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My arms hurt! Pasta, squid, and yet another surge of respect for restaurant cooks

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Orecchiette con le cime di rapa

It seems that all of my cooking tasks this week were designed to work my muscles — not just my culinary mind and physical posture, but my wiggly arms, too. I thought I went to the gym for that. But no amount of bicep curls, tricep dips, or shoulder presses could have prepared me for the repetitious kitchen workouts of the last few days.

Our January Experiential Learning class (which really just means cooking lunch for customers at the school cafe) started Monday, and on the menu is the traditional Pugliese dish orecchiette con le cime di rapa: orecchiette with a garlicky broccoli sauce. That means fresh, earlobe-shaped pasta, made by hand with love.

Chef Andrea, with his strikingly deep voice, instructed my classmate Sue and me to stand with our backs straight, our feet wide apart, and our pelvises nearly touching the counter. This made me feel less like an Italian grandmother tenderly making pasta and more like a man preparing to pee in the woods, but fine. I leaned into the dough, pushing it with all of my weight to turn it from messy heap of semolina flour and water (that's it!) to smooth dough ball.

"Stronger!" Chef Andrea instructed. "Faster!" And on we kneaded.

Smooth ball achieved, we rolled chunks of the dough into snakes, which we cut into small pillows, which we formed into spheres. Then we thumbed the spheres into ear lobes by pressing them to the right and inverting the resulting little bowls. They were so cute.

That afternoon, an order beeped in for orecchiette with broccoli sauce, and the pain began. Chef Andrea was satisfied with my pasta's flavor and level of sauciness (I'd cooked an extra few lobes for him to try), but he said there was one thing I needed to work on: My pasta flipping.

I can't post videos here, but this is the exact moment that my pasta-flipping went very wrong

I've alluded in this blog before to the fact that I'm self-conscious about my pasta-flipping skills. (By pasta-flipping, I mean tossing pasta, risotto, and other starches into the air and back into a pan with cheffy finesse — like in this video, but at about thrice the speed — in order to create a luscious cohesion of starch and sauce.) My flipping has definitely improved since June, but it's still not on the same level as some of my classmates'.

I saw Chef's eyes bore into me as I grabbed a pan with both hands, forcing it forward and back with considerable effort to flip the pasta at what I thought was a reasonable, though not impressive, pace. Plus, I was proud that I didn't get any food on the counter. But for Chef, "reasonable" wouldn't cut it. My new assignment was to be able to flip for 20 seconds straight, one-handed, at a rapid pace — about a flip a second. That's a tall order for a girl with wrist troubles.

Practicing with old risotto, I flipped but mostly flopped, getting soggy rice all over the stovetop and floor as my classmates cheered me on and made disappointed "Ohh..." sounds when I sent grains of rice flying into the abyss.

And here's me doing better

Half an hour later, my flipping hastened considerably, but my wrists were feeling the burn. (The funny thing about pasta-flipping is that you're not supposed to use any muscle; that's why the pros make it look so easy. While I'm jerking my elbow back and forth and tensing up my shoulder, my classmate Alice tells me to relax, demonstrating her effortless rocking of the pan. Huh? It's just something I'll have to practice. Though next time I'll use salt or dried beans, anything less sticky than old risotto.)

But afternoons of pasta-flipping weren't actually what did my arms in that week. The nail in the coffin was one of my inaugural kitchen tasks at Essenziale, a relatively new restaurant in a hip neighborhood called San Frediano that I'm very lucky to intern at this semester. For 180 hours over the next few weeks, I'll help the talented cooks put out impressive, ever-changing plates at this tasting- menu-only restaurant, which serves dinner five days a week and is headed by a young and well-regarded chef named Simone Cipriani.

The food is Italian at heart but very forward-thinking, inspired by seasonality and Simone's experiences in Livorno, Italy, to Nashville, Tennessee. For example, one of the current dishes nods to seppie all'inzimino, a simple Ligurian dish of cuttlefish cooked in a sauce of tomatoes and swiss chard. But at Essenziale, the cuttlefish comes in the form of a fried "egg," composed of a "white" made of cuttlefish that is mashed into a pristine white paste and smoothed into a circle, a real egg yolk in its center, and the tomato-and-chard sauce on the side.

This brings me to my inaugural task: Creating an ultra-fine, egg-white-esque cuttlefish goo by forcing the mixture through a mesh sieve with a bench scraper. On the first day of my internship, I did this for two hours straight, constantly switching the bench scraper from right hand to left when my forearms and shoulders got tired. The minutes actually passed quickly as I worked through a plastic tub of the goo. I was relieved and satisfied to finish, especially when I learned that it would be used for such a cool, imaginative dish.

The next day of scraping was much harder. The first few spoonfuls of squid goo went through the sieve easily, but as my forearms began to pulse and stiffen, the blobs never seemed to get smaller, sticking relentlessly to the top side of the sieve no matter how much I pressed. Every time I looked down at the goo, I saw a weird white monster, teasing me by growing bigger with every swipe of my bench scraper. Die, monster!

I tried not to panic as I realized that it was taking me 20 minutes to finish just one two-tablespoon glob of goo — and that I had at least 15 more globs to go. What if I didn't finish the tub before the service? Would I be known as the unpaid weakling responsible for a shortage of cuttlefish eggs? I kept scraping, hands aching and squid paste drying on my arm hairs like glue.

I looked around the kitchen, trying to distract myself from the pain in my arms. That's when I noticed Hugo, responsible for the primi dishes, leaning over a cutting board and slicing toothpick-size sticks of celery into tiny, unexpected morsels of crunchiness for pasta — just as I had seen him do the day before.

I saw the sous-chef, Daniele, making a batch of chlorophyll out of parsley juice (a very interesting process I'll have to detail in another post), just like yesterday.

They have to do these things every single day, I realized, with just as much dedication and precision (if not more) than the day before. And these are the cooks at a restaurant that changes its menu very regularly. What about the cooks at a Tuscan trattoria that has served the same exact steaks, beans, and ravioli for 50 years?

Then came a startling thought. "Oh, shit. Am I going to have to make cuttlefish goo every week for the next two months?"

Just as I was ruminating on yet another wave of respect for restaurant cooks, Simone took pity on me. "Sara, let's switch," he said, probably alarmed by my red face and tensed shoulders after two straight hours of scraping.

"Are you sure?" I asked, though I was already gladly moving toward the parsley-juicing apparatus.

The next day, forearm muscles I didn't even know I had throbbed. But if Hugo can make brunoise cucumbers, and a cook at a 50-year-old Tuscan trattoria can saute spinaci the same way every single day, then I can make some squid ink paste for 100 more hours, if need be, in the name of restaurant consistency and excellence.

Plus, I've always wanted sculpted arms. I just didn't that know bench scrapers and mesh sieves would be the way I'd get them.

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