The Chef Apprentice

Join a self-taught cook as he trains at a top restaurant

closeup pare.jpgThe first day of my apprenticeship started - and nearly ended - with a wicked little devil of a knife.

The devil in question was a 2¾-inch Thiers Issard paring knife, an old-school French design that sports a handle longer than its blade.

I had never clutched such a knife before. But on my first day interning at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, I was handed one by executive chef Paul Canales.

"Stu, I'm going to have you turn some potatoes," the chef said.

This was new to me. For my entire life, I had used a potato peeler, and I had "peeled" them, not "turned" them. Now, in the kitchen of a highly rated restaurant, with a crew of chefs watching me, I was about to wield a menacing and unfamiliar blade.

Imitating what Chef Paul had just demonstrated, I cut off both ends of a potato. I then folded my right index finger over the spine of the knife, cradling the handle in my palm. Slowly turning the potato in my left hand, I attempted to swipe the skin off in a series of back strokes.

"Keep trying," the chef said. "You'll get the hang of it."

Then he walked away. As soon as he did, I somehow stuck the point of the knife into my left thumb. Blood ran out, and my apprenticeship had barely started.

Stardom vs. reality
Like many people who enjoy food and cooking, I've long wondered what it would be like to work in a restaurant kitchen. Many of us fantasize that, after years of wowing our friends with our gourmet delights, we could don a chef's jacket and become rock stars of the culinary world.

Then reality intrudes. Restaurant chefs work long hours in hot, crowded spaces with an array of hazards swirling around them. The best chefs must master techniques needed to turn out superlative food, quickly and consistently for a discerning clientele.

It's not a job for the squeamish, the lazy, the easily distracted or people dispassionate about food.

paulie testers.jpgI knew all that. Even so, after 25 years as a newspaper journalist, the allure of the kitchen kept calling to me. And often it came in the voice of one of my oldest friends, Paul Canales, who can be seen in this photo to the right.

Paul and I grew up together in Fresno. After college, I worked at newspapers around the country and he became a high-powered Pac Bell executive.

Then he changed his life. Burned out by his corporate marketing job, Paul attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and then came back to California, landing an internship at Oliveto in 1994.

He trained under Chef Paul Bertolli, formerly of Chez Panisse, and Michael Tusk, now the chef and owner of Quince in San Francisco.

When Bertolli left to develop his own business making salumi - Italian-style products such as salami and prosciutto - the owners of Oliveto, Bob and Maggie Klein, promoted Paul Canales to the top job.

Five months ago, I contacted Paul and inquired if he was serious about taking me on as an intern. I was hopeful The Bee might grant me a leave to pursue it.

"Absolutely," Paul said. "We'll make it happen. You are going to love it here, man. You will learn so much."

So that's how I ended up at Oliveto, in search of a Band-Aid.

Patience, young chef
Since Oliveto was founded in 1986, its owners and chefs have sought to perfect a type of regional Italian cuisine that features California's freshest ingredients. The restaurant changes its menu daily based on the seasonal offerings of small farms that stretch from Mendocino County to the Sacramento Valley.

canaleschef.jpgThe ever-changing menu keeps the chefs on their toes. One day the handmade pasta will include parsley tagliatelle with green almonds and garlic confit. The next day that dish disappears, and in its place is a triangolone - triangle-shaped ravioli - stuffed with pork from Guinda's River Dog Farm.

On my first day, I was thrown into basic prep work. Along with another intern, I turned kumquats from a Yolo County grower into slices thin as a feather. Paul's plan was to take the deseeded kumquats and cook them into a mostarda - a savory marmalade that would accompany grilled pigeon.

After my earlier encounter with the paring knife, I redoubled my efforts to stay focused. It wasn't easy.

As I chopped kumquats, then onions and carrots for a ragú, a savory aroma wafted from the stockpots. Multiple conversations swirled around me. As I worked with my new Fujitake 10-inch chef's knife - chop, chop, chop - chefs rushed behind me carrying pots of scalding water. "Hot, hot!" they yelled.

Like all new interns, I wanted to know everything the first day. How did you cure that prosciutto hanging from the ceiling? What will become of the onions I chopped?

Although Paul answered many of my queries, he proffered advice that sounded vaguely like Obi-Wan Kenobi: Patience, young chef. Work on your technique. Everything will be revealed in time.

"That is the art of it - the chopping of the onions," Paul said. "If you are with those onions, then nothing else matters."

'Reattachment is always possible' 
Before starting at Oliveto, my biggest concern was how Paul's kitchen staff would treat the new guy. In Bill Buford's "Heat," the author goes to work for celebrity chef Mario Batali and endures months of hazing from the other cooks. In "Kitchen Confidential," Anthony Bourdain depicts restaurants as a rowdy and backstabbing world where sex, drugs and booze flow freely.

Based on my first week, Oliveto doesn't appear to be that type of kitchen. The atmosphere is hectic but collegial among chefs old and young, with lots of fist bumps and banter about recent skateboard accidents.

"No drama" is Paul's operational motto.

Although some members of the staff are undoubtedly curious about having a journalist in their midst, they are accustomed to novices. Some of the restaurant's top chefs came to Oliveto, like me, with little or no experience.

"Not everyone has natural skills to be a cook. But that doesn't mean they can't be a cook here," Paul told me. "If they have the passion and the aesthetic, I can teach them. They just have to work a little harder."

For the next few months, my life will be a steady array of challenges, five days a week.

On my second day, I browned and braised a massive amount of lamb shoulder. On the third day, I prepared béchamel sauce and assembled a vegetarian entree. The next day I assembled a gratin of potatoes, fennel, celery root, carrots, cream and Parmesan cheese, to accompany an entrée of roasted lamb.

More challenges await. I just need to stay focused and remember the consequences of failing to handle tasks with care.

Above the main sink at Oliveto, a faded sheet of paper provides such a reminder. The sheet offers matter-of-fact instructions on how to treat various kitchen injuries, including dealing with an amputated finger.

"Reattachment is always possible," the sheet says. "Stop the bleeding and place the lonely piece in a wet towel. ..."

That's what I think about every time I turn a potato. I think about the lonely piece.

Photos by The Bee's Carl Costas

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About The Chef Apprentice

Stuart Leavenworth, an editorial writer for The Bee, will spend the next several months in the kitchen at Oliveto, a highly rated Italian restaurant in the Bay Area. As an apprentice, Stuart will start as a prep chef, preparing vegetables, soups, sauces and pasta fillings. Then he'll move on to more challenging assignments. He welcomes your questions. Read his first installment here. Email him at sleavenworth@sacbee.com.

March 2010

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