As I’m writing this, I am located in the winter wonderland of Woodbury, Minnesota. I am one year (and a pandemic lifetime) removed from my experience using the Ment’or Grant. I originally wrote about in my essay, and ultimately chose Restaurant Paul Bocuse (l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges) just outside Lyon, France for my grant experience. My grant experience was at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, and as I am writing this, it is the beginning of 2021. So, not only am I excited to share my experience with you, I’m personally excited to see how I’ve grown and changed over the past two years through the lens of this experience.
I’d like to thank Ment’or for affording me this opportunity and the experience of a lifetime. I’d also like to thank my parents, Rich and Sharon Sandquist, as well as Chef Gavin Kaysen, and Chef Julia Sullivan for all of their support before, during and after this experience. You are all true mentors. And lastly I would like to thank my French Family Aubin, Baptiste, and Louise. We were Brothers in the kitchen, we were each others’ family on Christmas, and if you gentleman hadn’t known English, I would have been even more lost than I already was for those months. Thank you all.
The experience this grant would provide, quite bluntly, is to continue learning from the best minds in our profession...I wanted to learn in the kitchen that changed French Cuisine to the beautifully thoughtful cuisine we strive for today.
I chose [Restaurant Paul Bocuse because] Chef Paul Bocuse showed the world how beautiful food could be and changed French cuisine forever. This grant afforded the opportunity to learn in the temple of classical French cooking. I also wanted to continue building on the French techniques I’ve learned from Chef Gavin Kaysen.
My goals and expectations were to learn about food, the world, and myself.
As a young cook, it is my first responsibility and privilege to approach food with an enthusiastic desire to learn. I expect to learn about foods and flavors that are drenched in tradition. I want to learn the techniques that go along with these foods and the tradition behind those techniques. I expected to expand my appreciation for local and seasonal ingredients and the specifics of each in Lyon.
Secondly, I wanted to learn more about the world. I expected to come home with a better understanding of humanity and the world.. A broadening of perspective about people and the human connection and hopefully relationships to last the rest of my life.
Lastly I expected to learn about myself. I wanted to be extravagantly out of my comfort zone. This grant offered the opportunity to get away from the kitchens I’m familiar with, away from the people I rely on in my life, and even get away from the language I speak and ultimately see what I capable of. I expected to come home with more confidence in the kitchen, a better understanding of the world and an idea of my capacity as a chef and a human so I can expand on the change they already started.
Restaurant Paul Bocuse serves Lunch and Dinner seven days a week. Each service seats for about two hours, where guests choose between five and seven courses, with the dining experience sometimes lasting up to four hours or more. As a cook, this style of service translates to “split-shifts''. This is where you arrive in the morning, prep before Lunch, perform Lunch service, clean and go home for an afternoon break. You then arrive back at work a few hours before Dinner service, prep before dinner, perform dinner service, clean and go home for the night. Start all over again in the morning.
For these split-shifts to work as effectively as they did, you were almost never prepping directly for the service you were about to perform. That is to say, before Lunch service, we were finishing any prep we missed for dinner, began prepping for the following day, and prepped fresh herbs for service. We consistently stayed a day ahead so our days were organized and we were always ready.
For a restaurant like Monsieur Paul’s to maintain the excellence it has, a militaristic approach and mindset to operations is required. I will describe a general day in the kitchen and the details that have been established and maintained.
We would arrive in the morning, shifts beginning between 6:30 - 8:00 am. Each cook was responsible for having a clean chef’s coat, kitchen pants, and steel-toed kitchen shoes. If your chef's coat or kitchen pants got dirty during your shift (dirty is anything that is not perfect), you were responsible for having back-ups available to change into at a moment's notice. Suffice to say, it was best if you were prepared with back-ups for your back-ups. On any given day, you were expected to have three sets of your work clothes available to maintain your pristine look throughout service.
On Mondays, the cooks and chefs alike would spend the first part of the morning, usually until about 9am, deep cleaning the entire kitchen. This included polishing all the copper molding (this place is known for copper), repolishing the pristine French-top stoves, putting new filters in the hoods, and double checking every pot and pan. This was both a fun and stressful weekly event. We all knew what needed to be done, but with 15-20 cooks running around cleaning anything and everything, it all happened kind of fast and chaotically.
I would like to mention that the restaurant is a renovated monastery, making for both a wonderfully unique aesthetic to the restaurant, as well as having living quarters both above the restaurant and in a few cabins just outside the fence of the monastery/restaurant. The cabins are made available to all interns, externs, stages, and new employees. I was able to find living within those cabins along with nine other people who all worked in some capacity at the restaurant.
The experience at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, although organized to a point that it flows seamlessly, the restaurant is also a completely immersive experience and lifestyle. Personally, I love full immersion. I’m more used to it with my military background, and it makes it easy for me to be in a mindset of learning.
I was put on the fish Station. The fish station has a separate, closed off section of the walk-in cooler, so none of the fish smell gets into the vegetables or poultry, as well as they keep it just a little cooler. Thee fish station also has a refrigerated prep space. This allows a cook to bring out all the fish he or she would need to prep without worrying about the fish warming up during the time of prep. The refrigerated room also has spray-down work spaces and walls, making clean-up after breaking down fish or lobsters really easy and really clean.
Each station had a hierarchy of cooks, and with that hierarchy were inherent tasks and responsibilities. At the fish station, there was one main fish cook, Chef Quentin, who had been working at Restaurant Paul Bocuse for five years. It was Chef Quentin’s responsibility to make sure everything on the fish station met the restaurant's standard. He was also tasked with the more delicate tasks (like preparing the sea bass en croute or preparing all the sauces for service), and running the line during service. Then, the second in command and captain of the ship when Quentin was not at work, Chef Andrea Picasso (21). A talented young chef who had been at Restaurant Paul Bocuse for almost three years. He was in charge of micromanaging all the preparations. Where Chef Quentin would inspect all the finished product before service, Chef Andrea would inspect the individual knife cuts and other tasks during the prepping process. It was also his responsibility to take on more skilled prep projects (breaking down of salmon, skinning of Black Sea bass, stuffing quenelles), as well as running the line either in the absence of Chef Quentin or as Chef Quentin’s right hand man during service. Next, but much further down on the hierarchy, were the full-time employees on the station. There were three full time employees. It was their responsibility to do all the other tasks on the prep list (clean scallops, make fumet, break down lobsters) as well as be of assistance to Chef Quentin on the line. And lastly, the stages, interns, externs, and other eager faces. It was our responsibility to do whatever we were told by anyone in the kitchen, and we were rarely seen during service. Frankly, I never saw a prep list once, but after the first week I could guess my way into the very structured routine and guess what tasks I would be expected to complete each day.
“Fish Lab” is a small group of the fish station cooks; Aubin, Louise, and I (really the only English speakers on the station), and each of us were fairly new to Restaurant Paul Bocuse. Louise lived in one of the cabins next to me and Aubin was from Lyon and still lived in the city. Louise was an intern (internships last for an entire semester, 4-6 months) from the school Ferrandi, in Bordeaux and Aubin was newly employed at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, coming from one of Monsieur Paul’s brasseries, l’Ouest. We were an especially tight group of cooks and they helped me communicate in the kitchen, so I was usually around one of them.
The Black Sea Bass is a famous dish at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, it is presented in the form of Black Sea Bass en Croute. That’s right, the presentation is a whole sea bass, filled with a lobster mousse in the belly, then wrapped in puff pastry that is then detailed to look like a fish, egg washed, and finally, baked to golden brown perfection. Served with a sauce choron, with table side presentation of cutting through the buttery and crispy puff pastry, spooning the steaming and perfectly cooked fish away from the ribs, spooning out the best smelling lobster mousse ever, and pouring sauce choron generously all over the plate. This menu item is meant to be shared, a small sea bass feeds 2, and the big sea bass feeds 3-5. The presentation does not differ between the two sizes of sea bass.
Black Sea Bass came in every other day and in quantities of 12-17 bass at a time. It was my task to break them down first thing in the morning when they came in. This task happened in the refrigerated work space for the fish station, also the fish would come in on a little bit of ice, and you needed cold, running water for this task. Needless to say, this task was very cold on the hands and fingers. To keep my hands warm I had to double glove and work fast.
The result was a fish that was missing all its fins except the dorsal fin, an immaculate chest cavity, drained spine, and ripped nerves in the collar. All scales and eyes remaining intact.
It was then Chef Andrea’s responsibility to come back to the task later in the day. He would then descale the fish by expertly and slowly cutting long strips just under the skin. Revealing the beautiful meat of the fish on the outside in a whole fish presentation.
Lastly, the descaled fish would be placed on puff pastry, filled with lobster mousse, and then draping the puff pastry over the whole fish, cut into a shape that exactly resembles a fish, and decorated to look like a fish.
The fish was egg washed just before service and always cooked to a golden brown to order. This dish showcases the Black Sea Bass in a luxurious and generous way. It also demonstrates how Restaurant Paul Bocuse showcased an excellent product with excellence in classic French technique.
It was December - January when I was at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, and few things taste more like the months of December and January than Walnuts. Walnuts were used on the Sole dish. We would receive two (ten pound) bags of whole, uncracked walnuts once a week. We would do one bag of walnuts at a time, but both bags over the course of the week.
Best tools for this task; an oyster knife, a paring knife, a chef's knife, and three buckets.
I know, there is nothing exciting about a shallot break down… On average, I performed this task three times a week and it earned me the nickname “Echalote”, which is French for “shallot”. So, I feel obligated to include such an essential part of my time there in this presentation.
The end result we’re looking for is 2.5Kg of perfectly brunoise shallots. Start with just over 3Kg of whole, unpeeled shallots. I prefer a 6in chef’s knife or a utility knife and make sure it's sharp. And lastly, you need three buckets.
The brunious shallots were then cooked just until translucent in a bit of red wine and red wine vinegar. They were cooled and then mixed with walnuts and a mushroom duxelle. As I mentioned before, almost like lasagna, this mixture was sandwiched between two flat pasta noodles. These lasagna pieces were cut to the width and length of the Sole and would be hidden underneath the Sole on presentation.
For the pick-up, the pasta and mixture was warmed in the oven on a piece of moistened parchment, with a damp paper towel over the top (basically lightly steamed until warmed through). At the same time, the Sole (which has been cooked 80% of the way in a circulator) was warmed in a shallow bath of fumet, then popped in the salamander oven for one minute, flipped in it's shallow fumet bath and set aside. A light and beautiful heavy cream and egg yolk sauce was then quickly buzzed with an emulsion blender and warmed lightly. Plating in a shallow bowl, the lasagna piece was neatly placed across the bottom, the warm Sole perfectly covered the lasagna, the warm heavy cream and egg yolk emulsification was poured over the fish, coating everything in a bland tan color. The entire shallow bowl was then steadily placed in the salamander oven. Keeping eyes and hands ready, this part happens fast. Due to the egg yolks and the sugar content of the heavy cream, the sauce starts browning, bronzing, and brûlée-ing. Gently spinning the bowl to not over bake in the salamander (a technique I was familiar with having made countless French onion soups at Bellecour, all with melted and brûléed Gruyere and Fontal cheese). When the bowl is pulled out out, there should be a golden brown edge around the entire bowl, nice brown brûlée marks and bubbles in the sauce on the bottom of the bowl, and dark brown brûlée marks on the fish. The sweetness of the cream brought out herbal notes from the fumet steaming up under the cream. The smell of warm walnuts also began showing up through the cream, immediately making your mouth water. By the time this dish made its way to the table, the smells and flavors were be reminiscent of the classic French bistros in Lyon, but none quite as refined, balanced, and technically sound as Monsieur Paul’s representation.
While the experience definitely taught me a lot about cooking, and about being a cook and all things restaurant and food related, an experience like this, at its best, at its most ideal, should also teach you about more than that. An experience like this also teaches you about life, teaches you about people, teaches you about yourself and the world immediately around you.
I knew this experience was going to be enlightening as soon as I landed in France. 7am I got off the plane into a dark mist. A cab picked me and drove me to my AirBNB in Paris. The whole drive there, the sun slowly started coming up on a cloudy day, so the roads went from dark and black, to grey, then finally as we approached Paris, a classic dreary “Paris in the rain” shade of grey that felt so perfect I smiled with a boyish delight and wonderment. My AirBnB was a couple blocks away from the Notre Dame Cathedral and when the cab driver dropped me off and gave me my bag, my brain blanked on the few French phrases I do know and I thanked him by saying “ Gracias, adios”. He smiled and drove away. I still feel stupid about this, but full disclosure, this was not the only time my brain reverted to Spanish phrases instead French phrases in those pinch moments. I often accidentally greeted people with “hola...i mean… bonjour”. Luckily I never allowed that to happen at Restaurant Paul Bocuse.
That was the downside of not knowing how to speak French for my experience in France. But also, not knowing the language, you learn a lot about yourself and how to communicate effectively without words. In the kitchen, I learned enough French that people could tell me what tasks to do and I could understand them. But I don’t know French numbers, so all of that needed to be communicated through writing ( I carried a special notebook just for communicating numbers). Also, I was able to communicate with no words but instead used exaggerated faces or exaggerated hand motions or head nods or shakes. I found the French people very helpful with this style of communicating. This showed me the desire humans have to communicate and collaborate, even without words, we find ways to reach out to each other and find a common understanding.
I found that to be a common theme wherever I went, people eager to connect regardless of my language barrier. The truest example of this happened on a night I was at Aubin’s (from “fish lab”) apartment in the city. He lives with his mother and his sister. Aubin and his sister speak English, but his mother does not. But the moment happened later in the evening, everyone was feeling pretty good, and everyone’s cheeks were stuck in a smile by then. They ask me to pick a song. For French music, I only know Edith Piaf, so I didn’t want to go that route. I instead picked a song by Nina Simone. Aubin’s mother immediately opened her eyes wide and turned to me “Ah! I am from France, you are from America... Nina Simone.” I love this so much. I still think it is one of the most beautiful sentiments I’ve ever heard. As if to tell me, “we may speak different languages, but we are not from different worlds, we have shared commonalities and shared beauty(like Nina Simone’s music).”
I believe Monsieur Paul would agree with this ideal. My evidence for this assertion is both in the smiling faces of guests at his restaurants and in his creation of Bocuse d’Or. “I am from France, you are from America… Bocuse d’Or”, a place where delicious cooking and attention to detail transcend language, time, and space. A shared understanding of beauty regardless of anything else.
Lastly, my final thoughts on “learning”. While the Ment’or grant sets you up to have a learning experience of a lifetime, once you get inside your grant restaurant, the “learning” is your responsibility and no one else’s. It is not the restaurant’s responsibility to give you new or exciting tasks, it is not the Ment’or Program’s responsibility to ask the Chefs to give you new or exciting tasks. It should be assumed that in the role of stagier, your first responsibility is to do whatever the restaurant asks of you. These tasks are often ones that you; are already familiar with, help you hit the ground running, allow you to immediately begin helping the restaurant function better, but often don’t lend themselves to new learning. This is where a good stagier does not rest on the tasks they already know, but instead, re-learns those tasks better and faster so that next time the stagier is done faster and has the possibility to go observe more interesting (not yet learned) tasks.
The first Thursday that I worked at Restaurant Paul Bocuse, during dinner service, I was tasked with brunious shallots. This task took me three and half hours the first time. And I remember as I was working as fast as I could through the shallots, I could see Chef Courvin start breaking down the different cuts of meat for Pot-au-feu (a meat platter featuring; beef, pork, and chicken. Only available on Friday’s). By the time I finished the shallots and cleaned my station, Chef Courvin had already finished and cleaned his station. I missed the entire break down.
After that, I worked to improve every skill regardless of whether it was new or exciting. By the following Thursday, in the same situation, I finished 45 minutes faster and was able to spend all of those extra minutes observing Chef Courvin as he broke down meat, wrapped big chops in butcher twine, and then I even cleaned the station for him. I had to force myself to get uncomfortable with the tasks I was comfortable with. This allowed for learning in a lot of different ways.