An Entirely Different Game

On June 30, 2008, in Food and Drink, by psu

One of the networks that my “Comcastic” cable system picks up is a repository of HD content called “Mojo”. I don’t know what this network exists to do, but I perked up because it’s only two clicks away from ESPN (NBA playoffs, don’t ya know) and it broadcasts a food show called “After Hours with Daniel” where noted New York chef Daniel Boulud gathers a bunch of food people at various places around the country for “parties” that are then filmed for the television audience. While the setting is a bit contrived, the show plays to every foodie’s fantasy, which is that we have it within ourselves to get closer to the “inside” of these kitchens and really understand what goes on in them.

Don’t be fooled. I think restaurant kitchens are something that even the avid home cook simply cannot visualize or understand. It reminds me of playing volleyball in High School gym, and then watching Olympic level volleyball on television. The court was the same. The ball was the same. The net was the same. But it was an entirely different game.

Bill Buford is one home cook who set out to find out what a restaurant kitchen is like, and he wrote a book about it. After a chance meeting with Mario Batali he ends up spending a year working as a kitchen slave and line cook. His book is full of stories of the various mishaps that befall him as he tries to become a useful member of a professional kitchen. See Bill as he can’t dice carrots well enough to be used in the stock pot, or slices his hand open cutting something or other in the prep kitchen, or sets himself on fire. What was amazing to me about the book was not so much that the guy manages through sheer intestinal fortitude to become a useful line cook (I don’t think I would have made it) but that he clearly had no idea what he was getting into when he started the project.

The food aside, people don’t seem to realize that the mechanics and scale of a real kitchen is difficult to imagine. For example, a dish that I make a lot, like a beef stir fry, I might have done a few hundred times in my lifetime. I like to think I’m pretty good at it. At Babbo, where Bufurd was working, you might cook a particular dish on the menu that many times in one week.

But there is more to it. Every time I make my beef stir fry it always comes out just a tiny bit different. Too much soy one night, a bit too little the next. Sometimes it’s just the right texture, sometimes it’s a little chewy, and so on. In a good restaurant, every one of the 500 grilled whole fish you make have to be exactly the same. One of the toughest scenes in Buford’s book is when he gets taken off the line for one overcooked piece of lamb and one undercooked piece of pork. Two mistakes out of one night of hundreds of covers. Of course, the repetition means you get a lot of practice. I bet if I had to make my beef stir fry 500 times in one week I’d get better at it.

Buford’s tales illustrate one aspect of how the professional kitchen differs from what we do at home. You have to be able to make a phenomenal amount of food at a consistently high level in order to survive. The After Hours show deals with an entirely different aspect of restaurant people. After watching this show for a while I realized that mechanics aside, these people just think about food in a way that is completely different from the rest of us. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, all they do all day is think about food. But here are a few examples that left me in a state of startled wonderment:

1. In one episode, Daniel makes a pork and ham meatball concoction where each ball is about the size of a baseball and has an entire golf-ball sized black truffle stuffed in the middle. That’s a $200 meatball.

2. There was the paella for 40 cooked all at once in a pan with a custom gas burner that measured six feet across. Where do you even buy a six foot paella pan?

3. The pan of live prawns that were then roasted under a 20 pound mountain of 500 degree salt.

4. In response to the horrendously decadent “DB” burger, which you can get at Daniel’s Restaurant in NYC for a mere $32 or so, the staff at the Commander’s Palace constructed a similarly structured Po Boy sandwich with duck, a foie gras dipping sauce, truffle french fries and a sunny-side up egg, which they sell in New Orleans for a mere $29 (I think). The sandwich sells too.

5. A whole pig roasted in a box in the ground.

6. The 4 foot rondeau (it’s like a big shallow soup pot, but bigger) pan filled with pounds of root vegetables, a gallon or two of stock and wine, a half a dozen whole lamb shanks, blood sausage, pork sausage, and who knows what else being tossed in an oven as casually as a pot of beef stew.

7. The live lobster trying to eat a piece of raw Kobe beef.

You get the idea. These people can not only cook you under the table, they can think of things to do with food at a level that you can’t even dream of, because it would never have even occurred to you to try. These are the people who, hundreds of years ago, would have been the nuts who tried the first piece of rotted milk that turned into blue cheese. Or discovered that when you soak field corn, which isn’t great, in lye, you get something wonderful. Or decided to try and eat the preserved fish a little earlier, before the rice on top rotted.

I come away from watching this show knowing one thing: I am not these people. I have gotten pretty good at cooking a few traditional recipes that make me happy. I have gotten to the point where the food in the oven will often tell me that it is done so I don’t have to go check it. But I will never be good enough and fast enough to work in a real kitchen. And, I certainly will never have a relationship with food that lets me think of something like cooking a whole salmon inside clay in which you have inserted sticks from a fennel plant. Or poaching a whole calf’s head, and then rolling up the insides into a sort of meatloaf-like object.

That sort of thing is just an entirely different game.


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