We have all heard the phrase: “If you can’t stand the heat – get out of the kitchen”. To many it defines what it is like to work in a restaurant kitchen – toiling over cherry red hot flat tops and char broiler flames that rise up to surround steaks and chops seeking those perfect grill marks, a deep fryer spitting hot oil back at the fry cook, and pans so hot that they would polish the palms of a cook if touched without a proper dry towel. Those who have held a station position on the line know what it’s like to feel sweat run down your back, chef hats soaked at the end of the night, feet swollen from the heat, and dinner plates almost too hot to handle. The temperature in front of the sauté station is likely in excess of 150 degrees and the broiler even higher. Ovens are cranked up all the way during service so that opening and closing of doors does not drop the temperature too much, and if you have a wood fired oven for pizza it is likely tipping the scales at over 700 degrees. It’s hot!
But….there is another part of the kitchen where this is not so. A part of the kitchen that is home to cooks and chefs who are just as hard working and just as talented as those on the line. This is a place where the pressure of the clock still exists, where orders off the POS seem to stream just as relentlessly, and where impatient servers tap their shoes and stare just as mercilessly as they do on the hot line. This is the home of Garde Manger, or pantry, or simply – the cold kitchen. This is where cold appetizers, salads, terrines, pates, cheese plates, and likely desserts are presented with a high level of artistic expression and where, in many cases, the profit in restaurants reside.
Don’t dismiss this area of the kitchen. While the hot line may be home to the adrenaline rush and the machismo associated with a bit of suffering to accompany the excitement – the cold kitchen is a place of a methodical approach towards design and structure. The person who is dedicated to the cooking methods used and the complexity of design will find that the cold kitchen is a place where cooks learn about ratios and formulas, the exactness of flavor building that is sometimes replaced by an educated palate on the hot line, and where the layout on the plate can be comprised of an inventory of flavors that are both separate and unified akin to planning out what clothes you might wear signifying the uniqueness of each piece and the symmetry of the whole package.
When an appetizer is planned appropriately it is a vivid introduction to a meal, a piece that starts the process of leading up to the entrée and foretells what the guest can expect. The flavors should be full and tempting causing the person to both salivate and anticipate what will follow. The garde manger must be conservative with portion sizes while affording the greatest impact on the dining experience. Additionally, the cold appetizer that arrives from the garde manger must be so striking as to cause the guest to stop and admire the dish from different angles before experiencing the flavor, aroma, and texture. Finally, the cold appetizer should be such that the guest is hoping for more, but knowing that the stage has been set for subsequent courses to complete the package.
If it is a pate, terrine, or galantine; rillettes, plate of canapés, or even the before the meal amuse bouche – the Garde Manger must understand composition, the role of and ratio for fat to meat, the impact that temperature has on the flavor profile of the item, the best way to use space on the plate, the right complements or sauces that will enhance the flavor of the item while not attacking the palate leaving it unreceptive to the next course. It is a fine line to walk – one that requires the planning of the menu to be such that all courses are designed to marry with others. Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea Restaurant in Chicago refers to it as “Flavor Bouncing” where everything on a plate marries with every other ingredient and every dish on a menu does the same with other dishes.
When the Garde Manger approaches salads- he or she does so with the same enthusiasm that a Sauté Cook or Grillade does with a dish from their station. There can be no “utilitarian” salad in a true garde manger department. The salad, even one described as a “side”, should be able to stand alone in terms of its flavor blending, and visual presentation. Salads from this department are designed to accent the components of construction to include a base, body, garnish, and dressing. Nothing on the salad plate is superfluous – everything has a purpose. The ingredients must reflect the height of freshness, the colors and flavors of the season, the application of height and breadth on the plate, the textures that excite the palate, and a dressing that is noticeable, yet reluctant to hide the natural flavors of the primary ingredients. In a true garde manger department the salad dressing is applied by the cook, not by the server, and the dressing used is specific to the integrity of the dish.
Oftentimes the cold kitchen is also the place where the work of a pastry chef or baker is assembled for the guest. The ingredients of gelato, sorbet, cakes, tortes, pate au choux, Bavarian, mousse, coulis and hippenmasse, and tuilles and savarin may have been prepared earlier that day, but the Garde Manger at night is assigned the responsibility of pulling everything together in an orchestra of color, height, structure, texture balance, and exciting flavor. This is, after all, the end of the meal and a memory that guests will carry with them.
On buffets it is the Garde Manger who stands tall and steals the show. Those platters of charcuterie, relishes and chutneys, exotic cheeses presented as if someone measured the precise distance between pieces and placed them as a river might flow within the boundaries of its banks. Standing tall on risers, or tilted toward the guest as if waiting for a camera to capture the art, these platters signify the commitment to quality that exists in the kitchen and how proud every cook is of the work done.
The first course and the last course are in the hands of the cold kitchen and as such become the basis for memories of the dining experience. It is this combination that affords the restaurant an opportunity to earn a profit. Those items that guests need not purchase, yet if presented properly are highly desired, are the ones that signify whether a restaurant will be able to remain viable or not. This is the role of the garde manger and the value of the cold kitchen. Don’t underestimate the importance of the person who calls this area of your kitchen – home.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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