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Jeremy Elias

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Death by Dinner Rush

Posted: 02/18/11 05:35 PM ET

The Food Network, Travel Channel, blogs and insider tell-alls are milking the culinary genre for all it is worth. However, you won't find much ill will on my end. Yes, I've seen Andrew Zimmern treat poached ostrich testicle as delicacies. I've even watched Bobby Flay oust a sweet Italian grandmother as "Meatloaf Champ." But throughout this insanity, my addiction to foodie content has stayed strong. I watch, I read, and all the while, I experiment endlessly in my 3x5 kitchen.

Because of this, I've grown a bit cocky when it comes to food. I'm not the blogger who posts angry restaurant assessments like, "Applbee's could serve a better ceviche than this." But I do show arrogance in my ability to cook. I dabble with different cuts of meat, cook dishes from the West, experiment from the East, and I'll mince garlic with the best of them.

So when Zach Frankel, an old college friend and chef at NYC's DOMA, was discussing his new menu, he was stunned by my willingness to "talk shop." He gave me the same look Doogie Howser gets after diagnosing pulmonary fibrosis for the first time. This professional chef wasn't looking for any insights from some neophyte who'd just watched Alton Brown. So when I started using words like demi-glace, and commented on how sweetbreads would work well, he was only irritated further. Before I knew it, the conversation turned into an argument. He told me I knew nothing, I said something about his hairline, and the volume escalated.

In the end, like all foolish arguments, it was settled with a bet. I would work a night at his restaurant. Not as a bartender, not a waiter, but on the line. If I could last the night without disrupting service, I was good for two free dinners. If I lost, the heat too unbearable, I'd have to provide my services as a dish washer for the next three days.

I never officially worked in the food industry. In my youth, I delivered for a Chinese restaurant, but besides transporting lo mein across the swamps of Jersey, my only professional experience comes from the countless culinary personalities who have enjoyed success because of people like me.

I showed up at the back entrance of the restaurant at 4:30pm on a Thursday evening. I looked like a fresh faced recruit walking into a barrack of battered men. Well, there was only one, Edgar, a Hispanic man with the build of a linebacker. I immediately felt out of place. He had grease stains on his shirt, burns on his arms, and I was standing in clean work clothes and a Jansport backpack.

With Zach not around, I played spectator for a couple minutes. The waitresses cruised in and out of the kitchen, refilling salt shakers, funneling bottles with olive oil and wiping down tables. Edgar was stationed on the far side of the kitchen, prepping everything for the night ahead - shallots, butter, garnishes and other necessities. Ishmael, who was finishing up his afternoon shift, was doing anything he could find - scrubbing, hauling and most likely waiting to see why this tall lanky idiot was standing in the doorway (me).

Zach walked in from the dining area. He was dressed in his white chef garb, black pants, and a half smile that seemed to say "You look like an idiot, and I look like I belong here." And in fact, he was right. The only place you can "belong" with a Jansport backpack is middle school, and I was a long way off. But the moment was fleeting. We had to review the night's menu.

The first reaction of looking at a restaurant menu from the newbie chef's perspective is daunting. It's a moment we've all had. You walk into your college final, filled with a falsified sense of CliffsNotes confidence, only to realize you know nothing. It's a brief panic, but nonetheless there. The inner voice tries to calm you down. Yes, I've made roasted chicken before. I've dabbled with sea bass. Pork loin, check, mussels in lemongrass broth, check, kale soup, eh. It sounds foolish, but when you realize you're not perfecting one dish for your friends, but allowing paying strangers to choose from ten, it's a bit overwhelming. I listened as each item was explained in its entirety, knowing full well I'd need a couple test runs.

A single order came in. The waitress delicately handed a piece of paper to Zach through an open window facing the dining room - mussels to start, then short ribs. I watched Zach sift through the mussels from the below fridge, making sure none had opened. He started the pan on some heat, a little garlic, tossed in the mussels with a sizzle, and continued our conversation about "that schmuck from college who's now dating that girl from Glee." It was a calm environment. Edgar was wiping down dishes at ease, chuckling every time we used profanity, Ishmael caught the bus home and the waitresses stopped by on occasion to say "hi."

When it was time for the sole diner's short ribs, I took the reins.

The short ribs sat in a huge plastic container, with icebergs of congealed fat lingering on the surface. They'd been simmering for five hours, probably done around 4pm, and then placed below for an unpredictable number of eaters. This is completely sanitary, and just one of those necessary shortcuts you don't encounter when cooking for four at home. It also highlighted a secondary point - I had missed out on the grunt work. All that was needed from my end was a sizzle plate, a quick broil on the meat, and a potato purée concocted on the sauté station.

DOMA is a small kitchen, almost like a glorified walk-in closet. It's a three man job, with Zach and his partner on the "line," and Edgar taking care of all cold items and dish washing. It's by no means a grand kitchen, with an executive chef, sous chef, and arsenal of line cooks handling a grill and deep fryer. But it was an intimate kitchen, with close quarters, and as far as I was concerned, the comradery was all the better.

Around 6:45, when orders began trickling in one by one, I perfected my craft on the other menu items: roasted chicken, sea bass, pork loin, kale soup. I was meticulously plating Brussels sprouts along a chicken breast like I was painting a Tuscan landscape. I was a pro. I stood side by side with Zach, tag teaming on orders and joshing with Edgar at the cold bar. I even introduced a couple spatula tricks I learned at Benihana. I kept a lovely pace, a clean work station, and I even refined the way we served the kale soup (brioche croutons).

But as is true with many beginners, confidence can become a killer, especially when the dinner rush arrives. It was like the unexpected appearance of a stampede. The slight vibration of the floor can be dismissed as anything else, just not what's about to hit. This is when the kitchen becomes a machine. It's no longer a matter of "Okay, I've done this at home before." It's when the restaurant's backroom transforms into the floor of a GM Plant. You're not focusing on the order, but relying on muscle memory to make five orders. The waitresses slap three, four, five, ten more tickets on the counter, screaming things about "Need 'em hot" and "Ready on the entrées for five." I looked over at Zach, and he's drizzling olive oil in a pan with his left, slipping short ribs under the broiler with his right, all the while focusing his eyes on the white paper ticket in front of him. Edgar's washing dishes at a feverish pace like a music video for Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." And I look like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory, struggling to keep up, shoving a couple pork tenderloins in my mouth to keep the line moving. My meticulous plating turned into a violent Jackson Pollack display of sea bass and burnt greens. I was lost, nearly defeated, struggling to keep up with the conveyor belt.

When recounting this scene with Wesley Genovart, executive chef of Manhattan's Degustation, who I spoke with after my night at DOMA, I got a chuckle. I knew why. Had I only called sooner, he could have saved me a day's work. Sure, creating the dishes, experimenting with different menu items might have some correlation to what I do at home. But when it comes to that dinner rush, there's none. "Cooking in a kitchen is all about repetition" he noted, "the creative part is second."

What I do at home, and what I did at DOMA is the difference between restoring your vintage Porsche in the driveway, and building a hundred Chevys per day in Detroit. The Porsche is the fully formed narrative. There's the prep, the development of a dish, and that final drive into the sunset is when you sit down and cut into your meal. At the Chevy factory, you might be on break pad detail, your hands following the same habitual movements for nine hours, only to come back tomorrow for the same. That's the dinner rush - when you're not thinking as much as doing, and your defined task have become second nature.

I battled my way through the end of that night at DOMA. Some could say I even won the bet, having screwed up on only a few dishes. But I wouldn't think about collecting. I was caught off guard. Not because of how hard it was, which it wasn't. But because of how different it was. Towards the end of the night, as orders were finally slowing down, a waitress asked what my being there was all about. I explained, and she laughed. "This isn't a real kitchen," she said, "You should have seen the last restaurant I worked at." I didn't ask, and didn't want to know. I took a cab ride home and prayed there was an old Mario Batali on my DVR.