July 31, 2015

Toe the Line

1530 Main Editor Margaux Anbouba plays with fire and lives to tell the tale.

Watching a successful restaurant kitchen staff during peak dinner hour (read: the pinnacle of culinary stress) is not unlike spying on the pit crew at the Indie 500.

Members of the cook line are seamlessly working together at warp speed to get dishes out both beautifully and efficiently. But what happens when you throw a wrench into the system, allowing a culinary-challenged editor to “moonlight” for a shift in the kitchen at CBD Provisions, threatening to throw the whole operation off kilter with an ill-timed flick of a spatula?

The idea of sending an outsider into the kitchen first came from executive chef Richard Blankenship, who’s been shaking things up at the restaurant since he took the helm in February. In an attempt to give me a feel for kitchen life, Chef assigned me to soffritto duty, which meant 45 minutes of sautéing finely chopped onions, carrots, and celery into an aromatic garnish for pasta and the little goat pies. I would also simultaneously be helping those on the garde manger (in layman’s terms, the salad assembly line). God help that night’s diners.

Like most pros, Blankenship was coolly confident, nonchalant, and harboring high expectations. And after a quick tutorial, he left me with some mildly ominous parting advice: “If you undercook this, it’ll be flavorless. Overcook it, it’ll be bitter. Definitely don’t let it burn.” No pressure.

As I hunched over the giant tilt skillet, the possibility of failure looming, I observed Chef and his crew in their natural habitat. Skillet flames flashed, the soup bubbled, and I attempted to multitask. Occasionally Chef would check in, doling out critiques like “stir harder but less often.” Umm…yes, Chef.

During a moment of intense stirring, an order for a baby lettuce salad rolled in. I left my soffritto simmering away to toss mixed lettuces, torn herbs, radishes, salt, pepper, and dressing (in that exact order), before attempting to artfully arrange it in the designated bowl. Sure, putting food on a plate is easy, but the artful assemblage of edibles is an entirely different enterprise.

While I was nudging radishes a hair to the left (it’s all about spacing), I remembered that I had another task at hand. I slid the salad plate onto the serving window, declared it ready for its close-up, and raced back to my skillet. In the midst of my hectic running around, the kitchen calmly buzzed around me, never missing a beat.

Back at the fire, everything still looked okay – a little darker than before, but that was all part of the cooking process, right? At the end of my 45 minutes, Chef came to review my work and instantly knew that something was wrong. Before I knew what was happening, he trashed the entire endeavor. Apparently a watched pot never boils, but an unwatched pot of soffritto always burns. Lesson learned.

Maybe I’ll ask to come back for a breakfast shift – after all, how hard could an omelette be?