DonRocks

A Chat with Rachael Harriman

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I'm honored to welcome our next guest, Rachael Harriman, Sous Chef of CityZen.

Rachael was born in Fairfax, but grew up in Rochester, NY. She originally studied nursing in college, but decided that wasn't for her, so she signed up for the Walt Disney World College Program. Placed in a kitchen, she loved it, and when she went back to Rochester she began taking culinary classes at the community college to make sure cooking was the profession for her.

In 1998, she enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute. "I had a lot to learn to catch up to the people who started working in kitchens when they were 15," she says.

After graduation, she spent time at Everest in Chicago where she worked pastry, garde manger, and entremetier. However, she did her research and decided that The French Laundry was the best in the country at the time. She left for Yountville where she worked as a commis for a year, then left to go to Paris for two years, where she worked at Helene Darroze (2 Michelin stars) and Maison Blanche, which is owned by Jacques and Laurent Pourcel.

Before Rachael left for Paris, she had heard about a new restaurant opening in New York City to be called Per Se. She told Thomas Keller she really wanted to be a part of the opening, and he said he'd call her when he needed her to come back, which he did after two years. She went back to The French Laundry and became the canape chef de partie, and then a year later went to New York and opened Per Se. During her ten months there, she worked canape, entremetier, and as a fish butcher.

After the opening, she returned to The French Laundry for a third time, where she stayed two more years, working both fish and meat. In 2006, Eric Ziebold called her, looking for a sous chef. She came to CityZen where she worked side-by-side with Ron Tanaka, and after Ron left to open Cork, Rachael has been the only sous chef at CityZen.

Rachael wrote me and said she left out a lot of "little stuff," like when she worked as a hostess at Bouchon, and the nights she worked a Taylor's Refresher in St. Helena ("the best burger in the valley, no matter what Eric says!")

Welcome, Rachael! And thank you in advance for taking time out of your busy schedule to be here with us.

Rachael will be here beginning on Monday, and I'll be asking her a series of questions, trying to get to the bottom of what makes her tick - please feel free to chime in if you'd like!

Cheers,

Rocks.

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Rachael,

First of all, THANK YOU for being here! It's truly an honor to have you here with us, and I'm really looking forward to everyone getting to "know" you this week.

And now, a question. Walt Disney World? What is THAT all about?

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Welcome Rachael! With all of the time you spent in Thomas Keller's kitchens, it's obvious that he had confidence in you. What was it like at the beginning, when you first went to work for him? What are some of the most important things that you learned, in order to be able to survive and thrive in that milieu?

My college freshman daughter, whose primary relationship to the kitchen has been: "Mom, would you fix something for me to eat?" has developed an interest in cooking, now that she is away from home. (She called today, asking if I would find and email a recipe for gnocchi to her!) Needless to say, I am delighted--I was hoping it would happen eventually, but wasn't expecting it quite this soon.

My second question to you is -- when you were growing up, what were your important influences as regards your interest in and relationship with food and cooking?

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Rachael,

First of all, THANK YOU for being here! It's truly an honor to have you here with us, and I'm really looking forward to everyone getting to "know" you this week.

And now, a question. Walt Disney World? What is THAT all about?

Hello everyone!

Thank you to everyone (especially Don) for having me. :lol:

I never knew "what I wanted to be when I grew up" like some people did when they were in high school. When I decided not to finish nursing, I took a ton of beginning classes, like geology, anthropology, psychology....nothing really stuck. I had a lot of friends that did the Disney college program. From anyone who hasn't heard of it, it's for students to spend 6 months at any of the Disney theme parks, you all live in an apartment complex called Vista Way (this is starting to sound like an episode of Real World, and sometimes it felt like it!)

I was told that when you apply if you put food and beverage as your top choice for placement, then you were a shoe-in. That's exactly what I did.

First, I worked at the Sunshine Season Food Fair in the Land pavilion at Epcot. I was a cashier, at what was basically a food court. I hated it, I asked if I could transfer and they had an opening in the kitchen. I thought I would try it out. Now, I was never into cooking. I remember when I told my dad I wanted to go to culinary school, he looked at me like I was crazy. He said the only thing he ever saw me cook was hot dogs and Raman noodles. For some reason I really took to working in a kitchen - a professional kitchen - I struggle at home.

Disney wasn't inspiring at all. It was just a starting point. Inspiration came later...

Rachael

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It appears that women in the kitchen often get shunted towards -- or chose to move into -- patisserie. With some obvious and talented exceptions, that seems to be the case here in DC. Did you feel any pressure in Orlando or Yountville to stay out of the heat, as it were, and stick to the cooler part of the kitchen?

On a similar note, a friend of mine has had the good fortune to dine at Helene Darroze and considers it one of the finest meals of his life. If I ever get back to Paris, I am obligated to eat there even before the jet lag clears up. On the other hand, there seems to be a klatch of critics who consider her second star something of an affirmative action gift. What do you think? Is there a double standard? Do women who want to get out of the pastry cul-du-sac continue to face testosterone-based prejudice here and in France?

And, finally, did you have anything to do with the Rockfish Friday night? It was extraordinary.

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On a similar note, you've worked for some extraordinary talent. Do you think your experiences as a woman in these kitchen has differed from those of your male colleagues? Do you see a difference in working for a female executive chef as opposed to a male executive chef? Or do you think any differences are more a result of personality than gender?

Thank you for coming to talk to us!

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Rachael. While everyone else asks insightful and interesting questions based on an in-depth read into Don's review of your background... allow me to get the boring "chef interview" inquiries out there...

Favorite food to cook?

If you could plant a food in the ground and have it grow (like a hotdog tree!), what would that food be?

Favorite food to feed to others?

If you were a food, what would you be, and why?

I had my first oil fire yesterday. Any kitchen horror stories to share?

I'm really tired from hosting my annual Christmas party today. Do you want to come over this week and cook?

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Welcome Rachael! With all of the time you spent in Thomas Keller's kitchens, it's obvious that he had confidence in you. What was it like at the beginning, when you first went to work for him? What are some of the most important things that you learned, in order to be able to survive and thrive in that milieu?

My college freshman daughter, whose primary relationship to the kitchen has been: "Mom, would you fix something for me to eat?" has developed an interest in cooking, now that she is away from home. (She called today, asking if I would find and email a recipe for gnocchi to her!) Needless to say, I am delighted--I was hoping it would happen eventually, but wasn't expecting it quite this soon.

My second question to you is -- when you were growing up, what were your important influences as regards your interest in and relationship with food and cooking?

Hi Zora, and thank you for your questions.

Well, my first day at The French Laundry, as you can imagine, was nerve wrecking. It was 9 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I arrived at 5:30 in the morning; this is the time the commis and butchers start. One of the commis was out sick, so I had to fill that spot, luckily a sous chef, Lisa, was working with me, and training me. I tried to make everything perfect, though nothing was. I remember making potato diamonds. When I finished, I showed Lisa my work. She looked at it, shook her head, and then threw it in the trash. I tried again. A couple months later, Lisa told me she was surprised I lasted as long as I did. She said she thought for sure I wouldn’t make it.

Learn fast. That’s one important thing I learned in the beginning. Next, I learned that in this business, you really need to want to learn. So many people go into restaurants, like The French Laundry, and act like know it alls. Confidence is good to have, and very important, but to be over confident is sudden death.

Questions are always important. I asked a lot, I still do. You just have to know which ones to ask and when. For example, Thomas once told me that I asked too many questions. Not meaning that it was a bad thing, but imagine someone would stop you from what you were doing, 3 or 4 times a day, to ask a question. With all the work you would have I am sure you would find that annoying. I learned to consolidate, and ask 1 question in a way that would answer 2 questions that I would have. I still try to do that with Eric. If I have a few questions I try to hit him as soon as he gets to work before he starts his day. That way when I can’t find him, because he is in meetings or on the phone, or writing a menu, I don’t have to bother him.

For your second question, I did not have a lot of influence growing up. My parents were very young when they got married, and I was born a year later. My mom worked, my dad worked as well as went to college, though my parents say that when I was a kid, I LOVED to eat. They have embarrassing stories of me eating too fast. The only thing I can think of was when I was young - my grandparents had a small garden in their back yard. In the summertime, any vegetables we had for dinner always depended on what was ready. They had a blueberry and blackberry bush. I would get excited when I was told it was ok to pick some berries. I would eat more then I brought in. I guess I always had some sort of relationship with food, cooking was another story.

Rachael

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It appears that women in the kitchen often get shunted towards -- or chose to move into -- patisserie. With some obvious and talented exceptions, that seems to be the case here in DC. Did you feel any pressure in Orlando or Yountville to stay out of the heat, as it were, and stick to the cooler part of the kitchen?

On a similar note, a friend of mine has had the good fortune to dine at Helene Darroze and considers it one of the finest meals of his life. If I ever get back to Paris, I am obligated to eat there even before the jet lag clears up. On the other hand, there seems to be a klatch of critics who consider her second star something of an affirmative action gift. What do you think? Is there a double standard? Do women who want to get out of the pastry cul-du-sac continue to face testosterone-based prejudice here and in France?

And, finally, did you have anything to do with the Rockfish Friday night? It was extraordinary.

Waitman,

I agree, there are more females in the pastry department rather than savory. I never felt any sort of pressure to get “out of the heat” though. I do, however, wish I spent more time learning pastries. Not that I ever want to be a pastry chef, but I think it is important, as a chef, to learn all aspects of the kitchen. There are many times where pastry and savory overlap. For example, on the CityZen menu we have a “clam chowder” dish. It’s a parsnip crepe soufflé, with a tarragon veloute, clams, bacon, potatoes, etc. A crepe and soufflé are most commonly found as a desert, but with the understanding, you can apply it as anything.

Going to France was something I didn’t mentally prepare for. I never studied French. You can get by ordering a meal or trying to take a bus, but in a busy kitchen, people screaming orders, it’s crazy. It’s a small kitchen, 1 sous chef, 1 pastry chef, 6 cooks, and 2 pastry cooks. In the first week I learned my numbers between 50 and 80. Why?? Because, when I asked how many covers there were for that night, it was always somewhere between those two numbers. Cooking is cooking though. The cooking was the easiest part.

Helene is very talented. I did hear about the rumor that she got her second star because of her father. He had a Relais & Châteaux in the south of France for something like 30 years. When he died, he left it to her. She sold it, went to Paris, and opened her own place. People say that the relationship between her father, Michelin and Relais & Châteaux, is why she is succeeding. I ate there before I started, she deserves every star.

I think now, diners treat women the same as men. If you go to a restaurant, have dinner, are very happy, and the chef is a woman you would talk just as highly about it as you would if the chef was a man. (At least I hope so!!!) Actually, when I first started at CityZen, the male to female ratio was equal. Plus, there were more women on the hot line than in pastry. I think it all has to do with what the woman wants for her career. Some may be happy in a small comfort type of place; others may prefer a large, corporation. What ever makes you happy and successful!

Rachael

PS. I can't take any credit on the rockfish dish, that's all Eric

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On a similar note, you've worked for some extraordinary talent. Do you think your experiences as a woman in these kitchen has differed from those of your male colleagues? Do you see a difference in working for a female executive chef as opposed to a male executive chef? Or do you think any differences are more a result of personality than gender?

Thank you for coming to talk to us!

Thank you for your questions qwertyy,

First, I never felt that my experiences differed from the men in the kitchen. I saw men pass by me, however I also saw myself excel past some men. If women have trouble getting respect in the kitchen, they most likely need to be more aggressive, confident. There isn't much time for a timid personality. I can see how for some women " It just isn't worth it", but I truly believe you get out of things what you put in them. When you produce a product that is exactly what was asked from you, what can they say, really.

It is a bit different working for a female chef. It is hard to explain what is so different, but there is something. I have only worked under 1 female, so I am not an expert. I really think that the personality of the person has everything to do with it. No matter what industry you are in. Some people are easy to get along with, some are not, male or female.

Rachael

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Rachel,

Thanks for your interesting answers so far. I suspect many people here (including me) have no idea what a "typical day" is for a Sous Chef at CityZen. Is there such a thing? And if so, how would you describe it? Let me take a guess:

You arrive at 5:30 PM (with the prep cooks having everything ready to go), walk over to your station, help cook during dinner service, and then head over to Bistrot du Coin at 10 PM. Or is there more to it than that?

Also, what do you think are your biggest strengths and weaknesses as a chef?

Cheers!

Rocks.

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Thanks for your interesting answers so far. I suspect many people here (including me) have no idea what a "typical day" is for a Sous Chef at CityZen. Is there such a thing? And if so, how would you describe it? Let me take a guess:
And how would you compare to this to a non-fine dining restaurant? I imagine there is some difference...

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Not to keep coming back to the issue of gender....but...

Do you feel like you bring a different sensibility to the kitchen than your male counterparts? Is your approach to cooking or creating dishes different in any way or are there differences in technique, etc? As you replied above, personality is a key component (as I assume skill and training are also), so it would seem that any differences would be driven by those things more than gender.

When you produce a product that is exactly what was asked from you, what can they say, really.
One would hope, not much, other than 'good work' :P - but do (or did) you have to work harder to get the same respect?

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Do you ever wish you could do more of the Adria chemistry-set thing? Or, conversely, more of a Chez Panisse low-impact cooking approach? The French Laundry and CityZen both seem to take a different road, almost classic, than the styles that get the most press (if not the most customers) today.

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Rachael. While everyone else asks insightful and interesting questions based on an in-depth read into Don's review of your background... allow me to get the boring "chef interview" inquiries out there...

Favorite food to cook?

If you could plant a food in the ground and have it grow (like a hotdog tree!), what would that food be?

Favorite food to feed to others?

If you were a food, what would you be, and why?

I had my first oil fire yesterday. Any kitchen horror stories to share?

I'm really tired from hosting my annual Christmas party today. Do you want to come over this week and cook?

Hi Dan, you actually have the most difficult questions so far. It’s hard to pick favorite foods, I have so many.

I guess my favorite food to cook for myself would be homemade pizza, not frozen.

I would have a popcorn tree, always warm, buttery, and salty.

My favorite thing to make for friends would either be pasta, or gnocchi.

I am going to have to get back to you about what food I would be; I have no idea on that one.

I have one really HUGE kitchen horror story. Just after we finished a week of test dinners at Per Se, we were finally open for our first service. Lunch went well. However, while I was getting ready for dinner, and I was no where near ready, the kitchen filled up with smoke. Now, earlier in the week the front of the house was having trouble with the fireplace in the dining room, and the room would fill with smoke. A few of us thought the smoke in the kitchen was another fireplace disaster.

At one point I did find it strange that there were only 2 people in the kitchen, another line cook and I. When Thomas Keller came in screaming followed by firemen, I high-tailed it out of the kitchen, and out of the building.

What had happened was a small electrical fire began in the wall, but because the support beams were wood, it turned into a very big fire! When the firemen came in to put out the fire, they kept burning themselves on the bonnet stove. They had asked to turn it off, and it was, but it had been on since 5:30 that morning and it holds a lot of heat. So the firemen decided to hose down the stove to cool it down. A sight I wish I saw.

And to answer your last question, you'll have to fight that out with Eric! :P

Rachael

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Dan you left out the infamous "The Last Meal" question!

Rachel, what is your final meal?

Hi Tweaked,

This is an easy question

A clam bake.

No doubt about it.

My family is from Cape Cod, Ma. Even though my parents don't live there any more, a summer hasn't gone by where I haven’t gone for a visit. Clam bakes are a meal we have for every big occasion, even after my high school graduation. My grandmother is from Portugal so we always have to have linguisa or chourico with all the other fixings.

Rachael

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Two questions:

1) What foods do you have extreme aversions to?

2) Is there a food that you're really curious about but have never tried? (i.e. natto beans, durian fruit, etc.)

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Hi Rachel,

My favorite cooking utensil is a stainless steel grater. It's perfect for producing french fry style ginger root that is used in a regularly made dish and it's always missed when cooking in someone else's kitchen. Definitely extra work to get the right consistency.

What is your favorite cooking utensil?

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Hi Rachel,

My favorite cooking utensil is a stainless steel grater. It's perfect for producing french fry style ginger root that is used in a regularly made dish and it's always missed when cooking in someone else's kitchen. Definitely extra work to get the right consistency.

What is your favorite cooking utensil?

[FWIW, MY favorite cooking utensil is a telephone.]

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Hi Rachael :P

So we were talking the other day about missing Paris - but here's a question I didn't ask you: If you could put together a perfect day (or few days) in Paris, what would it include? (I'm assuming this is food-related enough, since I am sure at least part of your answer will have to do with markets, food shops, or restaurants!)

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Hi Rachel,

Where on Cape Cod are you from? I grew up spending half my time in North Eastham. Any favorite restaurants on the Cape?

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Rachel,

Thanks for your interesting answers so far. I suspect many people here (including me) have no idea what a "typical day" is for a Sous Chef at CityZen. Is there such a thing? And if so, how would you describe it? Let me take a guess:

You arrive at 5:30 PM (with the prep cooks having everything ready to go), walk over to your station, help cook during dinner service, and then head over to Bistrot du Coin at 10 PM. Or is there more to it than that?

Also, what do you think are your biggest strengths and weaknesses as a chef?

Cheers!

Rocks.

Hi Don,

A typical day starts at 9 am (Currently I am on the morning shift. Eric has me switch every so often - sometimes I'm in the morning, and sometimes I work side-by-side with him during service). In the morning we have a prep cook, meat butcher, pastry cook, and Amanda, the pastry chef all working. We start by setting up the kitchen, turning on the ovens, putting down the floor mats, and getting our stations together. Produce usually arrives just after we have finished, so we have to put that away. 9 times out of 10 they forgot to send us something, or what they sent us was wrong, so I have to call them to get it right. Also if there are any engineering issues, such as lights out or ovens not working, then I have to call them to come and fix it. Now to prep…I write myself a list of things I’ll need to do the night before, and then depending on the night’s service, Eric will add on to it. I’ll start with any sauces and risotto that is needed. I do a lot of the fish butchering, with Sara, our prep cook. So for this menu, I have tuna and perch to portion, clams and scallops to clean, lobsters to cook, clean and portion and lobster stock.

By this time the night crew has started to arrive. Once I finish my prep work, I start any projects that Eric has lined up. It could be anything from a menu idea he has that he wants tested, or pickling and jarring summer vegetable to use during the winter months. We have our staff meal at 5, after I fill out requisitions for products we may need from that hotel for the next day. Then I start ordering. I take care of the fish, cheese, any dry goods, and produce. By the time I finish, Eric has already started service, I tie up any loose ends, and then say goodnight.

I think my strengths would be organizing my day. It may take writing things down, working faster, or not talking very much on the busy days, but I get it done. Also, I would have to say, working service. I like the pressure on a busy night. I am comfortable enough on the line that I know if something is wrong I can fix it, and if I can’t, I know I can come up with something to replace it. I have seen a big difference in the way I expedite now from when I first started at CityZen.

As for my weaknesses, I know there is still a lot for me to learn. Talking to purveyors and getting the product I ask for the first time, when there is an issue with the food runners working through it with them, managing staff etc. I know I am very far from being the “perfect” chef. For me, the job is only fun when it is mentally stimulating as well as gratifying.

Rachael

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