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Super Sad True Chef Story

The French brigade system and the ritual of staging has defined what it means to train as a fine dining chef for more than a century — and it broke me after a week

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For hundreds of years, French cuisine was known as the finest in the world. This was something Western civilization just agreed on, like the weight of a kilogram. “French superiority,” writes Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, “was serenely enjoyed and universally recognized.” But starting in the middle of the 20th century, French food came to be seen as chauvinistic, snobbish, and prohibitively expensive. More recently, it’s been seen as atavistic. Every year, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes out with fewer French restaurants in the top 20 than the year before; 2019 was the first year that one has ever reached No. 1. Every year, another three-star French chef makes headlines for telling Michelin to take its stars and shove them. Every year, a hallowed institution is put in its place. And every time a foreign team wins the Bocuse d’Or, the biennial international cooking competition named for (and by) the late Paul Bocuse, the narrative is deepened and honed: The culinary landscape has changed, and France is being left in the dust.

For a long time I believed this narrative, in part because nowhere was it more strongly felt than in France itself. “Why do the French eat so badly?” I was asked by the irascible winemaker Jean-Marie Guffens, once named by Robert Parker as one of the top three producers of white wine on earth. “The whole world has this idea that the French eat well. They used to eat well because they ate at home, Mama’s cooking. That no longer exists.” I heard a nearly identical argument from chef Frederic Cordier, who runs the deeply classical Le Passage in Lyon: “The young today, the kids 15 to 25, have no idea how to eat because they don’t learn at home. The knowledge of French cooking is disappearing.”

An illustration of a cook at a cutting board

Not that the French are taking this lying down. McDonald’s have been bulldozed. Quality-control syndicates in the mold of the Appellation d’Origine Protegée (which makes sure that, say, a wine from Jura tastes like a wine from Jura) are springing up like ragweed across the country. These include cartels like Les Toques Blanches, which lock restaurants into partnerships with approved purveyors, or local-product networks like Les Bistrots Beaujolais, which require that restaurants give priority to selling those vigilantly protected Beaujolais. It’s not uncommon to see as many as six different plaques on the wall outside a restaurant advertising these affiliations. In 2006, a collective of French academics and elite chefs, including Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse, and assisted by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, made a much-mocked bid to persuade UNESCO to grant French cuisine World Heritage status, like Angkor Wat or Chartres Cathedral. (They settled for having it named a piece of “Intangible Cultural Heritage,” a far lesser distinction.) In 2015, the French Foreign Ministry hosted the launch of La Liste, a privately owned competitor to the (British-run) World’s 50 Best. Sponsored mostly by French luxury brands and run by a former French ambassador, it has duly restored French chefs to their rightful place at the pinnacle.

The thing is, French food didn’t become synonymous with fine dining because it was inherently more delicious. It was in large part because the training system that created French cooks was far more rigorous, standardized, and effective than any other in the West. The real legacy of la gastronomie française around the world is not a collection of recipes or an abstract culinary ethos of respecting technique and terroir, but a highly militarized system of training chefs and managing kitchens. Even though kids may not learn cooking at their mother’s apron strings anymore, reports of the death of French cooking have been grossly exaggerated precisely because that training system hasn’t gone anywhere. It has simply begun — grudgingly, haltingly, and inexorably — to evolve.

I know this largely because I tried it myself: In the summer of 2017, as research for a novel, I went to France to train, or stage, for a short period of time in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The stage system’s genius, I found, was its simplicity. It forged chefs who could take the heat, and it broke those who couldn’t. To get through a stage (pronounced “stodge”), your desire to work in a kitchen had to be absolute because it was all you had. If you came out the other side, you were accepted.

Me? I broke after one week.

In the same way that Henry Ford didn’t invent the car but rather the assembly line, Auguste Escoffier didn’t invent French food; he invented the brigade de cuisine, a system in which each cook is assigned a specific station within a hierarchy, with the head chef at the top and the lowly stagiaire at the bottom. Over time, cooks could work their way up the ladder — from commis to chef de partie, like the saucier, to chef de cuisine — but it was, in essence, a culinary assembly line. Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, the ur-text of modern French cuisine, in 1903, the same year that the first Model A rolled off the line. It was the Escoffier machine, with its military discipline, that allowed France to export its gastronomy to the world. The structure of kitchens was permanently fixed, and the classics were not to be tinkered with — cooks were expected to produce dishes with perfect fidelity to tradition. In the same way that McDonald’s conquered America by guaranteeing consistent, non-toxic hamburgers on any interstate, anytime, France conquered the world by ensuring that wherever a traveler washed up, when he ordered tournedos de boeuf in a grand hotel, he knew what he was getting.

As a result, “classically trained” came to mean — and means still — French-trained. As in ballet, the language of kitchen technique remains French: julienne, brunoise, monter au beurre. Like ballet masters, chefs were forgiven — even revered — for tyrannical and abusive behavior. And as in ballet, running a restaurant requires an enormous amount of work and training to make it look effortless, since while we dine we do not want to think about the throbbing back of the prep cook who peeled a giant bag of Yukon Golds any more than we want to think about the bloody, mangled toes of the ballerina as she flits across the stage. TV shows like Chef’s Table, where cooking is made to look like a form of tai chi set to Vivaldi, only enhance this romantic image. The kitchen might as well be another dimension; the food it produces, otherworldly. And it is the French who made it that way.

Until recently, any American who aspired to work in the highest tiers of fine dining had one option: Go to France (or the closest French restaurant), indenture yourself to the most Michelin-star-spangled chef who would have you, and pluck parsley until your fingers ached. More often than not it was unpaid, and for a hundred years, it was how chefs were born.

There are two main kinds of stagiaire: the tourist, an established chef who takes up residence for a few days or weeks in a new kitchen to expand their skill set, and the grunt, a young novice working in a restaurant for the first time, who will stay for three to six months or even more. Their work varies depending on the restaurant, but it is almost always the most basic, menial sort. A stagiaire graduates from one task to the next after their superiors are confident they will not screw it up. Repeat these tasks for years, squid after squid, tomato after tomato, inching up the hierarchy until each technique has insinuated itself into your hands so completely that it would not let you fuck it up if you tried — and then, and only then, are you a chef. “The point of a stage is not to learn about cooking,” says chef Frederic Cordier. “It’s to learn about kitchens.” When you come out of culinary school, where you might be taught to perfectly brunoise a few onions, the stage is where the rubber finally meets the road: Now you have to do a few dozen. French training is about craft, precision, and repetition — chefs don’t get to make mistakes. “One piece of meat is easy,” says Younghoon Lee, a one-Michelin-starred chef in Lyon, “but 40 pieces of meat during service, each cooked perfectly, that’s very different.”

An illustration of a chef running away

There was a logic to this. Once these techniques had soaked into your very bones, the rigid standardization of French food meant you could work anywhere, at any level. The mother sauces were the mother sauces, and tête de veau was tête de veau wherever you went. You could come up through the hierarchy in one restaurant, learn the canon, and then move to the next restaurant and be reasonably sure that you could knock out the same dishes. And so young, ambitious cooks from all over the world came to stage in Paris and Lyon. They came knowing that they’d be worked to the bone, poorly paid, and lonely, but they also knew that when it was done, they could work anywhere in the world.

But lately, fewer are coming. Today aspiring chefs are far more likely to do their stage in Barcelona or Tokyo or Chicago or Arequipa, Peru, than they are to go to France. The life of a stagiaire in France is notoriously grueling: One American I spoke to, Justin Kent, spent a year at Arpège, Alain Passard’s three-star temple to vegetables in Paris, and said, “I’d get a break for about an hour between services and I’d call my mom and cry.” As a result of a century of poor working conditions, new laws in France have increased accountability but simultaneously make it harder than ever for foreigners to obtain a stage position — it’s now nearly impossible without the backing of a culinary school. And even then, many are abandoning foreign externships in favor of working at more groundbreaking restaurants in the U.S., like Atelier Crenn in San Francisco or Le Coucou in New York. “It’s very rare for Culinary Institute of America kids to extern abroad,” Kirk Kelewae, the former general manager of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, told me. “You don’t have to go abroad because we have this shit here.”

When I chose the kitchen I would work in, I set my sights a little lower. In the summer of 2017, I spent a week as a stagiaire at Auberge la Fenière, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in the South of France that the chef Reine Sammut opened in 1975. If any restaurant was going to embody the tension between tradition and innovation, it was La Fenière, which has held on to its Michelin star for 24 years. Its cuisine is deeply Provençal, focusing on the Luberon’s exquisite produce, much of it harvested from the restaurant’s own garden and cooked with olive oil, salt, pepper, and little else; it is the kind of restaurant that Chez Panisse once sought to emulate. La Fenière has also been ahead of its time: Sammut’s daughter, Nadia, a trained chemist and baker, has celiac disease, so the entire restaurant is structured to avoid gluten — even in the desserts and bread. It is a French restaurant that lists potential allergens without being snarky about it. Yet in terms of how the kitchen runs, it is firmly traditional. On my first morning, the only question anyone asked me was, “Do you understand the hierarchy of the kitchen?” I’d spent five years in fine-ish dining as a server and bartender, so I said that I did, and that seemed to be enough. It probably shouldn’t have been.

Over the course of that week, my solitary moment of joy came the night that Sammut, an owlish woman in round spectacles who wore white linen and Birkenstocks in the kitchen, handed me a huge tub wobbling with fresh squid and said, “Clean these.” She showed me how to do one, then walked away. I took up residence at a prep sink in the back of the kitchen, away from the main area. I’d never held a fresh, raw squid before. Cleaning one involved separating the head and tail, removing the guts, and inverting the tail to rinse it out. But the tail fin of a squid turns out to be larger than the hole you have to wedge it through, to say nothing of being infernally slippery. My first squid took five minutes. Actually, it was my fourth squid; the previous three burst, squirting ink everywhere. And so for four hours that night, I stood in a little alcove and worked those squid tails like slimy little Rubik’s cubes. My whole being was condensed into a single glittering purpose: reduce my per-squid time to 30 seconds. On my 158th squid, I did it — 29.54 seconds. It was also my last squid. All alone in my alcove, I danced.

By the end of the shift, I’d filled three medium-size hotel pans: one for the tails; one for the heads, the beaks slivered off with a paring knife; and one for the innards, soft lozenges as glossy as melted pearls. Gazing at them, knowing I’d mastered this one task, I finally glimpsed for an instant the pleasure, the satisfaction, and clarity of purpose that keep real chefs going. I loved those clean, soft squid as if they were my own opalescent children. Then they were taken from me. I never saw how they were cooked or plated. I never watched them being eaten, never knew whether all those hours wrist-deep in inky squid guts produced a moment’s fleeting pleasure for someone.

For 14 hours a day, with a legally mandated afternoon break, I hulled kilos of beans; blanched, peeled, and concasséed crate upon crate of gorgeous tomatoes; disemboweled tubloads of fresh shrimp; reached into the mouths of sea bass with serrated spines to rip out their guts; emptied and scrubbed down (and nearly froze inside) the walk-in freezer; lugged giant coolers full of octopus off the back of a truck; plucked the leaves from endless bushels of cilantro; peeled purple potatoes until my hands were bruise-colored; developed an unhealthy fondness for the meat slicer; painstakingly yanked the tiny pinbones from 50 sea bream fillets; swabbed down the kitchen dozens of times; and in one moment of giddy abandon, got to blowtorch a plate of sardines.

Despite its anointment by Michelin, La Fenière felt somewhat dysfunctional. It ran almost entirely on the seasonal work of kids under 20 who were attending a nearby hospitality and culinary school, and with seven kitchen workers total, it was also understaffed — even with free labor like mine, not that it amounted to much — which meant that mise en place was never quite done by the time service began and we would continually have to sprint back to the walk-in, even as food sizzled unattended in a hot pan. And Sammut, like many chefs, had a temper: One hot night, deep into service, two rack of lambs hit the pass so underdone that she noticed from 8 feet away. She slapped her paring knife down on the cutting board and barreled toward Patrice, the sous-chef, and Lucas, the commis, her bowl-cut bangs clinging damply to her forehead in the heat of the kitchen. “Medium-rare means medium-rare!” she snapped. She jabbed the red, cool interior of the lamb with an accusing finger. “This is bleu, it’s almost raw. It’s not even cooked! Get it right!” She stormed back to her station. “If you can’t do this, I’ll take the hot stations and you two can come take the cold, I don’t give a shit.”

By that point I understood that Sammut wasn’t as much outraged by their negligence as she was by the fact that she was obliged to entrust any of her food to them at all. If she could have done it solo, she would have. She insisted she was planning to retire and turn the restaurant over to Nadia, but everyone who had been there longer than a year told me she’d been “planning” to do that for years. (It did eventually happen: Nadia has taken over the main restaurant, and Reine now runs the more laid-back bistro on the property.)

After a week (and about 70 hours) I knew where everything was located, how to concassé a huge bowl of tomatoes on my own, how to make a fan of arugula leaves on the sardine appetizer — and I even figured out which village bar I liked to repair to for an Aperol spritz during our afternoon breaks. And I was so, so bored. The second week, I thought, surely, they’d start teaching me things. Instead, I found myself once again back where I’d begun five days earlier: separating cilantro leaves from their stems for three hours. When that was done, there was another great pallet of white beans to hull. And then a tub of wet roasted peppers needed their skins removed. And then we had to clean the entire kitchen again. I was just the stagiaire, the cannon fodder — not even fit to wash the dishes, because the dishwasher’s role was too essential.

What I did learn is that there is no deep spiritual clarity that comes from peeling the skin from 50 roasted peppers, and that success in the French kitchen depends on cultivating numbness, as the chef Kwame Onwuachi found during his time at Per Se, described in his recent memoir. All week at La Fenière, I often watched Lucas, who was only 17 but had been at La Fenière for two years (his title was commis, which would normally make him a prep cook like me, but his duties were much closer to those of a sous-chef), try to handle hot food with his bare hands — and every single time he recoiled in pain, hissing through his teeth. Standing next to him at the hot station was Patrice, the dyspeptic 40-something sous-chef, who could peel away the skin from a sizzling turbot with his bare hands, fillet it, and have it plated and sauced in seconds. Awed, I asked Patrice whether he couldn’t feel the heat, or whether he simply didn’t mind it. He shrugged: “I don’t feel it.”

An illustration of a chef plating a dish with bandages on her hands

This, it seemed to me, was the whole point of the French training system: to deaden the parts of yourself that needed deadening, to prepare you for the lifelong grind of moving up the ranks. But all I could do was feel — the penetrating aches in my back and knees and neck, the stiffness in my increasingly clawlike fingers, the crushing boredom. As I stood there plucking cilantro leaves for the second week, I began fantasizing about quitting, rationalizing my weakness by telling myself that I’d gotten what I needed for my novel. I accepted the truth with perfect serenity: The purpose of this system was to weed out people who couldn’t absorb punishment. And I couldn’t.

That afternoon, I went to the bar for my afternoon spritz, and I got to talking to the server, Emilie. I admitted that I was dreading the thought of another week at La Fenière. “Well,” she said, “my boyfriend is the chef de cuisine at a new restaurant a few miles up the road. Maybe you could go work with him instead?”

It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and I was her only customer, so she called her boyfriend. It turned out that he’d worked at La Fenière before — he had been Patrice before Patrice. If I wanted to see what a more modern French kitchen looked like, he said, he’d be glad to invite me into his.

Le Champ des Lunes lay amid a sprawling vineyard outside the village of Lauris, about 15 minutes up the road from La Fenière. The restaurant was just two years old at the time, brand-new by the standards of the Luberon, where people who have lived in the area for a quarter of a century are still referred to as “the transplants.” It was attached to a small luxury hotel called Domaine la Fontenille, and with its tasting menu, smooth brushed-concrete decor, and kitchen garden, it was clearly gunning for a Michelin star.

It’s hard to talk about the obsession with consistency in French kitchens without mentioning the Michelin Guide, whose power remains absolute in France. A New York Times critic can shutter a restaurant; a Michelin inspector can ruin an entire village. While for the past 10 years Michelin has sought to stay relevant abroad by slowly, grumpily expanding the constellation — a crab omelet stall in Bangkok, a street-food hawker in Singapore — its assessment of French restaurants has pointedly refused to evolve. To earn even one star, a restaurant’s decor must present a specific aesthetic (tasteful, muted, upholstered, with a monthly flower budget ideally touching four figures); its service must maintain a specific formality (Monsieur must never refill his own water glass); and its price must be imposing (50 euros per person before wine, minimum). There have been attempts to subvert Michelin’s power — the creation of the Gault-Millau guides in the ’70s and more recently the emergence of Le Guide Fooding, a French illustrated guide (and now app) that is sort of what Yelp would be like if Yelp had any kind of quality control for reviews. But as far as haute cuisine goes, there’s no real competition: In France, when you say that a restaurant is étoilé — starred — you don’t need to say where the étoile comes from; everyone knows.

There is periodic backlash to the tyranny of Michelin: Every so often a French chef makes headlines for “handing back” his or her stars. Most seismically, in 2003, a media tempest and deep scrutiny of Michelin’s methods were prompted by the death of the chef Bernard Loiseau, who shot himself when he became afraid that his restaurant was about to lose its third star. But as the maitre d’ at La Fenière told me, “After Loiseau, nothing changed.” Fundamentally, Michelin cares about Michelin — about sustaining its own power by being the exclusive arbiter of “perfection.” And because Michelin values perfection more than innovation, fine dining chefs in France are forced to aim for perfection and are licensed to obtain it by any means necessary. Abuse, harassment, even violence? Just chefs doing what they have to do, the way it was done to them.

When I showed up at Le Champ des Lunes to meet Emilie’s boyfriend, he turned out to be a very tall, soft-spoken man named Albert Riera. When I told him that I was trying to learn about why young cooks aren’t coming to France to stage like they used to, he laughed. Forget about foreign cooks coming to learn, he said. These days, fewer young French people are willing to buy into this system. “There are two paths now,” Albert said. “The first is the old way: You go work for a big shot in a place where everyone is stabbing everyone else in the back to get ahead. I’ve worked there. Not for me. Or two, you can go work in a smaller place, where people actually try to enjoy the act of making food night after night. Because if you’re not enjoying this job, what’s the point?”

I never had the chance to enjoy the job: I couldn’t work at Le Champ des Lunes. The manager asked for a copy of my work papers, but I had no such papers. Reine Sammut, I discovered, had allowed me to put on an apron only because I was referred by a close mutual friend (I’d spent much of my childhood in this area of Provence). While American kitchen labor is often loosely regulated, the workforce in French kitchens is scrupulously supervised. Labor inspectors circulate constantly to check up on who’s working and under what contract. If you’re under 27, you technically need documents from a culinary school (naturally, some chefs will overlook this, but it’s rare), and even then, it’s hard for Americans or other foreigners to come just for a summer because most of the available spots get taken by French kids whose apprenticeships last the whole school year. Moreover, if you aren’t fluent in French, a chef who does not speak English is highly unlikely to take you on. If you’re over 27, you are welcome to pay for the privilege — if you have around 500 euros ($557.65) per week to burn.

An illustration of a chef with a dutch oven

I spent my time at Le Champ des Lunes huddled between the induction range and the cold station, watching the service and comparing it to La Fenière. Here were two restaurants — alike in dignity, as well as in price, produce, location, clientele, and service — and going from one to the other felt like going through a wormhole. The kitchen felt worlds away. For one thing, the food at Le Champ des Lunes was more adventurous than at La Fenière, or almost anywhere else I ate in Provence, where the sheer perfection of the produce means there is little need to look outside one’s valley for ingredients. It featured things like pieds de cheval (oysters nearly the size of Frisbees). The system was better, too: Halfway through the evening, I realized that not one cook had to run back to the walk-in fridge, as had happened constantly at La Fenière. Still, the true difference was in how it felt. As the orders picked up, so did the noise — the sizzle from the flattop, the whoosh-clang from the dishwashing station — and the temperature, but no one was sweating or swearing.

Albert, Emilie’s boyfriend, stood out most of all — he exuded a calm that felt worlds away from the mania that could engulf La Fenière during service. He seemed to have the power to slow time around himself. Often, he hummed. He didn’t wear a chef’s jacket, but a black linen shirt with a band collar. His movements were elegant, long-limbed, even tender. Holding his forceps almost like a violin player holds his bow, he kept the proteins sizzling on his flattop in perfect rectilinear order. I’d never seen such tranquility in a chef. “You see?” he said as service wound down. “No one throws pots here.”

Once, Florian, the young, skittish poissonnier, brought up a piece of John Dory, a delicate whitefish, to be plated. Jérôme Faure, the head chef, glanced at it and said mildly, C’est cru.” (“It’s raw.”) And that was it. The solution to an undercooked fish wasn’t shouting or threatening; it was to cook it a little more. Florian barehanded it, put it back in the same pan, gave it a minute, then lanced the white flesh with a skewer and held it to his upper lip. Perfectly cooked. After La Fenière — and everywhere else I’ve worked — this was breathtaking to witness. Yet to Albert, this was just how kitchens were supposed to be. Albert and Jérôme believed something basic but quietly revolutionary: Happy cooks mean happy customers. The Michelin inspectors seem inclined to agree — in 2017, Le Champ des Lunes was granted its first étoile, which it has retained.

For a hundred years the traditional French approach of break-you-or-make-you was a simple, blunt solution. But like most simple, blunt solutions, it was a lousy one. What it really meant was that every elite kitchen was full of young cooks fighting like a school of hungry carp, clambering over one another and scrabbling for a breadcrumb dropped from the hand of Chef. Worse, the system also systematically weeded out women and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold, meaning that for decades one couldn’t find a high-profile chef in France who wasn’t a straight white male (of the 26 restaurants in France with three Michelin stars, only one has a female chef, Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic). When chefs screamed or threw crockery, it was dismissed — or even celebrated — as “passion,” and casual nastiness and degradation were thought to be “part of the job.” Abusers weren’t just protected; they were given TV shows.

This system made French cuisine a bastion of quality control and consistency, but it left little space for innovation or experimentation, the two things that the culinary world now prizes above all else. Young chefs in France today are catching up, but the old ways aren’t being forgotten, either. They’re being repurposed. Much has been written about the French bistronomie movement, in which extravagantly well-trained chefs take over small, cozy cafes and produce refined, inexpensive food in a cheery, informal atmosphere. But you can’t talk about the virtuous simplicity of bistronomie without noting that the reason it works at all is because the chefs who are opening these places are products of the French training system. Like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, they believe in tradition — they’ve grown up steeped in it — and they also know when to heave that tradition out the window. Sometimes when you love something, you have to subvert it in order to save it.

While the older guard sees doom in the distance, the young, classically trained chefs I spoke to see the end of French supremacy not as an existential threat but as a liberation. As one told me, “We are at a moment of unleashing.” Forced to innovate, these cooks are reimagining what French food can be. Many, like Albert Riera, are doing the heretofore unthinkable and going abroad — even to America — to do stages of their own, like at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. As Justin Kent, who staged at L’Arpège and now runs a cafe called ZIA in Paris, told me, “France stopped being the seat of French gastronomy, so the young French cooks started going elsewhere — to Italy, to Peru — and then came back, and now we have this whole new cuisine that’s taking off.”

In the same way that winemakers across France are sidestepping their local Appellation d’Origine Protegée councils entirely and making excellent vins de pays, often natural or biodynamic, French chefs are creating restaurants both at home and abroad that eschew the plush leather upholstery and tome-thick wine list that Michelin commands in favor of small, often internationally inflected cafes with casual furnishings, spare menus, sane prices, and personal touches. If I were a young person who wanted to be a cook — though if I learned anything from my time at La Fenière, it was that I never, ever want to be a cook and also that I am not young — these are the places I would be begging to train in.

Before I went to France, I’d spent two weeks in an autopsy lab at the University of Pittsburgh, reaching into freshly dead bodies, weighing their organs, and seeing things that I will never unsee. I did this for the same reason I went to La Fenière and for the same reason anyone does anything as deranged as autopsy tourism: I was researching a novel. If you asked me to choose between the careers, dissecting cadavers or being a chef, I wouldn’t even have to think about it — I’d take the dead bodies every time. Dead bodies have stories to tell (and autopsies are great; everyone should get one). Working in a kitchen involves repetitive manual labor with no margin of error, conducted on your feet in a blast furnace for 14 hours a day; it was my hell in every noun and adjective.

Still, I’m glad I did it, if for no other reason than now, when I’m really floored by a meal — or say, just by a truly silky piece of fish — I know not to send my compliments to the chef. Instead, I tell the server to thank the person in the back of the kitchen who spent hours this morning extracting every last grippy little pinbone from that fillet; who plucked each individual leaf of parsley from its stem; who hour after hour, night after night, stood there, feet planted, back aching, grinding fish carcasses into stock and scouring potatoes, waiting for a shot at something more.

Correction: This piece originally stated that no French restaurant had been named No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best list. Mirazur, in southern France, was named the best restaurant in the world earlier this year; the piece has been updated to reflect that. This piece was also updated to clarify the relationship of La Liste to the French Foreign Ministry. Eater regrets the errors.

Samuel Ashworth is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Magazine, and his fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Hazlitt, NYLON, Barrelhouse, Catapult, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Rumpus. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy.
Janet Sung is a Korean-American illustrator born and raised in New York.
Fact-checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein

Support and funding for this piece were provided by the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center at George Mason University.


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