I have been following the current Rolling Stones Tour without Charlie Watts for the first time in 59 years. He was, like so many drummers, far more important to the band than many would have thought. He wasn’t flamboyant, didn’t invest too much energy in building rapid fire fills in all the Stones songs, and wasn’t one to seek out the limelight, but he was the energy, the force, the stability behind the music that carried the band for an unbelievable number of years (and still going). When you stop to reflect back on the dozens of albums and hundreds of songs that make up their catalog you start to hear the power and unique character to what he said through his instrument. A short catchy rhythm here and there, a short staccato accent, or a strategically placed rim shot and you suddenly had a Stones song that played in your head over and over again. He was always there, keeping the others in line, and being consistently present. Never underestimate the importance of that piece of the machine.
In the kitchen, like in a band, there are players who grab the microphone and the spotlight and some who add a flashy solo now and again to take centerstage and seem to be most important to the sound of the kitchen, but it really is one person, one station that consistently serves as the drummer keeping the engine churning and holding everything together. In most kitchens it is the person working the chargrill. This is the line cook who works with fire, the one cook who allows the flame to touch the product directly and as such must learn to control the uncontrollable. The steaks and chops are a consistent centerpiece on nearly every menu. The muscle that when properly marbled or blended with the right amount of fat, feeds the flame as it laps up its energy from the moisture that drips into the soul of fire as it wraps around a strip, filet, chop, ribeye, or beautifully blended burger.
Yes, every cook can be trained to determine degrees of doneness and after a period of time get pretty good at it, but it is the accomplished grill person, the Charlie Watts of the kitchen, who can sense when it is time to give that steak a quarter turn to highlight those perfect grill marks, or flip the steak (only once), when he or she knows that it is time. The grill cook always dances on the edge of knowing just when to make a move so that the protein will caramelize on the outside, building that incredible carbon crust while still ensuring that a perfect rare, or medium rare is maintained inside. The Charlie Watts of the line knows just when to pull that steak or chop from the fire so that carry over cooking never leaves the meat overdone and to allow adequate time for the meat to rest before slicing to ensure that the juice stays in the meat and not on the plate. A perfectly cooked steak is a work of art just like those steady beats from the drummer in a band.
The grill keeps the rhythm of the kitchen, sets the pace and defines the tone. All timing from other stations: sauté, fry station, and plate set up is built around the work of the grillade. Building flavors on the sauté station takes a sophisticated palate and the ability to keep multiple preparations organized as tickets come screaming into the kitchen where as the grillade typically only works with salt and pepper – leaving the flavor up to the quality of the meat and the magic of the flame. One adds to the flavor profile, while the other protects what is present from the beginning. It is the steady beat of the grillade that defines how successful a line of cooks will be during service. He or she is the commander of the flame – fire and man or woman – the most primal of cooking techniques, the most admired, the most intense. Everything about the position exudes power, determination, and the ability to work in an environment of extremes. It is physical, mental, and emotional; it is independent and collaborative, but most importantly it is the beat that other cooks depend on. Just like Charlie Watts – the grill cook is the soul of the band of cooks.
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