Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Keeper of the food

Photo curtesy of cygnoir from flickr Creative Commons

On day 3 of service at RestoX, Adam asked me to work with Chiquito, the garde manger. Garde manger means "keeping to eat" (which makes no sense), or "keeper of the food" in French. Also known as "pantry chefs," they're responsible for mostly cold foods such as salads and desserts, and simple hot dishes such as soups and appetizers. In French restaurants, they also work with patés and terrines, and make those lovely sculptured garnishes that make me feel ill. This is the first real paying job on the cooking line, and is probably the position I'll move up to if I ever graduate from "kitchen slave."

Chiquito's real name is Santiago, but everyone calls him Chiquito because he's shorter even than me, a 5' 1'-er. Like everyone else at RestoX, Chiquito is a quiet hard-worker of good character. After I found out his real name, I tried asking him in Spanish, "puedo te llamo Santiago?" and got howls of laughter from the dishwasher because it sounded like I was asking if I may love Santiago. What I really meant to say was, "puedo llamarte Santiago?" A pathetic effort after having studied the language all through Jr. High and High School.

Anyways, working the line requires a good memory, an ability to multi-task like never before, and of course, practice. It also helps to be alert, and to be a good listener in case orders come in with customized dishes. By the way, when you eat out, please try not to get all when-Harry-met-Sally on the menu and enjoy the dishes as they're written. It's mighty confusing to keep track of in a busy kitchen, and can be slightly-to-extremely annoying depending on the change. If you do decide to change it up a bit, just know that you won't be getting 100% love with your order.

As I mentioned in my last post about service, the most challenging aspect of working the line is figuring out timing. When you multiply the number of tables by the number of dishes by the number of components that go into each dish, it requires a lot of coordination and short-term planning. Aside from this timing factor, I dare say garde manger work is relatively easy.

Here's a sampling of some dishes I helped compose:
Winter salad:
Warm farro with butter and shallots and cool to room temperature. Drop pre-poached egg in simmering water to warm. Combine red endives and frisée with vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Mix only lightly and set aside. Lay a scant layer of itty bitty, cubed, roasted vegetables with cranberries on the bottom of a large bowl. Top with endive mix. Spoon farrow over greens. Create a small well in the center and carefully crack open poached egg into it (this was challenging but fun). Sprinkle with grated white cheese (I think a hard goat).

Duck confit:
Drop duck leg with skin side down into a pan with a good dose of olive oil. Pop into oven and let sit for 5-7 minutes. Meanwhile, heat grits in a pan and spoon a circle of it onto plate. Lay duck leg on top, spoon some of that magic brown sauce over it, and a touch of gooey okra.

The grill chef preps the fish while I prepare the cold elements. Arrange strips of yellow and red roasted peppers in a circular shape. Squirt some dark puree thing (plum?) in a circle together with the peppers. Lay two stemmed, green olives outside the circle. Prepare watercress salad by mixing with thin strips of scallions and just olive oil, salt and pepper. When mackerel is cooked, position it in the center of the circle, and top with watercress salad.

Mushroom soup:
The soups are always pre-prepped and kept warm on the burner during service. Just pour into shallow soup bowls and garnish with mint-walnut pesto and a drizzle of olive oil.

Butternut squash soup:
Garnish with toasted pecans and shaved gorgonzola.

Clam chowder
This is a RestoX favorite. The grill cook prepares an order of scallops and squid. Meanwhile, add a sprinkling of itty bitty cubes of carrots and curried potatoes to the bottom of a covered bowl with a few cold clams and mussels. Heat this in the oven till very hot. When grill cook's prep is almost done, pull out bowl and add the grill cook's scallops and squid. Pour in creamy soup, sprinkle with fines herbes, and cover.

I was excited to plate some desserts, too, but the only order that came in that night was for a panna cotta that went to the "poor piece of meat" gentleman.

Some other observations I made:
• Ever wonder how chefs plate up everything so cleanly? They don't. The wait staff does a lot of the clean up. They roll up napkins like cigars, then use the ends dipped in lemon water to swipe the edges clean.

The entire staff (FOH and BOH) gets nervous when a customer has a question for the chef about the food because it usually means they'll have a complaint. On this particular night, one of the customers asked just how much bacon went into the butternut squash soup, but it turned out he had a bet going with his friend.

If you don't like your dish, you should either send it back immediately or not at all. One of the customers complained that his pork was, "a sad piece of meat," but he totally cleaned his plate except for 2 measly pieces. Ridiculous. I bet you can score a lot of amazing meals for free in this city pulling that trick! The manager refused to give him the meal for free and just sent out a free dessert. We'll never know how happy the "unhappy" customer was about that.

At RestoX, the dishwasher has it easy because the plates almost always come back clean, perhaps even licked clean.

The physical and social environment of the kitchen sure does me good. I went in feeling like a zombie, with only 5 hours of sleep, but as soon as I stepped into that kitchen I felt like a new person. That's where I need to be, using all of my senses, moving, breathing, tasting, interacting. I need to get off my buttocks, away from the windowless office and this computer. Some day, slowly but surely!


cj said...

totally! if you drag yourself in, but then are enlivened by the kitchen, go for it!!!