Editor’s Note: David Gilbert won the 2012 IFWTWA Emerging Writer Scholarship Award with the following story, “The American Apprentice.”
New Continent, New Country, New Language
The twelve-hour flight provided me the solitude to mark up my Lonely Planet guide book and to become familiar with the local food, history and customs of my new destination. Surrounded by people speaking in languages I couldn’t comprehend, signs referencing metric measurements and literature printed in Dutch, it felt like the first day in a new kitchen. I knew I had to learn more than just a new cooking technique. Amsterdam would be my home. I would be immersed in classical European technique. The guidebook may have been written in English but couldn’t possibly have provided any level of comfort for me, in the face of all I was surrounded with.
This was my first time arriving anywhere on an international flight alone. There would be no one to help me. I was well prepared, or so I thought. Nervously, I followed the herd of fellow traveling sheep under the bright, lemon-colored, illuminated signs that displayed arrows and a cartoonish drawing of a customs officer. I was instructed by my as-yet-unknown contact to say I was there as a tourist and not to mention anything about working. Was this a cover for an international human trafficking ring? What, me, a porn star?
I stood passively behind the red tape of the tall, Pink Floyd-esque immigration counter with my declaration paperwork and passport gripped tightly in my sweaty left palm. The relentless sound of passports being pummeled by the entry stamp droned in my head like hoof beats on the Charleston cobblestones. Nervous beads of sweat ran off my forehead.
“Next! What brings you to Amsterdam?” I was relieved. I looked up at the officer’s forehead to avoid eye contact and said: “art museums.” Thanks, Lonely Planet! The officer pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose and I heard a series of loud bangs; it was the official entry stamp hitting my passport. “Welkom to the Netherlands, Mr. Gilbert,” he said through a half-cocked smile. “I hope you enjoy tulip season like Meneer Rembrandt painted it for us.”
I hauled my luggage further north, through the sea of people awaiting the arriving international passengers. There stood my contact. Meena provided the obligatory and awkward European cheek peck and escorted me to her mid-90’s Smart car that appeared no larger than a toddler’s pedal car. After nearly an hour’s drive from Schiphol Airport, we pulled up to a one-story, dilapidated brick building. My suitcase wheels kept getting stuck along the cracked, stone pathway that was covered in dry leaves and twigs.
The bartender pried himself away from the live, televised voetbal game to stagger over and check me into Amsterdam’s version of the Bates Motel. He was friendly enough to invite me to the bar for a Heineken once I got settled. I am not sure how much settling in there was going to be, but I took the offer as a gracious gesture. Trey, the bartender, made a joke with me about the water coming from the canals, a joke the Dutch must pass along to every foreigner. I enjoyed the beer education and thanked Trey. He informed me that I was a one-hour-and-thirty-minute bus ride outside of Amsterdam, bordering the countryside.
When In Rome
I put on my typical, American-college-student, navy-blue hoodie and walked outside in hopes of finding comfort beyond drinking beer in the dreary Bates Motel. The air had a slight chill that reminded me of the defrosted meals my mother had served throughout my youth. I instantly noticed the droves of brightly-colored bicycles being ridden by locals. I continued along the paved-stone pathway that led to small arched wooden canal bridges, painted as white as Holland’s world-famous, white asparagus; little did I imagine that white asparagus would play a role in a future humiliation. The picturesque gardens of blooming tulips, lush spring grasses and orange, caramel-colored butterflies put me at ease. Every time my eyes blinked, it felt as if I were adjusting the aperture on my camera to better focus on these images.
I was nearing the town center when I saw clusters of Dutch residences packed tightly together like bushels of oysters. Before I knew it, I felt like I was back walking on Charleston’s cobblestone streets, but instead of hearing hoofs hit the stones, there were the sounds of bouncing bicycle baskets and ringing bells. The sunlight had made a cameo appearance through the grim Holland sky, just enough to be able to enjoy more unpasteurized beers in a sizable outdoor café.
I began to feel a bit light-headed from the jet lag — at least, that’s what I told myself. There was no time to waste. I felt I had to make the most of the day before the sun set, so I could just pass out when I returned to the Bates Motel, or the hostel as it was commonly known. I wanted a dose of “espresso,” so where better to head than a Dutch coffee shop? I never remembered such an extensive menu back home and I was rather confused by the metric measurements, not to mention the variety of unexpected offerings that were legal there, but not elsewhere. The coffee was slow-roasted and looked like concentrated tar. Rather unsure, the hipster behind the counter “certified” that I would enjoy it. Uncomfortable with the entire situation, I sat down and enjoyed my coffee through the purple haze of smoke in the presence of total strangers, which seemed to be the Dutch custom. Just a few sips and the espresso kicked right in.
Somewhere between the smoke-filled coffee shop and the bieren, I had an uncontrollable urge to eat. My stomach followed the aroma of freshly-baked bread right into the town bakery. I made a left turn into the bakery and was greeted with a smile from the baker, who appeared to also be the owner, as indicated by the leftover flour on his hands. Craving some fresh bread, I said in my best efforts, “Baguette alstublieft,” and the next thing I know I am holding a Ron-Jeremy-sized, massive loaf. The artisanal touches were apparent on the hand-rolled, crusty baguette. That delicate, artful touch caused me to reflect on how local bakeries, like my grandfather’s butcher shop, were going to eventually become a thing of the past.
I had already torn off small pieces of the warm baguette before I found the kass shop a few doors down. The rounds of paraffin-wax-lined cheese were packed floor to ceiling and perfectly aligned on thick, wooden shelving across from the display case. It looked like a tire shop with all the wheels in direct horizontal alignment to the ones below. I picked up triple-cream Brie and 200 grams of the local Edam cheese. As I made my way back towards my temporary accommodations, I elected to take a pit stop in the park for a picnic.
Fully equipped with the cheese and baguette, I tried my best to adjust to European time and regroup before I was lost in a Starry Night. Bite after bite, I sat in the neighborhood park alone watching Dutch life pass by. I knew Amsterdam and I were going to get along just fine, like Rembrandt starting a new project.
Ja, Chef Katz! Restaurant Vermeer
My last clear memory of dining in Amsterdam was sitting at the Leidseplein that night, relaxed and well-rested. That all came to a stop, as did my daily desire for drinking “espresso” in smoke-clogged rooms. I kissed away the social life and committed myself to Chef Katz and his Michelin Star kitchen team.
French was the only language spoken around the center island stoves; I was no exception to this order but unfortunately spoke only a handful of junior-high words and phrases. Chef Katz only believed in one thing: perfection. The average work day was 16 hours. We began at 10:00 a.m., followed by typical European coffee breaks and a late-afternoon lunch. The brigade of twenty-seven commis (entry-level chefs) performed as a military platoon.
The narrow and cramped spaces of the Amsterdam streets were no different than the space we had for our mise en place. The same split-level transfers that occurred in Centraal Station also took place across Prins Hendrikkade, inside Restaurant Vermeer’s kitchen, except with no stairs. The kitchens were divided into two floors separated by a service elevator. The basement level was kept at a bone-chilling temperature because it housed the garde manger (pantry) preparation, a blast chiller, and a specially-designed area for Chef Laurence’s pastry shop. Delicate food items, like the terrin de foie gras, had to be prepared under close watch in the downstairs kitchen, then transported to the northern platform for service. Each terrine took four hours to assemble. Paper-thin slices of braised beef tongue had to be precisely layered and strategically placed between flawless pieces of fattened goose liver, then bound with paint-brush-thin coatings of house-made oxtail jelly.
Death by Asperges
It was made clear to me that before I was even allowed to look at the terrine, I needed to learn how to peel asparagus. My first day, I was given six bunches of delicate Dutch white asparagus by the sous-chef, Dennis. “These wit (white) asperges only have a seven-week growing season and were hand-harvested that morning from a small farmer in Limburg. They will be served this evening.”
I had never seen white asparagus before Amsterdam, let alone peeled one. I did not want to lose face—something I learned more about while recently living in China—or create any doubts about my skills on my first day, so I went along with everything as if I knew how to handle what was apparently white gold.
I held one of the thick spears at a forty-five degree angle by the tip and slowly moved the peeler towards the base. After each proficient stroke, I gently turned the asparagus on its axis point, one-eighth of an inch. This lasted less than one spear before Dennis verbally exploded in French, then Dutch and finally English.
First, he made it a point to remind me he had to speak English because I was an American and spoke nothing else. Secondly, I did not ask for help, and, most important, I was peeling them INCORRECTLY! He was right on all counts. After he was done making my pulse flat-line with his tri-lingual tongue-lashing, he demonstrated how to properly peel a Dutch white asparagus on the cutting board. I stood in silence, as if rigor mortis had set in, and gave him a nod of the head. Thankfully, Dennis resuscitated me with a hard, but jaunty pat on the back just to let me know it wasn’t personal.
Mastering Endless Details
First, I was assigned to assist in the preparation of the vegetables, starches and garnishes for the chef entremetier, the chef in charge of side dishes. This sounded like a gimpy prep job at first, by U.S. standards, but I suddenly realized how detailed every item needed to be. Harkening back to my days as a graphic design student, I already had an appreciation for the individual elements of a composition. Peeling vegetables were my lines; my lessons in perspective came into play every time I “tournéed” a potato.
Every day, all the mise en place was prepared from scratch, no exceptions. Painfully, but proudly, I remember slow-roasting pearl onions, carefully removing the skins, then discarding all the inner circular layers. Of course it didn’t stop there. As each onion was filled with piped, creamy, polenta filling in the remaining outer ring, it was garnished with fish-scale sized, dehydrated prosciutto chips. In a flawless circular composition, I applied the Chef’s favorite oxtail jelly, just as delicately as a portrait artist dots the pupil in the subject’s eye. This level of exacting detail was demanded for every item on every plate, across a 16-hour shift! I was never certain if I was positioned on the vegetable station because of “escapade asparagus,” or was it where the Chef found I would be most challenged?
There were cultural variations and stereotypical views I had to surmount — not easy when you are the private of the kitchen. I commenced each day by arriving an hour early, being meek to learn and always showcasing several new French words or phrases. My pronunciation of words was nowhere near correct, as I came to learn when faced with the occasional deep stare or cracking smile.
One late afternoon I had half a dozen small sauce pots reducing stocks at the perfect simmer. Down below, by my knees, an oven was turned extremely low, “confiting” whole bulbs of garlic; the other oven dial was turned in the complete opposite direction to finish roasting the sweet, saffron-colored fingerling potatoes. At the same time, the dehydrator was filled with thin trays of a blanched and puréed pea mixture for the lamb dish. Meanwhile, for my chef, I removed the lemon-thyme flowers from each sprig with surgical tweezers! My arms moved like an octopus attacking a conch bed.
Dennis saw how far I had come and for the first time since “that day” asked “Veux-tu de l’aid?” This time I knew he was offering help because he was proud of what he saw, not due to my incompetence.
Payoffs and Rewards
For me, the hard work was paying off, compared to my culinary school friends. I was clocking hours at highway speeds. They surfed in their free time; I read. The other international interns always had the time to plan organized events — from dinners to museum trips — that I was seldom able to attend. The hard work and time-consuming, salaried hours paid off in even more unexpected ways. I felt more confidence than ever before, until I heard the Chef yelling for me through the noisy sounds of the evening’s preparation. Something wasn’t right. My mind was racing around faster than a Dutch speed skater chasing the world record. I accidentally removed the skin from a few filets of John Dory earlier in the day, but nobody knew since I buried them quickly in the trash, so that couldn’t have been it. He stood in the doorway to his office and looked at me with fury, then slowly relaxed his face muscles and broke into a smile. The Chef presented me with a signed bottle of wine from the entire kitchen team and a jacket with my name on it.
“We are all impressed with your achievements and the respect you earned here as an apprentice — an American one at that!” Then he said, “Tonight will be your last service; then you will have three weeks to travel, cook and eat across Europe.”
Once I turned around, I saw the entire brigade had left the stoves to applaud me. Some even gave me the “euro-hug” (which was even creepier than the male football pat).
The Chef sent me off with an unspoken message, intentional or not. I realized that night, that food goes far beyond the kitchen.