Is working in a French kitchen really as hellish as some chefs make it out to be? To find out, we asked two Portland-based female chefs who've been there.
Retired chef Susan Boulot trained at Paris' highly-rated L'Archestrate and staged with Joël Robuchon protege Philippe Groult in the 1980s. Eve Küttemann started training at Robuchon's two Michelin-starred l'Atelier in 2003, Alain Ducasse's Le Relais du Parc, and at Fauchon.
Today, Küttemann and Boulot hold down local jobs. After helping to open Trifecta Tavern and Bakery, Küttemann runs the historically inspired Sage Hen pop-up. Boulot works at local artisan pickle company Mama Lil's. She is also married to Philippe Boulot, the James Beard-awarded chef at the Multnomah Athletic Club.
Here's what they have to say about life in the fast lane of French kitchens:
[Küttemann (left) and Boulot, Photo by Mattie John Bamman/EPDX]
On How They Got There
Boulot: I dropped everything to move to Paris and work in a kitchen. I thought, "It'll just work out. Really, the only way to go is naively. I mean, naiveté serves you, because it gets you there, and then you have to live through it."
I ended up working for this really cracked out restaurant.
Küttemann: That takes guts. I went because my friend got a job in translation over there. I thought—also totally naively—that I could just find a job under the table or something. I ended up finding this three-month stage and then working for this really cracked out restaurant. It was definitely sketchy.
On The Language Barrier
K: I thought I spoke French before I went, but once you get into those kitchens, it's all slang, so it's pretty much a whole different language.
B: I found I didn't know all of the technical terms—you know, what they called a straight-sided sauce pan versus a sauté pan verses something else.
B: Each day is a fresh start in a French kitchen. There's no mise en place waiting for you. You had to gut and scale the fish. Lobster came in live, and you prepared them by grabbing the head and the tail and twisting. These were Brittany lobsters, so they were huge. I had small hands and I would sometimes have to use a towel to twist them, and when they kicked, they'd be flying across the room.
I've never heard of a woman working the job.
K: At l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, one cook's entire job was mashed potatoes (Robuchon is famous for his "pomme puree"). He'd spend hours and hours stirring this giant pot, and I wanted to do it. I knew the potato station was a hard job, and it never happened. To this date, I've never heard of a woman working the job. One of my good friends in the kitchen, a little Japanese guy, worked one station for five years. Only then was he moved up to mashed potatoes.
B: Did you work seven days a week in France?
You never take the break.
K: Yes, and it was split shifts, so two shifts a day. We'd come in at 7 a.m., and then we'd have a break in the middle of the day that we never took.
B: Right. You never take the break. If you worked a station and you ran out of something during lunch, that break was when you'd prep more for dinner.
On Women in the Kitchen
B: I'd have this little cap so that I could pull all my hair up, and when the fish guy came in, he would just stare at me. After about a week of this, he made me so mad I looked at him and said, "And?" He said, "Are you a guy or a girl?"
I said, "Seriously?" He responded, "I'm so sorry. I thought you were a girl, but there are no women in these restaurants. What are you doing here?"
'Are you a guy or a girl?'
K: There was one woman in the kitchen—and this is a really tragic story—and she worked in the back of the kitchen. In the end, she was only forty-five and she died. Her heart gave out. She was just under that much stress all of the time. The job literally killed her. There was another girl that came along, but she didn't last long.
If you were a woman in the kitchen and were determined to stay, you were going straight to the top. These were women with huge personalities who can dominate a kitchen.
I also unfortunately found American women have a reputation among French for being easy, so you have to break that down, which I did by being really, really bitchy. And once you break that hurdle, you have to break the hurl of just being an American. They're like, What are you going do, make fries or something?
On What They Learned
B: There's a rigor and intensity to French restaurant culture that makes it a great training ground. That's why I think you see so many exceptional, young chefs there: They get a good base, and their technique is very solid. Over here, I think technique sometimes gets skipped over.
We live in a culture of creativity, but in France, creativity has no value without technique.
K: We live in a culture of creativity, but in France, creativity has no value without technique. Here, a lot of chefs have an idea, but they don't know how to make it. That's where technique comes in.
You can only become an expert at something by doing it a lot, so a short stage won't really give you that whole swath of techniques. But a job in a kitchen for six months, depending on what your job is, will do that. It's the combination of having done both that really makes you a great chef, I think. No book or chef can teach you these things.
On Advice They'd Give to Their Younger Selves
B: There are two pieces of advice that have seen me through so many things: Keep your eyes and ears open and your knives sharp. And if you talk when you work, your hands need to move faster than your mouth.
Keep your eyes and ears open and your knives sharp.
K: One expression I learned along those lines was, We're not here to make friends. It sounds really harsh, but ultimately, you become friends because you've done a good job together.
I would have told myself to really absorb everything—and stay tough. It's that tenacity that really allows a person to absorb what the French kitchens have to offer. If you get bogged down by how terrible the experience is...
B: ...if your feet really hurt, or you think, "They don't like me": Pack up and go home. I think F.D.R. said, "When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on." And that's really it. I mean, when you have no more patience, guess again. Dig deep, and just do it. Because, at the end of the day, when you're over there, you're on your own. You have no one else you can depend on, and you just need to make it work.