Near the end of the second shift of his five-day tryout at Grace, a new Chicago restaurant, Kevin Jeung, a 23-year-old cook from Toronto, got pulled aside by one of the kitchen's bosses. The restaurant's chef wanted to see what Jeung could do.
Jeung trained at the French Culinary Institute, an elite cooking school in New York, and, when he wasn't studying, interned at Per Se and Gramercy Tavern, two of the city's most respected restaurants. Since graduating, he had been working his way up to this tryout in July, paying his dues in some of Canada's most demanding kitchens. Better still, he had just returned from a coveted 10-month stage at northern Spain's Mugaritz – No. 4 on the World's Best Restaurants list.
Now in Chicago, Jeung was told he would have three hours the next morning to prepare an original dish for Grace's chef, Curtis Duffy. Duffy is one of North America's most intense chefs; he demands near-total silence in his 17-cook kitchen, and is openly gunning for three Michelin stars. Ingredient orders were going out in a few minutes – was there anything Jeung needed?
The young cook blanked.
"Obviously, the first time it happens you're never ready for it," he later said.
Though they're best known to fans of food television, so-called black box tests, similar to those on shows such as MasterChef, are an important – and time-tested – hiring tool for top-flight kitchens. David Hawksworth, of Vancouver's celebrated Hawksworth Restaurant, recalled trying out at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in his 20s, and given a three-part test: butcher a red mullet, make a dish from a zucchini, a tomato and an eggplant, and create a perfect sabayon in less than three minutes. (He got the job.)
Robert Belcham, the influential chef at Campagnolo in Vancouver, often asks candidates for line cooking positions to make a perfect French omelette. "You would be incredibly surprised how many cooks cannot cook a simple omelette correctly," he said.
Yet in spite of how commonly they're used, the tests often come as a surprise to the cooks who are subjected to them. There's no real way to prepare.
In Chicago, Jeung arrived the next morning nervous but ready. He set to work on a cold composed salad that would show off all that he could do. There was a pudding of puréed fresh corn that he heated until its starches set, watermelon rind that he'd pickled with verjus, and crabmeat. He added charred cucumber for smoky depth and pickled Anaheim chiles. He made a sweet clotted cream by scalding heavy cream, spooning off the curd and draining it in a coffee filter.
Three hours later, he presented Duffy and his top lieutenants with four plates. The chefs didn't say anything. "You don't get feedback," Jeung said.
Later that day, however, he got moved up from prep cooking to the kitchen's meat station. Jeung thought he was as good as hired.
A few days later, though, he flew back to Toronto without a job offer, and $1,200 poorer (potential kitchen recruits pay for their own flights and accommodation). By mid-August, he realized Grace wasn't going to call. And so he doubled down.
Early last month, Jeung flew to San Francisco, where another acclaimed and enormously ambitious new restaurant, this one called Benu, had invited him for an audition. As at Grace, the news of Jeung's pressure test came on his second day. This time he was more prepared.
Benu's chef de cuisine gave Jeung four hours to prepare three original courses: a salad, something involving eggs and a dish made with duck. He would have to work in the main kitchen as the rest of the staff handled dinner service. This was the most important test of his career so far. He needed to nail it.
As the clock ticked, Jeung sat down with a notebook. It took him 30 minutes to think a plan through.
Jeung started with a salad made from radishes and hazelnuts. If that sounds simple, it wasn't. He prepared the hazelnuts as a supersmooth paste, seasoned with soy sauce. He made a watercress cream for the vinaigrette, that was thickened with agar. And an oyster emulsion, blended with Banyuls wine vinegar and lemon juice. And lettuce hearts compressed with vinegar in a vacuum bag. And radish greens. And radishes, of course, cut in four different ways.
For the second course, Jeung made a steamed, beef-fat infused egg custard, with puréed turnip greens and chives – a dish, it's worth noting, that would be a standout on nearly any menu.
He used a novel technique for the duck course, pan-roasting two breasts on high heat in 30-second intervals to sear them, then taking them off the heat for 30 seconds, then searing them again, over the course of 30 minutes. What that does is crisps and darkens the meat's outside perfectly, while cooking the inside slowly and evenly. That way it's medium-rare throughout, instead of only in the middle.
Now try doing that, as Jeung did, while you're also making raisin and caraway jam for the duck, and brown butter raisin vinaigrette, and a sous-vide carrot and ginger purée, all in a strange and busy kitchen that charges diners $195 (U.S.) a head.
That night, Benu's chef de cuisine offered Jeung a job. He said he'd consider it, and flew back to Toronto. His heart was still with Grace. He started readying his application for a U.S. visa. But three weeks after returning home, he still hadn't said yes.
On Sept. 27, Jeung filed a mysterious update on Twitter. "Haven't waited up this anxiously for a phone call since high school," he wrote.
Grace's chef de cuisine called with a job offer a couple of days later.
That composed crab and corn salad mustn't have been so bad.