Kitchens are always hot and humid – it goes with the turf. Summer, however, can be unbearable. During service, ovens are cranked up to 500 plus degrees, the center rings on flat tops are glowing red, and flames from the char-grill are a rich blue color extending four inches from the gas jet. A few short feet from the line, the dish pit is a production farm for steam, building up the humidity in the kitchen. When summer arrives, the outside heat from the sun and regional humidity provide no relief as make-up air blows in at 80 plus degrees.
Leaning over the range, the attack of heat can be mind-numbing. Sauté pans and sizzle platters add to the radiant heat barrage, and hot grease fills the air as the deep fryer rages at 375 degrees and sauté pans spit oil and clarified butter. Line cooks can easily lose a pound or two of weight on a busy night in July. Chef jackets are ringing wet from sweat by the early part of the evening and everyone is passing around the cornstarch to fight the never-ending battle against chafe. It really is like Dante’s Inferno.
As summer gradually transitions to fall, the temperature and stickiness of the July and August kitchen begins to mellow. Kitchens are still hot and humid, but the make-up air starts to feel like a comfortable breeze. Taking a break outside is now a relief as temperatures of 40 to 60 degrees begin to offer comfort that only the walk-in cooler could provide in the heat of summer.
The temperament of the kitchen staff begins to change as well. Line cooks are not quite so crusty (maybe because the cornstarch is back on the shelf where it belongs) and you might even see them smiling on occasion.
Cooks and chefs no longer fret about missing those great sunny days while working in a kitchen without windows. In the fall, it is dark when they arrive at work and dark when they leave.
Aside from personal comfort, cooks and chefs live for the fall because of what and how they cook. Summer is all about grilling and lighter meals, fall brings the full array of REAL cooking: roasting, braising, and stewing. The real talent in cooking comes from an understanding of how these methods of cooking can be used to extract the full flavor from ingredients that fit the season. Low and slow is, by far, the favored method of cooking in professional kitchens.
The fall season also brings a new inventory of ingredients that are unavailable in the warmer months. Squash, root vegetables such as purple top turnip, rutabaga, parsnips, celeriac, sun chokes, and kohlrabi are full flavored crops that add character to a braised or roasted dish and provide earth tone colors to plates that are unique to the time of year. Crisp apples, pears, quince, pomegranate, harvest grapes and cranberries are not only flavorful complements to restaurant menus, they also bring to mind special times, friends and family. It is easy to get caught up in the warm feelings that fall menus bring.
The foods of celebration, allow chefs, cooks, and patrons to enjoy the company of others, making menus that feed off of tradition. Turkey, venison, goose, duck, winter truffles, pumpkin, cobblers, tart tatin, warm chocolate, and cider will invariably find their way onto menus in restaurants from quick service to fine dining. Cooks and chefs everywhere unite around the ingredients of fall.
“It is only the farmer who faithfully plants seeds in the Spring, who reaps a harvest in the Autumn.”
Bar operations transition from the clear distilled vodka, gin, and tequila, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris, to those that are better suited to colder times: bourbon, scotch, and rye, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz. At no other time in the year are wine and food pairings more pronounced than in the fall and winter.
For those who prefer beer, light versions need to find their way off of menus in favor of those hoppy artisan brews, sour ales, porters and stout. These drinks just seem to fit and provide the chef with new opportunities and challenges in menu planning. With full-bodied drinks come deep, rich, and full flavored foods. Food and beverage need to stand up to each other.
More so than in summer months, in the fall chefs are focused on planning special menus for traditional holidays and small group events. Every guest or group wants to celebrate in his or her own way with food and the variety of choices at a chefs disposal seem limitless.
Finally, although fall can still provide restaurants with a steady clientele, gone are the summer crazy nights when business exceeds capacity. Gone is the staff enhanced with part time add on cooks assistants and interns from culinary colleges. Now it is time for the core staff to settle into their rhythm, enjoy the camaraderie that takes time for a team to build, and learn to focus, once again, on the food as an extension of their own cooking philosophy.
“But then fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you.”
― Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot
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