Classic Culinary Arts Student Contributor: Cynthia Magpayo
7:30am pick up from The FCI. My classmate, Steve, and I are picked up in a black Mercedes by Tyler Florence's Culinary Director, Anthony Hoy Fong. 33ish Chinese, New Zealand-born, moved to NYC 18 months ago and has been working with Tyler for 8 months. He is a FCI grad and says he got the job by doing just as we are - volunteering. He did great, Tyler kept asking him to help out and eventually offered him a full-time position. Yup, that's the plan!
The ride up to the venue is about an hour and a half, which turns into two hours when our driver gets lost, but no matter, as it gives me more time to pick Anthony's brain. He works very closely with Tyler, arranging logistics whenever food is involved as well as prepping and cooking when need be. He also gets to travel around with Tyler - cooking events, speaking events, Food Network filmings, etc. Basically Tyler's "go-to" guy.
Arrive at Citigroup's estate and we're introduced to all the staff as "Tyler's chefs". Nice. We feel like celebrities as we walk around, heads peering over to get a look at us. A tour of the grounds (gorgeous country club) and the kitchen (one for prep, the other for service, HUGE). Anthony tells us we're being spoiled for our first gig. He explains that most of the time he's in a tiny kitchen where he's expected to plate for a hundred and cut vegetables on a cardboard box.
They give us a room to change into our chef's whites and we head to the prep kitchen. We meet the Citigroup chefs who will be helping us out - four 50ish men, one of which worked Tuesday's UN General Assembly dinner with President Bush (seared foie gras and filet mignon). We're told that tonight's guests include Citigroup's top worldwide customers, Citigroup's CEOs, and guest speaker Al Gore. Wow.
Prep work consists of stuffing game hen, then four hours of peeling and splitting beets. Yeah, that was the low part of the day. And I used to like beets...We wrap up the prep work and move from the prep kitchen to the service kitchen which is adjacent to the dining room. In addition to the four Citigroup chefs and ourselves, there are four other workers ready to help out. We unpack and set up for service. I'm engrossed in inspecting celery leaves when Tyler Florence walks into the kitchen. Jeans, a blue stripped button down shirt, a dark blue blazer. He speaks with the Citigroup people, checks out the venue, chats with Anthony, checks out the food. Then he puts on his chef's whites and jumps right into the mix.
My first assignment, given by Tyler himself, was to roast the walnuts, season and rough chop them. I dump them on a sheet pan and throw them in the oven, checking every so often. When I think they're done, I take one out and hand it to Tyler. He says they're perfect and I pull them out. The whole time I'm calling him "Chef Tyler" or "Chef" as is usual in a kitchen, but by the end of the night, everyone was just calling him "Tyler" and he didn't seem to mind. I start rough chopping and ask Tyler how fine he wants it. He comes around, motions for my knife and starts chopping. As he's showing me the consistency he wants, he tells me a story when he worked in a kitchen and had "to hand chop 10 pounds of nuts". He says he asked the chef if he could use the food processor, and explained that you can't really get the right chunks of nuts using a machine. He hands me my knife back and I get to work. The whole time we're working there are two cameramen following Tyler around the kitchen, snapping pictures - they even took one of Tyler chatting with me about the walnuts! Oh, and of course from time to time I take out my own camera and snap a pic of Tyler working.
My second assignment - polenta. As I'm working on the nuts, I'm sharing the table with Tyler as he makes polenta. We're discussing the difference between raw and instant polenta mix (he used instant) and he's whisking a big stock pot of polenta. When he's finished, he hands me a spoonful to taste. Nice. He pulls it off the heat and tells me that when I'm done with the nuts to arrange the polenta for service in three hotel pans and cover them with buttered parchment paper. Look at me, I'm Tyler's "go-to" gal! My third assignment - the assembly line. I finish with the polenta and the kitchen kicks into high gear. Dinner service is minutes away and everything needs to be done and ready to go. Tyler calls out my name and tells me he wants me organize the assembly line. Working with the kitchen staff, I make sure the tables are clean and set up properly, ensure hot plates are hot, cold plates are cold and that we have more than enough for service. I even catch that the salad plates were in the warmer and had to be moved quickly to the cooler. 8:30 hits and we're into dinner service.
My first time on the assembly line. We're arranged in two lines down both sides of a long table. The food is in the center in the order it needs to be plated. Plate and pass it down. All goes pretty smoothly and Tyler's at the end of the table making last minute touches and garnishes. He finishes off every single plate before it goes out the door. First I'm on apples, then beets (yuck!), then hen and sauce. In the middle of the hen service, Tyler calls me from the end of the table and tells me to start working on the strawberry sandwiches for dessert.My final assignment - strawberry sandwiches. I jump off the line and check on the grill - it's filthy. I fail at trying to clean it up myself and call for one of the dishwashers to help me out. Thankfully, they all like me, probably because I was the only girl in the whole kitchen. It takes awhile for it to get cleaned up and I can see Tyler eyeing me from the assembly line as the hens go out the door. I start setting up the butter and sheet pans with some hesitation and Tyler calls over to me "Cynthia, you better get started on those or else dessert service is going to start and we won't have any sandwiches." I freak out a little - but internally - and jump on the task. I'm working this grill like crazy, pushing out 20 sandwiches every five minutes. By the time dessert service is up I'm on my last batch of 20 and by the end I make 100 sandwiches - all by myself! Red bull has nothing on natural adrenaline. Tyler would come over once in a while and check on my progress. I let him know things are under control and he says, "Well, that's why I put my top chef on it!" Ha! The desserts go out and dinner service is over. Tyler makes some finishing remarks to the guests in the dining room and invites the kitchen staff out to be recognized. He introduces Steve and myself as The FCI student volunteers. Cameras flash, everything is a blur and we head back into the kitchen.
Of course I make sure to get a picture with Tyler and I have him sign the recipe list we were given. He promises us a great letter of recommendation and a copy of his newest cookbook.The end of the night, we pack up and head out of the kitchen. Tyler, Anthony, Steve and myself walk back to the prep kitchen to gather our things - replaying the evening and chatting and laughing like old friends. We wait in the parking lot together for our cars and discuss random things. Tyler has a bit of a cold and he tells us how hard it is trying to get well while working and on the road. He even visited a doctor that specialize in voice therapy to try and fix his throat. Steve and I talked about The FCI and how we're on stations now. I explain that I'm doing skate wing next class and Tyler says, "Oh yea, they have those bones that stick out." Hehe. The cars come and Tyler and Anthony jump into the first one. Tyler gives me a peck on the cheek and thanks me and Steve many times over for helping him out. He says he always has events he needs help with and will keep us in mind. Goodbyes and thanks to Anthony as well and I yell out to make sure he keeps in touch. Steve and I jump into the second car and talk the whole way back about our day working side by side with Tyler Florence. Hopefully, the first of many...