I have to admit it, I’m definitely an amateur cook. I have no aspirations to become a professional chef, nor do I think I actually have the culinary chops to work in that world. No matter how much time I spend in my own kitchen, researching, learning, practicing and hopefully perfecting some recipes, it’s never going to be the same as dealing with the intensity of the restaurant world. The pressures of time, precision and unflappability seem more than just a little beyond my capabilities. Having said all that, I have often wondered what it would be like to spend just one night in a pro’s kitchen. Yesterday, I got my chance.
As a fundraiser for the Parkdale Food Centre (the Ottawa food bank affiliate that serves my local community), one of my dishes was put on the menu at a local spot of which I am overly fond – The Back Lane Cafe. Owner George Monsour and Executive Chef Michael Hay generously offered me the opportunity to come into their kitchen and help prepare the food for this special event after they heard others praising my braised pork cheeks and celery root puree.
Apron in hand, I confess to being both excited and a bit nervous when I stepped into the kitchen. Did I mention that I had a couple of bandaids tucked in my back pocket, just in case? Thankfully, I didn’t need them, although I did develop a good-sized blister from chopping herbs for a couple of hours. I’d like to blame the unfamiliar knife, but I know it was really my less-than-perfect technique. The herbs were a lesson in themselves. When Chef Michael Hay said ‘small’, I didn’t realize he meant ‘almost impossibly small’. You can imagine my shame when he looked at my first batch of chopped chives, smilled, shrugged, and tossed them out. I learned a really important lesson: if you’re not sure what Chef wants, get him to demo it first. The other important lesson: I am NOT a fast chopper, compared to the pros.
One thing I particularly enjoyed throughout the pre-dinner prep time was the wonderful cameraderie I could sense in the kitchen. Maybe it was the beaming sunshine, flooding the space with natural light – a rarity in commercial kitchens. Or perhaps it was the shared satisfaction that comes from knowing you are crafting truly delicious food for an appreciative audience. Whatever the case, there was a warm spirit and a lot of friendly banter. I loved how the cooks were constantly brainstorming on different dishes they’d like to concoct; it was nice to hear Chef consistently praising their ideas and suggestions. There was also a lot of chatter about what to make for staff meal, which is, in essence, a quick break that happens before service starts, so the team is fuelled for the busy evening ahead. The Back Lane Cafe is known for its flavourful, creative pizzas so it was with delight that I tucked into a slice of the pre-service snack: pizza with sweet potato hummus and oven-roasted vegetables. It was simple and delicious.
I should mention that with the special fundraising table d’hôte in addition to the a la carte menu, it changed things up a bit for both front of house and the kitchen brigade. They confessed afterwards that things were not as smooth as usual, although I honestly didn’t sense any chaos or panic. It was certainly extremely busy by times, but with everyone attending to their designated tasks, it felt like everything was happening very calmly and efficiently. No yelling in this kitchen – just a quiet concentration on cooking and preparing the plates.
I worked the cold side of the line, helping to plate salads and mezze (appetizer plates of small bites include baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, deep fried broccoli and flatbread). The hardest part of this station for me? Trying to understand the cryptic ticket system that keeps the kitchen on track and the food delivered at just the right time. I was impressed to see how promptly the servers delivered plates once they’d been put up for service and the bell had been rung.
At the end of the night, I was offered a chance to put my feet up and enjoy a glass of wine, but I felt it important to pay my dues and help the brigade with cleanup. Like everything else at the Back Lane Cafe, this happened with a quiet efficiency that was impressive in its thoroughness. My heart ached for Hugo, the uncomplaining dishwasher, who arguably worked harder than anyone else in the kitchen. It is a thankless but essential job. As I packed away my apron to head home, I can honestly say I felt tired, but overwhelmingly satisfied by my experience in the kitchen. My head was spinning with all I had observed and learned, and I felt proud to have helped raise a nice sum to buy fresh food including milk and yogurt for those in need in our immediate community. My proudest moment? Watching Chef put the finishing touches on my dish to send out to eager patrons. That felt awesome, to be honest, and it was fun to personally deliver some of the orders.
Now it’s back to reality. Time to roll up my sleeves, wash my hands again (they STILL smell of shallots!) and get busy in my own kitchen. From now on, every time I reach for a handful of fresh herbs, I’ll probably think about my night at the Back Lane Cafe, with gratitude.
To learn a little more about this exciting project, feel free to explore these links: