Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Day in the Life

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Rich Matosky decided he wanted to take a weekend and spend some time in my kitchen. He wrote a short essay describing his experiences in the Sheppard Mansion kitchen and I thought everyone might enjoy reading it. I've included some photos from our daily 'work' and also a video of us during service. Hope this sheds some light on the 'day to day'.... Enjoy....and a special thanks to Rich. You can wear a 'goofy skull cap thing' anytime in my kitchen.

'So you want to be a Professional Chef?'
The foodie world is chock full of fairly well-off, well-intentioned and, mostly, narcissistic people that think because they read books, go out to great restaurants, frequent farmer’s markets and entertain their friends at multi-course dinner parties once in awhile – they automatically qualify as chefs.

That would be me, well, sort of me. Not everything outlined above can be attributed to me, but enough does that I am loathe to dispute the premise.

Especially the wanna-be chef part.

You see, I LOVE to cook.

In the beginning – back in the stone ages of the early 80’s - because of a lack of a really great “line”, it was a way to get chicks. Back then, you didn’t really have to be a good cook, you just had to be better than the next guy, which wasn’t hard since the next guy didn’t even bother to try.

So that’s what happened. Since I merely tried, I was fairly successful at cooking food – to get women. Along the way I found out that what I put out wasn’t half bad.

Sometimes it was actually pretty good, which along with “other” positive reinforcement, encouraged me to expand my repertoire, read more, take risks, invite more people – and wonder if I could do this “professionally”.

Fast forward a few years, ok, A LOT of years. My kitchen is full of tools and gadgets and books and all the accoutrements of a seasoned home cook. Dinner parties are staged, sometimes weekly. People tell me, like they have for years, that I should open a restaurant, do this thing I love to do full time.

Along the way, at all of those great restaurants that we foodies frequent, I end up befriending some chefs. When you befriend a chef you get to pick their brain, steal ideas, and ask about techniques.

If you’re lucky, they enjoy the interest, humor you a bit, look at you sideways and tell themselves that you are not as annoying as they first think you are….but THEY know the truth….being a chef is all about hard work, not glamour. And most of the time, “celebrity” extends only as far as their last perfectly cooked piece of fish.

Which brings me to my experience in the kitchen of the Sheppard Mansion – in the heart of Central Pennsylvania ( www.sheppardmansion.com )

The kitchen is run by Andy Little – a great chef and a budding friend of mine who had invited me out to spend a few days – actually a Friday & Saturday – in his kitchen.

Working.

Not playing, not dreaming, not fantasizing, WORKING.

Hard.

I was to arrive by 10:00 AM on Friday to get acquainted with the kitchen, the menu, his staff and the process and procedures that he has put into place over the last several years that has helped him make the Sheppard Mansion THE go to spot for fine dining in Central PA.

I was forty-five minutes late. It was raining, there were traffic accidents on the turnpike and it couldn’t be helped.

I walk up the steps and there he is, “Mr. Happy” pointing to his watch. I walk in the door and instead of being greeted like the friend I think I am, I’m told “You’re late, where have you been?”

Nice.

Next, I’m handed the kitchen’s standard uniform – chef’s whites, a blue apron and a goofy skull cap beanie thing. I’m told to go change because I’m going to be helping Andy – Chef Little – do the prep for the tasting menu this evening.

Cool. That works.

I go and change. I’m not liking the goofy skull cap thing. I get why everyone has to wear it, but can’t I just wear a decent looking baseball cap?

No.

And that, as they say, is that.

My first impression of the kitchen?

Quiet.

There’s no music. There’s little conversation as Scott and Patrick and Andy – and now me – go about the business of preparing the mise en place for tonight’s menu.

I get to chop the shrimp up fairly finely for the shrimp fritters that comprise one of the courses on the Tasting Menu. I’m then told to pick herbs that were cut earlier from the gardens outside the back door.

After that, it’s time to mix the dough, then knead, proof and portion – 2 ounces per – for the restaurant’s signature “pretzel rolls”

There’s only one problem with that, Andy. I don’t bake. At all. Ever.

Too much like high school chemistry class. One has to actually FOLLOW a recipe in order for the product to turn out the way it’s supposed to.

I’ve never done that. My cooking is more “free form” than that. A little of this and a little of that, a taste here, a pinch of something there.

Guess what, it usually works. Even when you’re cooking an eight course tour de force for ten people and the dishes on the menu you circulated sound as if Thomas Keller himself wrote the descriptions. Recipes, who needs recipes?

Not me. I’m a concept cook. That’s why I don’t bake.

Not in this professional kitchen. Not when you’re making the signature pretzel rolls that have to look a certain way, bake a certain way, taste a certain way.

After I got over how quiet and relaxed everyone was, I had to grasp the fact that every one of them keeps and refers to – on a regular basis during the day – a little beat up pocket journal where they keep all of their recipes for everything from pretzel rolls to tempura batter to five different kinds of vinaigrette.


Interesting. Enlightening.

And the beat goes on.

Wait, its four o’clock in the afternoon. Where did the time go? An hour and a half until service and there are still things to be done.

It took me twice as long to form the pretzel roll dough as it takes the others. That slowed me down. The other things on my list were quietly re-distributed to the professionals in the kitchen and added to their own lists….lists that are not discussed, not cross referenced, not debated. In a professional kitchen, it seems, the chefs who work there know EXACTLY what it is that needs to be done from the moment they walk in the door in the morning, until they leave some twelve to fourteen hours later.

And in this kitchen, the head chef, the executive, the BOSS, for crying out loud, does any and all jobs that need to get completed….including washing the overcrowded sink area that holds the tools used to prep for the night’s service. BEFORE THE DISHWASHER GETS THERE!!!

Interesting. Enlightening.

I’m thirsty. Really thirsty. It kind of hits me all at once that my mouth is as dry as dry gets and that my 48 year old, out of shape physique needs something to drink. And eat.

And I need to sit down. Now.

Staff meal on Friday is pizza.

Hanover pizza.

Typical pizza. Not bad, not great, just there. Something to put in my stomach to quell the pang that suddenly is reminding me that the two poached eggs I had eaten at 6AM have given their all to sustain me to this point and the time has come to “replenish”.

A quick review, while everyone munches, of what is done for tonight’s service, what needs to be done and the announcement that I’m going to be on “hot apps” tonight AND I’m going to help Andy with any tasting menu orders that occur.

Great.

I have been so busy making sure that the herbs are picked just right, the celery is diced EXACTLY the way I was shown it needs to be and packaged, labeled and stored in the right spots that I’ve barely read either menu to see how the dishes are constructed and I’m the one responsible for all of the hot app orders that come in?

You’re kidding, right? This is a business – which is the one thing I can relate to in a “professional kitchen” – and that means that EVERYTHING that goes out of it needs to be perfect, not just ok or fine…..but perfect.

Or the customer doesn’t come back…maybe ever. Which is not good for business.

Now that I understand…. Why, then, is this perfectionist chef, the one who would tell me the next day, AFTER service was over that the water temperature I used for the pretzel roll dough wasn’t exactly 105 degrees and he could tell in the finished product….why would he let me cook the hot apps when I had never seen any of them in their cooked, plated form?

Because, he said, that’s how you learn. And since I wanted to work the weekend in a professional kitchen, feeding paying customers that I didn’t know was a part of that.

Working under pressure is a part of that.

Doing your best, each and every dish is a part of that.

Satisfying people every night is a part of that.

Plus, besides expediting orders and finished dishes, Andy would be watching my every move, giving me just enough rope to succeed, not enough to hang myself.

It’s 5:30 and the first reservation shows up. That’s when the next really cool thing happens. Andy tells everyone to put down their knives, go over to the coffee station and grab a cup of French press the wait staff had put out for us and to meet him on the back porch.



The same porch, hours earlier in the rain, I had been greeted with – “You’re late”.

Now the sun was out, the cool breeze was up and everyone sat down to drink some killer coffee, reflect on the day and get charged for the night.

A brief moment in time when the romance of being a professional chef actually lives up to how it’s portrayed on TV and in magazines and in books. It’s cool. Really cool.

Service is a blur of activity because I REALLY don’t know what I’m doing. Everyone else does and since it’s not “hammer-time” on this particular Friday, the orders come in and the food goes out like clock-work.

Even the hot apps I’m responsible for look and taste like they are supposed to. At one point, Andy Little declares that he is a little bored because things are so smooth.

Huh?!

Oh well. The last desserts go out and guess what’s next?

You got it. Breakdown and clean-up.

Everything out of the coolers. Clean the coolers. Clean out the refrigerators. Re-package and label the unused product. Take apart the stove. The WHOLE stove? Jeez, you’re kidding me. The WHOLE stove, not just the burners?

Yep. The whole stove.

EVERYTHING in this kitchen gets scrubbed and cleaned – every night.

All of a sudden it dawns on me that I’m 48 years old. You know how I know?

My back and feet are telling me – “You’re 48 years old, dude. Time to stop acting like you’re 28 years old”.

My back hurts, my feet hurt and there’s still an hour of grueling cleaning to do before I can go upstairs, take a hot shower and go to bed. Which is what I do.

Saturday.

Its day two of this poseur chef thing I not only volunteered for, but actually lobbied Andy to let me do.

What was I thinking?

Right, we already talked about that. Chef romance fantasy lifestyle thing.

My back and feet are basically telling me to screw that.

Andy and I drive to Baltimore to scope out the “famous” 32nd Street Farmer’s Market. It’s an hour from the restaurant. He picks me up at 7AM.

We both need coffee. I usually don’t need coffee. It’s not really early for me, as I’m used to getting up at five or so everyday.

Today, 7AM is EARLY. My body hurts. I’m old. I’m an amateur.

We get back from the farmer’s market at 10AM. Back into uniform.

The pile of clothes from the day before smells. Like grease. I hadn’t noticed it before. Good thing I brought another set of clean work clothes.

The goofy scull cap is back on my head. I’m ready.

Today I get handed the recipe for the pretzel rolls and I’m told I need to make a double batch because the restaurant is not only full tonight, it’s over full and those “signature” rolls will be in demand.



Wait. Now I have to make these from scratch? On my own? Jeez.

Not only that, but in between mixing and kneading and proofing and portioning, I have to go out in the gardens and cut most of the herbs for the entire service, which then need to be picked and then they need to be packaged, marked and stored on ice….so they don’t dry out.

Plus, I have to go out and pick baby pansy flowers for the dish garnishes, oh and I also have to so my own mise en place for tonight’s service – I’m back on hot apps again.

Again, it’s quiet in the kitchen. Work just gets done. Light banter today. The sun is out, the air is cool and I get another “French Laundry Moment” when I go out in my full chef get up and go around to each of the beds and cut assorted herbs, sort them, go around to the flower beds and pluck pansy flowers from their plants.

Cool. Until I go to stand back up.

I can’t stand up straight. Its three freaking o’clock and I’ve got until midnight, at least, to survive and I can’t stand up!

I hobble into the kitchen. No one even looks up. Over to the first aid drawer and pop some aspirin. I NEED to get rid of this pain or I’m not going to make it.

I’m 48 years old. I resolve that the next dinner guest who tells me I should be cooking for a living is going to get thrown out of a window. Who was I kidding?

I couldn’t do this for a living if my life depended on it. All of these guys I’m with have trained – formally – to do this. They are passionate about food, where it comes from, how it’s raised, how best to prepare the great raw ingredients they are blessed to have.

I do dinner parties on the weekends and – if I’m up to it - simple – good – but simple dishes during the week.

There’s no comparison and my old, fat, out of shape body is telling me what my intellectual mind already knew….what you see on TV and what you read about in magazines is the glossy version of reality.

Five o’clock.

Saturday service. The first guests show up. Early on there’s a ten top and a seven top.


The professionals in the kitchen, which tonight, in addition to Andy, Scott and Patrick, includes Dan, are ready and waiting. My back and feet still hurt…A LOT.

Dan.

Dan’s a food broker by day. He and Andy knew each other back in the day when they were getting their cooking indoctrination at the local country club and then went to The CIA together. Andy thinks the world of Dan.

Dan works the “pass” on Saturday nights to keep his “chops” up. He’s quiet, methodical, fast and has food instincts that I can only wish I had. This allows Andy to roam the stations, help people out and make sure each dish is up to spec.

And the first curve ball of the evening is the fact that there are two kids on the ten top and there’s NOTHING on the menu that they will eat.

“Front of the House” wants to know if we can accommodate.

Ask us after our cool-ass French Press pre-service coffee….PLEASE!

Andy tells Dan to handle it. He goes to dry storage and the walk-in. Comes back with an arm full of ingredients. He’s happy he’s found some elbow macaroni. He tells “Front of the House” to inquire if the kids like bacon. They do. Good.

They are getting the best macaroni and cheese they have ever had. Dan goes to work. Grates the cheeses. Boils the water. Sauté’s the bacon.

All the while he calls out the orders from the pass. Works the stove, keeps an eye on me. Bails me out when I get behind – or in the lingo of the kitchen – “get into the shit”.

It happens, a lot that night. It’s a busy night. Too much to tell.

A lot like last night. Only busier. A lot busier. More orders faster. More food being juggled, finished, plated.

And then it hits me, about halfway through service. My back. My feet.

They don’t hurt anymore. Like, not at all.

Adrenaline.

A wonder drug.

And the dance goes on.

Andy has some friends in from Bucks County. His old sous chef at EverMay on the Delaware.

He will cook them a tasting….at this point, I see a whole lobe of foie gras going into a pan to roast. He’s doing a whole foie gras for them! The rest of us continue to work. Scott and Dan, on my side, don’t miss a beat.

Patrick on the cold and dessert side. Quiet, efficient. His food is on the money.

I continue to struggle to just keep up. Tonight, though, I think I get it. Just a smidge. Just enough to understand, not enough, though, to change my mind about this business.

It Is Hard.

Night in and night out.

It Is Hard.

No romance, no cameras, no fawning fans. Just honest, hard work.

In the end, Little is pleased with the night. Which is an accomplishment. Believe me.

The kitchen is broken down and cleaned, top to bottom – again.

The front of the house gets a killer staff meal.

We all retire to the bar for a drink…..I get to bed at 3 AM. I don’t get up at five.

Conclusion.

Besides the obvious I’ve already mentioned, the bulk of the important work in a fine dining restaurant begins with the conception of the menu and the individual dishes that comprise it and the sourcing of only the BEST ingredients.

The sourcing of the ingredients is what separates Andy Little from the rest. He cultivates friendships and bonds with farmers, herdsman, cheese makers and fisherman.

How those ingredients are raised, what is used to feed them, how they live and are harvested is as important a component of his food as the preparations.

The next most important thing is the preparation of the pristine ingredients that go into the well conceived dishes on the well conceived menu.

Waste nothing, use it all. That’s an Andy Little motto.

Service.

In the end, to be honest, service just seems like a mechanical process that could just as well be occurring in a restaurant in Des Moines as easily as it is occurring at The Sheppard Mansion. The process of boiling, broiling, sautéing and frying is the same…it’s the ingredients, the attention to detail that borders on fanatical, the shared vision of the entire restaurant crew, that makes all of the difference.

And the skill and passion of the people that cook the food we eat.

Back to my day job.

My back has finally stopped hurting.

1 comment:

Bob del Grosso said...

Wow Rich, the writing is actually pretty good (the voice is clear and natural) but it feels like you left something out. :-)

I suppose you always knew that the version of the restaurant kitchen that we see on TV and elsewhere, is an idealized version that has been prettied up by chefs who see the opportunity to be on TV as a chance to escape the real thing. Even Bourdain's famously gritty depiction of restaurant life in "Kitchen Confidential" is tweaked to make it sound like the nasty bits are actually kind of cool.


BTW, baking can be just as "conceptual" as other forms of cooking once you have done it long enough to understand what each ingredient contributes to the mix, you have mastered the fundamental techniques, you have a handle on the role of ambient temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure on how the baking proceeds.

And Andy:

Why didn't you make Rich clean the grease trap or scrub out the dumpster to round out his stage? I think you went much too easy on him.