Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Service at RestoX

I'm tempted to put about 5 exclamation points after that headline, but I resist. I went in on Monday for day 2 of service at RestoX, and it was quite the experience! Here's a recap of both days:

Day 1: Martin Luther King Day
I arrived at 4:00, which I realized was an odd time to start. This is usually the silence before a storm in restaurant kitchens. All the prep work was done and the only task I was given was to remove the meat off of a whole head of roasted pig.

Now I do love pork, especially in the form of a good German bratwurst or crispy bacon, but I'm mostly a vegetarian at home. The duck confit was the most animal thing I've ever made in a kitchen. I say animal, not meaty, because these days you can get plenty of packaged meat from the grocery that looks like a mysterious lump that perhaps came from something once alive.

This thing at RestoX, however, was undeniably a pig - with snout, eyeballs, brains and all. With some rubber gloves, I fearlessly tore away at the fatty head convincing myself that if I am to eat bacon, I am responsible for being acquainted with the animal that it came from. I ended up with a mound of fatty meat, and almost an equal amount of pure fat (plus organs and snout). Adam came by and said, "Wow, that was fast." Perhaps they were testing me to see if I would cry, scream or run. Little do they know how much I love bacon, and how much I take to heart The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The rest of the time, I mostly observed and ate.
Adam informed me that I was free to taste whatever I wanted, and I took that as a mandatory. If this counts as culinary education, I'm in! It was a smorgasbord of mystery ingredients all lined up in quart containers: finely julienned kohlrabi, tiny jewel-like dices of quince, vibrant cilantro puree... The most impressive were the delicious sauces all lined up on warming bricks along the stove, particularly the brown sauce. THE brown sauce. It was magical.

I stationed myself where I would be out of everyone's way near Segundo, the sautée chef. When service hit I expected chaos, but there was no panic, no screaming, and no cursing. They were all really cool and silently graceful. Segundo left me small end pieces of whatever he was grilling, and they were all perfectly seared, perfectly seasoned - lamb, rabbit, veal, duck, hamachi, bass, salmon. But the most memorable was the seared fois gras. Adam plated up a mini version of it for me, with all the purees, sauces and garnishes included. I ate it standing up, and almost licked the plate clean. Classy, I know. It was the first dish I would ever think to describe as "mind-blowing," and it will be my last meal.

The takeaway from this first service night:
• How good the food at RestoX really is. All the labor and care they (we!) put into the mundane details really make a difference when the dish is finally composed. It really brought everything into perspective.
A well-run restaurant requires good collaboration and communication between the front of the house (FOH) and back of the house (BOH) staff.
The graceful orchestration of the wait staff, the garde manger, the dishwasher, the sautée chef and the sous chef. It was like a well-oiled machine.
The rhythm of a professional kitchen on a weekday: the lull of 4:00-5:30, the steady pick-up of 5:30-8:00, the exhilarating rush of 8:00 to 9:30, and the cooling down of 9:30-closing.
How much butter and oil is used in restaurant cooking.
I must somehow get a hold of some of that magic brown sauce because I will never be able to duplicate it at home.
Hmmm... this seems like something I could actually do.

Day 2: President's Day
My first task when I arrived was to dice some cucumbers. I diced them about a 1/4" size, then realized how ridiculously big and out of place they looked. At RestoX, everything is diced into tiny cubes, or finely julienned or minced. Adam agreed they were too big, so I used up a good amount of time quartering small-but-not-small-enough pieces of cucumber. Who knew cucumbers could be so humbling?

Afterwards, Segundo told me I should help Adam do some plating. I thought he was making fun of me, but Adam agreed I should help him. It still seems like a distant dream now, but it actually happened - I worked alongside Adam plating dishes that went out into the dining room for real people to put into their mouths. It was really difficult to keep my cool and not jump up and down like a silly little girl.

Each dish at RestoX
is a complex array of components - about 5-8 different ones, with some topped off with a salad with another 4-5 ingredients. I asked Adam how long it took him to remember all the combinations, and he said a week. I got a few dishes down pat, such as the seared fois gras which I've gone over in my mind again and again ever since that day, but the rest was a bit of a blur. Even remembering which shaped dish goes with what was difficult. But Adam was really cool, and he coached me through each of the dishes with much patience. Even when the garde manger spilled most of the labor-intensive butternut squash soup he kept his cool and first made sure the cook was alright.

I found the trickiest part of the night was timing. At RestoX, they like to lay down a smear of purée and warm up it and the plate in the oven while Segundo sears the meat.
When the orders come in five at a time with 4-6 people at each of those tables, how do I know when to start the purée smear, when to put it in the oven, when to grill the toast for the fois gras, when to start the pasta? When I asked Adam, he said it just requires, "Practice, practice, practice."

A few things I learned that are still fresh in my mind:
• When drizzling sauces over a dish, hold the spoon like a pencil, close to the bowl of the spoon, for more control.
• Searing anything well requires a good pan, a good amount of butter and/or oil, and the patience to leave the meat alone to seal in the juices with a nice (yummy) outer crust.
• Don't be afraid to use your fingers.
• When rinsing out black trumpet mushrooms, let it soak in water then drain till the water runs relatively clear. When to know it's clean? Cook one and taste (taste, taste!).
• When rinsing out manilla clams, soak in a bath of saltwater and the calms will spit out all their gunk.
• Near closing, throw away all fried ingredients (sage, shallots) and transfer all ingredients into new containers to keep only the freshest parts.

Now if I could only figure out how to gain more practice practice practice...


carmen said...

I love it, your enthusiasm is contagious!! Reminds me of when I worked as a waitress..I dreaded the rush but at the same time stood completely in awe of the kitchen that was able to gracefully orchestrate so many orders -and let's not forget the special orders on plenty of dishes via the dining customer - how does ChefX feel about that, when people want to change the dish as described on the menu?

Undercover Cook said...

Carmen, do you normally read blogs at 5 a.m.? :)

Yes, it's a real adrenaline rush! The waiters/waitresses are so well informed about the food and wine. Oftentimes before service on Saturday, I see them sitting around tasting and discussing new wines. They seem to have it pretty good at RestoX!

ChefX wasn't there on either days so the sous chef was in charge. We only got one custom order, and it confused the hell out of me. It really breaks up the rhythm. Adam just kept calling the order the "wierd order but wasn't phased. I can't imagine having 5 different ones at once!

Anonymous said...

"Little do they know how much I love bacon, and how much I take to heart"

Oh GIRL! we do all kind of things for bacon!
My love for bacon goes as far back to my lil years. My family use to eat rendered bacon fat smeared on top of rye bread with a pinch of salt—totally unhealthy, but typically "country" Polish.

I wonder what the brown sauce was made of. Most likely veal stock base. HMMM veal. Yeah, you can tell I'm NOT a vegetarian!


carmen said...

Ha, no I don't usually read blogs at 5am..i was working and took a break by looking at one of my fave food blogs, hee. I love bacon too. That must have been strange with the pig head, I commend you on that.

Undercover Cook said...

MF, I heard they do that in the region of Gascony in France, only with duck fat.

I have an idea of what the brown sauce is made of - pretty much whatever bones they have available to them. Mostly a mixture of chicken, veal, and/or beef.

They roast the bones for the base stock which, according to Jacques Pépin, "give the stock a darker color and nuttier taste. It is as simple and as complicated as that."

With this stock, I've seen it be reduced with caramelized onions and a slew of other herbs and vegetables. It took HOURS for them to make the caramelized onions alone.

I'm telling, you, it's some magic sauce.

Undercover Cook said...


I think you know what my next question will be: why were you up working at 5 a.m.?

Yes, it was a bit uncomfortable with me digging around under the poor pig's head like that. I wonder if a lot more people would stop eating bacon if they experienced this.

Probably not.

Anonymous said...

Annie, if you ever get a hold of the "magical" brown sauce recipe, PLEASe do share.

Undercover Cook said...

MF, will do. Be prepared to sweat!