Reflections on Lobster & a Cook’s Life

I don’t think that employment in a 2-Michelin starred restaurant’s kitchen is really the dream that people might imagine it to be.  It’s certainly far away from anything I could have imagined before I worked my way through Le Gavroche in London in 1999.  It’s not just that it’s hot, or that it’s stressful, or that the hours are long, or the pay is low.  It’s that while you’re there, none of this matters.  It’s like a black-out situation where you start working and the only thing that is important is correctly doing your job; in my case, making desserts.  It’s incredibly strange.  Sometimes I’d have to tell myself as I attacked another crazy day, “It’s just dessert.”  It’s not like my work was critical to anyone’s life, well-being, survival.  But for some inexplicable reason, it was critical to mine.

So one Saturday afternoon in December, we were working.  Normally off on Saturday & Sunday, a skeleton team was required to come in an extra day that week to cater a dinner for the Queen’s jeweler.  Maybe you know that the Queen of England has her own personal jeweler.  This man hosted his Christmas party for 80 close friends and family for decades at Le Gavroche, complete with party favors at each place setting which were rumored to be extraordinary and expensive. 

The atmosphere in the kitchen was different that afternoon, lighter somehow. With just one menu to prepare there wasn’t the usual chaos.  My pears were already poached with star anise, cinnamon, cloves and mustard seeds; my Poire William sabayon cream was setting in the fridge.  I just had to make 80 pepper tuiles, paper-thin, spicy cookies that would balance in the cloud-like cream, and to sliver my pears and reduce their poaching liquid into a syrup to glaze them on the plates.  The usually grim, Scottish head chef even passed around a major surprise at one point: money! The restaurant wouldn’t be compensating us for the extra day’s work, but the munificent jeweler bestowed each worker with a crisp, new note: 100 pounds for each section leader & 50 pounds for each helper.  I was pleased by the warm feeling that bill aroused in my hand.  I felt appreciated & emboldened.

Silvano was the long-time manager of Le Gavroche’s dining room.  He was infamous in London dining circles.  A sharp, cool Italian, he barely glanced at the cooks unless there was an error.  Then you could expect to look up at a face frozen in fury – no words were even necessary but of course there would be some choice ones.  He was famous for his cruelty as much as his charm.  He was necessarily required to know the regular guests intimately – to anticipate their needs and preferences.  He could recognize an anonymous Michelin critic as they stepped out of their taxi onto the pavement in front of the restaurant.  He was the face of the dining room – pure control & elegance.

In my time at Le Gavroche I had never spoken to Silvano.  As far as I knew he had never acknowledged me either, a good thing for all concerned.  On the Saturday afternoon of the Queen’s jeweler’s party he stood casually at the pass – the counter where the chef sends the finished plates out into the dining room – and loudly spoke to no one in particular about the management meal for that night. Before every lunch & dinner service we prepared a separate meal to send out to the management.  For this special day, a yearly ritual and apparently a tradition, the management was to eat the lobster that was going to be the main course for the party.  “But Michel won’t be here for the management meal” Silvano bemoaned theatrically.  “His daughter is playing a match and he’s not arriving until 6.  Who is going to eat his lobster??”

“I will!” the joking response flew out of my mouth across the white-tiled kitchen before I could stop myself.  A silent pair of hands and feet who had skittered through the kitchen 5 long days & nights each week for nearly a year, I had barely spoken to anyone if it wasn’t necessary the entire time. This was completely against my normally hyper-social nature, but it was necessary to get through the job. Now here I was joking around as I dared to look up into Silvano’s ice blue gaze directly.  He smiled. And he replied, “Alright, good” and walked away. I turned back to my marble table and my pears, blissfully alone in that normally-crowded space for a change.

My boyfriend, Franck, the sous-chef and the reason I was working in this crazy place to begin with, startled me a bit later when he popped his head around the wall into my pastry corner and said “Your lobster is served.” “What are you talking about?” I replied, incredulous.  “Your lobster, you told Silvano you would eat the management meal with him today. It’s ready, go eat.” I felt panic tighten my stomach. I had no idea where I was even supposed to go.  Where did the management eat the meals we put on the pass for them twice a day? I looked blankly at Franck. “Where do I go?” “In the dining room, of course.” Obviously.

I had never seen the dining room of the restaurant.  In one year I had never had any reason to look through the door at its lush, burgundy velvet curtains, its famous artwork on its silk-lined walls and the heavily draped tables. Each table sported a unique sculpture, whimsical animals made of antique cutlery, and was set with gold-trimmed French porcelain. Each Limoges plate was ironically decorated with a small, painted figure of the urchin boy, the rebel, the Gavroche, from Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” I stood unsteadily at the threshold in wrinkled, stained chef’s whites and I took it in: rich, luxurious, intimidating. I didn’t want to walk further. I wanted to be back in the kitchen. That site of anxiety, exhaustion, and humiliation was truly the place where I felt comfortable. I didn’t want to sit with this scary man and share a meal. But there was a table set for two in the corner on a cozy banquet, a bottle of Evian water, two crystal glasses, and two plates each bedecked with a steaming, glistening, butter-laden lobster. I slid onto the velvet cushions, inhaling the perfume of garlic and herbs mingling with butter & lobster. This might not be so bad. I looked up at Silvano and smiled. Who gets to do this? What other cook has actually come through the kitchen door into this legendary dining room, sat and eaten a proper meal here? It was surreal. Silvano chatted with me. He might have even been nice but I really didn’t register anything he said. As I tasted my first forkful of that ethereal lobster I honestly was lost in my own private heaven. It was the most luscious and delicious bite of my life. It was beyond anything fabulous you have ever tasted yourself. It was the taste of survival, of success. The crushing feelings of never-ending work and never-attainable perfection that had weighed on me, the constant tension and frantic sense of inadequacy that haunted me, all slipped away as I lost myself in my lobster.

Just as my plate was sadly emptying, Chef Michel arrived and flopped down on the banquet next to me. If he was surprised to see me there he didn’t show it. He looked pleased to see me, completely out of place; my face no doubt awash with pleasure and satisfaction.  We chatted too.  All awkwardness had melted away on this strange day. After working so diligently for a year, I wasn’t seeking their approval. I knew that I had done what was expected of me, and had more than done what I had ever expected of myself. I realized that in order to work at this level of intensity I had nearly checked out of normal society for a year, rarely calling anyone, too exhausted to socialize on the weekends. I stumbled into the kitchen before sunrise and left after midnight. Insults and cruel jokes and orders were constantly hurled around me. I slept-walked home to a hot bath and into bed and an alarm woke me 5 hours later to get up and do it again. I had completely lost touch with myself, my desires or pleasures. I was completely detached from any sense of the pleasure that my own work was giving to the people just on the other side of that kitchen door.

I returned to my station, smiling as I remembered what it felt like to be really happy for the first time in months.  The transformative power of food. Nothing became easier after that; in fact the holiday season is the most crushing moment of the year at that restaurant.  But I’ve never been the same, really, and if anyone wants to know, Roasted Lobster with Garlic Butter is my favorite dish.

Roasted Lobster with Garlic Butter

The Garlic-Herb Butter recipe makes a lot. You can easily halve the recipe, but I would recommend making the whole batch and freezing some in smaller containers. This butter is so good, the balance of garlic, parsley and shallots is perfect. You can use it on other fish or shellfish, either as you roast it or as a finishing touch, and it’s also great with vegetables, particularly mushrooms. It’s an easy way to make some roasted cauliflower or pan-fried mushrooms absolutely fantastic! We recommend using a scale to get the amounts just right every time.

Garlic-Herb Butter

1pound soft butter

30 g (1oz) shallots

20 g (5-6 cloves) garlic

50 g chopped (flat or curly) parsley (Wash parsley thoroughly and squeeze it in a dishtowel to take out the moisture. Remove all leaves from stems and chop them finely before adding to the food processor with the other ingredients to incorporate the parsley evenly and not make your butter super green in the machine)

Splash Pernod

Salt & pepper – to taste (you must taste before removing from the processor)

Place shallots and garlic in food processor and pulse to chop, then add parsley and mix everything thoroughly together.  Add butter and seasonings and pulse to combine. You can chop everything by hand and mix in a large bowl, too. You don’t need a food processor.

For the Lobster:

Bring a large pot of water to the boil with a generous amount of kosher salt (Franck says the water has to taste “like the sea” in order to have enough salt). Place 1 1/4 lb. lobsters (1 lobster per person) whole into the water, cover and wait until the water comes back to the boil. Now you must time carefully 6 minutes to blanch the lobsters. This is just the right amount of time for the lobsters to cook enough to remove all of the meat, and then to roast in the oven with the garlic butter and not be overcooked at the end. Have a large bowl of ice handy and after 6 minutes, use a tongs to remove the lobsters directly into the bowl of ice. The ice will stop the cooking and cool them down so you can handle them. Preheat oven to 375F. Now for the fun part: Each lobster must be cut open vertically down the middle, using a big, sharp knife & starting at the head to get your knife right in the middle. All of the meat should be removed from large leg & claws, the tail. Line the body of the lobster with 3-4 teaspoons of garlic butter all along it (we find that a teaspoon is best to get the butter into the shell). Place all of the meat of that half of the lobster back into its shell: the tail and all of its claw meat. This is what makes this dish so decadent: not only is the lobster cooked in the most delicious garlic butter, but you don’t have to do any messy work when you’re eating it, everything has already been done. Top the meat in the lobster shell with 3-4 more teaspoons of garlic butter all along it (you can always melt more and offer it on the side if you feel that the lobster meat could be drenched further!). Place the lobsters in the hot oven to roast, about 10 mins. You know that they are done when the butter is sizzling. Serve with plenty of bread.

 

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