The restaurant Oceana in NY always held a special place in my heart. NYT Off the menu reports it has moved! When I was in culinary school, I approached then sous chef Michael Schenk at a food fundraiser and asked if I might be able to do my externship at Oceana. He said that they were highly coveted positions and they usually asked people to 'stage' first before setting it in stone. Stage is a time for a young chef to test a place out, and vice versa, for free. Still a common practice and very necessary. The very next night I walked into the teeny kitchen at Oceana. I didn't dare tell anyone it was my first time in a real restaurant kitchen. My nerves were so shaky I could barely plate the hearts of romaine caesar salad. Being German, Michael Schenk gave lessons on how to pour German beer in between expediting orders. The kitchen was run by uber successful Rick Moonen. It was intense. Everything smelled delicious. They took pastry so seriously there was an entirely separate kitchen for it. It was brand new to me. It was surreal.
I persevered for over a month, about 4 nights a week. I learned to chiffonnade. I made taramasalata but never learned how to spell it. It was the age of 'everything' crusted tuna loin and I was in awe that someone worked inches from a deep fryer all night. Everything had to be perfect. They cared. They taught. They were never degrading. In the end they weren't enrolled in my school's approved program and I had to leave for another restaurant. I bought Paul there for dinner, it was comp-ed (yay! $$$) and the head waiter said he recognized only my eyes, which he would see peering through the service window. They used the old school method of head waiters and side waiters. The head waiters were all in their 50s and did not tolerate the 'can't have garlic, onions cut crosswise or greens that have not been pre-chewed for me' crowd.
My time there was my first exposure to late night imbibing with the guys - this was my first experience as the only female in a kitchen, one that would happen too often. Monkey Bar across the street, still there, still notorious for changing owners more often than the bar mats - was divine.
In school I won a contest to choose the name for the new student newspaper (a la carte) and won a free dinner to any restaurant I chose. Paul and I went back to Oceana and racked up a $300 bill. I ordered calvados with an apple tart for dessert and got a rewarding nod of approval over the reading glasses of the aging waiter. To this day when we encounter a similar method of approval, we call it the 'calvados nod'. We also went there for a few anniversaries. This is how I remember white asparagus is in season in late April - it was always on the menu at that time.
The inside of Oceana was made to look like an ocean liner. The walls decked with murals to make you think you were on the open sea. They were best known for a copper fish that hung above the second floor bar, all nestled in a narrow but tall townhouse. I don't doubt that the same quality will endure in the new location. Oceana attracts and develops culinary talents (Christopher Lee before he was a somebody!) and will continue to do so. Translating the character of a townhouse with a restaurant with so much history will be hard to mimic in a modern, redesigned space. Rose just let go of Jack and he is sinking to the ocean floor.