Last night, the p.m. sous chef, Greg, gave me the night off from prepping to go upstairs and observe the controlled chaos that is dinner service. The restaurant runs two separate kitchens, one for the casual dining room and one for the bigger, fancier restaurant. Downstairs, where I’ve been for the past two days, is where the casual restaurant’s kitchen is located and also where all the prep happens. The pastry kitchen, offices, and big refrigerators are downstairs, too. Upstairs consists of the two adjoining dining rooms and the main kitchen, which is right in the open, visible at all times to customers and the outside world. It consists of three main work islands: Think of a counter top about the size of a dining room table but not as wide, with a very hot iron plate on its surface surrounded by marble. Each station has a built-in shelf where serving dishes are stacked, two side-by-side flame burners that together look like a gigantic camping stove, and a broiler. It’s 8 p.m. when I appear, right in the middle of dinner. Psychologically, I feel like a clod of dirt clinging to the heel of a large boot, so I try to make myself as small as possible, which is tough because there’s a ton of foot traffic. The dishwashers shuttle blazing-hot sizzle platters and copper pots back and forth from the sinks in the next room and to the individual stations. The line cooks are constantly opening and shutting the doors to the lowboy refrigerator units to retrieve portions of meat, vegetables, fish, what have you. The chef de cuisine threads his way around the whole kitchen to make sure no one’s having a meltdown. And then there’s me, the basically useless extern who is asking people to narrate their work as they perform it and writing stuff down in a tiny notebook.
Here’s a brief tally, just to give you a sense of how much food these eight men put out: It’s the slow season, everyone tells me, and yet they average around 140 covers a night. One cover translates to one person in the dining room. Typically, that’s three to four courses: amuse bouche (which doesn’t really count because it’s the free plate of exquisite noshies that go out to everyone), an appetizer, the entrée course of fish or meat, and dessert and coffee. But it can also mean seven courses when someone orders the tasting menu: appetizer, soup, two fish dishes, two meats, and dessert. The number of dishes on the restaurant’s entire menu stacks up like this: three amuse bouches, five cold appetizers, eight hot apps plus four more for the tasting menu, seven meat entrées plus vegetables and starch, 10 fish entrees plus veg and starch.
By industry standards, this is a pretty extravagantly manned kitchen. Other, lesser restaurants might have just four people doing the same amount of work. But herein lies the difference between no stars and four stars: At this restaurant (four stars), each line cook is expected to make as much of the food from his station as à la minute as possible. This means that the beurre rouge, or buttered red-wine reduction sauce, that you’re spooning over your beef tenderloin hasn’t been sitting around for two hours in a hot-water bath. It was made just a minute ago.
I’m standing next to Quinn, an impossibly clean-cut, handsome young man who is responsible for roasting, searing, and broiling all the meat entrees. At 28, Quinn’s already been cooking for nine years, so he’s a pro, and my hovering and poking my nose into his stuff does not faze him at all. At the moment, he and the head-honcho chef are inspecting a piece of venison that Quinn has cut into thin, even slices; they almost knock heads as they bend over slightly to get a better look. A couple pieces have this funny bloody spot in the middle, even though the rest of it is cooked to lovely medium-rare. “Throw it out,” says head-honcho chef, who informs us that the blood mark is a vestige of the bullet’s path through the deer. “Not because it is bad but because it is too weird.” “Yes, chef,” says Quinn, and pitches what must be a $30 portion of venison into the trash. He continues slicing from the other, non-weird chunk of meat.
Quinn’s station is only moderately under fire: One veal, two venison, two lamb, one duck, plus all the accompanying jus and sauces. His partner on the other side of the station, Chris, is making the vegetables that go with the meat entrees. They will convene at the far end of the counter and plate the full dishes side-by-side, each placing his contribution in its proper spot, with perfect precision, even when that involves a one-two-one-two layering effort. I witness a balletic example of unspoken cooperation between these two comrades-in-arms: Quinn and Chris (try saying that three times fast) are going through their paces, talking the whole time in a kind of twin-sy shorthand. Quinn moves sideways toward the rear of the station so that he can deposit a used sheet pan on the back counter; Chris follows in order to maintain a conversation they’re having. As Quinn’s sheet pan makes contact with the counter, the piece of parchment paper on it flutters up as it catches a whoosh of air from the ventilation system. Without missing a beat, Chris catches the paper in his free hand and stuffs it in the trash. They go on working, not needing to acknowledge the lovely synchronicity that has formed between them after months of doing the same thing night after night.
I try to visually track what Quinn is doing. In the space of tens of seconds, he has done these things: 1) veal chop out of the oven and onto a platter; 2) dirty platter to the back sink; 3) spoonful of butter into a saucepan of warming jus, followed by a spoonful of foie gras butter and a squirt of truffle juice and a touch of sherry vinegar; 4) whisking; 5) an order is called for his station, which he registers by parroting the order back to the chef. “Beef!” 6) seasoning the jus with a pinch of salt; 7) spooning a bit of jus over the veal; 8) pouring the rest into a silver gravy boat; 9) veal to the plate; 10) plate to the service tray. His movements are quick and minimal, and his muscles have internalized the first rule of kitchen work: “Clean as you go.” He wipes down every surface within moments after it becomes dirtied by bits of caramelized meat crust, an errant splash of sauce, a dusting of spice rub. Quinn is a model of laser focus, but that’s not to say he’s not having fun. There’s a constant patter of sarcasm happening between him and the rest of the guys, and Quinn has enough presence of mind so that when he swings around a corner to fetch a copper saucepan he can tweak the ass of the dishwasher on his way back.
The same mixture of rote body movement, joking around, and minor mishaps is going on everywhere else in the kitchen. I can see Jason, the assistant to the fish cook, accidentally burn his hand on a hot skillet handle. Tona, the cold apps guy, is a study in comic irony. He’s a big, tall Mexican guy with long, curly black hair tied back in a ponytail and thick silver hoop earrings in each ear. Right now, he’s turning out delicate football-shaped mounds of mustard butter by forming them between two absurdly small silver spoons. Next, he’s using his enormous fingers to pinch the stem end of a single leaf of curly cress and lay it, as if placing a contact lens on someone else’s eyeball, over a pile of diced mango. It’s approaching 10:30, and it looks like it’s going to be an early close: The last table was seated at 9:30, so Mike, the hot apps guy, is contemplating his escape and the end-of-the-night reward that Tona has got cooling in his lowboy. “Is it ready yet?” asks Mike. Tona produces a small vat of bright orange jiggly stuff. “Almost,” he reports. “What is that?” I ask. Tona replies, “Do you know what a Jello shot is?” Ah.