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Origins: Nick Oltarsh and Restaurant Z

An essay by the ROOM at Twelve and Lobby Bar chef about his painful induction into the restaurant industry

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All my good memories from there aren't about revenge. I remember the sounds of Z: The hiss of properly seared meat as it made contact with blistering oil; the yelling of Chef and the garble of the various languages he spoke; the urban-myth screams of lobsters as we dropped them into boiling water; the resounding marine bellow of "OUI CHEF" heard throughout the kitchen; the soft bubbling of soup, stock, and sauces; the whir, swoosh, bump, and grind of the dishwasher machine; the rattle of expensive porcelain plates; and the chop, chop, chop of knife on cutting board. I remember the roar of excitement after dinner the evening our incredible review came out in A Prestigious Newspaper. The entire staff whooped and yelled with joy. We were now one of four restaurants in New York — the restaurant capital of the world, one could argue — with the highest star rating. I was excited. Still, I thought to myself, "My job is currently unbearable and loathsome and now the restaurant is going to be jam-packed. As of tomorrow, I am going to be wholly, totally fucked." I gave two weeks' notice the next day.

Z was a fantastic success at the time and I was uncommonly fortunate to be part of it. Humor and cynicism aside, do not misunderstand me. I wouldn't have changed a thing about my first real cooking job. You ask, what's the big deal? What kind of dolt gets all lachrymose over some dumb overcooked lentils? Who gives a crap about quince confit, taro root, live baby eels, and squash blossoms? It almost seems wrong when I reflect on how much time and effort I put into what I do. But I love the artistry of cooking. I want to do my job well. Good food is so beautiful and satisfying. I derive great pleasure in watching others enjoy the toil of my work.

Was I a coward for giving notice the day after we got those stars? I gave up on the very day of success. So much sniveling on my part! I was uncomfortable because things didn't go smoothly for me like they had for the first 22 years of my life. I was lucky to have had the job. Z established standards of excellence for me from an early time in my career. Most culinarians are not so lucky to have learned from the very best and to experience the passion of a chef so devoted to his craft. He got the highest star rating because he deserved it, and I say that with conviction and 20 years of hindsight. He wasn't the easiest guy to hang with, but I thank my lucky stars I got to work for him. As for FSC, I hope he's cleaning porto-potty toilets for a living now.

Nick Oltarsh is the executive chef at Lobby Bar and Bistro and ROOM at Twelve.

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