Tying the apron in a tight knot behind my back, I prepared myself for the worst. Rehearsing a few excuses for why I might need to duck out early, or apologize profusely for ruining something, my confidence was nowhere to be found. Feeling thoroughly ridiculous as I placed that attractive paper hat on my head, I shed what remained of my ego and rolled up my sleeves. There were things to do, after all.
Picking up the pace to match the frenzied activity in the kitchen was like trying to merge into the Autobahn from a dead stop. Immediately, Anna began explaining how pate de fruits were made as she simultaneously cut a large slab flavored with green apple into bite-sized cubes and dredged them in sugar. Handing me the recipe book, it turned out to be a rather simple formula, but my past failures with this candy had me worried. Gathering and scaling ingredients for an intriguing raspberry and beet version, the base came together in a flash. Bringing the mixture up to a boil on the intimidating and well-worn stove, it began to thicken beautifully, almost magically even. What was the difference, I asked, between this and those gooey globs I had made previously? The pectin. Never even having considered that there might be different types or qualities of pectin, it was one of those “ah-ha” moments as I stood there whisking away furiously at the boiling mixture of crimson puree. Lesson number one: Don’t skimp on the quality, even though many times, quality unfortunately means higher cost. (Would you rather have a cheap failure that gets tossed, or a success that actually works and gets eaten?)
Standing back as Anna took the reigns and poured the molten mixture into a plastic-lined pan, I was grateful that she hadn’t given me the opportunity to spill all over the counter, which I can almost guarantee would have happened. Only a few red splatters dotted my apron- Not too shabby for someone typically covered from head to toe in flour and sugar.
Moving briskly on to the next task without missing a beat, a golden sheet of rich dough was plopped out in front of me (or, more likely, delicately but swiftly rolled out while I had my back turned and was searching for the correct place to put the dirty pan.) Punching out small circles destined to become donuts for the lunch service, I tried to focus on the task at hand and ignore the dizzying whir of activity all around.
Looking up from my neat trays of raw donuts, Anna had disappeared, and another fantastically skilled baker was here to guide me. James (I believe? Forgive me if that’s wrong!) introduced himself and gave me a formal tour of the kitchen- and what a kitchen. While exploring the upper floor, which was even more spectacular than the first, I saw the man himself, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and could do little more than stand in stunned awe. He shook my somewhat sugar-encrusted hand and I said something unoriginal about what an honor it was to meet him, what an amazing place this was. As if he didn’t already know.
Everything moves so fast in this alternate universe, I’m sure this moment took approximately 5 seconds in real time, and before I knew it, I was back in the pastry kitchen, with James asking what I would like to help with. Happy to do anything simple, I forgot myself the moment he mentioned some crazy take on apple pie, where the “filling” is a spiced apple compote blended with various liqueurs, stabilized by two types of gellan, set at room temperature, bruléed, and then served with crust crumbles, vanilla ice cream, and cider reduction… The mad baker in me jumped at the idea.
Simply scaling the recipe and measuring out ingredients was a wholly different experience for me, reminding me of how I wished others would follow recipes precisely. In this case, forget about precise; Try, to the one-hundredth of a gram, absolutely exact. And don’t forget to scrape out all of the powdered particles clinging to the insides of the container when you’re done measuring, too! Oh, how I wish everyone would bake this way… Imagine how many mis-measuring disasters would be avoided so that even the trickiest recipes could turn out every time! Lesson number two: When working with expensive, unusual, or difficult ingredients, the recipe is the final word and there is no room for creative interpretation. 1 gram is one gram, not 1.1 or .9!
At the critical moment, when the gellan(s) and liquids had melted and come to a furious boil, threatening to overflow within a few seconds, I could merely squeak, “Oh, it’s boiling!” just in time for James to come in and rescue the mixture, dumping the whole thing into the thermomix and letting it process briefly at over 200 degrees. Without breathing, he deftly released the lock and poured the steaming mixture into the tubes I had lined with rolls of parchment and acetate- The damn tubes that took me an embarrassing number of attempts to evenly cover so that they wouldn’t leak. Luckily, the effort paid off, and all of that precious filling stayed put. Very firmly put, in fact, as James explained that he had about five minutes to work before the gellan set up completely and the whole batch was ruined. But you know, no pressure.
Cleaning up in between projects, it was then that Johnny walked in, fresh out of filming for some television appearance… And I froze. What should I do? What should I say? What’s the proper protocol for these things?! Do I look as stupid as I feel right now? I don’t think I even introduced myself or said my name, but I dropped a few dull words about being thrilled to meet him, or something of the sort. Damn, way to make a good impression. For fear of making a thorough ass of myself, I just asked what I should do next, and so he quickly pulled out a sheet of set ganache, showed me how to remove the rulers (frame), and went on his way. Hopeful that he would return soon and I could perhaps save face by proving that I wasn’t just an inept idiot, I went to pull out one of the lower trays of ganache just as Johnny had a minute ago and… Nearly dropped the whole thing on the floor! Lesson number three: Everything is heavier than it looks.
This lesson proved itself a second time as well- Running to fetch a cutting board to slice phyllo dough on, I poked into the savory section where they were stored under a table, grabbing the first one hastily. Staying rooted to the spot, it was clear that a two-handed approach was required. Still no dice; this thing was like a pile of bricks! Now attracting attention and a few bemused smirks from the burly chefs on the line, I pulled the thing with all my might and practically dragged it back to the pastry kitchen, like an ant carrying away a bagel.
From then on, it was nothing but phyllo, phyllo, phyllo. Layered with hazelnut meal and fitted into tartlette molds, there must have been a hundred metal forms to line, at least. Upon finishing, I decided that it was time to throw in the towel- While I had planned that this visit might take an hour at absolute most, it ended up being 5 1/2 hours! Seeing the surprised expression James wore due to my sudden departure, it was clear that I could have easily stayed all day, and perhaps all night, too.
Thanks were said, hands were shaken, I mumbled a few more forgettable words to Johnny, and found myself back out on the windy streets, exhausted but thoroughly inspired. I do desperately wish I could have actually spoken at length with Johnny, or that I had been more prepared for this unbelievable adventure, but I can’t fully express how appreciative I am to have had this opportunity, and to have met such kind and patient people. It’s definitely an experience I will never forget. And I would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat!
[And yes, I am kicking myself for not working up the courage to break out my camera and snap some photos!]