The Difference

The other day I got hooked on the difference when someone ordered the shrimp and strawberry salad, and sent it back because the shrimp was cold curried (as it said on the menu) and not hot grilled. Not a lot different from the woman who ordered the pork stack and thought it was to be pulled pork, but enough to make me notice.

Today I had a woman who wanted the shrimp Caesar without the Caesar … actually she wanted grilled shrimp on hot wilted spinach. I made it and Sonia made up a price. In the center of the plate, I put the hot wilted spinach with four grilled shrimps on top. For color, I added halved cherry tomatoes, roasted corn salsa and guac at the corners. Nice plate.

We don’t quibble much about what the customer wants. It’s a hotel, $200 a night. We want the customer back, with her/his friends and family. If it’s way off the menu, we make up a price. No big deal. And … we like to cook for people who like to eat.

The difference is that we don’t turn tables. I’ve seen groups of people in Berries sitting for breakfast and going til dinner. I saw a woman interview six men. She was at a table with one possible. The rest waited in the lobby. Each interview took about an hour and she had mostly coffee and croissants.

Fine. She will come back. Maybe they will come back. That we don’t worry about turning the tables reminds me of cafes in Paris. It is business, it’s just not linear.

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Brave New Worldly

If you like restaurants and the web, here’s something possibly interesting.

Writing in the NYT food blog Diner’s Journal, Frank Bruni notices a nice, good, wacky but modest restaurant near the Holland Tunnel making it onto the Open Table Best Overall list for restaurants in the city. (Also a useful list if you’re going there soon.)

“Is this somehow another sign of how Internet-savvy the restaurant’s chef and owner, Didier Pawlicki, is?

“As I noted in my review, he personally replies to almost each and every diner comment about the restaurant on the Citysearch web site, either thanking happy diners or reasoning with unhappy ones.

“Has Mr. Pawlicki or someone in his corner gamed Open Table? Or have his aggressive Internet ways spawned an especially Internet-oriented, Internet-activist clientele?”

Wow. Restaurateurs and customers talking? Civilly? About food? To me, this is cool and opens up many possibilities for places like Harrisburg, where you have a lot of Second Street restaurants putting all their effort into alcohol and some (Spice, for instance) that keep good food in the mix. Would it be great if Donny Brown (Firehouse, Fisaga, Dorado) bothered to comment on why your 4-top liked/didn’t like the service or the meal?

It could be just me, but maybe there are interesting conversations coming.

Expedite

It’s a powerful word in a restaurant, expedite. Emeril Lagasse got in hot water at Commander’s Palace, NOLA, for being a screaming hardass expediter, the person who connects the servers and the cooks to push food out faster and make sure the temp and the presentation are right.

Our usual expediter in Patio Grille is Sonia, a big handsome Nordic woman who gets things done in a reasonable voice … and makes the cooks her own water/fruit juice/fizzy cocktail so we stay hydrated. She has and keeps a clear vision of what needs to go out when. That’s important because one long cook time — a duck breast, for instance — will hold up a whole table’s orders. In kitchen talk, we sell the table when the duck goes out.

(Why duck? We can’t partially cook it ahead. We might sell a duck breast every two days. Chicken, I do maybe 8 breasts to start every service, with four flatiron steaks and four portions of salmon. All of that will sell in the first hour. But duck and the tandoori chicken sates, it’s a waste of protein to cook it ahead.)

So today it’s another MFin beautiful 84-degree day and we know we will get slammed. Exec Chef does too, and he comes out to expedite. I don’t want to swear too much here, even in initial code, but bloody hell. He sucks at this job. “Two salmon salads,” he says. Then, “five salmons, we need five salmons.” So is that 7, or did we just get an order for 3? “Pat, we need two salmon salads on the fly.” Are we at 7 now? Or is that the original 2? And why are they on the fly if the ticket just came through 30 seconds ago?

Exec Chef is yelling, which encourages the servers to yell and ask for special speedy service. With Sonia, no one else speaks to us, because we don’t listen. But Exec Chef either can’t control or doesn’t notice the server yelling-frenzy around him.

Bilal and I do not get weeded. We crank out food non-stop, beautiful entrees and salads and sandwiches and apps and we move back and forth between each other’s dishes with very little discussion until Exec Chef is gone and I look up and there are five salmon salads sitting in the window. This is spinach with chile lime dressing, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, black beans and perfectly cooked salmon topped with sweet roasted corn salsa I made an hour ago. It’s a great plate, it ain’t cheap to make or buy, and we have five that will go into the trash can. Jesus bloody wept.

Sometimes managers should stay in bed and call in sick.

Knife Skills

Sara Dickerman, who writes for Slate, spent 8 years in a professional kitchen and probably has a boatload of things she could pass along to her husband.

Andrew hasn’t sought out such pearls of wisdom from me, but the release of Norman Weinstein’s new book-plus-DVD, Mastering Knife Skills, got me wondering whether it would be possible to get Andrew dicing the occasional onion and cutting bagels in a way that doesn’t threaten his brachial artery. Weinstein is a longtime chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, and Mastering Knife Skills is copiously illustrated with photo close-ups demonstrating grips and knife positions. In the accompanying video, Weinstein is pleasantly fluid and matter-of-fact.

Read the whole piece here.

What I do

Megan came by the Patio Grille today with the grandkids, and I showed them the enormous roaring fire I cook on and then took them inside for a kitchen tour. Megan was actually kind of moderately impressed (always a great reaction for a parent) but she wanted to know what I did before Bilal and I go out to cook.

“Prep,” I said. It was true, and I didn’t want to give her my hyperbolic version … that every day is a goddam horserace cranking out prep and guessing what’s enough.  Chef Joe has told me to come in as early as I feel comfortable doing, and I almost told him there is no comfort level. But that would be too much information.

Every day I start with the stuff that takes time: roasting chickens, roasting tomatoes, roasting corn for corn salsa, making tomato salsa, caramelizing onions, making croutons, toasting almonds. Bilal is doing the dressings we make (Buttermilk-Chive and Chile-Lime), and I steal Caesar and Balsamic Vinaigrette that the cold line makes. Bilal also does the veg gazpacho, roasted red pepper soup and sour apple-onion barbecue sauce.

Then I go down the checklist of stuff to chop: strawberries, mozzarella, tomatoes, burger sets (red onion slice, two tomato slices, halved dill pickle and lettuce leaf), quartered cukes, shredded cheese blah blah blah. Then I marinate chicken breasts and flatiron steaks, check that we have enough duck, pork, salmon and tuna and stick my nose deeply into the marinated shrimp to make sure it’s okay. Then I check stuff like quesadilla mix, hummus or spinach dip for the amuse bouche, endive marinade and mango ketchup.

Our prep list is two pages, single-spaced. Maybe 80 items. We need all of them every day because as soon as you don’t have something, you get an order for it. There’s the reverse, too … grill off extra steaks and you won’t sell any.

So that’s what I do, Meg. Thanks for asking.

New tomatoes

Tonight I’m making marinara sauce for tomorrow with a great collection of tomatoes from our porch. We pulled two Black Prince, beauteous red-brown medium-size tomatoes; two incredibly juicy Yellow Perfections, an English heirloom cherry tomato; and two very very red Sugar Lumps, a German heirloom whose fruits hang like grapes, in clusters.

And I’m making sauce why?

Because we didn’t really look closely at our plants on Saturday and bought tomatoes at the market, big beautiful honkin’ Beefsteaks. So I don’t want to lose the product of our minimal effort, and I need to use up the squash we have oodles of and the zucchini the Davisons gave us from their farm. Hence it’s pasta primavera on Monday.

Mark Bittman has a short rant about the flavorlessness of even (gasp) grape tomatoes at the grocery, a new low, which ties nicely into my (actually my wife’s) prudent purchase of heirloom tomato plants from QVC. Yeah, I get the irony. But I’m the guy who ate at McDonald’s on our first night in southern France. (Nothing else was open.)

One more things: a book called Get Saucy by Grace Parisi. For me, James Peterson’s Sauces is the book, but Parisi gets there in a more accessible style. I’m using her marinara recipe, and her tandoori marinade for the tuna tonight. Practical, knowledgeable, good writing. Plus on Amazon it’s $12, not $49.

Previously on …

July 17, 2008

It amazes me how little the black/white issue is an issue in the kitchen. Oh, it always signifies, but in diminished ways. Perhaps it is the great diversity … the two French girls, the Belgian, the Africans (including my friend Kumba, from Sierra Leone), the Vietnamese hive in housekeeping, the Islanders, my Portugese Exec Chef, the Italians we just hired.

Then there is the other diversity … the retarded guys in Dish and Maintenance who like really friendly designations: Bobby, Tommy, Jerry. Tommy always talks about the weather. “Hi, Pat. Hot one today.” Yeah, Tommy, I say, thinking about 93 degrees and the Patio Grille adding another hundred degrees or two. Hot. “Hot one today, Pat.”

Where black spills over is in designations: Miss Pat, Miss Kumba, Miss Blanche, Miss Cheiko … my Japanese friend. Miss Cheiko thought she was old until I told her I was 60. “You not,” she said. All women over the age of mademoiselle are Mama, all men are Papa. Miss Pat will say to me when I am pulling chicken, “Save de wings, Papa,” and I do.

How could I not?

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No fear
July 13, 2008

Tomorrow I start my fourth week on Patio Grille, fine dining outdoors and in. By now i know it takes abundant prep, excellent mise and a low level of anxiety. In both golf and zen there is the same advice: Try less hard. When i have been in the weeds, I do what Chef Joe says. I push food. I look at the tickets and see what is doable immediately. Plus I grill future salmon, since they take the longest. Duck and steak and chicken are pretty much doable within 10 minutes. Salmon the way we do it takes 17 or 20, removing all the pink. It’s not the way I cook at home, I like medium or medium rare salmon. At the grill, I like anyone who orders rare salmon or tuna. It’s so tasty. And pretty.

So I suppose the fear leaves with repetition. Being faced with 10 tickets including six carpese, 2 caesar with shrimp, multiple pulled BBQ chicken and some tuna tacos is not Hell, or even Hell’s Waiting Room. It is, to be frank, shit i can do. Even at 80 degrees and sunny, or what we know as another MFn beautiful day.

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Got my
July 2, 2008

ass kicked today. Big time. Ran out of tuna, shrimp and burger sets, and had a whole tub of tuna 16/20s that went bad, and Chef Joe threw the pan across the tent into the trash. Better next time. What a service. Awesome ticket count. I wasn’t ready.

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With Joe
July 1, 2008

Pushed out beaucoup de food with Chef Joe yelling “Fire this!” and “Start that!” and “I’m just going to keep yelling.” And he did until we made it through the crunch. Okay by me, because it is constructive directional yelling, which is so much better in a crunch than muttering. From time to time, people have described me as having an authority problem. I don’t think so. I think i have an incompetence problem, as in I don’t like people in charge who don’t know WTF they are doing.

People in charge who do are a pleasure to work for. When Joe brings me up short, it is because I’ve been going for safety, not efficiency. He stopped everything at one point and said to me, “When you have a long ticket with a lot of orders, always go first to the ones that take a long time. Always.” This came up because we caught an order with two salmon, three steaks and three elaborate salads, and I started on the salads because … I was comfortable with them. It felt safe.

Seneca said this about that: “The one hope of the doomed is not to hope for safety.”

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Oh well.
June 30, 2008

Turns out there are some things I forgot to ask Bilal before he went on vacation. Now he’s gone and I’m doing prep almost from scratch, it being Monday and weekends tending to deplete all things prepared.

Somewhere in my head as I carmelize onions, grill pineapple slices and make salsa all at the same time are thoughts about anxiety. I don’t feel anxious about the service coming up or getting slammed or being in the weeds or the three or four entrees I’ve never cooked before. Being in the situation will be bad enough, and there is no reason to waste energy on imagining just how bad. For that I thank Brad Warner and Shunryu Suzuki for the philosophy of action called zen, and their practical guides.

(Watched Caddy Shack last night. Yeah it’s stupid SNL Geezer material, but it has so many bad zen jokes that I love.)

I roasted a case of chickens and identified pesto drizzle, tomato cream sauce, charred pepper sauce and pesto shrimp on the speed rack I use. At work, I am an absolute freak for labeling. I use masking tape to note what the hell it is and when it was made, cooked or opened. Bilal does not, so I have very little idea what is in the many squeeze bottles flanking our four main dressing pitchers.

I quarter strawberries, halve grape tomatoes, shave romaine and put way too much garlic in my salsa. Shit. I can’t think of a cure, and the clock is ticking. Tomorrow I’ll make salsa with no garlic and mix them. WTF.

I count duck breasts, flat iron steaks and chicken breasts. I cut some smoked pork loin for the pork stacks I’ll be making, and go to check the chicken. Chef Joe says he’ll watch it for me.

Chef Joe is a big John Candy kind of guy, smart and funny. He told me he’ll be there to help me the way I help Bilal. I don’t believe it. He means it in a Caddy Shack way … as in not, unless I melt down. He will let me attack prep and organize it and go out on the line by myself for as long as I can go. He wants me to succeed. He wants me to do it, bear it, figure it out, come through it. He asks me how I am organizing the service. I show him my flash cards, how to make everything. “You are my god for organizing,” he says. I know he means it. It’s something I do well, and on the line it’s a really important something to be organized. Clutter kills.

Several people tell me they are impressed that I’m cooking for the Patio Grille. Mike Hill, my friend the line cook, asks me if I have any help. “Joe,” I say. He laughs. Stephanie, the Irish dancer and culinary geek, says “Wow” as I take my cart out to the grill.

Behind me, the refrigeration in the Meat and Seafood walk-in just went down, and all the product is going over to the Production walk-in, just as I am leaving with my six-foot speed rack of food. Good omen.

Ahead of me, the Secret Service has shut down the gas to my grill because John McCain is coming in right beside the cook tent sometime today. Bad omen.

Oh well.

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Prep
June 24, 2008

For the past week, I’ve been out in Patio Grille. Working for Bilal during service is smooth and easy. Without discussing it, we’ve split the menu but can still move back and forth to turn out different items. The weather is perfect so lots of people are eating outdoors, and we are dealing with parties of 12s, 15s and 20s … trying to guess what they’ll order, doing a little eavesdropping through the Net of Invisibility that separates the grill from the guests.

What helps a lot is the tendency of people to hear someone order and say, “That sounds good, i’ll have that too.”

I took over the counter near the net and put down five bowls for the five main salads: Charred Romaine, Chicken Caprese, Curried Shrimp, Salmon and Salsa, and Pulled Chicken. Next to that is a hotel pan filled with ice that has the Balsamic Vinaigrette, Chile Lime, Chive Buttermilk and Caesar dressings.

When the ticket for the 20-top came in, it had 8 Curried Shrimp Salads: forty percent of the entree order. I had greens in lime dressing within five seconds, and four plates spread on the counter. Picture your hand held as you might grip a softball, but don’t curl your fingers. That’s a good portion size. After the greens are tossed in the dressing, put your hand in that way, pull it out and put that much on the plate, mounded up. We use 12-inch square white plates, and the greens fill it nicely. I take two plates in one hand and go to the far end of the mise for roasted tomatoes, one in each corner, then carmelized onions on top. Back to the other side of the mise for black beans and roasted sweet corn salsa, then the curried shrimps go on top. They’re little guys, maybe U-30s? (Under 30 to a pound.)

Mis en place is an Escoffier restaurant phrase for everything in its place. It is how good restaurant food lives or does not. Having everything in its place and knowing where that place is, that’s the difference between dishes turned out in good time and customers full of “WTF!! Where’s my dinner?!?!?!”

On Patio Grille, we have two cold banks of ingredients, with refrigerated space underneath for marinated chicken, duck, pork and steaks, along with a six-inch hotel pan of mixed greens, a half pan of spinach and beaucoup de romaine. And burger sets, for the insanely ordinary guests. Although our burgers are ground steak. And like $15.

There’s also a steam table of soups, and heat lamps for the veggie chips that I make, and the pita toast to go with hummus for our freebie app.

The left bank is rows of stuff three deep: Mango ketchup, tomato salsa, guacamole, sour cream, black beans, small-dice heirloom tomatoes, wilted spinach, endive marmalade, shredded parm, mozzarella balls, toasted almonds, roasted sweet corn salsa, grilled pineapple rings, quartered cuke slices, shaved romaine, roasted sweet potato salad and roasted veg. The right bank is more stuff.

Knowing where it all is … priceless.