Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Importance of Home Grown

If you think this post is going to be about food, you're wrong. Please read on....

We usually associate the term 'home grown' with produce....or perhaps you're a baseball fan from a time when home grown could have been associated with talent that was groomed for years in the minor leagues and then went on to play for the big league team (where have you gone 'Oriole Way'????). I've got a little different perspective (I know that doesn't surprise anyone).

We had the great fortune to cook for some 'industry-types' on saturday night. Without naming names, he is a former sommelier at a huge place in DC, has worked for a James Beard Award Winning chef and is opening a new place in two weeks. We had no idea he was 'in the biz' until after his dinner was over and I was asked to meet his table in the dining room. However, for reasons that I can't divulge, Karen and I had 'flagged' his reservation as a person of interest (yes, we work in much the same way the NSA and CIA work) Anyhow, I told you all of that so that I could get to the point of my story. As we were talking, he mentioned how great the service was....to which I in turn related to him that our restaurant team as a whole is home grown. Meaning, we are, as a whole from Hanover. For anyone who knows Karen's story, you'll immediately jump up and say 'wait a minute, Karen is from Tennessee.' She's actually from Morristown, Tennessee...for those of you who haven't been there, Morristown is basically Hanover with a drawl and Krystal Hamburgers. Enough said. Anyhow, on with the story. This guy was VERY impressed with the whole package...food, service, ambiance, the whole 9 and said so more than once. I mention that he was 'in the biz' for a reason. Folks who work in restaurants are a bunch of picky bitches. Myself included. We rarely kick back and relax when dining out because we're always 'working', looking for ideas, looking for chinks in the armor. So, a guy from DC was really excited about our product. Cool. The part that made his eyebrows raise up the most was the fact that we were 'homegrown'. My sous chef Scott went to the neighboring high school and most likely threw candy corn in my tuba during the Halloween parade when we were kids. My cold-side guy just graduated from Hanover High School after spending this past school year washing dishes for free because he wanted the experience. He's amazing. Waitstaff, we've got a set of twins who graduated one year behind me in high school, a kid from Littlestown who hadn't waited a table in his life before he came to us and now can work the dining room by himself on slower nights. We've got a guy who came to us from Bakersfield, CA, by way of Las Vegas and has been working in restaurants in the Hanover area so long that he's an honorary citizen....Home Grown. That's what we present every night. A true expression of the area. The personality of the area. Not just with food, but with service and ambiance. Each one of us presents the best expression of the area and together we are greater than the sum of our parts. For those folks who eat at TGIMcFunsters and think it's a great expression of the area, remember this. Those places actually have their staff wear buttons to provide some flair and personality. 'Pieces of flair' belong on Facebook, not on waitstaff. I'm not saying eating at those places is bad, it's just below average. It's cheap, sort of consistent and soulless, but mostly it's cheap.

Where the hell am I going with this?!?!?!?!? Here's what I'm trying to say. We're putting a really good product out every night and the right people are starting to notice( by right people, I mean the folks who don't ask 'why's that place so expensive? I can go to Ryan's steakhouse and eat till I vomit all over my wife for $9.99') We've all been through a lot of shit to get where we are, but, how about this? The same core staff is still here. Two years later and the same faces still cook your food, greet you at the door and take care of the 'details'. That is almost unheard of in the restaurant business and it's not because working at The Mansion is all hugs and puppies. It's not, believe me. It's because as a group we believe in each other and are proud to present a part of ourselves and in turn a part of the area every day. Homegrown.

2 comments:

Bob del Grosso said...

Chef
You must be doing something right to track the kind of attention that I have been seeing in the press. As a partial point of proof I just read that you recently picked up an award from the State of Pennsylvania (via the office of the Governor) for culinary artistry.

I also understand from our mutual friends that you are a fanatic who refuses to use tongs because they mangle the food. When they told me this they did so with what I understood to be a mixture of admiration and horror. Now while that response makes perfect sense to me (I use tongs, you are crazy) I also understood that the habit is indicative of a someone who is a really serious chef.

G-d speed man. You are doing yourself and all of us an honor.

Chef Andrew Little said...

Bob,

Thank you for the post. Yes, we have been very fortunate and are equally excited about the award from the Governor. I'm hoping that we will be able to do some great things with regards to showcasing the intersection of Pennsylvania's artisan agriculture and fine cuisine.

As for the tongs....I started cooking using tongs. I used tongs at the CIA, but at some point I made the decision not to use them. I'm not sure if this is a Thomas Keller thing...I know it's a David Chang thing (http://www.thefoodsection.com/foodsection/2008/03/david-changs-to.html), but here's my take. I always see cooks flipping, spinning, manipulating food with their 'extension of their hand', the tongs. Then I see them spin them around their fingers and slam the tongs in their back pockets. When it's time to use them again, out come the tongs, they are used and yep, you guessed it, back in the back pocket. I used to be guilty of it and I'm here to tell you....it's F'IN gross!!! So that's the dealy-o from a food safety and general sanitation angle. From a simply food angle, you should try banishing your tongs for a week or two. Go on jbprince.com and buy yourself a couple of Kunz spoons and force yourself to work with either the spoons, a fish spatula or a palette knife. I think that after a bit you'll find some satisfaction in cradling that piece of meat out of the pan after its been basted with butter....not squeezing it with tongs. Same thing with vegetables....I can't count how many times I've seen veg. 'stirred' with tongs. It actually rips them apart! The way I see it, you spend so much time trimming, blanching, shocking and storing your veg., that it is a shame to go ram rodding it around with tongs on pick up. Anyhow, that's just me and the more you get to know me, you'll understand that yes, it's fanatical and yes A LOT of people call me crazy, but I love the process, I love the ingredients and I'm always trying to let them tell me what they want. If it's taking the tongs out of my hands because it's better(in my opinion) for the product and makes us, as cooks, take a few seconds longer working with the ingredient, cradling it, then that's just the way it is.