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  • Writer's pictureRobyn Nicole

My Week at Audrey


The onset of 2020 is etched in our collective memory as a time of upheaval and uncertainty. The world seemed to come to a standstill as the pandemic swept across the globe, leaving no industry untouched. Among the hardest hit were restaurants and hospitality workers, forced to confront unprecedented challenges and reevaluate their business models in the face of adversity.

 

Amidst this turbulent backdrop, chefs like Sean Brock emerged as beacons of hope and resilience. In a selfless endeavor to support struggling establishments, Sean took action to rescue Silver Sands, a beloved meat & 3 in Nashville teetering on the brink of closure. Through an innovative approach, he auctioned off a virtual cooking lesson, with proceeds destined to breathe new life into the restaurant. 

 


In a twist of fate, a playful bidding maneuver I stole from "The Price Is Right" propelled me into the spotlight, securing the winning bid by a mere dollar margin. Although the gesture initially stemmed from whimsy, the ensuing opportunity was nothing short of transformative. Upon receiving Sean's congratulatory message, a mix of shock and exhilaration coursed through me, propelling me to delve into my savings to seize the chance of a lifetime.

 

Contemplating how best to capitalize on this serendipitous turn of events, I found myself yearning for more than just a cooking lesson. With a hunger for knowledge and a desire to immerse myself fully in the culinary world, I dared to dream bigger. Thus, I boldly proposed exchanging the virtual lesson for a stage at Sean's forthcoming restaurant in Nashville. (A 'stage' in the culinary realm is akin to an unpaid internship, where chef's immerse themselves in another chef's kitchen for a brief period. It's a hand's-on opportunity to learn new techniques and cuisines, driven by curiosity and a desire to learn).

 

As construction delays pushed back the grand opening of Audrey to November 2021, I exercised patience, allowing time for the meticulous fine-tuning essential to every new venture. With March 2022 earmarked for my long-awaited arrival, anticipation bubbled within me. Eager to make a lasting impression, I sought to arm myself with the finest tools of the trade. A fortuitous encounter with Dereyk Patterson, a skilled local carpenter renowned for his artisanal chef knives, culminated in a cherished gift—a small yet exquisitely crafted blade that would become my trusted companion.


With my tools, uniform, and a sense of ambition neatly packed, I bid farewell to my family, embarking on a journey that promised a well-deserved respite from the demands of daily life. It marked the first time since the birth of my youngest son that I ventured out in pursuit of some much-needed "me time."


Under Sean's thoughtful guidance, his assistant graciously arranged for my dining experience to be seamlessly taken care of for the remainder of the week. The Continental proved to be a revelation—an oasis of culinary sophistication unlike any other I had encountered. Sean's meticulous research into traditional forms of fine dining, often lost to the annals of time, imbued each course with a nostalgic journey back to bygone eras.


As I savored each meticulously crafted dish, I was transported to a realm where refinement, flavor, and perfection reigned supreme. Among the standout offerings, the potato pave lingered in my memory, that eluded replication despite my earnest attempts. Equally unforgettable was the pate en croute, its flavors evoking fond memories of my mother's cherished cold meatloaf sandwiches.

 

After indulging in a satisfying meal and enjoying a restorative night's sleep, I eagerly anticipated my inaugural day at Audrey. Sean's commitment to prioritizing the well-being of his team was evident from the outset. Having witnessed the toll that the relentless pace of restaurant life can take on individuals, Sean ensured that his employees were treated with dignity and respect, refusing to succumb to the industry's notorious culture of overwork. Adhering to his philosophy that a healthy staff is the cornerstone of a thriving team, I found myself in the unusual position of not being summoned until 2 pm—a departure from the grueling schedules I had become accustomed to in other establishments.

 

Despite my eagerness to contribute, I ultimately acquiesced to Sean's policy, arriving during the staff lunch at noon. There, I was warmly welcomed by Colby Rasavong, Sean's sous chef, who graciously guided me through the inner workings of the kitchen. Our tour serendipitously intersected with Sean's presence upstairs. In reflecting on my interactions with Sean, I'm struck by his unwavering warmth and humility—a rare quality in an industry often characterized by ego and bravado. It was a privilege to collaborate alongside such a remarkable individual, whose leadership exemplified compassion and integrity.


Guided by Colby, I was ushered into the inner sanctum of Audrey: the 'lab,' where I would immerse myself for the next three days. Here, Chef Elliot Silber, a maestro of culinary innovation, presided over the research, development, and fermentation processes. With credentials in both chemistry and culinary arts, Elliot's domain resembled a cross between a laboratory and a culinary workshop. 


He approached his craft with the fervor of a mad scientist, surrounded by an array of cutting-edge tools and equipment. Stepping into the lab felt like entering a scientific arena, albeit one where the focus was on the transformation of ingredients like kogi and garum into culinary masterpieces. 

 

The glass walls were covered with intricate calculations, meticulously crafted recipes, and bursts of inspiration scrawled in expo marker. Adjacent to the lab were temperature and humidity-controlled rooms, each dedicated to the cultivation of essential elements like miso, garum, and koji—a testament to Elliot's meticulous attention to detail.



 

While Elliot may not have been the most talkative of mentors, I seized every opportunity to absorb his wisdom through observation and occasional inquiry, mindful not to overwhelm him with an onslaught of questions. Every moment spent in Elliot's presence was a masterclass in culinary alchemy, leaving me awestruck by his boundless knowledge and innovation. If I managed to retain even a fraction of the information imparted during our time together, I considered it a triumph.

 


Over the following two days, I had the incredible opportunity to collaborate with Dominique Crenn, the renowned Michelin-starred French chef, who was hosting a guest dinner at Audrey that weekend. Hailing all the way from California, Dominique and her team brought with them a treasure trove of ingredients and culinary expertise. My task? To tackle abalone, a labor-intensive endeavor that tested both my patience and perseverance. (An experience I wouldn't readily volunteer for again!) Yet, amidst the meticulous preparation, I found solace in engaging conversation with Dominique. We bonded over our shared affection for Sag Harbor, a quaint town close to my heart, where my father once called home. Hearing her express admiration for the locale, even contemplating a future there, added a layer of connection beyond the culinary realm. As the evening unfolded, the synergy between Sean and Dominique's culinary styles was nothing short of magical. Each course presented a harmonious fusion of their individual talents, resulting in an unforgettable dining experience.




 

In a fleeting moment, I noticed Sean's gaze drifting into the distance, lost in reflection. As our eyes met, I couldn't help but inquire, "Where did you wander off to, Chef?" His response was delivered with a depth of emotion, his voice tinged with gratitude as he uttered, "I just can't believe that this place is mine."

 

On my final evening in Nashville, I was treated to a remarkable dining experience as a guest at Audrey—a fitting conclusion to my immersive journey within its hallowed kitchen walls. As is customary in the culinary world, my time was culminated in a gesture of hospitality—a complimentary meal extended as a token of appreciation for my contributions.

 


Transitioning from the bustling energy of the kitchen to the serene ambiance of the dining room, I marveled at the transformation of perspective. Having witnessed the meticulous craftsmanship and dedication behind each dish, I now had the privilege of experiencing Audrey through the eyes of a guest. The experience was nothing short of extraordinary. Every aspect of the evening bore the imprint of Sean's heart and soul, evident in every nuance of flavor, every thoughtful detail. From the exquisite culinary creations to the impeccable service, Audrey exuded a warmth and hospitality that left an indelible impression. My senses were enlivened, my palate delighted, and my spirit uplifted by the magic of Audrey. It was a fitting finale to a week filled with discovery, camaraderie, and culinary enlightenment—a testament to the transformative power of food and hospitality.


Boarding the plane home, I carried with me not only cherished memories but a renewed passion for cooking. With a belly full of delectable dishes and a heart overflowing with gratitude, I returned to my family, forever changed by this extraordinary adventure. But the story doesn't end there. The impact of my time at Audrey rippled through my career and personal life, shaping my approach to cooking, leadership, and relationships.

 

In the weeks following my return, I found myself reflecting deeply on the nuances of flavors, techniques, and the artistry of plating. Each dish I prepared bore traces of the knowledge imparted by Sean, Elliot, and Dominique. I experimented with fermentation, pushing the boundaries of taste and texture in my own kitchen. Personally, the journey ignited a newfound appreciation for balance. The demanding nature of restaurant life often blurs the lines between work and personal time. Yet, witnessing Sean prioritize the well-being of his team underscored the importance of self-care and maintaining meaningful connections outside of the kitchen.

 

Looking back, I realize that what began as a mere opportunity to learn from a culinary legend transcended into a transformative chapter of my life. The echoes of that experience resonate in every dish I create, every interaction I have, and every moment I savor with loved ones. So, while my physical journey at Audrey may have ended, its impact continues to reverberate, shaping my identity as a chef, a mentor, and a human being. And as I navigate the winding path of culinary arts, I carry with me the enduring lessons learned within those hallowed kitchen walls, forever grateful for the privilege of experiencing a culinary masterpiece in the making.

 



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