It’s 4 p.m. on a typical afternoon at Oliveto, and chefs and interns are hurriedly chopping vegetables, stirring pots, de-boning fish and preparing for that night’s dinner service, which starts in 90 minutes.
Service people are rushing through the kitchen, carrying glassware or trays of olives. Dishwashers are trying to return saucepans to overhead hooks, without dropping one on someone’s head.
It’s a frenetic dance that occurs daily at the Oakland restaurant, and to add to the frenzy, it comes with a soundtrack. Many afternoons, Chef Paul Canales blasts acid jazz from the boom box. Nothing like some mind-bending music to sharpen your focus.
For the last two months, I’ve been part of this dinner troupe, as a stagehand — a chef apprentice. Starting in April, I took a leave from my job as an editorial writer and columnist for The Sacramento Bee to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Rockridge.
It’s been a humbling transition. Until April, I worked in a cushy office and shadowed the power players in California’s capitol. Now I’m on my feet all day in a hot, windowless kitchen, taking orders from young sous chefs.
Yet in the realm of unpaid sabbaticals, this one can’t be beat. Anyone with an interest in food and cooking needs to work in a restaurant, particularly one like Oliveto. Concepts that once seemed so exotic and unattainable — curing salami, turning out trays of handmade ravioli — now seem within my grasp.
In recent weeks, I’ve filleted fresh mackerel, prepared soft shell crabs, cut up and cured pork belly for pancetta and braised porcini mushrooms for cannelloni, which I later rolled by hand.
I’ve also improved my knife skills. Dicing dozens of onions and carrots, day after day, helps in that regard.
That said, my initial performance was far from stellar. In one of his first assignments — a test, perhaps? — Chef Canales asked me to “turn” a potato. This involved peeling a small spud with a sharp paring knife, turning the potato with my left hand.
Within a few minutes, I had managed to insert the knife tip into my left thumb. Blood was running out. As I moved to the sink to wash and bandage the wound, I noticed a faded photocopy on the wall that offered instructions on dealing with an amputated finger.
“Reattachment is always possible,” the sheet said. “Stop the bleeding and place the lonely piece in a wet towel…”
Yes, it was one of those “What am I doing here?” moments. But I hung in there. Before starting my apprenticeship, I had read Bill Buford’s book “Heat,” and recalled that Buford had stabbed himself within days of starting at one of Mario Batali’s restaurants.
Oliveto, founded more than 20 years ago, has a long history of training interns, even those who are initially inept. Like other high-end kitchens, the restaurant’s menu is labor intensive, especially in the spring and summer months, when farmers and suppliers deliver boxes of artichokes, beans and other produce to the kitchen.
Interns provide this labor for free. In exchange, they pick up tips, training and contacts they’ll never get at culinary school. And if they work hard and show promise, they may get a shot at a paying job in the kitchen, should one open up.
People ask me: Is this just a temporary gig? Are you contemplating a career change?
I don’t know. My presumption is that I will return to my newspaper job when my six-month stint is over. But I have to admit, the life of a chef is alluring, even with the absurdly low pay. “It gets under your skin,” says Canales, who started interning at Oliveto 15 years ago after leaving a corporate telecom job.
Since April, I’ve been keeping a personal blog, which is largely focused on my day-to-day experience as a kitchen apprentice. For “Bay Area Bites,” my posts will be more focused on classic techniques of Italian cooking, and tips and recipes I’ve picked up from working at Oliveto.
Here is one thing I’ve learned: There is no “magic” to preparing superlative food. The artistry that arrives on your plate at the best restaurants is not prepared by Houdini.
What separates great chefs from good ones is training, practice, creativity, attention to detail and a passion for the food they are preparing. All of these are within reach of home chefs — those who prefer to do their cooking in more sedate settings, without a soundtrack.
Photo of a mackerel, from the Monterey Bay, right before I filleted it for that night’s dinner menu. Photo by Stuart Leavenworth