Learning Cooking Skills Staging in Restaurant Kitchens

In Chapter 5 of 16 in her 2012 interview, author and food writer Cathy Erway answers "How Did You Decide to Stage in California Restaurant Kitchens and What Did the Experience Teach You?"  Erway finds it highly educational immersing herself in kitchens, be they restaurants or supper clubs.  She takes a trip to California, where she stages, or interns, at several restaurant kitchens, including Tartine Bakery and Chez Panisse. 

I like the idea of being silent and being told what to do and just doing something manually for a long time. I think that’s a good intern at a restaurant—just listen, just zone out and like listen to everything that’s going on.
— Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is an author and food writer living in Brooklyn.  Her first book, "The Art of Eating In" developed from her blog "Not Eating Out in New York".  She earned a BA in creative writing from Emerson College.


Erik Michielsen:  How do you decide to stage in California restaurant kitchens, and what did the experiences teach you?

Cathy Erway:  Oh, man, I love staging, so I just love butting into kitchens, no matter if it's a real restaurant or a supper club production of some sort, or my friend's dinner party. So I was in San Francisco for a month and I really wanted to stage at Tartine Bakery. And they were doing some renovations. They were like, "Yeah, come back tomorrow." "Okay, yeah, I'll come back to tomorrow." I was like, "Shoot."

So I went around town asking to stage other places, and in one case, it was actually like a no-brainer. I was sitting at a bar, having a beer, and then somebody walked in wearing a chef's coat and sat down and like drank a beer in like 5 seconds and then got up and was about to leave to go back to cook. And I was like, "Oh, what restaurant?" He's like, "Oh, this place in SoMa district and," you know, he described it, and I was like, "Can I come cook sometime?" He's like, "Yeah, sure." And it was great. And then I made some friends or I had some friends in the area, who very graciously -- I think that it's a small world or in the food scenes, I don't know, but he knew everybody. So he hooked me up with a stage opportunity at Chez Panisse, which was pretty amazing. Loved it.

Erik Michielsen:  What did you learn?

Cathy Erway:  Well, I feel like I have a good sense of the differences of California cuisine and New York cuisine. They use so many herbs, it's insane. Like going into their walk-in, there's like a whole walk-in just for herbs. And there's like drawers of like every single kind of herb. Chervil? Who uses chervil in New York City? I don't know of too many. But they all have this. And sometimes salads are just like simply a pile of beautifully fluffy fresh herbs. And I mean, they're lucky they can grow it anywhere. It's temperate. They have it all year round, you know, kind of spoiled, right? But, yeah, I mean, that's -- and that's naturally what they cook with, you know, all these--you know, sometimes wild fennel because it grows everywhere, we used that -- and oh, Chez Panisse, there was a great dish where they pounded the wild fennel in this mortar and pestle.

Chez Panisse is really into using archaic instruments too. At one point, we were pounding roasted red peppers with the mortar and pestle and I was like, "Why aren't we using a food processor?" But that's -- you know... It's all about doing things by hand.

Erik Michielsen:  And what questions did you ask?

Cathy Erway:  Aside from "Why don't we use a food processor?"  I don't -- I didn't really want to ask too many questions. I like the idea of being silent and being told what to do and just doing something manually for a long time. I think that's a good intern at a restaurant--just listen, just zone out and like listen to everything that's going on.