Eleven Madison Park: The best restaurant in the world
I woke up this morning with my teeth grinding and my body in a contorted shape on the recliner chair. The sun was just rising, and our dog, Baymax lay asleep on the floor beneath the leg rest of the chair. I yawn and outstretch my body to loosen up and prepare for the day. Today was my kitchen trail at the world’s best restaurant in 2016, Eleven Madison Park. The restaurant holds 3 coveted Michelin Stars, 4 Stars from the New York Times, Relais & Chateaux acknowledgment. I’m just a little nervous. I spend my morning reading The French Laundry, by Thomas Keller who is an American Icon for chefs and the epicenter of great French restaurants and chefs in the United States and even the world! I am training my brain to reform my palate to the French style kitchen I will be heading into later today. I draw up some new plating ideas to kind of steer my mind to ease and remind myself that I’m just going to trail. “I’ll probably stand around and not touch anything, maybe they will feed me just like the Nomad did. Breath. Chill the freakout dude.” I was thinking to myself.
Jenna, her mom and I hop in the car and drive to Newark Penn Station where we park our car for 21$ a day and take the path to Journal Square we will transfer to the 33rd train. My face was cleanly shaved, polished brand new black shoes, and my hair tied black. With my mind numb from overthinking, I look down at my pants. What the hell is that!? Down my legs, I see stripes and dots of what look like bleach stains on my black pants. Oh man, I hope no one sees. My wife looks at me and says, “You nervous?” I simply blink and daze off into thought, not thoughts just spacing out from overthinking all morning. She looks at my pants and asks, “What happened to your pants, it looks like bleach! We have to buy you new pants!” We were already struggling financially. It’s been almost 3 months we have been unemployed and collecting checks week by week from the government. I didn’t want to buy new pants, honestly for 2 reasons, I thought no one would see, but obviously, the wife saw, and 2nd I didn’t think the 3 Michelin Star restaurant would notice or kick me out because my pants were a little off black. To be on the safe and the cheap side I pulled out a sharpie from my knife bag. Jenna meticulously started to fill the bleach stains with the black marker. This will work, I can’t even tell. I remain quiet most of the way, as I tried to rest my mind and just let what happens to happen. We got to our destination around 2:15, an hour and 45 minutes early. With Jenna and her Mom, we decided to stop for a late lunch at Chanson. A little café and dessert bar that offered plated dessert omakase in the evening and a chic breakfast/ lunch spot with sandwiches served on ficelle and tasty imported juices and fresh pastries.
We ate lunch and waited until it was time to start walking to Eleven Madison Park. 3:30 hits and we start walking over, across Madison Park and as we get closer to the employee entrance I feel my stomach start to turn. Jenna walks ahead to lead the way as she is more familiar since she had staged twice at EMP already, once in the front of the house and once in the back of the house. While she is walking ahead I feign off and lean against the building and look up at the building across the street. The sun shines down on the statues that line the top of the building. I look at them and take a deep breath. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” I told Jenna. SHOOT. 3:33 And we start walking back to Eataly, the closest, clean bathroom we knew of. I walked over while Jenna and her mom waited in the park and I did the do. We walked back to the employee entrance, and this time it was for real. No turning back, even though I sure as hell looked back, multiple times. We got to the tall doors where I was to ring the buzzer and I looked up and I looked down before looking at my wife who had her phone out. She snapped a quick picture and kissed me.
While walking into the door I hear her say, “Good luck! Talk to the guard on the left….” and her voice started to fade out as the door shut and I was in an empty vestibule. This is it. I take a deep breath and continue to walk through the second pair of double doors. I saw a guard and two postmen before me.
“I’m looking for the kitchen, I have a trail at Eleven Madison Park,” I said to the guardsmen.
He had me sign my name and directed me the way to the kitchen. At this point, I put on my face. My, I’m in this kitchen face, my I’m not scared, I’m here to work face. My face that I know what I’m doing, this ain’t my first rodeo. That face was smacked off my face quickly as I walked around the corner into the doorway of cooks and chefs quickly picking herbs, slicing meat, and shingling okra onto round molds that are drawn onto parchment paper. I walked into the office and asked the first chef I saw, “I’m looking for chef Tony?”
The Chef looked at me, after putting his pen and clipboard down and said, “Yes, Follow me”. I followed him as we walked into the kitchen, but right as we did that Chef Brian Lockwood walked into the kitchen. Oh Shit. He called everyone around the walk-in coolers and said “good evening.” And in reply, the entire kitchen in unison replied in a roar, “Good-afternoon Chef!” Jeeze! How do they keep doing that on cue every time? I could hardly hear him as he spoke. He went on to talk about service, and one of the cooks last days, who had only been there for a year. After that short meeting I was introduced to chef Tony, and what do you know, there was another person here to trail. He seemed like a little bit of an older gentleman, maybe in his late 30’s. Chef brought us in front of the ice machines which were in front of the hallway that we walked to get into the kitchen, and he stood there and looked us up and down and asked us to tell him briefly about ourselves. “Let’s start with you.” He said to the other stagier. The stagier claimed he was looking for something more fast-paced. I honestly don’t remember too much of what he said, I had so much I was trying to process while I was there and he seemed to be the least of my interests. In a way, it felt like I was competing with him to get this job. After his, not so interesting story chef looked at me and asked: “what about you?”
“I just moved here from Minnesota Chef, I’m living in New Jersey with my wife and I’m here to learn.”
“You worked with Gavin Kaysen” he replied
“Oui Chef,” I said quickly.
“How Long?” He asked
“4 Months at Spoon and Stable before being transferred to Bellecour where I was for about 10 months,” I said.
After this, he looked at the other Stagier. “You’re not clean-shaven, you need to shave. Do you have a razor?”
“Yes, at home” He replied.
“Well go get it, or go buy one, you need to be a clean-shaven man. We would love to have you. Come back when you’re clean-shaven”. Said Chef
I honestly didn’t even notice. He looked like he shaved, maybe it was nothing more than a 5 o clock shadow, but that’s enough to get called out. Luckily I shaved once at 6 Am and again at 12:15.
Chef directed me into the kitchen where he connected me with Jacob, who was a commis for about 2 months.
“Jacob, this is Joshua. He worked with Gavin Kaysen for about 2 years. Show him around, yeah?” The chef said sternly as he walked away quickly.
“Oui Chef,” Jacob said. While walking away. He turned back and looked at me and waved his hand as a sign for me to follow him. As we walked through the kitchen I looked at everything. Trying to absorb sights of the spotless stainless steel, the polished copper pots that hung above the French Suite. The ovens were this beautiful white color and they had rational ovens beneath the hotlines. We walked through the pastry station where the walls were lined with a glass cooler that had 50 or so whole ducks hanging by their necks dry aging for Daniel Humm’s famous duck dish. We walked up 2 flights of stairs that led to the locker room where I was to change and meet back downstairs. I put on a Large Chef Coat and walked back downstairs. Panting and sweating already from being out of breath, I don’t know what I was going to expect. I have become so out of shape I cannot believe it. My feet already hurt from carrying my body weight through-out the streets of New York. I can hardly even walk and talk at the same time because I’m gasping for air most of the time. The first task at hand, dust a sheet tray of blueberries with mushroom powder and with yumberry powder. Rather straightforward. I was then asked to cut a mirepoix for lobster stock. After grabbing all the vegetables, I began to trim them so I could wash the celery and fennel. I washed out a sink and rinsed the vegetables thoroughly. One of the chefs came through, “You’re getting water everywhere my friend”. She said.
“Oui Chef”. I said while trying to wipe down the station with a wet towel, which just spread out thin layers of water across the table. I set the wet rag down and moved the vegetables in search of a dry towel to wipe the table, but too late. One of the chefs started wiping the table. “So fucking messy”. She said under her breath, while another chef looks at her and laughs. Well, I wish I knew where the towels were. I got a station set up on a table, I pulled out my knife ready to crank when I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“What’s your name”? Asked another Chef.
“I’m Joshua, what’s your name?” I responded.
“Jullien, come with me. I need you to do something.” He replied.
I set my knife down, made sure my towel was folded neatly on my station. We walked across the kitchen to Garde Manger Station where I was met with the task of a tray filled with Juillened watermelon. My job, pick through with tweezers and pull out all the seeds. Alright, let’s get to it. I stand there in a stance with my neck down, hunch back and within 5 minutes I feel a strain in my neck. I readjust my stance to make this tedious task more comfortable, but after 30 minutes of picking through seeds found that there was no comfortable way to do this. My next task was handed to me. Chef gave me a black to go of dried eggplant, he handed it to me and asked me to grate a whole black to go. That shouldn’t be hard. I brought the Mise en Place back to my station and began to grate. This was going to take forever. It felt like I was grating a leather shoe with a micro plane. I grated for about 10 minutes straight, as I began to sweat and my arms fell numb, I looked at the small pile of shaved eggplant I made. Yup… This is going to take a while. I looked at my station, I still had the Mire Poix vegetables sitting in front of me. Should I cut it quick or will the chef get upset because I’m not doing what he asked me to do? I continue to grate the eggplant. After about 10 more minutes I stop. I need to clean up this station I thought. I started to cut all the mirepoix vegetables, mostly to give me a break from the same grating motion I have been doing for the last 20 minutes. I quickly cut the vegetables, and within 5 minutes I’m back to grating the eggplant. I continue to grate for an hour and a half, sweating, looking up every once in a while to see what is going on. We were already in service at this time and I had to look up because the kitchen was so quiet, I didn’t even know they were cooking. Everyone was moving, and they knew every step. I could not figure out how they knew what to be cooking. Finally. I finished grating the eggplant. I start to help consolidate the walk-in coolers. We consolidate, change out the ice for the proteins, etc. Pretty standard. Then Chef Jullien pulls me aside. I’ve probably explained my self, who I am and where I’m from to 3-4 chefs by now but that did not stop me from doing it again. I felt like I was pretty well-rehearsed at this point. After we talked in the cooler for a little bit, I then get put on the pass, where I could observe the flow of service. Wow. The cooks all move with intent. Every step they take matters. Their ears are open and then reply with a loud “OUI!” whenever the chef calls in a new ticket. No one raises their voice but the way they talk to you can make you want to gut yourself. “Why is it taking so long”, Chef Lockwood said to Garde manger. I don’t hear a response. He walks over there and pulls a string full of tickets from the printer in their station. In no time they were back on track. I stood and observed the plates that were being plated up. The simple beauty of almost 2 main components on each dish. Whether it was foie and plums, or duck and onion tart. Each plate was so elegantly prepared and plated with a minimalistic approach with a starch laying adjacent to the protein. To me, this shows an absurd amount of confidence in a chef using the best ingredients and the best techniques, to where seemingly 2 items are enough. And through my dining experience over 3 years ago, I know that even though it seems like a little on the plate, the flavors they can execute through the dishes create an insane experience that I will remember forever. Chef Vincenzo, Mentor BKB Winner 2016 and a member of the Bocuse d’ or grabbed me and placed me next to the other stagier. In front of each of us were a cutting board and a tray with a chicken breast. Oh, baby, I knew what this was for. Chef explained to each of us that, we have 1 hour to make chef Lockwood a dish. Anything we want, no foie, no truffles, no prepared MEP, and no metal on metal, and he should have said no noise. Like I said earlier I felt like I was competing with this other guy for the job. Let’s call him Rick. I set the timer on my watch. And began to cook. I season the chicken with salt and leave it out to temper. I go in the walk-in and pull put my notebook and begin to draw up some ideas for plating. I draw a few different plating based on the dishes that I saw on the pass. I wanted to best resemble the dishes at Eleven Madison Park with my flavor profiles that I know. I decided to make a Nam Prik Beurre blanc, charred onion ring, pan-seared chicken breast. I gathered ingredients for the 1st 15 minutes and at the 25 minutes mark, I began to start cooking. I reduce white wine and vinegar asec with peppercorns and herbs, I add the cream and reduce that while whisking in some butter. Rick was getting yelled at so much for banging pans and slamming oven doors. I felt bad for the guy. I even got yelled at cause Rick was slamming pans, damn it, Rick. My sauce was made, garnishes were picked in trays ready to go. I had the onions in the oven, but the oven must not have been on because it just melted the butter. I bring the onions over to the range and begin to saute the rings. I add salt and cook them down until tender. With just 15 minutes remaining I begin to saute the chicken. I hope this is enough time to cook the chicken. The breast begins to sizzle as it heats up in the pan. I try hard to focus on getting this chicken breast cooked with a crispy skin. I add butter and baste it quickly. The Frenchie is hot and I feel the back of my hands start to burn. I remove the chicken from the pan and let it rest, with just 5 minutes left I ask the chef for a plate. Rick is already putting food on his plate, which looked like a whole cup of yogurt and herb sauce, with a cucumber salad with chicken breast sliced and fanned out. Kind of ugly but none the less I began to plate. I put the onion ring down and fill the center of the onion with the Nam prik beurre blanc. I garnish around the ring with mint, cilantro, and chives, I charred some white pearl onions but those never made it the plate. I slice the chicken in half the long way, praying that it was fully cooked and as I split it open it was a beautiful moist piece of chicken breast. I slice off a piece for tasting and my seasoning was spot on. I trim the breast into an elegant piece and lay in adjacent to the onion ring, similar to the plates I watch go up on the pass that night. I was late, 1 minute and 36 seconds late to the pass according to my watch.
Chef asked what do we have here. I explained the dish to him and he ate it. Just one bite. He nodded his head and said. Good. Clean up and then we will talk. Man, I just cooked a dish for the Chef De Cuisine of Eleven Madison Park, a 3 star Michelin restaurant. And he said Good. I was done, I felt good at this point I could have probably just gone home and sat down and be good for the rest of my life. But no. This is just the beginning. After we cleaned up about 2 hours later I meet Chef Eric Huang who set this trail up for me. And he asked me to come to see chef. Chef Brian Lockwood, a man with wisdom and a sense of fierceness in his eyes. He seemed like a nice and caring guy as I watch him smile with the other sous chefs but when it came down to talk to him I was so nervous. I spoke with a soft, shaky voice as I described my past, and my moves and the work of my past. I couldn’t look into his eyes because he had such an intense look on his face I didn’t know if it was going to burn a hole through my soul. In a slew of all things, He said you are in a fork in the road. You would do well in either place whether it be here or the Nomad. The Choice is up to you. I hate choices. I struggle to think of where I will benefit the most. Well, I got offered the job.
I would start as a commis but he would expect 2 years from me. I have no doubt I would be able to work my way up, I would just have to be able to withstand the abuse of being a commis again. I shook the chef’s hand twice before leaving the kitchen. Just to make it super awkward. So now what do I do?