Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Smell Like Fish

A Brief Observation On The FISH

Fish in this trattoria come in three ways ... jarred, frozen and very recently dead.

The jarred (anchovies) are mainly used with tartare (beef and rabbit).

The frozen sometimes are popular ... Cogollo is deep in the mountainous area of NE Italy, and there is no fresh fish outlet here serving crab, shrimp, lobster, cod, hake or scampi. We have to make do with frozen.

The recently dead I have become depressingly familliar with today ... I smell like fish and scallops. I’ve shucked about 6 dozen scallops this morning before 10, and followed that up with about an hour and a half of dealing with a variety of Branzino and Orata.

Each of these comes expired. Dead. And entirely whole, complete; ready for the breath of life, I suppose, if they weren’t packed in ice.

Each starts by having all fins but the dorsal removed with scissors, then removal of the scales with a scale-scraper.

The Orata are gutted from below (slit the belly) and then have the gills removed. Thus the belly can be packed with seasoning, and the fish presented to the customer. It will look like a fish.

The Branzino are dealt with in a more complicated fashion. After removing the fins and scales, I start with removing the gills. Then I make two slits along the back, cutting down into the beast from the top on either side of the dorsal fin, right down to, but not through, the belly-skin. Then I remove the backbone in one piece, gut the fish, remove bones and finish by turning it almost inside-out. The fish is then ready to have the inside dressed (porcini, potatoes, whatever inspires Chef), the fish to be baked or roasted, and served.

Today I had about 20 fish to do in less than two hours, And clean all the scallops. This was to be done before noon. And make bread from scratch ... four different kinds, properly weighed, using a delicious natural fruit yeast starter. And make sure the bread has time to rise (about an hour), and get baked, and the kitchen to cool down so I don’t wreck the fish by working with them in a hot kitchen.

Then the trattoria opened for business and it has been a non-stop day of up the stairs to the large refrigerator, down the stairs to the patisserie. Fetch this, find that. Yes, Chef, No, Chef. Cut up rabbit to make a small ragout to go with mini gnocci, saute beef tournedos, shell and prepare shrimp, deal with a lot of vegetables, make creme brulee in several forms (including a deadly pistachio one!), make gelato, run a vacuum-sealing machine, disembowel and dismember a rabbit, french some lamb chops, make salads, prepare baked bufalo mozarella six times, flambee something I can’t even remember now, and deal with a gazilion small things that just need to be done and right now and fast and 10 minutes ago and why don’t you know what this is in Italian yet? Yes, Chef! A working commercial kitchen at full throttle is an unforgiving place ... the pressure is intense ... the drive for perfection and creativity enormous.

Part of my job is to learn the menu, not by name so much as by the ingredients and processes so I can anticipate what Chef will need. This sometimes means making a run to the freezer in advance of a need, or getting up three hours early so the bread can be made and the kitchen will be free when Chef comes in at 11. Many of my work days start at about 8:30 in the morning, and we just quit a few minutes ago and it is gone midnight.

This student-cook is writing to you, and enjoying a good, well-chilled beer.