The Chef Apprentice

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

brasato.jpgSaturdays are crunch nights at Oliveto, the Italian restaurant in Oakland where I interned the last six months.

On this particular night, the first patrons are all arriving at the same time: 6 p.m. The upstairs dining room is slammed.

As the service staff punches orders into a computer, a machine in the kitchen starts printing tickets, "chicka, chicka, chicka."

Before the evening is over, the line cooks will have served several hundred plates, and each cook will be drenched in sweat.

Paul Berglund, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, is working this night as the "expeditor," a traffic cop for the line cooks. He looks at each ticket as it comes in, then yells out orders.

"Mark - four halibuts. Raiden - four sausages and a deuce on the pigeons. Sebastian, one escarole, two crostone, one frisse and a salami plate."

carmen.jpgThen he turns to Christa Chase, who is working the pasta station that night. "Christa, fire four mostaccioli, three cannelloni and six ravioli."

A few minutes later: "Fire one pappardelle, two fettuccines and two gnocchis."

Chase will be a blur for the next two hours, throwing fresh pasta into boiling water and finishing multiple sauces in separate pans. She has a cheat sheet of ingredients taped to her station, but she doesn't have time to read it. Like a soap opera star, she must memorize her lines instantly.

Since I started interning at Oliveto, I've been in awe of the line cooks. It takes a rare combination of skills and temperament to excel at this job and not flame out.

paul and kelsey.jpgTo succeed, a line cook must be well-organized, physically adept, completely focused and always thinking one or two steps ahead.

"At some point, 'Supercook' takes over and intuition kicks in," says Kelsey Bergstrom, a sous chef at Oliveto who was recently promoted from line chef.

"You know the fish is 20 seconds out. You just know it. And you pull that fish and plate it just as it is done."

To continue reading, with a slide show and a video of cooks, go here.

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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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