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By Steven Li on 2006-06-26

June 26, 2006


A bit on my whereabouts:

I’m finished at Chef Mavro’s and just started interning at the Washington Place, where I’m cooking for state functions and our Governor, Linda Lingle. The whole 40 hours a week at Mavro’s in addition to 5-8 hours of school a day put a little, er a lot, over my head. Though thanks to the understanding of the kitchen and Mavro himself, I was still able to work on a more practical schedule. I was happier with 20 hours/week, as I actually found time to do homework(!) but I know I didn’t give myself the chance to completely immerse myself in the task get a true feel for a full time job in this industry. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short period of time. I have never encounter such a group of individuals who were so willing to help me learn. Their desire to share their knowledge and experience was key in my own drive to learn. I find it difficult to express such thanks to people who share knowledge, which is perhaps one of the most precious things you could seek to obtain.

I wish I could give you a log or a videotape of each day I spent in there. It is so hard to explain everything I saw from the afternoon prep to the pre-service rush and the wonderful family dinners cooked each evening. The food, the execution and the simple harmony in which all the chefs worked together amazed me. I worked with the pastry chef, a very talented and young Japanese woman. I learned something new everyday, whether it be how to properly create tight bread rolls, whisk liquid heavy cream till stiff (I wasn’t even aware I had the muscles in my arms to do that! – and now I don’t need to use an electric beater :))I was not prepared to be entrusted with the actual creation of the desserts, the plating and last minute finishes, but given such tasks you gain a rather satisfying sense of responsibility. I loved it when orders were called in for the Lilikoi Malassadas, one of Chef Mavro’s signature dishes. I would deep fry the mini brioche dough rounds we formed earlier in the afternoon the a beautiful golden brown, let them cool of just a bit a then toss in simple white sugar. A trio of these brioche malassadas goes into an order, each injected with a lilikoi curd tasting of a blissfully carefree island day. Topped with a smooth round of pineapple-haupia gelato and a softly pink hued guava sauce, it hard to imagine a more suitable fine dining approach to our local classic.

A most unexpected (though very welcomed) surprise was an opportunity to taste the entire menu on my second night. During each slow point of service throughout the evening, one of the chefs or cooks would bring over a plate showcasing a mini portion of a seasonal menu item. It was marathon fooding at its most sublime. The roasted lamb medallions, crusted with a light cepe dust and served with a confit of local Big Wave tomatoes and sauteed tabbouleh, so tender and sweet with it’s savory juices played rival to the marbled tako with ponzu sauce. The foie gras au torchon was heavenly smooth and silky, contrasting with a crisp eggplant fritter. I could not decide which I loved more – the Moscovy duckling atop a winter white yougurt pearl barley and ginger-mango jus or the round of Kobe style beef bavette finished with horseradish foam, and a gorgeous rectangle of crisp fried white polenta, a crust broken open to reveal the warm soft interior achieved under a watchful eye.

I was also given the opportunity to attend the food and wine paring for the upcoming summer menu. I’m not a wine drinker to say the least and felt very intimidated during that session. Each new menu item was paired with five types of wine, and after tasting, each individual was to note down the top three. That was a LOT of wine. I only managed to take a sip of each and still left feeling kind of uuuuuurg…like that. But I did enjoy the dishes! I’ll vouch for the new dessert, a perfect summer treat. In simple terms, it’s lychee, three ways. It such a sight for the eyes, a soft round of lychee sorbet, moving down the dish, a lychee infused rice pudding floating on a smear of tart and sweet grape reduction and to end, a lychee-marjoram kanten.

There was much more to my experience than what I have written, though I feel as if I could write for days and still never finish, and never do what I’ve learned justice. Working at Chef Mavro’s was very very different from Alan Wong’s, to say the least. Though both are touted as Hawaii’s best restaurants, not only is their approach towards cuisine highly different, everything from the physical layout of the kitchen to the music played in the kitchen prior to service, personalities of the cooks and chef and even the clientele that frequent these restaurants differ greatly. To compare my experience at the two restaurants in a short sentence, I think it’s fair to say that I certainly learned more at Mavro’s but felt more welcomed at Alan Wong’s. Each day at Mavro’s was a crash course in learning learning and more learning. It was terribly exciting but more often that not, I would feel awkward and out of place in their kitchen, like a burden rather than an asset. Despite all that, I took away an amazingly great deal knowledge that I truly owe them thanks to. In comparison, at Alan Wong, I definitely learned, but at a much slower pace. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I was there for three (as opposed to one at Mavro’s) month, so everything was not quickly crammed in. The staff at Alan Wong’s is so very local. And I think I like it that way. The same goal of quality food and service are accomplished at both restaurants, but with different approaches. There’s a more laid back, family, working-as-a-team-together feel at Alan Wong’s, but a more sophisticated, almost New York chic mentality at Mavro’s. Clearly, as judge by the great success of both restaurants, coming from either end works – it’s all a matter of personal preference.

I leave with a kitchen-full of gained knowledge (and stronger arms J), but there’s so much to learn that I always feel behind. It’s like running up to catch up to this guy and once you get there you find out there’s another guy ahead of that one! So you keep going and going, and you’re all out of breath but there’s this and that to learn, a technique you’ve never head of and chef you want to meet, the dish you need to try. And somewhere along, you realize that your goal shouldn’t be the destination, whether that be opening your own place or becoming a chef, but the journey itself – the whole process of learning. Oh, hehe. That was cliché. But SO true.

I can make a few conclusions:

1. I could not imagine myself owning or working in a restaurant as an actual career.
2. But I do want to own a patisserie. No full scale restaurant, but yes to dessert!
3. I actually enjoy eating food more than cooking and would be more than content working around (as opposed to with) food. What kind of work would that include? Ay, I’m not sure…journalism, design, management? There are many (perhaps more than necessary) “things” I am unsure of. But I do know whatever I do must be in the sphere of culinary goodness. And hopefully that’s enough for now.

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