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Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Space Camp Part One
"I knew it. I knew he wasn't on his way. Hell, I bet he never even left A.C. today. This is Frenchy's supplier? Fuck 'em up their asses."
It's six o'clock, and our first covers are due in two hours. We've got no steak and no duck thanks to Frenchy's purveyor, the mincing idiot prep cook working on the creme brulee is taking his sweet-assed time to avoid doing any real work, we've got no fruit cut for desserts, the oysters and clams for the raw bar haven't been scrubbed and are sitting in water growing more tepid by the second, and we just learned the dishwasher isn't coming in tonight after all.
Feels like old times.
Late Sunday afternoon I got a call from Bob, who left a message saying he wanted to make me an offer that he wasn't sure I'd be interested in. I called him back and he laid it out for me - the chef ran home to France, the sous chef wasn't going to work the dinner shift, and the owner was quickly running out of options. Could I come in and run the kitchen for him?
I jumped at the chance.
Fifteen or so years ago I got my first taste of real cooking working weekends in a steak house. I was the soup chef, prep cook, ran saute and fry, and expedited orders across three school years. It's where I started developing my chops, and I had always fantasized about putting on the whites and getting behind the counter again someday.
Here was my chance.
For about two hours after accepting, I was under the impression I'd be the only hired gun putting dinner service together. Thankfully, Bob called back to let me know they found a chef willing to give up his New Years' plans to help. Meet Dave.
Thank god for Dave. I've never had to clean a fish before, and our good friend Mr. Salmon was an integral part of the menu. So, with Dave onboard for the evening, all the pressure was off and I could rely on his experience and expertise to run the joint. Without help, there was no way I was getting dinner out the window, but without Dave there was no way I was going to be able to serve the entire menu and get it all out efficiently and effectively.
So yeah, thank god for Dave.
I spent my first hour or so chopping vegetables. The owner, a wealthy former trader named Steve, also tossed the chef's jacket on for the first time in over a decade and stood beside me dicing mango. "I got three stars for this place when it opened, but then I stopped paying attention to the kitchen," he lamented. It didn't surprise me. The normal menu went a step or three past traditional bar and grill fare, with a little ambition peeking through. I'd bet this was at least the fifth or sixth iteration of the menu since the 1996 review, and I'd also lay money that as good help crossed the river into Manhattan that the menu got a little dumber along the way.
"This place is crazy, man. I talk to the other restaurant owners here, and we all have the same problem. You've got to be a freak to work in Jersey City." He was talking about the chef, an admitted alcoholic, suspected addict and newly repatriated Frenchman, but he could have been talking about any of the staff, really. The sous chef spent all afternoon trying not to get fired in the wake of screwing Steve over, one of the bussers took another aside within earshot and yelled at him for being "a little bitch," and one of the prep cooks was an overweight queen who spent the first five minutes of his shift whining about going home, and continued the song and dance number all the way through dinner service.
I could see why Steve needed us. The sous chef was a capable guy, but the other two we had along for the ride were just fucking worthless. I put the queen in charge of the creme brulee, which promptly took two hours to mix, and another half hour to bake. I put Pedro the eager Puerto Rican in charge of adding some pop to the cocktail sauce, and it took him twenty to figure out it needed lime juice. Neither of them belonged in the kitchen, despite Pedro's six months plus in white and the queen's culinary school experience.
I ran rings around them. Really. Fourteen years without setting foot in a restaurant kitchen. Fucking worthless.
If I were to compare cooking at home to cooking in a restaurant, it's like attempting to compare golfing and softball. In both, you're trying to hit a ball with a stick, but that's pretty much where the similarities stop.
At home, I've got a single goal - get the pork chops cooked and on my plate. In the restaurant, it's far different. There's a variety of goals, and execution is all about effectively managing your milestones in order to mitigate controlled chaos. I wasn't exaggerating when I posted below about taking six pages of notes in preparation for my day. I knew I wasn't going into this alone, but I wasn't sure of the quality or quantity of help I was going to get. If dinner started at eight, and I started my prep at noon, when does the shrimp bisque get cooked? For how many dishes am I going to be chopping shallots, and should I do that first or as needed?
Thank god for Dave.
I arrived at the restaurant right around noon to find Dave at the bar nursing a beer. I introduced myself, we traded career summaries ("Me? About fourteen years ago. Sorry.") and headed up to the kitchen.
Ill-equipped and cramped, at best. This was the prep area, with the one table visible in the photo and another just off camera left. You see the entire dry food stock on those shelves, spices off camera right, and the walk-in refrigerator and freezer off left. Five cutting boards, three decent knives, a mishmash of cambro and steel storage, and one usable rig to make a range-top steamer. That was our curse. Well, that and the meat order that hadn't arrived.
We tossed five boxes of frozen shrimp into some cold water to thaw (which took nearly three hours) and I got to chopping. Carrots, celery, onion, garlic, shallot, pineapple, green pepper and cilantro. Dave took care of the salmon, and got to work on the peanut sauce. I kicked out the green curry coconut marinade for the salmon (a B+ effort, considering I've never used green curry paste or coconut syrup before) and the amuse bouche "Island Crab Salad" to sit and commingle all that tastiness together.
Dave boiled the mussels for the raw bar, I ran carrots and zucchini down the mandoline, then cleaned and washed both the asparagus spears and haricots verts, getting them on the trays for our mise en place for the evening.
We were expecting 35-40, and needed to prep for a max of 75. With all the work both behind us and ahead, the assortment of little goals (i.e., getting everything in place) to try and hit the bigger target (i.e., a dinner service that wasn't a total fucking failure) was moving along as well as can be expected.
Now, if the fucking meat truck would just show up.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Just a Taste
Somewhere around 1AM, I finally was able to take off my whites and sit down after working a thirteen hour shift in the kitchen. Bob poured wine for me and filled Elizabeth's glass, and the owner of the restaurant sat down to join us. He pulled out a wad of bills with an appreciative smile.
"Alright, how much?"
"Aw man, whatever's fair. I'm not going to give you a number. Hell, this was like going to Disneyland for me."
"No," Bob interrupted. "This was your Space Camp."
Silly as that sounds, that was about right.
I'll have more to say when I'm not as profoundly tired as I am now. I got stupid-assed drunk last night and probably drove home ten hours later still able to blow a point-oh-five or so. That was delightful.
Happy New Year y'all.
Monday, December 31, 2007
On The Menu
I got up early this morning to run through a little planning, now that I have the prix fixe menu in hand. Here's pages five and six of my notes:
Thankfully, all this stuff looks like food I can cook, although it's absolutely fair to say that I haven't cooked most of this before.
The starter is an amuse bouche they call "Island Crab Salad on Endive Leaves." Since there is no recipe for that, I probably get to decide what that means (assuming they're depending on me to create this out of thin air, that is). I'll probably steam and mince some crab, and then chill it with red onion, cilantro, green pepper and mango (assuming) in some sort of olive oil/fruit juice marinade.
There's a shrimp bisque coming next, which is going to be a bitch. I hope to god they've got a recipe for that, else I'm totally fucking faking it.
Appetizers include a raw bar plate (super easy to prep and plate) and a "Tiki Plate" with satay of chicken and beef, onion rings and glazed pork ribs. All stuff I can do.
Entrees start with a surf and turf (grilled filet, steamed lobster, tarragon potatoes), a banana leaf wrapped salmon in a curry marinade (which will get steamed, so that's hard to screw up), and a pomegranate roast duck (highest margin of error right here).
Two desserts - a bakery-made chocolate cake and a coconut creme brulee (which I'm assuming I can make, although I never have before).
Disconnecting and driving to Jersey now, I'll see you on the other side...
Sunday, December 30, 2007
You're Not Gonna Believe This...
Although I fully expect this to fall through between now and noon tomorrow, it appears that my New Years' Eve plans have just come into focus. I'm going to be doing something I've been wanting to do for at least ten years now.
I'm going to be spending all day in the kitchen.
Wait! Not just any kitchen - an actual restaurant, cooking for actual patrons. Hell, if you're in the Jersey City/NYC area tomorrow, stop by and have a drink and some shellfish.
How'd this happen? Basically, a Frenchman ran away from conflict (surprise!), a sous chef refused to change his plans, and the owner's Rolodex apparently bore no fruit in his search for competent help. He mentioned this to girlfriend of Uncle Bracelet, who told Uncle Bracelet, who then remembered his brother's three-years of weekends working the line in a steakhouse and thought he could help.
I can't begin to tell you how intimidating this is going to be. I get two hours or less of the sous chef walking me through the menu and where to find everything, I get most/all of the prep work in place when I arrive, and I get two guys working the line with me (why they can't run the show on their own is beyond me, but whatever) to help out. There's a party of 30 on the books, and another 20-50 covers expected over the evening, so it might not be totally harried, but that's still ten times more people than I've cooked for in one fell swoop than I've cooked for in probably nine years.
The owner told me just now that I couldn't possibly screw this up worse than if they had no help at all whatsoever, so I got that going for me I guess. Oy!
I'll have the camera with me. No live-blogging, but will hopefully have some good war stories on the other side.
Should be fun. Wish me luck.
Bill Simmons @ ESPN
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