me look and feel as much like the fattest version of myself possible. “Oh, well,” I thought. “I’ll be working. There’s no reason to worry about looking pretty.” Insert premonition here.
At 4 pm on the appointed day, I pull back the heavy black door at Abacus with a prime rib-sized pit in my stomach. Open since 1999, the restaurant was just renovated, and the dining room sparkles. But my mind is consumed with past failures. Mean boys making fun of my uneven grill marks. Chefs spitting out crab cakes I had labored over. Classmates grabbing arms and pairing up, leaving me standing alone. But. Deep breaths.
I’m way past those days! I’m a writer. People have to be nice to me! Oh, no. What if they ask me to concassé tomatoes? They always turn out mushy. What if they ask me to bruinoise a bell pepper? What was that trick to get the skin off? What if they make me work the grill? I’m terrible at telling mid-rare from medium. What’s in a bordelaise sauce again?
“Sarah?” says a cute brunette, coming around the hostess stand to snap me out of my freakout. “Hi, I’m Jennifer, Kent’s assistant. He’s running a little late, so why don’t you come with me and I’ll show you where to change?”
I dutifully follow Jennifer to the bathroom and change into my new pants, black Dansko clogs, and white chef’s coat (accidentally stolen from Mesa and my only coat without the CCA logo on it—a huge nerd alert for someone to wear in a kitchen). I grab my knife roll and walk back to the kitchen, where I am introduced to the crew and told to wait for Kent. Why am I the only one wearing a chef’s coat? Everyone’s pants look cuter than mine.
Finally Kent arrives and grabs me to come hang out with him in front of Abacus’ gorgeous exhibition kitchen. “I think you’ll be with me tonight, if that’s okay,” he says. “Sure! Sounds great!” I say, thinking, Does that mean I don’t get to cook at all? I am simultaneously relieved and disappointed. I spend the rest of the service standing in a tiny space next to Kent, listening to him talk about his kitchen, my knives sitting unused in one of the supply closets. The cooks dart around behind us, setting the rhythm of the restaurant, and Kent makes sure orders are filled properly, lightbulbs are changed, the music is correct, and everyone is happy all night long. He shares a few secrets. (Guess what? If you no-show a reservation, the restaurant doesn’t forget.) But I am just an observer. As the sweet pastry chef slices a banana into paper-thin pieces, I stare and long to do the job myself. Alas, I will have to wait until tomorrow.