Monday, February 15, 2010

Shangri-la or Hell?

Several events converged on Sunday to make it a day of note. The Olympics, Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day made the kitchen at Shangri-la’s Market restaurant busier than it had ever been since opening day a year ago.

I got there early and was met by the executive sous-chef who gave me the “5-cent-tour”. As we whipped around the kitchen he spoke at breakneck speed. It resembled something right out of a movie.

"This is the pastry section, nothing hits this counter except eggs, flour and sugar, understood?”
“Here we use the 3 sink method, do you know what the three sinks are for?”
“Wash, rinse and sanitize.”
“Yes, but switch that around, the far one is rinse and the closest sanitize.
"You see this yellow line? No one can cross this line unless they’re wearing a hat or hairnet. You gotta hat?”
“Yes Chef.”
“Put it on.”
“Tilt fryer here! Salamander up above! Pastry ovens! Garde Manger! Protein fridge on the left! Everything else fridge on the right! Never touch this slicer! Use the right colour coded cutting boards!”
“Yes Chef.”
“Here’s what I’m going to do Rene. I’m going to give you a station and a green cutting board. I don’t want you to move from that place. You need something? You go and get it and bring it back to your station. This is your space, never leave it. Got it?”
“Got it”
“You need a Chef’s knife, a steel, a paring knife and a peeler. Go.”

I spent the next 5 hours cutting vegetables into 6mm x 6mm squares. A box of peppers, a bin of carrots, a case of celery, a bag of shallots followed by cutting jalepeno peppers and ginger into brunoise, (2mm X 2mm squares.) I cut and cut and cut and cut some more, I hadn’t cut myself, but my fingers started stinging. I filled tub after tub with the little squares. My cuts looked good, but I was aware it was taking a long time.

Finally finished! I was given 2 hotel pans of cooked clams. I was to pick out all the meat and throw out the shells. When I completed that task, I was given what looked like an easy enough job, but turned into the biggest challenge of the night.

“Take this thyme and strip the leaves off the stalks. No woody stems. And fill this bucket.”

I started stripping. Half an hour later the bottom of the bucket was just covered. I picked up the pace.

As I stripped leaves, I started to think about Bulent’s Mom back in Cappadoccia. In the summer she used to harvest the mint when I was there, and we’d sit on a blanket out under a tree and pick the mint leaves from the stalks. It was something she did every time I visited in the summer because it was a tedious, long job and she liked the help. As we picked she’d talk and talk away - in Turkish, and I’d try to follow along, stopping her from time to time to look up words in my Turkish-English dictionary. She talked mostly about her kids and their problems. I learned the words for “lazy husband”, “money problems”, “troublesome kids” and “divorce” from her.

When we were done, my thumbs would be green and smell minty. We’d spread all the mint out on a blanket and let it dry under the harsh Cappadoccia sun. The next day we’d crush it up into a huge mason jar. She used all this mint for “ezo gelin” soup, which happened to be one of my favorites, (especially hers). Usually in the afternoon after we’d crushed, she’d make a big pot of the soup as a reward.

Two hours later my bucket was finally full. My fingers were green, my back and feet were killing me and my head was pounding. I’d had enough. I took my bucket to the Garde Manger (the guy in charge of soups and salads), he took one look at it.

“No, no, no! This is totally wrong! There can be NO stems at all. ONLY leaves. Go back and pick through it again".

I took it back to my station and dumped it out onto the counter and began to pick. And as I did I got angry. I’m smarter than this! This is a complete waste of my time! I didn’t need to pay a whack of cash and go through training to pick miniscule leaves off teeny stems!

Twenty-five minutes into picking, one of the sous-chefs came over and started helping me.

“Our Garde Manger is a bit obsessed with his thyme. I hate to see you pick over this stuff like this. Most of this is just fine so don’t be too picky. If he gives you trouble, tell him it came from me.” He continued to ask about the school and make some small talk and my anger disappeared.

I finally finished this task and left the hotel. I was there 9 hours in total. And I did it for free.

Most of my classmates reported that they had “fun” and they felt “empowered”. I felt angry and annoyed. But then, that’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to work in a big kitchen, and I don’t want to cook that way. I’m much more interested in the writing, photography, advertising, styling and publishing end of food.

If anyone goes to the Shangri-la this weekend: The clam chowder in the restaurant and banquet halls was mostly prepared by me. Please notice the consistency of the cut veg, and please, please take a moment to appreciate those tiny thyme leaves in the chowder!


  1. upper lip stiff! I think it's a great experience. It helps a lot to know one can get through hell and come back.

  2. WOOOOOOOW! Wow! Wow! Wow!


  3. Enjoyed that. Perhaps the "writing, photography, advertising, styling and publishing" thing is for you. Looking forward to seeing more!