The Back Door

For anyone who has been following this blog, or is just one of many important friends and family in my life, you've heard me say - numerous times - that when I decided to sign my life away for eight months of Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts training it wasn't for the goal of becoming a chef. No, life in the kitchen would be way to tough for a girl like me. The heat. The sweat. What would become of my foundation, my mascara, my perfectly flat-ironed curls? And there would certainly be yelling. I don't do yelling. Don't all chefs have outrageous outbursts that emulate those of chef Gordon Ramsey?

But during the past year and a half after earning my diploma and exploring the world of food writing - plus other avenues in the arena of all things culinary - something continues to intrigue me.

There are not too many things that can hold my interest for an extended period of time. I get bored. My attention is short-lived. My mind wonders, and I tend to move on. Quickly. But one thing keeps toying with my mind.

That kitchen.

What goes on day in and day out? Is it really that hot back there? Is the chef really going "Gordon Ramsey" on the line cooks?

I've kept in close contact with a former culinary school classmate of mine who's quickly worked his way through many of Portland's esteemed restaurant kitchens just in the short time since we left our kitchens at school. Just a few weeks ago, he was named Chef de Cuisine at Lucy's Table. His name is Bryan Szeliga; chef Bryan, pardon me. I couldn't have been more thrilled when I heard the news of the opportunity he was given. I was even more thrilled when he offered me a chance to come 'hang out' in the kitchen with him.

Last week I reached out to Bryan as I was doing some research for an article I was writing for an industry publication. He suggested I stop by the restaurant to chat with him about my questions a bit more. We confirmed via text.

Me: I'll try and come down by 3:30/4. Is that too close to dinner service?
Bryan: See you then

I arrived at the front door at NW 21st and Irvine slightly after 4 p.m. It was locked.

Me: I'm outside. Door is locked.
Bryan: Back door

At that exact moment I looked up and saw the bartender preparing the bar for the evening. We both froze as we realized we knew each other. She is the wife of my Pilates training. I had almost forgotten she worked a Lucy's part-time until the moment I saw her. What followed was about 30 seconds of sheer confusion and conversation through the locked, glass door.

"Jennifer?" she asked.
"Stacy?" I replied back.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I'm here to talk with Bryan, your new Chef de Cuisine."
"You know Bryan?"
"Yes, we went to school together," I answered.
She motioned for me to walk around building,"Come around to the back door."

And I did. And when I arrived I was met by Lucy's owner/chef, Mike Conklin.

"Hi," I said. "I'm Jennifer, I'm here to see Bryan."

Mike greeted me with a friendly smile and guided me through the back door and into the kitchen.

Having come from running miscellaneous errands all the day, I was clearly not dressed to be in a restaurant kitchen. Tip toeing with my high-heeled boots through the back entryway and onto the wet, rubber mats I finally met up with Bryan and giving him a long-overdue friendly hug while admiring his crisp, white chef's ensemble. I clutched my big purse and held my over-sized wrap sweater tight to prevent it from unraveling into anything it shouldn't have, found a corner next to a row of culinary reference books and set my things down - big wrap sweater off, short-sleeve V-neck shirt revealed. Now, I was ready for some exploring.

Bryan first led me on a tour of the kitchen and explained to me some of the things he'd changed around in his two short weeks at the venue. There was the modest walk-in fridge with shelves full of milk, cream and large cubes of butter. And sitting outside it, tubs of dry goods like potatoes and onions. Down the short alley-like hallway was another stash of goods, these the vinegars and oils and condiments.

After the quick tour, Bryan needed to get things prepped for dinner service and we chatted as he worked at the stove and coordinated stations with his line cook. He wasn't yelling.

The owner had been in and out of the kitchen, and during one visit, reminded Bryan that a local publication would be by around 5:30 p.m. to snap some photos of select menu items for an upcoming edition. A food photo shoot? I thought. Another behind-the-scenes view of another aspect of the food world that I love so much. I picked an excellent evening to come by.

As the time grew closer to the dinner hour, the action in the back grew as well. Bryan and I were chatting about questions I had for the article, and all the while I was shifting from one wall to the other, dodging the servers and owner as they were shuffling things around and getting prepped for an active evening in the dining room.

And the evening went on. The photographers for the local publication arrived and I watched as Bryan and his line cook, Rojellio, created the dishes that were to be shot. Once each dish was finished, I'd follow it out to the "set" and watched as the photographer shot and the dishes were transformed into works of art for print.

And after a few hours of 'hanging' with the crew at Lucy's, watching the kitchen guys dance effortlessly on the line, venturing to the front of house to witness the photo shoot and the action at the bar and the diners in the restaurant, one thing was a constant. My face held a permanent grin. The evening's happenings captivated my interest. I was fascinated by how every one's role was played with ease, and how all the details just continued to come together behind the scenes.

Bryan mentioned to me that the next time I visit, to please wear my non-slip shoes and more casual attire. He asked if I still had my chef''s uniforms from school days and I, hesitantly, said yes as I remember those black and white checkered pants. I immediately told him those pants would not find themselves back on me again. He held a smirk on his face and told me to hang on to at least on pair - in the event that I wanted to venture around to be a part of any other kitchens in town. I left Bryan and his staff, who had all graciously welcomed me into their space for a few hours, and headed out to the front.

I said goodbye to Stacy and Maggie, the other server on site for the night, and said a quick 'thank you' and goodbye to Mike, who was in the middle of a tasting with a couple of wine distributors. He asked if I enjoyed the few hours I spent at his venue, and I quickly said yes. He welcomed me to come back at any time.

And I shall.

I think the adventures in exploring the culinary world is about to reach an entirely new level.



Jenni said...

Wow ~ such an experience! Great article Jen!

Jennifer said...

Thanks, Jenni! I can't wait to go back and soak in even more. It's just such a different world.

Erica said...

I love Lucy's Table! Sounds like a very fun night for you. I've told you this many times before, I love your writing. You're so gifted at giving details, and infusing emotions and wit.

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