Friday, July 17, 2009

Trail: Blue Hill New York

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to trail in the kitchen of one of the top restaurants in New York City: Blue Hill New York.

I remember seeing its sister restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, on a episode of last season's Top Chef.  I was intrigued to see this reemerging idea of "farm-to-table" in action.  The restaurant's ingredients are supplied only by what is grown and raised on the Stone Barns farm.

I was thrilled to find there was a Manhattan location for this restaurant, aptly named Blue Hill New York.  When our career advisors asked us to start brainstorming locations where we would like to trail, this restaurant was at the top of my list.

Needless to say, I was more than a little nervous about my first trailing experience being at one of the places I most wanted to pursue an externship.  

The trailing started at 1 PM, but I arrived in the area around noon.  I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to find the restaurant.  I passed the hour sitting in the shade in Washington Square Park, finishing up my book while listening to a two-person jazz band.

Upon entering the restaurant, I was happy to meet Molly, an ICE student in the culinary program, who was also trailing that evening.  The sous chef, Michael, greeted us both and showed us downstairs, where we could change into our uniforms for the evening.  Come to find out, Molly had trailed a few other times at Blue Hill, so she prepared me for the small kitchen size.

She was right.  I couldn't believe how tiny it was - or maybe I was more amazed by how many people they managed to fit in the kitchen!

The next few hours were all prep, as dinner service began at 5:30 PM.  I sorted blackberries, hulled and sliced strawberries and made a peanut butter sorbet and chocolate ganache foam.  

At 4:30 PM, the pastry chef invited me to join them for staff dinner, an offer I was happy to accept.  There was a fish soup, seasoned rice, zucchini salad and fresh bean salad.  The food was absolutely wonderful - simple, fresh and perfectly seasoned.

After the staff meal, it was a bit of a waiting game for pastry.  I helped wipe out glasses and sort them for service.  I picked through the tiny flowers used for presentation and placed them in containers on wet paper towels.  Then I felt like I was just in the way.

Including me, there were four people in the kitchen who were either trailing or interning.  The intern had been assigned to pastry for the evening, so he was working closely with the pastry chef, Joel.  And when the pastry counter is no larger than a cutting board, it's tough to squeeze your way between two guys.

But Michael quickly offered to let me stand with him as he called out the incoming orders to the hot kitchen.  I was able to watch him precisely plate each dish and taste everything as it came off the stove.  I even tried pig snout.  Not kidding.

I could still see pastry over my shoulder, so I could also watch Joel work and plate each dessert.

I was also able to try several of the desserts, which were phenomenal.  They were exactly the reason I was so excited to be at Blue Hill - not only were the ingredients seasonal and fresh, but they were organic, straight from the farm.  

The raspberries actually tasted like the raspberries I remember getting from farmer's stands in Maine.  The strawberries were actually strawberries - only the size of a raspberry, but juicy and sweet beyond belief.

The night ended around 11:30 PM, but not before I was able to speak with Michael and Joel about my experience.  I was thrilled to not only be invited back for future trails, but also to complete my externship, if I chose.  Needless to say, I was quite excited.

So, the night was a success.  I learned a lot during my shift, mostly about how to move in that kitchen without making anyone upset.  And that was pretty important.

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