Young chef steps well beyond cooking burgers
September 17, 2003
TOKYO — At 17, he knows how to braise duck, blanch green beans and whip together a yogurt dressing with a zest of lemon.
While his friends mowed lawns or flipped fast-food burgers this summer, James Vagasky toiled 40 hours a week in a toque — a tall, paper chef’s hat — at the New Sanno Hotel, a military resort in downtown Tokyo.
The Camp Zama, Japan, high school senior landed a paid summer internship shadowing Putnam Yost, the hotel’s award-winning executive chef.
But after amassing 400 hours in the kitchen, Vagasky’s toughest test was Saturday night: preparing a six-course gourmet meal for eight people in Wellingtons, the New Sanno’s coat-and-tie fine-dining restaurant.
As the hungry guests arrived Saturday, Vagasky admitted he was nervous, despite about 16 hours of preparation Friday and Saturday with Yost’s help.
“This is my final grade,” Vagasky said, grinning uneasily.
His internship earned him two credits in teacher Bobbie Donald’s Cooperative Work Experience class at Zama High School.
Donald helped Vagasky get the Sanno job after the student mentioned an interest in culinary arts.
“I told him, ‘If you are truly interested, I will make a few calls,’” Donald said.
Some of Donald’s students have worked in the New Sanno’s beauty salon, but the kitchen would be a first for a high school student, the hotel manager told Donald.
She persisted and spoke to Yost, once the executive chef of San Francisco’s Nikko Hotel.
Though he’d never taken on a teenage apprentice, Yost, who’s run the Sanno’s kitchen for five years, agreed. “When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to go to culinary school,” he said. “It was hard for me to find any pre-culinary experience. I thought, ‘Let’s give this kid a little bit of an introduction to the culinary world.’”
That introduction was an eye-opener, Vagasky said: A busy commercial kitchen has little glamour but lots of hard work and long hours.
And then there’s teamwork: “You have to get along with 16 or 17 other people just to put one thing together,” he said.
Portion size and appearance also are key. A dish “needs to look perfect,” Vagasky said. “Everything needs to be the same or someone will see the difference and complain.”
Vagasky helped Yost prepare mostly dinners for the Sanno’s several restaurants, including Wellingtons and the Kikuya Japanese Restaurant.
“He did bake some breads and some cakes by himself, when he had some time,” Yost said, “and he had fun playing around with a couple different desserts. He tried lots of recipes for white chocolate mousse.”
Vagasky also picked up some of the tricks any gourmet chef keeps up his sleeve. He carved ice for Sunday brunch, pearled vegetables and gave a raw potato seven sides.
Vagasky earned $250 a week, $3,000 for the summer. Yost gave Vagasky’s timecards to Donald, who was to decide his final grade after sampling Saturday’s meal — which was Yost’s idea. “I thought it would be fun,” he said, “for James to top off his summer by cooking” for family and friends. Those at the table included Vagasky’s father and stepmother, Zama high school principal Erik Swanson and his wife, Susan; and Donald and her husband, William.
The courses included soup, fish, poultry, dessert — and a running commentary.
From duck braising to pumpkin puréeing, Vagasky treated his guests to detailed explanations of how each dish was prepared.
Judging by their response, he passed with flying colors. “I’m a very picky eater,” said Susan Swanson. “The only thing I didn’t eat were the onions … so that’s a compliment to him. Everything was exceptional. He did a fine job.”
But the biggest compliment to the young chef may have come from his mentor: Yost invited Vagasky back to help with the Sanno’s upcoming Escoffier dinner party, named after Auguste Escoffier, a famous French chef and cooking writer.
Vagasky plans to follow his summer internship by working at one of Atsugi’s Naval Air Facility’s restaurants during the school year’s second semester, Donald said, adding, “I hope this can be the beginning of the next chapter in making his dreams come true.”
For Vagasky, those dreams include entering a two-year culinary arts institute in Seattle and, ultimately, cooking authentic Japanese food in the States as a professional chef.
“America,” he explained, “doesn’t have real Japanese food.”
How it's done ...
How long does it take to prepare a six-course gourmet meal?
Whipping up a dinner for eight at Wellington’s Restaurant in the New Sanno Hotel, Zama High School student James Vagasky and New Sanno Hotel Executive Chef Putnam Yost started gathering fresh ingredients and doing prep work Friday morning.
By the time the guests arrived at 7 p.m. Saturday, the two chefs had invested about 16 hours of dicing, chopping, baking, braising, blanching, sautéing and mixing.
The results, by course and in order:
¶ Jumbo shrimp in pastry shells covered with morel sauce. The shrimp were sautéed in butter and flambéed in liqueur. The heavy cream sauce contained the tops of morels — a tasty wild mushroom.
¶ Puréed pumpkin bisque (cream soup) with a touch of white wine and a hint of spice.
¶ A scoop of sorbet, to cleanse and clear the palate.
¶ Roasted duck leg with seven-sided, skinless potatoes and hollowed zucchini filled with homemade cranberry sauce. The duck sauce — which included carrots, onions, leeks, red wine and stock from duck, including bones — took about nine hours to prepare, Vagasky said.
¶ Spinach and green bean salad: a light, crispy bed of greens with roasted pine nuts and a homemade yogurt dressing. Vagasky added lemon zest and sour cream to the dressing — and red chili pepper “to give it a kick.” The salad was topped with an edible flower, which Vagasky thought was a baby violet.
¶ A moist, flourless chocolate cake, bedded on crème Anglais, a flavored custard sauce. The cake bakes about four hours at 250 degrees Fahrenheit — a low temperature since no flour is used. Besides 14 ounces of chocolate, the recipe calls for butter, sugar, eggs, rum and vanilla. The eggs have to be beaten into a “small ribbon,” Vagasky noted to his guests.
— Jennifer H. Svan