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October 25, 2010

Chef For A Night

On The Line Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Scudiere

Well, that was pretty flippin' sweet.

Walking in the door, unpacking some knives, being introduced to the staff and then set loose in a full-fledged restaurant kitchen is... well, it's a little intimidating when you haven't really had a chance to work in one before. I spent at least the first twenty minutes just figuring out how the hell I was going to approach everything. But once we got rolling, it felt good. It felt really, really good. And I'm pretty damn pleased with how everything turned out.

65° EggsDominic Armato

For those who may have missed the earlier posts, Posh Restaurant in Scottsdale has started doing "Chef For A Night" events every other Monday, where chef/owner Josh Hebert has been accepting pitches from food-obsessed non-professionals to do a three course prix fixe menu on a Monday night. Now, I'm in the camp that seriously considered making professional kitchens my livelihood on a few occasions, but never pulled the trigger. For me, having never been a workplace, the restaurant kitchen is still all romance. So when Josh asked if I'd be interested in running the show one night, you'd better believe I jumped all over it. And I have to say, I'm a little taken aback by just how smoothly it went. To be fair, Josh and Zac, his sous, gave me a healthy head start. For those who have been following the menu's evolution, the pasta was made, the chicken was bagged and underwater, the fennel was glazed, the apple gastrique was reducing away, the gelato was frozen, and there was a big tank of squash stock ready to go.

The Unusual NegroniDominic Armato

Prep was halfway done, which was nice, particularly when you're trying to adjust to the equipment and don't know where anything is. So we finished prepping, got our mise where it needed to be, screwed around a little, and even had a chance to sample some libations before getting into service. Cocktails for the evening were courtesy of The Cosmic Jester, and on top of a beautifully bright and refreshing mandarin martini called The Golden Leaf -- a "souvenir" he'd brought back from the Mandarin Bar in Las Vegas, made with Hendrick's, muddled mandarin oranges and pineapple, lime and Aperol -- he also kept with the evening's theme in presenting two versions of the Negroni, the classic gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, and the "Unusual Negroni," a lighter and sweeter take made with gin, Aperol and Lillet. So having just barely wet our beaks, we returned to the kitchen, fired one of everything and put it in the pass for one final tasting. And maybe the alcohol had something to do with it, but that's when I got a little giddy.

65° Egg CarbonaraDominic Armato

The Egg Carbonara had been a thorn in my side for two weeks. I wanted to mix the whites with the other ingredients before cooking them, preferably in the shell, but after plowing through seven or eight dozen test eggs (with apologies to Joel LaTondress' Sous Vide Supreme), it just wasn't coming together. So that morning, I threw a Hail Mary. Instead of trying to make an egg mixture and cook it in the shell, I just dropped the eggs into a 65 degree water bath and had everything else prepped and ready to go. To fire the dish, I cracked one of the eggs into a cup, drizzled it with some of the garlicky pancetta fat and a little olive oil, sprinkled it with parmesan and pecorino, salt and pepper, and the crispy bits of fried pancetta. And for a Plan B, it turned out fabulously. Fabulously enough that I may not bother going back to rework it the way I'd originally intended.

Tortelli in Roasted Squash BrodoDominic Armato

The tortelli were similarly at least 90% of the way towards my ideal. The one thing that fell a little short was the pasta itself, which came out a little tough owing, I think, to the manner in which we rolled it. But everything else was right on target, and the brodo was even better than I'd hoped. It was a happy accident, really. Zac had made a squash stock for me ahead of time, and while it was really delicious, it wasn't as clear or as nutty and roasted as I wanted. So I chopped up a couple more squash, roasted them to a deep golden color, and simmered the stock a second time with the golden squash. The result had all of the intense, nutty flavor and clarity of my test batches, but it had a little more complexity as well due to a couple of additions Zac had made. Drizzled with brown butter, it was exactly what I'd been hoping we could achieve. Crispy fried sage and a little bit of grated amaretti cookies on top, and with the exception of watching the pasta texture, I wouldn't change a thing.

Crispy Chicken RouladeDominic Armato

Though Josh would, over the course of the evening, repeatedly insist that the chicken dish was all me, the truth is that it was at the very least a collaboration. I provided the high concept and flavors, and Josh brought the technique to bear, which made -- perhaps predictably, given Josh's training -- a dish that blurred the line between Italian and French a little bit. We cooked chicken thighs and legs sous vide with rosemary and juniper, stripped the meat from the bone and folded in an apple puree, rolled it in chicken skin before crisping on the griddle, and set it atop cider-glazed fennel drizzled with an apple, thyme and juniper gastrique that we thinned out with a little chicken stock. Incidentally, telling the guy who actually runs the restaurant, "No, don't mount the gastrique with butter. I don't want it to get too rich. Let's thin it a bit with stock," was, perhaps, the most intimidating moment of the evening. Theme of the evening or not, it feels weird bossing these people around when even the lowliest prep cook has spent more time prepping this stuff than I have.

Fall Spiced Gelato with Caffè CorrettoDominic Armato

On the dessert, I called another last-minute audible, and I'm really glad I did. I'd been toying with the idea of scrapping the orange liqueur in favor of a more traditional Sambuca in the caffé corretto, and after tasting the spice gelato I knew it was the right call. It needed a touch of orange, but a small hit of orange zest frozen on the antigriddle -- "orange snow," if you will -- provided just the right amount, and the Sambuca worked better in the coffee and picked up the star anise in the spice gelato. Like scrapping the sausage filling for the tortelli in favor of a more traditional tortellini filling, dialing the zaniness back just a touch made the remaining non-traditional elements work better. They were Italian dishes amended rather than reinvented. And I was thrilled with every one of them.

Apple Gastrique, ReducingDominic Armato

Perhaps even more shocking, service went incredibly smoothly. Josh let the other cooks go home for the evening, and the two of us banged it out, him handling the chicken while I did the other three. "Banged it out" might be overstating things a bit. 27 covers spread across five hours of service isn't a pace that should make even the greenest line cook break a sweat (experienced line cooks, you can stop laughing at me anytime, guys). But even such a leisurely evening still drives home a lot of those restaurant kitchen truisms that you've heard and read about. I wouldn't say there was much that came as a surprise, but it's one thing to know, intellectually, and another entirely to do it, even for one evening. Among the things I marveled over in the aftermath:

Making the dish great is easy. Making it great 27 times in a row is hard.
You hear about it all the time, about how cooking in a restaurant is all about repetition, and how any chef who wants to stay in business will take consistently good over occasionally great. I know those sample dishes we all tasted before service were great. But trying to make sure that every dish matched those when tickets are rolling in and you're trying to keep up is another matter entirely. And don't blow it, because one bad plate goes out and somebody rakes you over the coals on Yelp. Or... um... maybe a food blog. Designing the menu is creative. The actual cooking couldn't be less so. It's very precise, mechanical work, and it doesn't matter how brilliant your dish is if you can't reproduce it again and again and again and again and again.

The ability to delegate is a blessing and a curse.
Having minions is awesome. But those minions are going to do exactly what you tell them to do. And if you don't carefully articulate what you're looking for, you aren't going to get it. Being a chef is as much about communication as it is about cooking. Perhaps moreso.

It's really, really easy to forget to taste things.
A lot of you are Top Chef fans. You know the drill. When Tom asks if somebody tasted the dish, they're doomed. And it's so critical. And so easy to forget. How many times did I forget? A lot. I hope all of that brown butter was brown and not, shall we say, more than brown. But I have to wonder if a couple that went too long slipped through, because I forgot to taste them all. And that uncertainty kills me. And it's part of the reason restaurants genuinely, desperately want to know if you enjoyed your meal.

Smaller steps mean fewer slips.
A new one to me, and I don't mean it metaphorically. As Josh explained to me early on, since I tend to cover a lot of ground with few steps, big strides make for slips and falls. Little steps keep your weight over your feet and make it easier for you to maintain your balance. And now I know why he shuffles everywhere he goes.

Holy crap, restaurant kitchens are dangerous.
You've heard it. You know it. But things are hot and sharp and people are flying behind you at breakneck pace, and there was a moment early on where I had to pause to remind myself that if I wasn't careful, I could end up in the hospital very, very quickly. I got through service with all ten digits intact, and only two slightly tender spots from grabbing handles whose appearance didn't betray their elevated temperature. I consider this an unqualified victory. And the side towel is my new best friend.

All senses will be in play.
There was a chapter of Heat wherein Bill Buford talks about becoming attuned to the pulse of the kitchen, where you're fully engaged with all five senses. And while I may not have achieved that level of kitchen zen on my first full night on the line (or anything close to it, really), you start to understand how really making it happen is a matter of becoming fully immersed in your surroundings. Early in the evening, I was having trouble with the brown butter. Posh has a show kitchen, so the lighting is dim, and I was cooking my butter in tiny black pans that were sitting in shadow. I spent the first half of the evening constantly picking up my pan and squinting, straining to see the color. When I realized midway through the evening that all I had to do was take a deep breath through my nose and I'd smell exactly how brown the butter was, it not only meant that I was less likely to screw up the butter, but it also freed me to focus on something else while the butter cooked in the background. It may have been only a tiny little taste, but for a brief moment I was Neo, and I *saw* the Matrix.

But perhaps most importantly, my day as the chef of Posh served to reinforce that I'm *NOT* Neo. As well as it went (I think!), I'm a little kitchen peon. Gracious and welcoming as the Posh staff was, they were superheroes to put up with me. And they're superheroes in that they do this all the time. I'm always in awe of the fact that people do this, and do it with such consistency. There's so much energy behind every plate, and I can't fathom how they muster that energy every day. It's almost a little embarrassing, to come tromping in for an evening, taking charge of people who know far more than you and co-opting the title that those in the profession work for years and years to earn. I'm not a chef. I haven't earned that title. I'm just a guy who really likes food. But to everybody over at Posh and all the folks who came in to eat, thanks for letting me pretend, if only for an evening.


Congrats Dom. What an experience. Menu sounded fantastic. Enjoyed the lessons learned. If I am ever in the area, Posh has a customer.

Great write up. Sounds like a wonderful evening, and that everyone involved enjoyed themselves. Congrats and thanks for the photos. The food looks good.

Is it weird that I don't know you yet I'm gushing with pride? Sounds like a magical night, Dom!

Great recap! What an experience to get that perspective of a real kitchen. Thanks for sharing the details -- it's fascinating.

Glad it was a good night for you. And thanks for the reminder that what folks crank out night after night isn't a walk in the park.

Now, which one of the people on the other side of those 27 covers writes a food blog? :-) It would be cool to hear it from the other side. Or maybe someday have a chef do a blog the same night you're doing a review?

Congratulations. You really put your money where your mouth is and I'm so glad that it was such a great experience. Take a bow.

Looks like a great experience. I can't believe you only got 27 takers. If I recall, the prix fixe was $29, which seems like a complete steel to me.

So, after your night as a line cook, would you say you have more or less regret about not being a full time cook as a career? (Or in Kill Bill terms, which do you feel more, relief or regret?)

Also, recipes? I wouldn't mind playing with your squash/pasta dish some, although if you want to be proprietary about it, I would understand.

I did my bit in the food industry, though I was never a "chef". I got to do the really fun things like sweep, clean pans, sharpen knives etc. I worked my way to "prep-chef" which only meant that I could do repetitive work after I was shown how to do it a few times. I can attest to the danger level of a kitchen, especially a fast paced one. Not to mention that many chefs are notorious pranksters, and a gullible young prep-chef is an easy target.

Knowing the environment as I do, I knew that you'd pull this off with style. I don't think you've ever failed at anything you've put your mind to (You bastard!), even if was getting me to eat real food and maybe gain a little weight in the process.

From the once picky eater; I want everything you cooked for your evening as Chef, and I WILL get it eventually.

Never had a doubt that it would be a success. Well done!

Congratulations, Dom! Sounds like you had an absolute blast. Does this experience make you want to go in the kitchen for a living?

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