Sunday, October 4, 2009

Walk 3 Metres In Chef's Shoes

Well, the Chef hardly walked last night, and THAT’S a good thing. Martha would probably have approved.

Let me explain ...

Saturday night in the restaurant business almost anywhere is one of the two heavy nights of the week (the other being Friday). We were sitting eating a bit of dinner, the three of us looking at each other, slowly enjoying a simple meal. A little chat. One of Chef’s brothers dropped in for a visit with one of his kids, and it was a nice, quiet family gathering. No rush ... it was after 6 in the evening, and we had no reservations to anticipate. This was regrettable, but not the end of the world. We’re pretty remote. I had done a little cooking for Chef and his mother for dinner, but (with no reservations) had decided to wait until later to eat myself. I had been fiddling around in the kitchen since about 5, gently doing anticipatory prep for next week. Sylvia came in, having spent the day on her feet at a Sommeliers’ convention and competition (she did well).

The phone rang. Chef answered, nodded a few times, said ‘ciao’ and hung up. We finished dinner ... Chef said to me “Martin, go prepare bread for 12 people”. He was not kidding. From zero to twelve in a minute. We only have twenty chairs.

Now, I had spent all morning and a good deal of the afternoon cleaning the refrigerators and freezers in advance of a visit from the Public Health inspectors on Monday morning. The place was spotless! The walls scrubbed, the floors too. Everything cleaned, sorted; old, tired little items lurking in the back of a tray had been judged and either tossed, properly rotated or at least spiffed up. The placed looked good. We were ready for the inspection! Cleaned up like artwork for a public viewing.

After last night, I have no legs left to do it again. Up the stairs, down the stairs. The big walk-in refrigerator is up nine stairs and through a narrow door into another part of this 300 year old building. The patisserie is down five stairs and in a old brick-vaulted room. This is past another set of fridges, a blast freezer, the meat slicers and the slide (the counter where the plates, prepared in the kitchen, are given to the waiter or hostess to pick up and present to the customers in the dining room).

This means that the kitchen is separated from the prep areas by the slide ... it is a formal dividing line in most kitchens ... the cooks on one side, the ‘help’ on the other. They don’t mix much. The kitchen here is not large (about 4 metres long, about 3 wide, built like a bowling alley, with the slide at one end and a window to the street at the other. If we open the window we have immediate access to the window-boxes of fresh herbs we grow, and can, in the middle of service, reach out to the waste bin and toss out bags).

On the two sides of the kitchen are kitchen pot, pan and wares storage, a blast oven, a large hot-top, a 4-burner industrial gas range, two sinks, a dishwasher and an immediate-use refrigerator. The walls have knife-magnets on them. There is a pair of racks above the slide. There is a small dry-erase board for us to write notes to ourselves (we write names of foods or processes that have to be done before our next service, such as listing mozzarella and beef to buy, or cook peas and put through a chinoise). There is no decoration of any kind save one large picture of the Virgin Mary, high on the wall, gazing very fondly at the stove.

In the middle of all this stands the Chef. Chef does not want to have to move very far. His job is all done within this small space. My job is to make sure he does not have to leave for any reason. Some days I am more successful than others. Last night I was completely stumped when he asked for some of the prepared pigeon, and I had no clue as to what it looked like or where it was, so he had to leave his post and go get it and show me. This slows down the entire kitchen, so the trattoria suffers.

Chef does not really want to move very far at all. He wants to have food, in the form he wants or needs, handed to him instantly so he can do what inspires him to make it delicious and present it with flair and imagination. Then he pushes it across the slide and hopes for the best. Inept service can scuttle any Chef’s best work, or add greatly to it with fine, discrete service and imaginative, knowledgeable wine suggestions. Sylvia (the entire wait-staff and hostess responsibility falls on her shoulders) is a master at this. Out she goes through the flipper-doors, a discrete smile on her face, making people feel cared-for, the very centre of her attention.

Last night (except for the unfortunate pigeon incident) was utter ballet. Balanchine would have been thrilled! We do it with knives, very hot equipment, crockery and not much talk. It is fast and surprisingly quiet ... our 'pas de trois'.
One of my Chefs at ALMA said, “No talk! Work!” Chef tells me what he needs, and I get it. He tells me what to do and it is done very fast. And in between the two of us is his Mum, who runs the dishwasher and puts things away. Sylvia comes and goes. When she brings in a written order Chef and I both look at it: he wants to know what he will be doing, and I need to know what he will need to do it. Much of my work is anticipatory ... all Chef has to do is ask, and what he needs is put into his hands. Reminds me of movies of an operating room. We wear uniforms, we just use slightly different tools and processes. “Knife! Sponge! Blender! Rabbit!”

The secret to running a trattoria, or a large restaurant, is preparation. Then the dance is really fun.

So last night Chef didn’t have to walk much, although he never stopped moving all evening. We both keep a large bottle of water at hand, and by the end of the evening we’d each poured in at least a couple of litres. Our jackets, some evenings, are actually wringing wet.

Today is Sunday and we are closed. Our legs hurt, our hips hurt, our feet hurt. The trattoria needs re-stocking, and we’re taking a rest. Chef is going cycling with friends, Sylvia is gone to visit her parents in Marostica and your humble scribe is reporting in.

Have a delicious week-end!

My Chef-teachers at George Brown Chef School, Chef Tomaselli, Chef Meneses and Chef Gonzalez, used to demonstrate careful preparation technique in every class ... they would come in very early to do prep and lay-out, so when the class started before 8 in the morning, no matter what was going to be taught or demonstrated or developed, everything was just one or two steps away and the Chef could utterly focus on the process and the products. It was a superb demonstration of professionalism, in every class, every day. The food was jaw-droppingly good, but what has stuck with me just as much was the preparation for making the dish. Each Chef got ready to get ready (mental focus, clothing, tools, equipment), then actually did his mis-en-place (prepared the vegetables or pastry flour and butter for use or demonstration, arranged his ingredients in bowls, had a scale out to measure precisely what he wanted, to the gram). When the class started, it was a process of sharing a concept, a description of what and why it was done this way, what variations were available or suggested, and what to avoid. Then preparation and presentation of the dish by technique and tool. These classes were convincing models in every way.