An Intern’s Life at Jean-Georges’ Nougatine

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.

Four Rules of Food Entrepreneurship

An all-star panel assembled at the International Culinary Center on a sunny Saturday afternoon to impart advice from their entrepreneurial experiences.  The lineup included social media star Allison Robicelli and her husband Matt Robicelli (Pastry ’04) of the fast-growing Robicelli’s.  They spoke alongside Liz Gutman (Pastry ’08) and Jen King (Pastry ’08) of Liddabit Sweets and Rob Liano (Culinary ’12) of the hilariously named Baby Got Back Ribs.

Erik Murnighan moderated the animated panel, which covered a lot of ground. Here are my takeaways — the “rules” offered by these pros:

1. Respect the Food, pursue your passions

Allison and Matt said they began their business because they wanted to respect food, and make affordable items with the same care and respect the chefs at expensive restaurants gave to their rich customers.  Why do you have to be rich to eat well, they wondered?  So, starting with a Honda Civic and $30 from their son’s piggy bank they began making cupcakes in a working class neighborhood.   As they began, they made an early commitment that they would only use French cream and would avoid food coloring.  This commitment to quality has remained at the core of their business.  Additionally, Jen build on this theme of having a purpose by encouraging food entrepreneurs to be your own story.  “Build your narrative and your own brand.”  Allison discussed that if you are not yourself, you will burn out.  “It’s just too exhausting to pretend!”

2. Entrepreneurs don’t seek out risk, they use planning to minimize it

Jen King noted that while there isn’t a sure bet path to success, planning can help you improve your odds.  “There is no A + B gives you C.  What business plans, marketing strategies, and all of this does is gives you a better chance.”  Rob agreed saying “there is no right or wrong way, but there is also no easy way.”  By thinking through some of the key assumptions, you get comfortable thinking through what will actually make you money.  This type of exercise helped Rob walk away from a potential investment.  Sound crazy that he said no to a potential investor?  When he did the math he realized he would put in the work but not take home the returns.  By taking a pass he’s now free to explore other opportunities that may be more lucrative.

3. Get comfortable with “No”

Each of the entrepreneurs talked about the failures they experienced along the way to success.  The winning entrepreneurs are the resilient ones, they just keep at it!  Early on Rob paced himself, avoiding investing too much in a physical space or other capital as he built up his brand.  Eventually, more and more people have reached out.  “Then, opportunities come to you.  You don’t ask, they just come to you.”  As you experience success, you have to be as disciplined about saying “no” as you once had to be about pushing through “no!”  Jen King said this was one of the hardest things for her.  “You think, because you are so young, that you must say ‘yes’ to everything.”  But really, you have to learn to prioritize.

4. Start selling now, and keep a bias to action!

Liz Gutman and Jen King met at International Culinary Center.  While still in school, they both assumed they would need more experience to launch their business.  “We initially thought we needed to go train under people… and learn more,” Liz said.  But actually getting out there and selling gave them the best feedback.  While Jen said that oftentimes she feels like she doesn’t know what she is doing, the two have been remarkably successful already.  The experience behind that success?  Getting out there and trying things.  Early on, they passed out candy as guerrilla marketing.  Liz: “Start selling now.”

If you are interested in learning more about our Culinary Entrepreneurship program, email info@culinarycenter.com.

How the Spanish do Pizza

One line kept running through my head today when I visited my alma mater: I should’ve taken the Classic Spanish Arts Program. Being immersed in their small class taught me that Spanish food is really centered around simple, but top-grade ingredients. So spending my afternoon eating Iberico jamon and imported Spanish olive oil was a nice way to spend a snowy Monday afternoon.

Not to gip the Classic Culinary Arts Program, which taught me how to hold a knife, make a solid stock (and sauce), and how to buzz through a task list quickly and efficiently, but the Spanish culinary students had a different vibe about them. A lot of them brought their own culture to the table, and with it, a sense of their own flavor. And visiting during “coca dough” day–basically Spain’s version of pizza dough–showed what a few talented kids can do with a blank canvas, like pizza dough.

Coca dough is the perfect vessel for sweet or savory toppings, and these students used it for both. The dough was denser than focaccia, but had an addictive salty kick with the flavor of Spanish olive oil singing through the dough. They made it with fresh yeast and let it rise for 2-3 hours. When they retrieved the dough, it looked like a scene from The Blob. Spilling over the bowl, they used their fists to punch down the dough and roll it into rectangular flatbreads.

The first experiment was savory–topping with sauteed bell peppers, zucchini and mushrooms. My first bite was symphonic: Warm dough cushioning olive-oil soaked vegetables. Only four components to this pizza, but it tasted like a Michelin chef whipped it up.

The rest of the afternoon was a combination of pulling out loads of pizza topped with anisette and caramelized sugar and pine nuts with dried fruits.

Coca topped with sugar and torched to look like glass
After doing a little digging about this quick-rise dough, I found out that Spaniards usually don’t make it at home. They’ll visit their local bakery and buy it. And because we don’t have the luxury of a Spanish bakery on every corner, here’s a basic coca recipe for you to try at home, courtesy of The International Culinary Center.

Basic Coca Dough

What you’ll need:
510 g all-purpose flour
43 g baker’s yeast in 45 ml lukewarm water
207 ml lukewarm water
60 ml extra virgin olive oil
35 g salt

How to make it:

1. Knead the yeast, flour, salt, water, and olive oil by hand or mixer. Mix until the finished dough is smooth and elastic. Put the dough in a bowl, brush with olive oil, and set it in a warm place to rise for 2 to 3 hours.

2. Preheat oven to 450F. Once the dough has risen, remove from resting spot, and punch down the dough to slightly deflate it. Divide the dough into two equal parts and pat the dough into a 3×9-inch rectangle. Place on an oiled baking sheet. Brush the top with oil and pinch the sides into a rolled crust. Top with sautéed vegetables and sausage.

3. Bake coca until crust browns, about 10 minutes.