MARVELING AT FOOD AND RESTAURANT SKILLS

new-cooks

“The Kitchen is the Heart of the Restaurant.”

-Chef April Bloomfield from The Spotted Pig

As true as this is, the real core to a restaurant lies with the people who are the soul of the operation. It is the work of these exceptionally talented individuals that sets the pattern for food excellence in flavor, texture, and appearance, gives due respect to the ingredients, and sets the stage for a service experience that brings guests back time and again.

In the very best restaurants the chef has a need to be great and as a result hires, supports, and demands excellence from every member of the restaurant team. The chef knows that there is a significant difference between being good and being great – the difference lies in repetition, passion and the commitment of every player.

I have always admired the skill of craftspeople, in particular those who work around food. From dishwasher to line cook, and server to bartender, when any of these individuals truly masters his or her craft it is a pleasure to watch them perform.

When a person masters a skill he or she is set apart from others as an artisan who demonstrates exceptional competence and can, at times, seem to do the impossible. A commonly used phrase seems to fit many of those who are reflected in this article: “The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a bit longer.”

Allow me to reflect on a few of these artisan trade professionals and what makes them unique.

RESTAURANT CRAFTSPEOPLE:

[]         THE ARTISAN BREAD BAKER

Working with a living, growing organism in yeast, the truly tuned in baker is “one” with the simple ingredients that result in one of the most important parts of a meal – bread. The bread bakers fingers can feel the difference in flours, determine when the first and second proof is at it’s optimum, tap and determine exactly when the bread has reached perfection in the oven – the right exterior crust, the chewy, rich flavored, and fully satisfying interior, and the perfect marriage of those simple ingredients of flour, salt, water and yeast that can only reach perfection in the hands of a well-seasoned, totally committed artist. Every great restaurant boasts either a master bread baker or a relationship with one who provides this essential part of the meal.

Slicing into that perfect boule as it is peeled from the oven, slathering it with a perfect cultured butter, and gorging yourself on multiple slabs of this goodness is truly one of the great culinary experiences.

[]         THE MEAT BUTCHER

The difference between a meat cutter and a master butcher is significant. Knowing the anatomy of the animal, the muscle and bone structure, where to lay the razor sharp boning knife or cimetar and cutting through the meat with confidence and authority, never wasting an ounce while maintaining the integrity of the muscle is a skill that few have mastered. Whether breaking down that leg of veal in a restaurant, or working on the cutting floor at a major processing plant – these master butchers use the knife as an extension of their hand and the advocate for a skill that has become second nature.

[]         THE FISH BUTCHER

Every cook and chef must be able to fillet a flat and round fish – this is an essential skill. Not every cook can accomplish this task with the grace and respect due the water creature – making sure, as is the case with the master butcher, that nothing is wasted, that the cuts are clean and reflective of the beauty of the flesh on a fresh fish. When you take this competence and add speed and accuracy, then you have an artisan who is worth watching and marveling at. If you have never watched the video of the fish butcher, Justo Thomas at Le Bernadin, then you must do it soon.

JUSTO THOMAS at Le Bernadin

www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyOB10Z-dSQ

[]         THE PREP COOK

To some, the role of prep cook is one relegated to the beginners in the kitchen. If you work clean, understand organization, have sharp knives, and can follow a recipe then you can become a prep cook – right? Well, a truly great prep cook is incredibly valuable to a restaurant. Although the line cook and chef receive much of the attention for their speed, grace, palates, and artistry in finishing plates, the prep cook is the person who allows the line to put on the show. Watching how a great prep cook works his or her knives moving from produce to meats, poultry, and fish; admiring how they are able to multi-task through all of the foundational cooking methods, and prepare ingredients in a uniform manner allowing the line to bring everything to life on the plate, is as fascinating to me as seeing that dish in the pass just before it is carried to the dining room. The prep cook must understand the ingredient, treat it and store it with respect, and when necessary, adjust a process based on variances in ingredient maturity, size, shape, and flavor due to its point of origin.

[]         THE GRILL COOK

Yes, any reasonable cook can be taught to cook a steak to varying degrees of doneness, but a master grill cook UNDERSTANDS the steak or chop. Differences in thickness, marbling, and age will impact on how the grill item is addressed. The quality of the flame engulfing the grill must be respected, the grill cook more often than not controls the timing of the line and the perfect timing of the meat he or she is responsible for. The right amount of rest time before slicing is as critical to the success of the grilled item as the actual cooking. Too little rest and the meat will bleed out, too much rest and the temperature will vary the chew and mouth feel. It is a delicate balance. When you factor in the potential hundreds of items that pass across the grill in a service it becomes easy to see why watching this master is so interesting.

cochon

[]         THE SAUTE COOK

Unlike the grill, the sauté cook is responsible for changing the flavor profile of an ingredient. The grill may only salt and baste the steak or chop to enhance its natural umami, but the sauté cook must manipulate components to achieve a desired flavor outcome. He or she manipulates with seasonings, herbs, wine, clarified butter or oil, dairy products and even multiple proteins to reach that consistently perfect dish, time and time again throughout a shift. The movement of pans, the seamless motion of adding unique ingredients to multiple preparations without breaking the rhythm is like poetry in motion. The person who works sauté, and does it well, is mesmerizing to watch.

[]         THE CAKE DECORATOR

Just like a master calligrapher, the person who sees the pastry bag as an extension of his or her hand, mind, and emotional state is in a different world all together from everyone else in the kitchen. Base icing, rosettes, borders, leaves, and writing script on a cake are second nature to this artisan. Spinning a cake on a pedestal turntable while base icing, piping borders, and dusting edges with nuts, crumbs, and cocoa, and then with a snap of the wrist, scribe Happy Anniversary or Birthday on top as if he or she were placing a signature on an important document always makes me feel inferior as a cook.

[]         THE PLATING ARTIST

The plate in a kitchen, to the right cook, is a blank canvas that provides an opportunity to visually display the beauty of the food just prepared. Every chef has a signature to the food presented in a restaurant, a specific way to present the canvas that clearly demonstrates that this is his or her work. The line cook has a responsibility to respect this design and take the care necessary to consistently present this signature. To a professional chef and line cook this is not a task to be taken lightly. The correct marriage of ingredients, lay down of sauce, height built on the plate through the gentle application and layering of ingredients, the positioning of a fresh herb, and the final wipe of the plate rim is a religious experience. Chefs smile when a guest stops a conversation for a moment when the plate is presented as they marvel at the presentation and anticipate just how delicious it will hopefully taste.

[]         THE BARISTA

Restaurants have a thing or two to learn from a great coffee shop barista. Typically, restaurant coffee is not of the same caliber found in those artisan shops where coffee is revered. The right bean, the correct roast, the perfect water temperature, the right amount of machine pressure, the perfect coffee crema extraction, and heated milk are the tools that a barista craves as he or she gently pulls the milk through the crema making a unique design and signature for the guest. I always marvel at the exactness of a barista’s skill.

[]         THE BREAKFAST COOK

Ah, the breakfast cook. The exactness of finesse might be different than that of an evening line cook, but very few grill and sauté cooks could handle the pace and symmetry of a busy breakfast cook. The best thing that a chef can do when the breakfast line gets crunched is to garnish plates and stay out of the cook’s way. Breakfast cooks are gentle giants – machines that can crank out as many meals by themselves in an hour as a full line in the evening would over the period of an entire service. This is skill!

[]         THE EXPEDITOR

Some may view the expeditor as the person who cleans the rim of plates and tracks down a tardy server whose food is waiting in the pass, but a great expeditor is similar to the conductor of an orchestra. He or she can monitor the pace of cooking, serve as the communicator with all individuals in the back and front of the house, trouble shoot when things start to go sideways, and serve as psychologist for staff members who can appear like a deer in the headlights when they start to lose focus.

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[]         THE MIXOLOGIST

You must differ between a bartender and a mixologist. The bartender assembles drinks and can do so with grace and efficiency all the while maintaining a relationship with the guest. The mixologist is to the bar what the chef is to the kitchen. Mixologists understand the ingredients, how they marry together, how their flavor profile may change with the addition of crushed ice vs., cube ice, and the impact that different glassware has on the experience of drinking.

[]         THE SOMMELIER

Two words can describe the true sommelier – sophisticated palate. I always believe that people should drink what they want with what they choose to eat; however, I do understand that certain wines do enhance the flavor of certain foods. As a lover of wine, I take pride in knowing “enough” about the product to make a reasonable decision when ordering as a guest or selecting wines to pair with a menu I create in a restaurant. A sommelier really “knows” the wine – the vineyard, the grape, the terroir, the climatic conditions that change a wines character, the person who grew the grape, and the individual winemaker who put his or her mark on that year’s vintage. The skill and discipline required to be able to differentiate the most minute’ differences in wines by point of origin and vintage is remarkable to me. This requires a lifetime commitment to the product.

[]         THE DANCE OF THE MASTER SERVER

One should never underestimate the importance that the server plays in creating the exceptional dining experience. A weak server can denigrate the best intentions of the kitchen while a great server can even save a less than stellar kitchen service. The master server is in control of a choreographed experience that includes the explanation of a dish in such a way as to convince a guest to buy, creation of a dialogue about wine and how a certain bottle is essential as a complement to the dish ordered, the graceful presentation of the food as though it were that priceless piece of art, and the follow-up service that ensures the guest that he or she is the most important person in the room. Watching the dance is as mesmerizing as standing at the end of the kitchen line and observing the orchestration of cooking.

Behind every great restaurant is a cadre of skilled craftspeople who truly are the soul of the operation. Cooking becomes art and service becomes an experience in the hands of the right players.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

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