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Behind the scenes at L'Etoile
Landing an internship is the chance of a lifetime, but lessons aren't just about food
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Credit:Nick Berard

"Apps in!" calls the expediter.

"Apps in!" I chime back. And so it begins, my baptism by fire at L'Etoile, that first call for orders each night like a gun firing to commence a race that will last the next few hours.

"Fire pasta, 3-0!" I call to a fellow cook beside me, our first order due out on the half-hour, me on cold line, she on the hot line, as I move the ticket from the right side of the board to the left, focusing to keep in the moment. Also trying - as I'd been told by those more seasoned than I - to keep three steps ahead.

"Fire cuter!" they call again, this time for charcuterie, just as I slip two legs of octopus on the grill. Where was I? Bread for cuter - in the oven. Olives on a sizzler - in the sally. I quickly grab for kalamatas, pickled red onions, tomatoes, cukes, sunflower shoots and a smattering of parsley to set up the octopus salad in a large stainless steel bowl.

"Open low boy!" I call to hot side, both parties calling and moving to keep time, in a mind space where time moves faster than you think it should.

Plates come down from overhead - oval for the octo and cuter, a small round salad plate for the cuter's bread, olives, mustard and ramp aioli. Next, sauce - two swashes of dill yogurt sauce on one oval plate. Damn! The bread!

"Behind!" I call, an alert to hot side and fish station that I'm jumping within their bump zone. "Open oven!" I call again, two towels in hand for potholders, and I check the bread, my fingertips now well callused from repeated exposure to heat. We want the bread golden, but with some give beneath the toasted surface. They're done.

The pan comes out, and keeping the "economy of motion" in mind (as a sous chef instilled in me in a previous talk), I grab for the olives, now aromatically briny and glistening, in the salamander overhead.

"HOT BEHIND!" I call, as the sheet tray slides onto the speed rack next to the cold station. Back to cuter - head cheese, liver pate....

"Apps in!" I hear again, as tickets multiply. Reminded of a new deadline, I check the clock.

"Three minutes pasta on the 3-0. Fire tongue, risotto, 3-5!" I call, and hot side echoes, me backtracking, fast-forwarding, remembering the octo going out as I reach for the two legs, now appropriately grill-lined; salad tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper - check; taste the salad - the most important step - check. Octo down, micros, one last drizzle of oil. Edible flower. Sold.

"Selling octo with pasta!" I call, hot side in sync, following with their app. "Selling pasta!" they confirm, as the expediter looks over the plates, and I return to the cuter at hand. The flow must continue through interruptions and a carousel of new orders.

"Marcelle!" the sous chef calls. "I need radishes on this!"

Right, radishes.

"Yes chef! Sorry!"

"How long on that cuter?"

"Cuter's working...two minutes," I answer.

It's a wonderful, loud, magical type of madness in the back of the house: bustling, people on their own mission and yet synchronizing as one to give a roomful of diners on the other side of that wall one of the best meals of their lives, all under a veil of quiet, calm, decorum and comfort. Despite the glass-front that looks out onto the Capitol Square, the food here is the spectacle, the meal an experience.

This, this experience of pleasure, and company, and food prepared passionately by passionate people from ingredients sourced by passionate growers and producers, is a food chain of which I was proud to be a part. I thought that if I could fall in love with cooking at a restaurant, it would be at L'Etoile.

A foot in the door

In the past, L'Etoile, 1 S. Pinckney St., has offered spring and fall internships to two Culinary Institute of America students at a time. In my cohort there were three of us, all women: one from Michigan and two from Madison College (myself included). I'd started my internship during my second semester of culinary school with a decorative zoology degree from UW-Madison and no professional kitchen experience. I had sold my car and continued to groom dogs and write freelance articles on the side to keep myself afloat while working for minimum wage as a full-time intern. It was worth it for a golden ticket into the L'Etoile kitchen.

It had been a freelance article that brought me in touch with chef Tory Miller, L'Etoile's owner, in the first place. I sought him out for an interview, knowing that I wanted to work for him. I slapped my resume and a cover letter between the folds of the magazine and hand-delivered a copy to him. And I got in the door.

At the end of April, I set foot in the L'Etoile kitchen, green as the asparagus I'd soon be cleaning by the bus tub. I worked side by side with CIA graduates, university expatriates like me, as well as people who'd practically grown up in kitchens. What became apparent early on was that this was not your standard kitchen mix: Passion counted for more than experience, and anyone who was willing to do the work was given the chance to learn. More important, I was surrounded by people with the drive to do so.

I spent my first weeks under the wing of then-sous chef Ed Lee, who started at Café Soleil, then advanced to L'Etoile, and would soon move on to work at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York. "Ed's my ninja," chef Tory once told me with a nod. Exacting, stealthy and deft with his arsenal of wicked Japanese knives, a ninja he was.

I started by working a combination of shifts on prep (which functions to clean and/or prepare items to be used in service) and the cold appetizer line. This was where I would watch Lee for my first several shifts. On the line, timing is down to a science to keep service running smoothly. As tickets come up, the cold station fires tickets for its neighbor hot station while "selling tickets" - handing off completed orders to the expeditor, who checks and wipes plates before turning them over to servers, and all, ideally, at the time the ticket says they're due out. Lee was a machine, laying out each component for each salad in the same way, every time, calling tickets and selling them, cool and collected.

"Halved sungolds, toasted hazelnuts, Creekside greens, kohlrabi and beauty heart julienne, Sarvecchio cheese, salt, pepper...."

I scribbled madly, having never worked a line, let alone a line at L'Etoile. It would be those diagrams and notes, I knew, that would offer me security when it came time to go through the motions myself.

"Don't be early, don't be late, be on time," Lee said to me, his hands moving rhythmically and reliably as a clock. He tasted each salad before it went out, and I would be held to do the same.

Walk the line

I was apprehensive about working the line. I also knew that the line would expose me to the most potential for growth; it was where I would find out if this sort of cooking was in fact for me.

My first weekend shift on the line was UW graduation weekend, the busiest weekend of the year, and I was put on pastry. I couldn't get out from under the chocolate chip cookies for Graze, L'Etoile's sister restaurant next door. The cookies are baked to order.

The expediter called, "I need those chocolate chip cookies now," as I scrambled to hit one of many timers for one of many orders in the oven, the doors of which kept popping open because I was shutting them too hard. Behind me I kept hearing the sous chef yelling, "Close the damn oven door!"

One thing I had to learn the hard way was to just keep going. Freezing was the worst possible choice. It did get easier.

Each day I felt as if I had more to do than I could possibly get done, and yet every day the prep list got done. I realized I could do more than I thought possible. I also received help when I was legitimately in the weeds, which speaks to a grander culture of people helping each other out at L'Etoile.

Something also changed about my attitude toward dining. Working the line made me a religious believer in the mantra that sous chef and former CIA intern Ryan Klawitter hammered into me: "If it's not right, don't send it out." I realized that if more places would follow through with this concept, whether fine dining or food carts, there would be many more happy diners out there.

I tried to keep the diners in mind as I worked, to hold onto the deep pleasure I get from eating a good meal. For as many salads as I saw over the course of my shift, the plate that I would send out to a customer was novel to them. In the grind of preparing for service, that's what I remembered: No matter how ordinary my work starts to feel, I'm working someplace extraordinary.

In hindsight, I crossed thresholds without even realizing I had.

"Marcelle!" chef Tory shouted toward me during a busy service. I looked over, bracing myself.

"This is a perfect Lyonnaise," he said.

"Thank you, chef," I said.

Small victories increasingly happened, and they felt really good. I was doing this, this cook thing, but the restless nights staying up with prep lists running through my head didn't stop. My soul wasn't entirely at ease.

I learned to become better, faster, more attentive. Presentation was the one thing that came very naturally to me, but I was not like others around me who thrived on the adrenaline of beating a rush and coming out on top. They were even having fun. I felt like ducking for cover beneath a salad bowl.

Prep school

I approached the chefs and asked to be moved back to prep. Chef Tory reassured me: "The line's not for everyone." That's what the internship was all about, he said - to find out what I do and don't want to do.

Going back to prep after working the line, I had a greater sense of duty to lighten the load of all the line cooks.

At 8 a.m., I'd show up for work, usually the first of the kitchen crew to arrive. The "lady baker crew," as they are affectionately known, were already baking bread and pastries. The warm, aromatic air and morning music created an entirely different kitchen, and I realized it offered me a piece of the tranquility that I like so much about cooking for myself.

I realized I thrived on the autonomy, too, of working through larger projects. Once I became more familiar with the system, I was able to recognize how to meet the day's needs, even if something wasn't on the prep list.

I found a great deal of satisfaction in arriving early in the morning and tending to the stocks. They're the root of flavor in many of L'Etoile's sauces and soups, as some 100 pounds of bones are reduced to a demi, half or less the original volume of the stock, resulting in a rich, flavorful base to work from.

The stocks in particular require heavy lifting. Think about emptying the pots, straining the stock into five-gallon buckets and roasting off boxes of bones that weigh 40 pounds or more a pop. I'm not a large woman. Standing 5'3" and weighing in around 135 pounds, I took pride in being able to take care of tasks that any of the men in the establishment could do.

Prep work allowed me to have more contact with charcuterie - cured meats, sausages and pate - as well as helping with pickling and a little jam making. This is something that both Klawitter and I are enthusiastic about, and some of the most fun I had was being involved in these spheres.

I remember one night I stayed late to help him make jam out of cherries that would be turning if we didn't use them. I asked him what he had in mind, and he turned it back to me. "What do you want to make?" he asked.

I lit up. It was the first time I had the chance to help craft a flavor profile at L'Etoile. I rushed upstairs to browse the coolers and spice racks. Klawitter liked my idea of using black pepper, so we made a black pepper cherry jam with kirsch, and it was one of those moments that really brought home the element of fun for me.

I enjoyed learning how things are made, tasting and adjusting, figuring out what, exactly, is "just right."

As the internship went on, I kept asking myself what I still wanted to do there. I didn't want to regret missing out on something.

To market, to market

I knew I wanted to go to market with chef Tory, a tradition that began with founding chef Odessa Piper's farmers' market sourcing.

The market day starts at 6:30 a.m., rain or shine. It takes several trips to gather the several pages of items from market, but this is where some of the restaurant's most important work takes place - building relationships with farmers.

As we piled produce in the wagons, I sensed the wheels turning in chef Tory's head whenever something charmingly unplanned would pop into view. Like a train switching tracks, he would cut across the walk to a Hmong farmer's table.

"Jicama!" he said. "I love jicama." He was like a kid in a candy store.

It's been rewarding for me to attend the inception of new dishes, to see the creative process, and this was particularly true at the market. It takes a certain level of skill to plan a recipe in advance and order ingredients. But to watch a dish organically happen, in the moment, at the whim of what the seasons bring, I found truly magical and characteristic of chef Tory's approach to menu planning.

As the weather cooled, I saw the berries, melons and peaches subside to apples, squash and root vegetables. Fall is my favorite season. I loved seeing the menu roll with the changing weather, and soon there would be the arrival of something that only happens once a year at L'Etoile.

I was chopping away one Friday in mid-October when a loud voice bellowed, "The pigs are here!"

It's no secret. I love, love, love pork, and these hogs were a special lot indeed: slaughtered just the day before delivery, raised on whey from Uplands Dairy Farm (which produces the award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese), and finished with acorns. Their sublimely succulent meat is a testament to just how far back you can build flavor.

I walked upstairs to see the hog primals in large cardboard drums, heads, trotters and all - all of which would be utilized by the restaurant. I helped chop and grind scrap and watched the hogs gradually processed into a number of glorious products.

"Marcelle, you want to learn how to make porchetta?" chef Tory asked on a slow Tuesday after the hogs' arrival.

"Yes!" I answered and hurried over to the back bench.

Porchetta comes from before the time of the turducken. It's a multi-layer pork roast that's often sliced and served in sandwiches. It was the only dish chef Tory ate twice while he was in Italy, he noted as he laid out a jacket of skin, nipples and all attached. The skin is the first and outermost layer, which crisps as the porchetta roasts. Underneath, a butterflied belly releases fat and moisture to a lean loin cradled within.

Between each layer is a heady flourish of fennel pollen married with olive oil and other herbs and spices. I held the layers tightly together, my hands not nearly able to reach around this Yule log of pork, as chef Tory bound it with butcher's twine. It felt like Christmas in October. Chef Tory wasn't sure if the public was ready for the porchetta, but I knew I was.

Endings mean new beginnings

I expected L'Etoile to change me forever, and it did. Going into the internship, I considered aspiring to be a chef who writes. Indeed, I received the most attention at work for what I wrote. At my cutting board, coworkers would pass and tell me how much they enjoyed my post on the L'Etoile blog or my writing in Isthmus.

I was surrounded by a rare gathering of individuals who are madly in love with what they do, and good at doing it. Having these mirrors around me, I recognized the essence of who I am: I'm a writer...who cooks.

Head down toward my cutting board, I kept revisiting the look on chef Tory's face when he saw the jicama at market, imagining the unique processes that must have been going on in his head that make him the chef that he is.

And it occurred to me that the look on his face in that moment is the look on my face right now, nose to my keyboard, a kid in a candy store.

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