You are probably are thinking, ‘What the heck was Michele doing there?!’ And I must tell you, I was pretty much asking myself that exact same thing. After recently finishing the first semester of my two semester culinary arts program with basically no restaurant experience, I somehow found myself employed as a line/prep cook for one of the most exclusive mens club in the world. How? I would like to say I was hired because of my culinary talent, impeccable knife skills, and expansive sauce knowledge, but the reality was because I know how to correctly hold my knife, had a great reference, and somehow convinced the Chef that I was quick and efficient in the kitchen. Some of which was only partially true.
The real reason why I applied for a temporary cook position to work 15 hours a day deep in the middle of the Northern California redwoods with zero cell phone service was for the experience, or so I kept telling myself. But in all seriousness, I was truly wanting to experience the highest level of culinary excellence from the food preparation, to plating and serving. Feeding over 1,000 of the wealthiest and most privileged men in the world twice a day while they ‘camp’, appreciate the arts, and temporarily leave the stress of their daily lives was something I could have never prepared for and is unlike any experience I would have had anywhere else.
Here are just a few of my favorite quotes and experiences that I took from my culinary bootcamp and hope to apply to my future culinary career.
Food has Personality
While my kitchen station was mass producing and plating salad dishes during dinner service, the Chef came over and told us that our dishes looked too manufactured. She explained that even though each dish needs to look a certain way, the beauty is that they will also all look slightly different. While scooping crab salad with the pre-portioned scooper onto the blanched and torched asparagus, the Chef explained that the salad should simply crumble down the sides onto the plate, letting the salad fall where it may. This concept pretty much blew my mind. Instead of robotically plating with each ingredient looking tight, identical, and impersonal, the plating style at Bohemian Grove is more gourmet rustic with each plate full of personality as if to say ‘look at what we have come together to make for you’. This plating philosophy is the most beautiful way to celebrate each ingredient and is something I will incorporate into every dish I create.
A Kitchen is Only as Strong as Their Weakest Prep Cook
I can honestly say, I have never felt so welcomed and appreciated in my entire life. My pantry/prep cook position was one of the lowest entry level positions they could give someone, and yet the Chefs took the time to know my name, say hello in the mornings and actually help me when needed. Of course, if someone was not performing to the best of their ability or below Bohemian Grove standards, it would be immediately addressed with a less than friendly reminder to ‘get it together’, although it was a rare occurrence. During culinary school I have heard horrible stories of Executive Chefs tearing down the staff with constant criticism and borderline abuse, yet this kitchen could not be more different. The Chefs had no need to even acknowledge the prep cooks, yet they completely embraced us, making us feel like we had a critical role in maintaining this well oiled fine dining kitchen machine.
The notion that we are all a family was repeated over and over in meetings and personal interactions, holding true from the first to the last day of camp. Regardless of your job title, we are all working together, helping each other in order to keep the kitchen producing the highest quality of food. If one person falls, we all stumble.
I think I found the secret formula that separates all other food establishments from the Bohemian Grove: inspections. Yes, they order the freshest and highest quality ingredients, but what really sets them apart are their impeccable standards. Those strawberries served with the berry bowls were hand cut and sorted every morning by three people for over an hour checking for any blemishes or imperfections. Lemon and lime wedges were cut and inspected by hand; if a single spot or discoloration was found on the peeling served to a member, you risk having all the wedges tossed and starting over again. It took a team of five prep cooks hours over the course of three days to peel the layers of smoked salmon and perfectly place them on a plate for a single appetizer salad. Sure there were short cuts we could have taken to make things easier, but you risk sacrificing quality, which is not the Bohemian Grove way. Fine food takes time and each dish has been overanalyzed by the Chefs from the ingredient supplier to the precise length the asparagus will be cut.
My experience at the Bohemian Grove was something I will absolutely never forget. I was challenged in ways I never thought possible and succeeded my own personal expectations. Working a total of 67 hours in four and a half days is pretty crazy, and for some insane reason I loved it. I can say without a doubt in my mind that this was the most physically exhausting yet absolutely rewarding thing I have ever done. Although I am not applying for any cook positions in the near future, I have a whole new appreciation for the people who do this type of work every day.