Little Vegan, Big Kitchen – Part Two

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, brulĂ©ed, 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!]

30 thoughts on “Little Vegan, Big Kitchen – Part Two

  1. Ok, I admit to suffering from insomnia and I’ve been up since 4am, but is Johnny Jean-Georges? I’m so clueless about this stuff, but either way, how totally exciting!! This is probably the culinary equivalent to when I got to take a master class with Baryshnikov – trying to concentrate on learning something, being something, and not losing it when face to face with a hero!

  2. I’m simply awe-struck at the experience you had in the pastry kitchen. Oh, Hannah, it must have been a dream come true for you and I’m so thrilled that you got to have this adventure!

  3. What an awesome story! It takes me back to my days auditioning (the pastry cook’s version of an interview) in a kitchen. So is this a potential job, or were you there just for a day to see what it’s like? Either way, what an incredible experience you had. Isn’t it great when time moves that fast? It really shows you were enjoying what you were doing.

  4. Huzzah! What a fabulous tale and what wonderful, and no doubt, life changing experience! You’re one lucky girl! Thanks for sharing, Hannah!

  5. Absolutely the coolest thing I can imagine happening. I’m so glad you got the opportunity and am more than a bit jealous…but at the same time happy it wasn’t me as I am sure I would’ve messed things up royally!!

  6. I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but even if I did, it bears repeating.




    I’ve worked in a commercial kitchen, and I know how hard it is physically. I’ve been completely blown away watching the pastry chefs work their magic. (It helps that I’ve had the indescribable joy of working with Bill Yosses.) Simply finishing their exquisite creations was terrifying to me, and you got in there and WORKED WITH THEM!

    When I started reading this yesterday, though, I knew you’d do well. You have an understanding of food and an awareness of your work that most people lack.

    I hope you do get the opportunity to go back. When you do, I want you to do one thing for me. I want you to walk in there like you own the place. I want you to stand outside the door for a moment before you open it, gather your thoughts, and tell yourself “I BELONG here. I’ve earned the right to be here. I am an asset to this kitchen.” And then walk in with all the confidence you feel walking into your own bedroom.

    You have to remember that for all the education and experience these folks have, you bring something unique and wonderful to the mix. They can teach you all about the realities of the work, but you can show them a thing or two, too. They can show you how to pour the spiced apple compote before it sets, but you can walk into a kitchen, assess what’s available, and visualize a unique, exciting finished dish, and you know how to create that dish. Many people spend years trying to learn how to do that.

    Everyone working in that kitchen can produce. You can create, a rare and wonderful gift.

    And if you need some advice in how to prepare physically for that kind of work (because it is difficult, and requires a whole lot of strength and endurance,) please let me know. I’ll help any way I can.

  7. holllllllyyyyy!!!! wow girl! good for you! i would have passed out cold and you managed to actually work in there! lol well it sounds like it was an amazing experience and certainly one you will NEVER forget!

  8. You don’t need photos, you’ve described this wonderfully. I’m so happy for you!

    (And I agree completely with Nancy – you’re a fantastic cook and baker, you needn’t feel shy!)

  9. What an awesome opportunity, I’m so jealous! The way you put this experience into words made me feel like I was part of the whole adventure. Thanks for sharing.

  10. How cool Hannah! I felt like I was there with you in the kitchen.


    P.S. Are you finding yourself wanting to add a Thermomix to your arsenal of tools and toys?

  11. What a truly amazing and memorable experience, Hannah! Congrats. And it sounds as if you did a remarkable job–5-1/2 hours–whoah!

  12. Wow – lots of excitement and how exciting to meet such revered chefs! I know that was exciting for you! I could definitely feel it in your writing! I guess I am still kind of confused as to how this all came about though. It almost sounded like this is your new job but now you say you would do it again in a heartbeat so I am assuming it is not your new job. I’m lost. Forgive me. :) But I’m very happy for you!

  13. That sounds like an amazing experience. Well done! I now have this image of you dragging a heavy cutting board through a busy kitchen.

  14. Wow, what a great experience! and your writing more than makes up for not having a picture! :-) Very well done all around!

  15. wow, hannah! what an experience. It sounds crazy and intimidating and overwhelming and fun and inspiring all at once. I’ll bet you slept well that night.

  16. Awesome experience!! Aside from being awe-struck with the entire thing anyway, what you said about measuring ingredients exactly stuck with me. (Don’t ask why it hasn’t stuck before!) Anyway, I did exactly that while making breakfast this morning and the difference was really obvious! I just wanted to say thanks!

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