Amy Thielen — chef, former Food Network host, and two-time James Beard Award-winning author of 2013’s The New Midwestern Table — will publish her culinary memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, on May 16, 2017. In advance of its release, EW is thrilled to exclusively reveal the book’s sharp (get it?) cover, as well as a sneak peek inside. In the excerpt below, taken from the memoir’s prologue, Thielen shares her experience working as a line cook in New York City after she moved from rural Minnesota.
Check out the cover and excerpt below, and head to Thielen’s website for more information.
Excerpt from Give a Girl a Knife by Amy Thielen
“Everything takes five minutes.”
This was the first decree of my line cooking career, and it made no sense.
My eyes flickered fearfully to the industrial clock hanging on the wall; I was too scared to look at it and too scared not to. On this night, my first working the hot line at Danube after three months’ purgatory on the salad station, I knew that the chef was going to yell at me—but I didn’t yet understand how the clock, its minute hand lurching toward the dinner hour, would be the one to kick my ass.
I’d shown up an hour early, but T1, one of two Austrian sous chefs named Thomas in our kitchen, was already prepping my station, presiding over a bunch of wide-bottomed pots on the steel flat top stove, a couple of them filled with violently boiling water, another with a hissing swarm of sliced shallots turning from gold to bronze. He stood in front of a cutting board popping the cores out of halved mature carrots with a long knife. Wedging the butt of his slicer into the faint line between flesh and core, he torqued for pressure and ejected each light orange center with a pop, leaving behind a smooth carrot canoe. This operation he performed without looking down, as if he were shelling peas.
As I hustled to set up my cutting board next to his, I asked him, in my not-very-Minnesota-nice blunt way that actually sort of works in professional kitchens, where speed is of the essence: “Don’t some things take longer than that? Like making risotto?”
T1 held his knife loosely and replied blankly, “Risotto isn’t the only thing you’re making,” then pointed his blade toward the pots on the stove. As if to demonstrate the heroic number of tasks that he could fit into a mere five minutes, he hooked a spoon head into the handle of the pot of caramelizing shallots and jerked it to the cool edge of the stove, did the same to his sauteuse of red wine syrup, its center erupting magenta bubbles, and had already turned back to the industrial blender of parsley water, now jet- washing the canister in violent green, before he repeated: “Everything takes five minutes.”
So apparently time was not time, and that subject was closed.
Before I knew it, while I’d been mincing shallots and herbs, T1 had stocked my vegetable entremet station and I slid—fully prepped but not in any way prepared—into my first dinner service on the hot line. We cooks on the meat side stood shoulder to shoulder like soldiers in formation, facing a mirror image of fish- side cooks across the hot double- sided flat- top. The Austrian chef de cuisine—Generalissimo Mario Lohninger, Chef David Bouley’s chief henchman—assumed his position at the head of the flat- top, at the white- cloth draped area known as the pass. There he stood waiting for finished plates to land for his inspection before handing them off to the food runners, who steered them high overhead, like spaceships, to their proper tables. And then it was on.
Firing Table 16! Two cheese ravioli— one gröstl— and one skate! Followed by two venison— a dorade— and a squab!
The two cheese rav was me, as well as the garnish for the gröstl, the Austrian term for the mixed bag of leftovers Tyrolean grand-mothers might fry up in a cast iron pan for skiers returning home from the mountain, otherwise known as hash. Our gröstl was made with a lobster claw, a pad of seared foie gras, and some tissue-thin veal tortellini—you know, just some scraps from the kitchen. The cook to my left flung the lobster and the foie gras on a metal sizzle plate in my direction like a bartender slides a beer down the bar. I dropped a circle of red wine reduction on a white plate, topped it with the foie, the lobster, and then three veal tortellini. I crowned the lobster with a frothy head of milky green-pea foam, its bubbles rapidly winking shut one by one, and then turned around to whip up a small pot of corn sauce for my cheese ravioli.
“Soigné!” Mario snapped, calling for perfection in French—the universal language of European kitchens—tapping his finger on the rim of my ravioli plate. My eyes followed his finger. Five ravioli in a row, but the triangle points weren’t lining up. One was upside down. I flipped it over.
“Oh, bueno!” he mocked in the kitchen Spanish he was picking up in New York. “Corn sauce, Ahmy! On y va,” he urged. “The skate is dying here for your käise ravioli.”
As the chaos of the nighttime dinner kitchen mounted—the wall of sound increasing, the space between whirling cooks decreasing, the hot liquids seething, the cavalcade of tiny copper pots being chucked into the dirty bin in a crescendo of clunks—I located a weird stillness in myself. As the intensity tightened, the more my inner reverb began to hum.
Visually, it was a swarm. The portions were small, the tasting menus were long, and the plates were Technicolor. There was glowing red-beet-and-wine-soaked pasta. Neon-pink watermelon juice. Spinach sauce the color of artificial turf. The night was an endless parade of bright sauces and shapes—blots and foamy peaks and swirled commas—accompanied by the fervent clacking of fine porcelain.
Before long, my vision became so nearsighted that I could barely see beyond the rim of the plate in front of me. The parts of dishes for which I was responsible began to look like familiar characters: floppy half-wilted leaves of spinach standing up on two legs before falling into corn sauce; tufts of horseradish cream swirling in cumulus patterns into rusty swaths of short rib jus; marble-size bone-marrow dumplings topped with fleecy tan beanies of buttery bread crumbs.
The cooks blindly moved copper pots around on the flat-top as smoothly as professional card sharks. Their movements looked at first to be haphazard but turned out to be as precise as animal instinct. Cooking here was all about caramelized edges and pooling juices and delicious pan-smudge and spoon-spit—that moment when you’re plating and a final droplet of sauce falls at the last possible second onto an otherwise pristine plate, when the thing is so damned beautiful that the spoon itself looks to be drooling.
It was a mad world, but I got it. The food at the center of the plate was protected from the tumult of the kitchen—all its split-second saves and sharp words eddied at the perimeter, protecting the still eye of the storm. Remarkably, the two coexisted in a kind of harmony, like a steaming roast at the center of a moody family table. It kind of reminded me of home.
Very quickly I came to understand what T1 meant about the five minutes. Jobs like cleaning soft-shell crabs or trimming artichokes both took more than five minutes of any veteran cook’s time, but the point was that proper hustling addled the brain, causing a thirteen-hour day to fly by like a six-hour one, and each thirty-minute block to feel like five minutes.
The kitchen operated on a bunch of these different clocks, only one of which corresponded to Greenwich Mean Time. The synchronized cooking of each dish for each table was coordinated by shouting out the minutes to plating. Once a table was fired (“Fire Table 22!”), the meat roast cook called out his requirement (“Five away on the venison!”) and we all counted down from there. “Two on the squab!” the guy to my left shouted. “Two on the dorade!” answered the fish cook. These minutes did not correspond to the exact ticking seconds but to a shared feeling of the same imaginary descending time line. Nightly, fights sprang up over the accuracy of a cook’s minutes. (“Serge, dude, your two is more like six!”)
The point is, if you cook on the line for long, your personal time signature will change. It took about three months for my internal clock to flip over, but when it did, the time I spent cooking on the line slowed down and everything before and after sped up. My free time outside of work narrowed to a sliver—and even then, on the street or in the grocery store, I no longer just walked: I beelined, I took the turns tight, I dodged to the right, I foresaw the road ahead. Because once you’ve taught yourself to shave seconds off of every task in order to be the most efficient, quickest cook you can be, it’s hard to stop. Like saving precious moments of life, that’s how essential it feels.
To me, time in the kitchen was like a loophole, a bubble, a cure. Once I found it, I crawled inside and told myself I never wanted to leave.
Excerpted with permission from Give a Girl a Knife © 2017 Amy Thielen (available from Clarkson Potter, Penguin Random House LLC in hardcover and e-book, May 2017).