Elizabeth Richards has the type of personality you question. Can you really be that happy all the time? She’s constantly smiling, always agreeable (at least for the week I’ve gotten to spend with her), and happy to help. And it gets even better. She throws around phrases like, “Splendid!” and “Brilliant!” because she’s British. British! She’s basically a saint of a person.
When I heard she spent the past three months as an intern at Nougatine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in the Upper West Side, I was shocked she still maintains a bubbly personality. Not to say anything bad about Jean-Georges, but who can still be so sugary sweet after working 60-hour weeks, juggling school and an internship? Well, she can. And that’s why she’s the perfect person to interview for this blog. You can learn a lot from her experience and her attitude. Sometimes all you need in life is a positive spin on every situation. (Remember that the next time you’re having a crummy day, and think that you could be in your fourth hour chiffonading kale. How’s your day looking now?) And at the end of her internship she walked away with upgraded knife skills and a test kitchen internship at Saveur magazine.
What was your first day at Nougatine like?
Terrifying! I arrived and I had never been in a professional kitchen before. I felt completely out of place but I was directed to the sous chef who told me to help out garde manger. My hands were literally shaking while I was slicing Thai chillies and I think the cook thought I was incredibly inept. I remember at one point he asked me what level I was at the International Culinary Center and when I told him level four he looked shocked. However, I was soon put with the other interns where I met a recent Culinary Center graduate who helped me find things,
gave me advice and most importantly, cracked jokes. Although I had never met him before, he felt like a friendly face and made me much more comfortable. I did prep work—cleaning Brussel sprouts, chiffonading kale, peeling
garlic—for the rest of the trail, which started at 4 p.m. and ended at midnight.
How did you score a stage at JG?
I met with Gina Novak, one of the members of career services at the Culinary Center, who put me in contact with one of the sous chefs at Nougatine. I emailed the chef with my resume asking for a trail and within a few days I had heard back that I could come by. Two days later I did my trail and they offered me the internship.
Were you the only woman in the kitchen? What was the environment like?
There were actually quite a few women, although the kitchen was mostly male. Two of the chefs were women and several of the cooks were. I would say there was a 65-35 split between men and women but maybe I am overestimating the imbalance. I never had a problem with it, everyone was very respectful, but there were a lot of phallic jokes.
However, while I wouldn’t say you have to be tough to make it in the kitchen, it definitely helps.
What were your responsibilities? Which was your least favorite?
My routine responsibilities were prep based and involved a lot of chopping, peeling and placing out recipes, but I also got to do some cooking and I made things like risotto, soup, granola, sauces, different oils, bolognese etc. When I first started, my responsibilities were almost exclusively peeling/chopping but as I advanced and they came to trust me, I did more things that involved cooking.
What was the hardest thing you had to do?
I wouldn’t say anything I did at Nougatine was particularly hard, or harder than anything else I did. The hours were long and I was pretty tired but that was manageable after I got used to it. To be honest the hardest thing was remaining focused on school while I was also working. I was totally exhausted all the time and my body was pretty
sore and there were days when I felt I didn’t want to wake up or study for a test. Sometimes it was hard to remember why I was working so hard but one day Chef Veronica spoke to my class and told us to remind ourselves that the reason we were at school was because we loved cooking and were passionate about our work. It was such a simple
thing to say but it really put things in perspective for me. I do love cooking and I want to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve my dreams.
What did working in a restaurant teach you? Any great tips?
There was way less space to work than at school and so I learned how to work more cleanly and to be better organized. Most importantly though I learned how to work fast (though I doubt my chef would agree with that). Nougatine is great because it’s a learning kitchen, every time I had to do something new the chef would first show me how to do it even if it was something as basic as slicing radishes on a mandoline. I was once told that I wasn’t expected to know anything just because I had graduated from culinary school. This was a relief and took a lot of the pressure off because I was worried that people were going to expect me to know what to do all the time. The reality
is that you will learn every day while you are cooking and even though you may have learned cooking techniques and taillage at school, every chef is different and wants things done a certain way. My advice to cooks going to Nougatine or any other kitchen would be to be work clean and organized, be polite and respectful, ask questions if you’re not sure of something, and most importantly keep your knife sharp! Also eat before you go to work because you may not get an opportunity until you leave.
What’s one dish you learned that you love?
The mushroom bolognese. It’s totally meatless but tastes like a beef Bolognese. It’s honestly incredible. Also the granola. And the basil oil. And everything that I made there. The food is amazing.
Is there anything else you want to add?
It is incredibly hard work and you will sacrifice time, sleep and your body but it’s worth it. I have never had so much fun (not that it was fun all the time) as I have had at Nougatine. Everyone is talented and special and the food is great. I learned a lot and by the end of my internship I felt like I was part of a family. I highly recommend this kitchen to anyone who really wants to improve their skills and have a future working in fine dining. Talk to Chef Tom and Chef Camilla, they are the best.