The curtain goes up on an Oliveto apprenticeship

| June 6, 2009 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments

Oliveto Chef Paul Canales (left) cutting swordfish belly for a crudo. Watching him is intern Nick Hatten. Photo by Stuart Leavenworth

Oliveto Chef Paul Canales (left) cutting swordfish belly for a crudo. Watching him is intern Nick Hatten. Photo by Stuart Leavenworth

It’s 4 p.m. on a typical afternoon at Oliveto, and chefs and interns are hurriedly chopping vegetables, stirring pots, de-boning fish and preparing for that night’s dinner service, which starts in 90 minutes.
Service people are rushing through the kitchen, carrying glassware or trays of olives. Dishwashers are trying to return saucepans to overhead hooks, without dropping one on someone’s head.

It’s a frenetic dance that occurs daily at the Oakland restaurant, and to add to the frenzy, it comes with a soundtrack. Many afternoons, Chef Paul Canales blasts acid jazz from the boom box. Nothing like some mind-bending music to sharpen your focus.

For the last two months, I’ve been part of this dinner troupe, as a stagehand — a chef apprentice. Starting in April, I took a leave from my job as an editorial writer and columnist for The Sacramento Bee to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Rockridge.

It’s been a humbling transition. Until April, I worked in a cushy office and shadowed the power players in California’s capitol. Now I’m on my feet all day in a hot, windowless kitchen, taking orders from young sous chefs.

Yet in the realm of unpaid sabbaticals, this one can’t be beat. Anyone with an interest in food and cooking needs to work in a restaurant, particularly one like Oliveto. Concepts that once seemed so exotic and unattainable — curing salami, turning out trays of handmade ravioli — now seem within my grasp.

In recent weeks, I’ve filleted fresh mackerel, prepared soft shell crabs, cut up and cured pork belly for pancetta and braised porcini mushrooms for cannelloni, which I later rolled by hand.

I’ve also improved my knife skills. Dicing dozens of onions and carrots, day after day, helps in that regard.
That said, my initial performance was far from stellar. In one of his first assignments — a test, perhaps? — Chef Canales asked me to “turn” a potato. This involved peeling a small spud with a sharp paring knife, turning the potato with my left hand.

Stuart Leavenworth, paring a potato, this time without bloodshed. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

Stuart Leavenworth, paring a potato, this time without bloodshed. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

Within a few minutes, I had managed to insert the knife tip into my left thumb. Blood was running out. As I moved to the sink to wash and bandage the wound, I noticed a faded photocopy on the wall that offered instructions on dealing with an amputated finger.

“Reattachment is always possible,” the sheet said. “Stop the bleeding and place the lonely piece in a wet towel…”

Yes, it was one of those “What am I doing here?” moments. But I hung in there. Before starting my apprenticeship, I had read Bill Buford’s book “Heat,” and recalled that Buford had stabbed himself within days of starting at one of Mario Batali’s restaurants.

Oliveto, founded more than 20 years ago, has a long history of training interns, even those who are initially inept. Like other high-end kitchens, the restaurant’s menu is labor intensive, especially in the spring and summer months, when farmers and suppliers deliver boxes of artichokes, beans and other produce to the kitchen.

Interns provide this labor for free. In exchange, they pick up tips, training and contacts they’ll never get at culinary school. And if they work hard and show promise, they may get a shot at a paying job in the kitchen, should one open up.

People ask me: Is this just a temporary gig? Are you contemplating a career change?

I don’t know. My presumption is that I will return to my newspaper job when my six-month stint is over. But I have to admit, the life of a chef is alluring, even with the absurdly low pay. “It gets under your skin,” says Canales, who started interning at Oliveto 15 years ago after leaving a corporate telecom job.

Since April, I’ve been keeping a personal blog, which is largely focused on my day-to-day experience as a kitchen apprentice. For “Bay Area Bites,” my posts will be more focused on classic techniques of Italian cooking, and tips and recipes I’ve picked up from working at Oliveto.

Here is one thing I’ve learned: There is no “magic” to preparing superlative food. The artistry that arrives on your plate at the best restaurants is not prepared by Houdini.

What separates great chefs from good ones is training, practice, creativity, attention to detail and a passion for the food they are preparing. All of these are within reach of home chefs — those who prefer to do their cooking in more sedate settings, without a soundtrack.

Photo of a mackerel, from the Monterey Bay, right before I filleted it for that night's dinner menu. Photo by Stuart Leavenworth
Photo of a mackerel, from the Monterey Bay, right before I filleted it for that night’s dinner menu. Photo by Stuart Leavenworth

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About the Author ()

I am a veteran newspaper reporter who has transcended to the life of a kitchen slave. In April, I took a leave from The Sacramento Bee, where I work as a columnist and editorial writer, to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland. Until at least September, I will be working five days a week at the restaurant, learning basic culinary skills and helping Oliveto prepare its nightly dishes. What will happen at the end of my sabbatical? Who knows? At the very least, I'll be a far better chef than when I started. I've been a dedicated home cook for more than 20 years, largely because of the inspiration of my wife, Micaela Massimino. Mickie and I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively in Italy, France, the Deep South, New Mexico, Vietnam and Japan, and we enjoy cooking food from all of those places. I also have some experience in writing about food -- particularly the environmental consequences of food production. In the 1990s, I covered the rise of industrial hog farming in North Carolina, while working at the Raleigh News & Observer. Since moving back to California in 1999 and joining The Bee, I've specialized in coverage of water issues and threats to the state's fisheries. When I am not cooking, eating or writing, I like to take long rides on my various bicycles, which helps build an appetite for more cooking, eating and writing.
  • http://www.cookingschoolconfidential.com CookingSchoolConfidential.com

    What on earth makes you think you will ” … pick up tips, training and contacts they’ll never get at culinary school”? Have you been to culinary school? No. Do you know who teaches culinary school? At mine it is multiple Cordon Bleu and CIA-trained chefs from around the world who, collectively, have well over a century of high-end restaurant experience.

    In fact, I’ve been trained by six chefs to your one, so far. And I’m not finished.

    And, while I have cooked plenty of Italian food, like you, I have also cooked French and Thai and Chinese and Greek and … And I have done all this in a methodical, thorough, planned, program which will conclude with an externship (restaurants call it externship, not internship – ask your sous). An opportunity EVERY decent restaurant I know offers.

    And I know of what I speak. I’m a freelance journalist and culinary school student (www.CookingSchoolConfidential.com).

    Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox now and genuinely wishing you the best of luck.

    Cheers!

  • Fellow Culinary Student

    Dear CookingSchoolConfidential.com,

    I desagree with you that you can’t pick up tips, training etc from a intership/externship/apprenticeship, that you might not find in culinary school as an intern. I also am attending cooking school, soon finshing a 2 year program. Please have an open mind, as going to culinary school and working in a real restaurantis quite different. You will have a life term of learning ahead of you and every step of way you will improve your skills, methods, palate. Read Stuarts blogs, both this one as well as the one in Sacbee: http://www.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/the_chef_apprentice/, and I think you will learn something new. Best of luck to you studies as well,

    Sincerely

    Fellow Culinary Student

  • http://www.sacbee.com/chefapprentice Chef Apprentice

    Cookingschoolconfidential,

    I regret that you read one sentence in my 743-word posting and interpreted it as a slap against culinary schools. That wasn’t my intention.

    I have nothing against culinary schools. Heck, if I continue down this path, I probably will attend one to get a better grounding in techniques.

    I merely intended to note that in a “teaching kitchen” such as Oliveto, which prides itself in old-world techniques, you can learn a lot.

    It also would be smart for prospective culinary school students to intern at a restaurant before deciding on a culinary school. You might find you love it, or you might find you hate it. But it would be smart to know that before investing in tuition.

    In any case, good luck to you cookingschoolconfidential. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  • Robert Blair

    It also would be smart for prospective students of ANY profession to intern at the prospective profession before deciding on attending dedicated courses in that profession. Imagine following and completing all of the prescribed course studies, including attending hours of lectures and completing hundreds of hands-on laboratory projects designed to teach students the complex concepts and technical requirements for success in a desired profession, graduating (perhaps even with honors) and then obtaining an entry position, opening a practice or joining one already established, only to discover that practicing the chosen profession is unlike what was earlier imagined and very different in reality from what had been experienced in a controlled learning environment? I believe that most successfully functioning professionals are probably familiar with this scenario, either because they experienced it or because they’ve heard it from others in their profession. It is not uncommon, and some unfortunate people have found themselves effectively “stuck”, enduring a job they do not enjoy. Therefore, I encourage anyone who is thinking about a new career or profession to try that career’s reality first, by taking advantage of internship opportunities whenever possible. The internship experience will also provide the student with the benefits of professional contacts and reliable references, which are extremely valuable when seeking one’s first position or beginning a practice. Internship is definitely worth the time and effort.