Tuesday, February 15, 2011

2011: February 15th

As I sit here writing this, I am extremely tired and physically sore from all the cooking that we did over the long Valentine’s Day weekend, which culminated in outstanding fashion with two full turns of the dining room last evening. Turns indicate how many times a table has been seated. Two turns means that we seated every table twice last night, an excellent thing. Had Valentine’s Day been a weekend night, we might have reseated some late tables for a third time. But as it was a Monday night, we only had lukewarm enthusiasm for our tables at 8pm and later. Can’t say that I blame people for that; we all had to work this morning.

As hard as last night was on the staff and me, Saturday night was far worse. Valentine’s Day is well scripted and flows quickly but naturally for us from long years of experience. The tables are seated at regular intervals (we set the times the tables will be seated for Valentine’s Day) and divided into two separate seatings so that the traffic, while intense, is spread out at manageable levels for the service staff and for the kitchen. Last night, we did two full turns of the restaurant spread out over five hours.

But by contrast, this past Saturday was a free-for-all. Customers reserved tables willy nilly and so we had the same number of customers on Saturday night as we did for Valentine’s Day, only we jammed that into about 3 and a half hours. Apparently it was like this at most restaurants on Saturday night. Every chef that I have spoken to about Saturday night has used the same word to describe it, “Brutal.” Brutal though it was, these kinds of nights are what we live for in this business. We love to be busy and we love to be challenged and we love knowing that we can still deliver the goods even when seemingly all hell is breaking lose.

The kitchen on one of these busy nights is a mad house. It is bright, it is noisy, it is hot, and it is frantically busy. The dish machine is roaring and filling the kitchen with steam—I don’t have a luxury kitchen with a separate dish pit; the dish line is right behind the plating counter which is right behind the hot line: seven feet separate the line cooks from the dish machine and its belches of steam. The radio is blaring, but none of us hear it. The exhaust fan on the hood makes it nearly impossible to hear when you are under it, so we are yelling to be heard. The expediter—the person in charge of calling tickets, pacing the line, and picking up food—stands 8 feet from the end of the plating counter which is another 10 feet from the farthest line cook and is yelling to be heard all the way down the line.

The heat in the kitchen, while not nearly so bad as in the summer, was unusually high because of the abnormally warm weather we have been having. To make up for the air that the exhaust fan is venting from the kitchen, a separate fan blows outside air back in. We’ve been used to air temps below freezing during dinner; to have 50-something degree air coming back into the kitchen in February made it seem a bit summerlike. But it definitely was not like in the summer when the 90-degree makeup air is the coolest thing in the kitchen. No, far from it. But that’s a tale for the summer and we’ll get to it soon enough.

And busy! It was crazy! The dishwasher is running racks of dishes as fast as he can to keep the dish table clear so that the servers and assistants have room to dump more dirty dishes. And so we have enough china, silverware, and glassware to handle all these people. In doing two full turns of the dining room, we used some of the dishes five and six times. The servers and assistants are nearly running through the kitchen dropping checks, picking up food, telling the expediter when they need the next course of food for a particular table. And the cooks, we’re multitasking like we invented multitasking, although the servers are likely out-multitasking us for we get to stand in one place, while they have to be seemingly everywhere at once.

At one point during last night’s service, the kitchen had about a five-minute break between seatings—and I feel bad for the servers here because there are no breaks in the front of the house. I took advantage of this to go out the kitchen door into the server station to get my first glass of cold water in two hours. Unless you are in the business, you cannot imagine the abrupt transition from the kitchen to the dining room.

The heat, the belching steam, the blinding fluorescent lights, the yelling cooks, the blaring radio, the screaming exhaust fan, and the chaos of everyone working at breakneck speed just stops dead the second you walk out the kitchen door. The contrast is such that you might have well been dropped on another planet. The dining room is dimly lit, comfortable, and quiet! You hear the soothing sounds of the guitarist strumming away, ice tinkling in glasses, and people chatting and laughing. And the servers are walking as if they had all the time in the world.

To understand that we are at war behind the kitchen door and that our customers a few feet away are oblivious to it is to understand the great performance that we and all restaurants put on each and every service.

As I was finishing the last posting at the first of the month, I learned that a long-time customer and supporter of the restaurant had passed away. Doug Adams died the first of the month. Doug sent back more food than any other customer in the history of the restaurant! He wanted things just so and if they were not just so, back the food came. He was in earlier years prone to try foods that he had never had before—softshell crabs come to mind—and if he didn’t like that food, back it came. But we loved him anyway. He was a good man, a good friend to a vast number of people, a great supporter of the restaurant, a prominent man in our community and we will miss him. Doug, wherever you are, don’t order the softshells!

We also did a couple of tastings in the last two weeks, the most intricate of which was a 9-course tasting on Saturday night before the Super Bowl. We took our cue from the time of the year and themed the dinner “Super Bowl Foods.” We drew up a list of commonly served foods at Super Bowl parties and then worked out how we could pun each one or alter it in some totally unexpected way. We had a blast and the customers loved the dinner. An example course is the Buffalo Winngs for which I boned out a turkey wing, stuffed it with braised bison short rib, and formed it into a classic galantine which we browned and served sliced with a highly reduced turkey glace.

One final example is the dish you see in the photo, the dish that we called Popcorn Shrimp. The customer who booked the dinner told me that his wife loves blackened scallops. We wanted a way to serve her scallops that would both fit in with our theme and a way that we could sneak the scallops onto the menu under her radar. We cut very large scallops into shrimp shapes, attached a shrimp tail, and hid the scallop under tempura batter. We served this with a bit of a spicy sauce made from our house-made Cajun spice mix and a bowl of delightful Cajun-spiced popcorn. As fun as this scallop was to do and to eat, I think the popcorn upstaged it. It was really good!

Last Monday, in preparation for launching our cooking classes, Michelle and I did a photoshoot and interview with the Winchester Star, the article to be published later this week. And then Tuesday, I spoke at Career Day for the 8th graders at my youngest daughter’s school. These two extracurricular events outside the restaurant were enough to get me behind schedule heading into the psycho-busy Valentine’s weekend. It was heads down after that trying to get back on track. The worst day of the week was probably Thursday when we received truck after truck after truck after truck all day long, just to get enough food, drink, and supplies in house to get through the weekend.

In the midst of all this, we finished testing applicants to replace Chris, who leaves at the end of the month. After interviewing candidates, we bring them into the kitchen to work with us for a few hours. We can’t tell everything in that short period but we can assess basic knife skills, general kitchen knowledge, cleanliness, attention to detail, and speed. After testing five candidates, we narrowed the choice to two and started checking references on both of them. And I finally hired Travis, a relatively inexperienced young man with workable skills, but with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the food business and creativity. It is always that self-drive and sheer passion in creating great things with food that separate one candidate from the pack. Travis will now train with Chris for the remainder of Chris’ stay with us.

I had a bit of a scare last week. On Thursday right before Valentine's Day, my seafood sales rep informed me that my delivery on the 13th would be the last for his company—they decided to close the doors on their Northern Virginia operation. I thought that this was going to leave me in a real bind for the next week at least until I could formulate a backup strategy. But it’s nothing new. This is the third seafood company in seven years to go out of business on me. In a bizarre kind of way, I guess you could say that I am used to it. Fortunately, my sales rep moved to another seafood company and convinced management there to start serving the high end restaurants in this part of the world.

In closing, signs of spring are there if you look for them. Yesterday I took full advantage of the gorgeous and unseasonable weather to prune the roses at the restaurant. They never went fully dormant this year and a couple were sending out leaf buds. I wanted to prune them to retard their growth in case the weather turns severely cold over the next few weeks. I don't want any cold damage. These roses are old friends by now and I had to make some hard cuts this year, removing (by plan) some of the old canes that have supplied such beautiful blooms in the past so that there is room for the newer canes to come on and supply us with blooms for the next few years.

In addition to bud break on my roses, we are getting fresh broccoli, arugula, spinach, and rapini from local growers. And hopefully with the longer days and warmer weather, the Chinese broccoli, gai lan, will be here next week. Also the first shad roe hit the market this week though I won't buy any for a couple of weeks until the price moderates. And my mushroom guy says the first crop of morels from California should be harvested around March 1st. So until then, thanks again for reading along.

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