Foie gras, surprise caviar orders and one tight ship: my 12-hour stage at Splendido

Foie gras, surprise caviar orders and one tight ship: my 12-hour stage at Splendido

The service entrance at Splendido (click any image for more info)

Our regular contributor Renée Suen was recently invited to put away her fork and don an apron to stage at Splendido (a culinary stage is a brief and usually unpaid educational stint at a restaurant). Renée is an ambitious home cook, but her professional experience consists mostly of high school summers working at a soup and sandwich shop and weekends slinging bubble tea during university. Can she handle the heat of 12 hours in a professional kitchen? Will chef de cuisine Patrick Kriss make her cry? Find out below, and check out our behind-the-scenes gallery at the end.

12:23 a.m. (the night before): Chef Kriss messages me to make sure I’m still game. I send my confirmation and tell him about my borrowed (but new!) slip-resistant shoes, which are a half-size too big for me. He laughs at me.

10:55 a.m.: I arrive at Splendido’s service entrance and recognize Kevin Jeung (who moonlights at The Cookbook Store) among the eight cooks waiting nearby. I learn the names of my soon-to-be colleagues (including Vanessa, a new intern from Humber College, and Alain, one of the chefs de partie). I also learn that there’s a stagiaire from The County General, Splendido’s sister restaurant, who was accepted to stage on the condition that he shave his beard of five years. He did.

11:08 a.m: Kriss arrives and I follow the chefs into the bowels of Splendido’s two-level kitchen. Everyone puts on their chef’s whites and gets busy at their stations; I feel like a lost sheep. Kriss sets me up with garde-mangers Andrew and Rob, who give me the glamorous job of taking fresh herbs and packaging them for proper storage.

11:40 a.m.: My herb-picking instructions: pick out the best leaves, leaving about six millimetres of stem, then gently wash and dry them and pack them for storage.

12:02 p.m.: The entire brigade congregates at the bar for a brief (I stick to the side). Everyone’s equipped with a notebook, a pen and plastic containers of coffee. Kriss goes through the game plan for the day, the special menus planned for the week and the upcoming TBD dinner he’s hosting. Staff members acknowledge their duties with a respectful “Oui.”

12:21 p.m.: Rob comes by and tells me that stems aren’t necessary on the mint leaves. I have to go back through all my leaves to pick the stems off. At least I haven’t burned anything down yet. Meanwhile, Kriss works on some brussels sprouts taken from the garde-manger station and inspects the deliveries coming into the kitchen. He also tests out a new dish of cold cherrywood-smoked oysters.

1:31 p.m.: I’m now on my last batch of herbs, blue cress. I’m a little nervous about the low yield. Kriss looks over at my station and tells me my cress leaves aren’t blue enough. Sigh.

Next up, Renée gets to use a knife! »

2 p.m.: Executive chef and co-owner Victor Barry joins us in the kitchen and I graduate to using a knife (I don’t own any knives good enough for the work here, so I have to borrow one from Alain, which makes me feel awkward; chefs have intimate relationships with their knives). I prep shallot rings, trim endive spears and slice compound butter into half-moons for the fried egg course. Barry suggests I warm the metal tools with hot water to ease the process. Meanwhile, Barry and Kriss break down rabbits. Their knife work is breathtaking to behold.

4 p.m.: Oran (who’s off that day) swings by the kitchen to say hi. There’s a photo shoot happening in the dining room, and most of the cooks are helping prepare the plates in addition to getting their prep done. I overhear cooks talk about making boudin tomorrow. One of them will be coming in to learn despite the fact that it’s his day off. I suddenly feel lazy.

4:15 p.m.: Barry brings some freshly plated foie gras mousse from the photo shoot and tells me to dig in. Feeling guilty about indulging while everyone else is working away, I try to share with Alain (I was using his knife after all), but he’s too polite to accept. So I scarf it down, savouring every insanely rich bite. Later on, Rob gets his own plate of foie and I feel a little less guilty.

4:53 p.m.: Carlo Catallo (co-owner and general manager) invites me to the dining room for the front-of-house staff briefing. Matthew Roulston (manager and sommelier) runs through the evening’s guest list—a quiet night of 24 guests over two hours. I’m awed at how well they know each customer’s particularities (I start to wonder what my file says). Kriss briefs the front of house on new menu items, including a steak course that’s served with fried smoked oysters and tarragon jus. The wait staff take diligent notes and ask some very specific clarifying questions on the ingredients and techniques employed. I’m impressed: these are not the waitrons of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

5:24 p.m.: Staff meal! Tonight it’s falafels with various pickles made by Matt. Everyone digs in. I share the back stairwell with Alain for two minutes before Kriss comes by and asks him to start making rabbit stock. In the eight minutes it takes me to eat, half the staff have already buzzed by to start evening service. I won’t even try to describe how busy the dishwasher was. I head down to the pastry kitchen and ask Jeung if I can help. He shows me how to make chocolate branches.

5:58 p.m.: The first amuses are sent out to the dining room.

6:16 p.m.:Kriss presents Barry with one of the sunchoke chip–encrusted smoked oysters he’d created earlier. It gets the big boss’s approval. Kriss pushes the other bite over to me. It’s really good: the soft, creamy body is enriched with sweet cherrywood aromas and surrounded by a delicate crust. I think I let out a too-loud giggle, which leads Barry to suggest that I should stage more often.

Next, will a VIP order and tricky dietary restrictions throw the kitchen off kilter? »

6:29 p.m.: The first big surprise of the night: Catallo comes into the kitchen with an impromptu request for caviar complete with traditional garnishes. After a brief discussion with Kriss, Barry figures the off-menu request will take 25 minutes to fill. (It will also cost the diner $170.) Barry starts to plan the plate, making sure he’s got buckwheat flour for the blinis.

6:32 p.m.: Catallo returns to the kitchen with the go-ahead for the caviar order but indicates that the customer prefers toast to blinis. Barry moves from the pass to the kitchen to trim the toasts himself.

6:48 p.m.: Disaster! One of the potato-leek amuses tips over, spilling onto the pass. Right away, a server who was just passing by grabs a towel to take care of the mess. Teamwork!

7:20 p.m.: Table 15 orders sides to share as their starter. Barry and Kriss decide to send the couple a pair of chestnut agnolotti on the house.

7:30 p.m.: Surprise No. 2: the kitchen is notified that one guest is a strict vegan who also happens to be gluten intolerant (the restaurant hadn’t been warned). Barry sends Andy to Metro for quinoa, telling him to take Shadowfax, his bike.

8:50 p.m.: We’re deep in service, but the room is surprisingly calm and everyone is incredibly polite to each other. I’m starting to rethink the horror stories I’ve come to expect based on Kitchen Confidential. I like how the crew answers “Oui” in unison every time Barry or Kriss calls out an order.

9:13 p.m.: One of the runners brings dessert up from the pastry kitchen. Kriss calls Jeung on the kitchen line to ask about the out-of-place meringue shards on the cheesecake course (no, really). Not to worry: this was Jeung’s gluten-free interpretation of the dessert.

9:42 p.m.: The last plate is expedited, and I get the bosses’ approval to go help with the kitchen cleanup. Hooray!

10:35 p.m.: Splendido’s vacuum sealer is broken, so Andy and I walk trays of food across the street to the Harbord Room, where stagiaire Rob is vac-packing them up. I’m surprised to learn there are actually three garde-mangers, since the amount of prep work required for Splendido’s plates is enormous. Lesson: the work I did earlier barely scratched the surface.

11:48 p.m.: Some of the chefs head out for after-service beers, but Kriss, Justin and I decide to call it a night. It’s only then that I realize I’ve been on my feet for nearly 12 and a half hours straight. What an incredible day.

So what did I learn during my trial by fire? To survive in a highly demanding kitchen like Splendido’s, you need careful organization and unwavering precision. Multi-tasking is expected, as is the ability to take orders and follow directions. Being a chef is not only physically gruelling, but mentally taxing and often emotionally draining. Still, I was inspired by the humility and camaraderie in the kitchen. This was not at all like a scene from Kitchen Confidential (which, I’ll admit, had scared the bejeezus out of me). Instead, I met a group of hardworking, exceptionally well-mannered and friendly people. It really does take a certain special personality to cut it in the kitchen, and those of us used to filling the seats in a dining room are all the better because of it.