photo courtesy of: Michael Harlan Turkell
Dear Chef, Incanto Crew, and all future Head to Tail stage applicants,
There is an endless number of words I can use to describe my week at what might very well be the most interesting restaurant in the country, Incanto. I hope to use a few of them to both reflect on my time at the restaurant, as well as give all future applicants a better idea of what the experience may entail if they are fortunate enough to be selected. Before I begin though I would like to say thank you to Chef Chris, Chef Manny, and the entire Incanto crew for inviting me into your world for a few short days, and that I am incredibly grateful for both the experience and our time together. You were all unbelievably gracious hosts as well as phenomenal cooks and I consider it a privilege to have been a part of the team even if only for a week. Thank you for that. Now onto the experience.
First off I must say the stage was intense. I’m not going to lie and say that there weren’t points where I did not feel as though I was in over my head. Flying across the country to an unfamiliar city, to work in an unfamiliar kitchen, doing unfamiliar food was certainly more difficult than I had imagined it would be. It is a tremendous amount of pressure entering a kitchen and representing not only yourself, but all of the people you have worked for over the years. My first two days I could barely hold my knife straight. It took me until service the first night of the dinner before I was able to finally get out of my head and just cook. This was all exacerbated by the fact Incanto is a vigorous place to work. There are no throw away items on the menu at Incanto. All of the food is executed at a tremendously high level and as Chef wrote on his blog to describe the experience: “there is a shit ton of detailed work to be done.” This was certainly the case. I may have flown 6 hours from New York to northern California, but this was in no way a vacation. There were sinks of tripe to be cleaned, thousands of fava beans to be shelled, and gallons of consommé to be clarified. My fellow stage Italo and I were there 15 hours a day, and there was constantly something to be done. This is by no means a complaint, but rather the reality.
For those future applicants, if you are reading this and are concerned about taking your vacation days and spending crazy amounts of money to fly out to California to work harder than you probably do at your normal job don’t be. As a restaurant, Incanto is an inspirational place to work even if only for a few days. I don’t know if there are any other restaurants in the world where food is looked at and viewed the way it is there. Yes the nose to tail cooking is the main draw but there are so many great things going on in the Incanto kitchen. The restaurant makes almost everything imaginable in house. There are the basics like preserves and jams and pickles, but there is so much more. They dehydrate and grind their own spices and chiles. Make their own bread. Their own garum. Salt and cure egg yolks. I swear to god there was a fish drying from the ceiling. Also everything at the restaurant gets used. Almost nothing is thrown out. Herb stems go into confit oil. Confit oil gets used to cook with. Incanto is a model for sustainability. Every ingredient is treated with the utmost respect from the most expensive protein down to a single stem of mint. Nearly every product there offers one hundred percent yield. It is through these practices that even with using almost exclusively sustainable and organic products the restaurant is able to operate with a ridiculously low food cost. It is amazing to witness and something all cooks and chefs should not only learn how to do, but strive every day to do better.
Now speaking of learning. This brings me to what I feel is the word that best describes my stage at Incanto – educational. There is so much to learn at this restaurant, and everyone there is more than willing to teach. From cooking spleen, to making pasta out of pig skin, dehydrating and puffing beef tendons, and even making panna cotta out of foie gras you will learn a lot. I know I certainly did. The chefs at Incanto make it a point that when you work there you are actively learning. Education often seems like the number one priority. This extends even beyond food and cooking. It may mean taking ten minutes out of the busiest day to watch a video about a Japanese man making coffee for tsunami survivors, or taking twenty minutes out of the day to go down the street to browse the cookbook Mecca that is Omnivore Books. It was a constant theme running through the restaurant that even though we were busy and there was work to be done, we should always be learning something. Even our day off included lunch with Harold McGee and a trip to the market to check out the different products you won’t find just anywhere.
Perhaps the most important thing I took away from my stage at Incanto though was the memories of a once in a lifetime experience, and if you are reading this still wondering what to expect if you are selected for the stage I offer you this information. You will have the opportunity to work side by side with an unbelievably brilliant and knowledgeable chef, and a team of cooks as talented as you are likely to encounter anywhere in the country. You will make extraordinary friends. You will cook great food and also eat exceptionally well. And you will work. Hard. And when it is over you will want to do it again and again. Once again I’m incredibly thankful for this experience, and I encourage anyone who is a serious cook to apply. If you are reading this and have already been accepted I offer you my congratulations and this parting advice. Work hard. Work clean. Cook with confidence. Have fun. And mostly importantly even if you’ve done something a million times before, always read your labels and double/triple check your math.
Thank you Incanto crew and good luck to all applicants. I look forward to the opportunity to work with you in the future.
Adam R. Wile
April 26, 2012 on 11:31 am | In Blog, Offal, Resources | No Comments
photo courtesy of: michael harlan turkell
I need to start off by saying thank you to everyone in the kitchen and front of house for welcoming me into your world for a week.
A few days into my stage Manny asked me if I was having fun, and I answered him in the only way I could truly sum up how I was feeling. I said “This restaurant is like Disneyland for cooks!” It is truly a cooks dream. A beautiful kitchen, a friendly crew, and all of the fun products a cook could ever ask for. The produce is amazing, the offal beyond fresh, and working never felt like work. Chris told me, “We’re all just here to have fun.” I have honestly never had more fun in a kitchen while working so hard. The hours start early and end late, but by the end of the week it all seemed too have gone by too quickly. And what you take with you at the end cannot be learned in any book.
Anyone who considers themselves a chef, or even a cook, needs to experience Incanto first hand. They epitomize what it is to truly cook, to let a product be and not to manipulate it. Just coax it along and help it shine. And any cooks who are thinking about applying for next year’s dinner, DO IT! To not send them your essay would be doing yourself a great injustice.
My time at Incanto was second to none. I have never learned so much in such a short time. And not just recipes and techniques but what it truly is to be a cook. We as cooks have a job, which is prepare food. Pretty obvious there. But what most seem to forget about is that we have a duty to honor the products we are using. Take nothing for granted. I have never seen a kitchen that respects food as much as Incanto. And with zero pretention may I add. When you have pulled mint from the ground essentially you have killed it just as much as when you knock a hog on the head. Now you owe it to that piece of mint and that hog that they were not killed in vain, and that none of it will go to waste. And Incanto was an amazing example of this philosophy.
I honestly had the time of my life and I can’t begin to thank Chef and the rest of the crew enough for the amazing opportunity to work and learn alongside them. I look forward to next year’s head to tail and my next trip to Incanto.