Rachael Harriman, the sous chef at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, has been fielding questions of various weight and sophistication over at DonRockwell.com for the past couple of weeks. I was particularly interested in Harriman’s response to this inquiry:

With all of the time you spent in Thomas Keller‘s kitchens, it’s obvious that he had confidence in you. What was it like at the beginning, when you first went to work for him? What are some of the most important things that you learned, in order to be able to survive and thrive in that milieu?

Say Harriman:

Well, my first day at The French Laundry, as you can imagine, was nerve wrecking. It was 9 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I arrived at 5:30 in the morning; this is the time the commis and butchers start. One of the commis was out sick, so I had to fill that spot, luckily a sous chef, Lisa, was working with me, and training me. I tried to make everything perfect, though nothing was. I remember making potato diamonds. When I finished, I showed Lisa my work. She looked at it, shook her head, and then threw it in the trash. I tried again. A couple months later, Lisa told me she was surprised I lasted as long as I did. She said she thought for sure I wouldn’t make it.

Learn fast. That’s one important thing I learned in the beginning. Next, I learned that in this business, you really need to want to learn. So many people go into restaurants, like The French Laundry, and act like know it alls. Confidence is good to have, and very important, but to be over confident is sudden death.

Questions are always important. I asked a lot, I still do. You just have to know which ones to ask and when. For example, Thomas once told me that I asked too many questions. Not meaning that it was a bad thing, but imagine someone would stop you from what you were doing, 3 or 4 times a day, to ask a question. With all the work you would have I am sure you would find that annoying. I learned to consolidate, and ask 1 question in a way that would answer 2 questions that I would have. I still try to do that with Eric [Ziebold, chef at CityZen]. If I have a few questions I try to hit him as soon as he gets to work before he starts his day. That way when I can’t find him, because he is in meetings or on the phone, or writing a menu, I don’t have to bother him.