Sunday, December 2, 2007

Day 1: Fette sau

I made it. I made it through the first day. When I walked into RestoX at 10:30 a.m. ChefX the owner, welcomed me in t-shirt and jeans. He introduced me to Adam and Lupe, both immediately seeming humble and kind. Throughout the rest of the day I would meet Segundo along with 3 other guys whose names escape me. All sweethearts - hard-working, decent, lovely. Clearly, ChefX makes it a point to hire nice people. No cursing, no yelling, no harassment. A big sigh of relief on my part. I was truly prepared for the worst.

Later in the day, in the walk-in freezer, I was given another warm welcome by an enormous hanging pig. We became close friends when I was asked to fetch some veggies from behind his massive body. I had no choice but to use the "hug" technique where I put both my arms around the pig to get at the spinach. Sadly, by the end of the day I spotted him in the kitchen incognito. Goodbye my porky friend.

TASK: Separate 14 eggs. Give egg whites to Lupe (for merengue). Add 2 whole eggs to the yolks.
NOTES: The tricky thing about this was to remember how many eggs I actually cracked. I was so nervous, excited and overenthusiastic that forgot to count as I went. Luckily, I realized this only after the 5th egg. Mis en place!

TASK: Fill container with flour, enough to create a little mound. End product when mixed with 14 yolks + 2 whole eggs in Kitchen Aid: pasta dough.
NOTES: Mix till dough forms dry-ish, chunky pieces, a bit like a crumble dough.

TASK: Mince shallots.
NOTES: These were HUGE shallots, some as big as an onion. ChefX suggests cutting all of them the long way first, putting them aside, and then finishing the mince portion all at once. He doesn't bother to slice them horizontally the way cookbooks teach. They come out just fine. When we had a mound of beautiful (maybe not so uniform) shallots, he took the knife with both hands and chopped them more, "mezzaluna" style. Apparently a no-no at a place like Jean-George.

TASK: De-needle rosemary sprigs. Peel granny smith apples. Cut them into quarters, then core them by slicing the core off on the diagonal. Then thin-slice them across the narrow side. Toss these into a large skillet with white wine and boil till they're somewhat soft and the wine has mostly evaporated. Put this into a mixer with melted, browned butter and rosemary. End result: apple puree.
NOTES: YUM! Apples, butter and rosemary?! When in the blender, I noticed the color of the puree was grayish, not apple sauce golden. When I asked why, ChefX said, "emulsion." Aha! The acid in the apple emulsifies with the fat in the butter. VERY cool. At that point I looked over to Lupe who was making a pine nut dessert with rosemary. Why rosemary? It's in the same family as a pine tree. It's the pine nut, pine tree, rosemary connection. Why didn't I think of that?

TASK: Puree steamed butternut squash, other unknown veggies and bacon in blender. Once pureed, pass through chinoise with ladle. Taste, salt, repeat.
NOTES: When veggies are in blender, the key step is to pulse a few times before letting it rip for the very important purpose of preventing an explosion. Once we were down to mostly liquid-y veggies, ChefX suggested stirring and tasting the puree before adding the liquid-y remains. Why? It's always easier to add more liquid than to steam more veggies. It's these simple, common-sense things that are the most valuable lessons. ChefX had me taste the puree and feedback on salt. I thought it was o.k., but when he added some salt - wow. It really brought out the flavors even more. He suggested it enhanced the bacon, too. A very satisfying lesson, indeed.

TASK: Wash dishes
NOTES: They have this super-spray nozzle and an industrial dishwasher. Rinse, stack, close, et voila! Clean dishes in seconds.

TASK: Wash Manilla clams (tiny!). Drop in pot with white wine, cover and cook until cover gets really hot, or when you see them open up. When done, spread out on square pan (so they can cool). Fill container with broth, pick out clam meat and preserve in broth.
NOTES: No need to wash sand out completely from clams. The sand will come out in multi-prep process. Putting the clam meat into the broth was something ChefX learned from Le Bernardin to prevent the clams from drying out. The clams will ultimately be part of the staple clam chowder dish at RestoX. I learned this is a "composed" clam chowder as opposed to one where everything is cooked together. The shrimp, the clams, the potatoes, etc are all cooked separately in separate stations, with distinct flavors, then brought together right before serving.

TASK: Pass past dough through pasta maker. Cut into circles. Fill with rabbit filling concoction. Shape into tortellini.
NOTES: I can't believe I learned to make these today. The key is to work quickly so the pasta doesn't dry out. When cutting the circles, add pressure, then give a nice twist. Press and seal in the filling and create a nice "lip." Fold over the corners to make a little "chair" with a nice "butt." These were some cute tortellini.

TASK: Pass pasta dough through pasta maker about 20 times until beautifully smooth. Pass through cutter to make tagliatelle. Create small handful mounds of tagliatelle. Sprinkle liberally with semolina flour to prevent them from sticking to each other.
NOTES: Whoo-wee. I gotta say kneading dough with a hand-cranked pasta maker ain't easy. ChefX explained that if you want to get really fancy with pasta, you can layer herbs, like basil, between two sheets of pasta and pass them through the machine. The end result is like wallpaper. Lovely.

TASK: Roll balls of fatty, pasty pork confit the size of a shallot. Go next door to RestoX2 and ask for 3 heads of romaine lettuce. Cut off crispy bottom portion of the head. Carefully slice off top half of the rib of each lettuce leaf. Blanch, then shock in ice water. Roll fat, pasty balls of pork into lettuce leaves. Take fat, pasty balls of pork and seal them tight with plastic wrap. Twist and knot the wrap securely so no water can get in.
NOTES: The balls were very fatty and pasty. I had to wear rubber gloves. The trip next door was an adventure. It was quite surreal to walk out into the street, into a packed restaurant, and into another kitchen all in a chef's jacket. Everyone in that kitchen was nice and friendly, too. Ah, Brooklyn. Then it was even more surreal to walk out of that kitchen and into the street in a chef's jacket, carrying 3 bare heads of romaine. These fatty, pasty pork balls wrapped in romaine were really something. Once wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, they looked like little green aliens. I wish I got to see the end result. ChefX said you could do the ball/plastic wrap trick with almost anything. Even avocado. Smash down an avocado half into a circle, fill with something inside, roll into ball, and wrap in plastic to serve with gazpacho. He makes everything sound so easy.

TASK: Chop 2 huge carrots, 3 onions, 1 bunch celery. Thin slice 1/2 quart of garlic.
NOTES: Those carrots were the biggest I've ever seen - they reminded me of Wallace and the ware-rabbit. Thin-slicing garlic was my least favorite task. It was boring and left my hand numb and permanently smelling of garlic for the rest of the evening.

End notes
Their main kitchen tool is those 1qt plastic containers you get from Chinese take-out. They use it for everything. As ChefX said, "They're our friends." They drink their water out of them, they even make herbal tea in them. It almost looks like a fetish.

Even in a fancy restaurant like RestoX, they don't wash their veggies as thoroughly as you would at home. This was one of the most surprising things I observed today.

Overall, I'm really impressed with RestoX, and ChefX. He's so laid-back and humble for a guy with so much experience. He treated me like I was part of the family from the very first moment I walked in. I'm amazed that he let me do so much on the first day. And he shared so much information with me. It seems he really gets a kick out of teaching someone. I learned more than if I ever would have if I paid for a cooking class. I'm impressed with the civilized kitchen environment he's managed to create. I love his staff. And I like the music they play.

I'm pretty proud of myself for holding it together today. If I can hug a dead pig in the walk-in, I think I can handle pretty much anything. By 5:00, my right hand went numb from chopping, and it's still a bit numb. But at the end of the day, it felt good to put in a day's worth of hard labor despite my physical exhaustion. Honestly, I can't say I would want the restaurant life, but to be surrounded by food all day was heaven.

ChefX asked if I'll come back next week. I asked if he wants me back. He said, "Of course. You did great today, you know that." Wow. What an honor. Thank God.


Gerry Schramm said...

When I think of "pasta butt," I don't think cute.

Seriously though, I'd watch than numb hand. I ignored numbness in my left hand while working around the house (I was leaning on it--the hand, not the house--as I painted baseboards) and I damaged a nerve. Still hurts when it rains. Or when I play guitar (which generally also hurts those unfortunate enough to be nearby). Or when I paint.

I'd ask the Top Chef if you're holding the knife wrong or something. Word of advice, kids: don't ignore numbness.

Unless it's in your soul. The I encourage it.

Undercover Cook said...

Gerry, if you saw these tortellini, you'd agree their butts were cute.

The numbness - I think it may have been from chopping on a surface the height of my shoulders. I was pretty much on tip-toe all day. Good for the calves. Not good for the hand.