During the Winter Olympics I helped out at Lazy Gourmet which was very busy catering to French House, General Electric Hosting, Price Waterhouse Coopers, events for the Polish Government, Vanoc, Richard Branson and a bunch of other stuff. Given this line up, and knowing Lazy Gourmet’s reputation as being the best catering in Vancouver, I expected to be working in a high stress environment. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in an easy-going but highly efficient kitchen full of interesting and widely varied people. I realised in the 11 days I spent working there, how much I have missed the special sort of community you get when you cook together.
It’s been three and a half years since I last worked in a commercial kitchen. The twelve years prior to that a widely varied assortment of kitchens around the world were my sole existence. I have worked for way too many different chefs over the years (I know about a zillion ‘proper’ ways to cook pasta for example), but interestingly enough this was the first time I was working for a female chef in a female owned company, and it turned out to be the type of kitchen environment I have dreamed of for years.
One of the first fine dining establishments I worked for was Aqua Restaurant of San Francisco, I decided to do my internship there despite the horror stories I heard of the way the kitchen was run. Michael Mina was the superstar executive chef, he would show up for the dinner or lunch service and check each plate before it went out the door. He was the epitome of what I call old school chefs, they run their kitchen under such a militant hierarchical system, that the rumor that he had personally made every line chef that worked for him cry at some point, was probably true. The food was top-notch I will not disagree, and putting it out with consistent precision at that volume would seem to require striking fear into the hearts of all your staff under that old-fashioned mind-set, but the energies that intertwine with the food as it is created in that sort of environment may in the end leave you with severe indigestion after an overstuffed euphoria.
Since that experience, and since most of the kitchens I have worked in have been run by followers of the old-school military-type kitchen operations (with exceptions), I have always wanted to work in a kitchen where the experience of the people making the food is taken into consideration. This was something that I found with the team at the Lazy Gourmet, everyone always said ‘thank you’ for any work that I did, and were very appreciative just to have me there helping out. It has, in recent tradition, been very rare to hear so many compliments in a kitchen.
One of the other things I enjoy about working with people in this manner is that you can get to know each other on different level without having to try to go through small talk, which I have never been very good at. You see how they work and interact with different people, the way they work and how they move around the kitchen, you find out how they handle pressure. I realized while working at the Lazy Gourmet how much I have actually missed this. I have in the past moved around a lot, but haven’t really had trouble getting to know people in the places I have gone and I realize now that this is from working in kitchens. I have met some of the most interesting people in various kitchens as well as people from every corner of the world.
One of the other chef who was lending Lazy Gourmet a hand for the Olympic rush was Chef Bill who told me about some of the work the Vancouver Chef’s Association does and its history. He has recently expanded his own personal chef and catering operation called La Casa Verde Hospitality Services. There were also three ladies from Chile working there, I haven’t ever really spent much time with anyone from Chile, so I was happy to get to know them. In fact I heard the news of the Chilean earthquake in the kitchen from one of the Bakery chefs. One of the kitchen-hands is Chilean and the day before the earthquake, we lost hot water in the kitchen. She boiled her water for her dishes and hauled it over to the sink all day, still smiling. I couldn’t believe it. I hope that their families are doing OK. She told me that her mother lived near the epicentre of the quake but that she couldn’t get through to her and she was just hoping that she was still alive.
At the end of the Olympic rush Susan Mendelson the owner and creator of Lazy Gourmet gave us her latest cookbook Mama Now Cooks Like This and signed it with a “Thanks for the help during the Olympics”. I told her how amazed I with her low-stress kitchen environment despite all of the pressure and events they were catering for. She replied that she had been working for years to create this kind of environment as she believed that a happy and content kitchen atmosphere created the best food. Reading the introduction on my bus ride home (which went right through the heart of downtown, by the way and was often a very slow ride home) I was really glad that I hadn’t gone and worked for the hyper-industrialized Molson Hockey House (I accidentally got an email they sent out to all their staff demanding their hats back–I would have never survived working there!) and had gotten to know the kitchen of a unique and individual catering company with a heart and soul.