Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fun Cooking at Diner 437

I asked for it. I guess I’d been asking for it all along. I’ve accomplished so many food milestones in my life that this was something I needed to do. So I just laced up my boots and crawled into the trenches. It was hot in there. I was sweating. I was weary. My back ached. My 48 hour old tattoo was stinging. Yet, when the day ended, I raised a cocktail with folks who I admire for their precision, skill and dedication. I’m speaking of my first experience in a restaurant kitchen. If you’re like me, you have taken for granted what it takes to put out consistently good food, plate after plate, with such attention to detail. I was about to learn. Trial by fire. It all started a few weeks ago after a lunch trip to Diner 437 in St. Petersburg. I wrote about that experience a few posts ago. There I met a dynamic and colorful chef named Domenica Macchia. We struck up a conversation and I think we’re now officially friends. She made some great food, candidly told her story and ultimately invited me back to cook with her behind the counter. Now that was an invitation I had to accept.

I arrived at 4 PM for the dinner service on a Saturday night. Things were just getting set up. Domenica met me with a hug and we toured the operation. Prep work in the back. Walk in cooler. Specials. The line. Stoves. Oven. The menu. How orders come in. Staff introductions. What plate to use for what dish. So much to process. Luckily, there was no time to get overwhelmed with information because the first few orders trickled in soon after. Gorgonzola bread was up first. On the stove a bit of sherry, garlic, shallot, parsley, parmesan and cream are simmered. A handful of gorgonzola is added to the pan and the sauce is reduced till thick. Meanwhile, some toast points go into the oven. The bread is plated and the gorgonzola sauce is poured over the top. Cooking time for this fan favorite is about 3 minutes from beginning to end. It’s all about speed and flow.

Marinated shirt steak with warm spinach and mashed potatoes

Domenica’s kitchen is small. There’s just enough room in the narrow space for one person to squeeze past another. “Behind you”, is heard over and over and you better listen or you will get burned. Literally. There needs to coordination for things to work right. Normally there are three people there and they each have a station to manage. Domenica works the stove and grill, while Matt assembles sandwiches and does some sides and Christina does the salads. There are some cross responsibilities, but that’s the general flow. Domenica is most certainly in command of this ship. While it’s all smiles and small talk initially, those tickets start printing with the orders and things snap into place pretty quickly. Domenica immediately begins calling out the items for Matt and Christina while attending her grill. I stand in anticipation for Domenica’s guidance which comes quickly, decisively and briefly. She doesn’t give me much time. She shows me once and that’s it. Do or die. Meanwhile, I’m sure I’m sharing space that Matt normally occupies and I can’t help feel that he already hates me. Another gorgonzola bread order comes in and I think I can now handle it. My first dish for a customer. I’m thrilled. I’m feeding someone and they are paying for it.
“Too much gorgonzola,” says Domenica. “Next time use less.”
Well she told me use a handful so I did. She pointed out that my hands were larger than hers. Fair enough.

That was not my first scolding of the night but I learned 4 or 5 of the menu items pretty quickly and as the pace picked up, Domenica had me working these pretty consistently. In no time I was making shaved filet mignon and passing it off to Matt for the sandwich with garlic dressing (unbelievably good). The caramelized bananas were simple enough. Add a bit of butter and brown sugar to a pan with some dark rum and sliced bananas. I felt like a real chef as the blue flame from the dark rum rose while I flipped the bananas like they do on TV. I’m ready for Iron Chef.

“C’mon, we gotta be able to do two things at once in here!” Domenica shouts.
I tumbled back to Earth with a sweaty thud as I put some butter, lemon juice and oil in a pan to begin some spinach. Shallots and garlic in next.
“Take some of that garlic out. I don’t want a big garlic bite in my spinach.”
I comply. In goes the spinach and the flame goes off. Her recipe has the spinach just tossed in the hot butter/oil to slightly wilt and warm through. It is a guest favorite.

And on and on it went for my 6 hour shift. It was hectic at times, calm a few others. As the tickets lined up, Domenica assigned each duty with careful attention to timing the orders so that hot meals were served to each table at the right time. This is a learned skill, I’m sure, but she was flawless. From the back room, clean dishes are supplied in a steady stream as are menu items as they are depleted. I felt a touch uncomfortable walking into the back, handing a stranger an empty bin and asking him to refill it or handing the dishwasher a bowl and telling him to please wash it and bring it out. Who am I to be barking orders at these hard working folks? But that’s the way it’s done.
Garlic Parmesan wings

Then suddenly, just as I feel my back is going to snap in two, it’s over. The last order is out and we’re finished. I feel like I just won the Super Bowl. “That was awesome!” I shouted in my head but uttered with more restraint. I wanted to bring my kid on the field. I wanted the streamers to fly. I was looking for the camera so I could face it and say, “We’re going to Disney World!” Then I looked around and saw that no one really cared. There was degreasing to do and they were still working. I popped the top from the beer I had been offered earlier and watched. Not that I’m above helping clean but my back was really about finished. Clean up was only about 30 minutes. Afterwards, Domenica and I went out to toss a few back with her friends at a local watering hole. If I portrayed her as a hard ass, let me assure you she is anything but. While she knows how to command a kitchen flow during a busy dinner crowd, she is affable, outgoing and fun to be with. Her friends were a joy to be around too.

It wasn’t long before I was headed home to pass out. 1:30 AM is not a time of day I am generally familiar with but I had such a tremendous evening. I learned more this night than I have in a while. I can definitely check this off my “bucket list”. What makes me feel better is that Domenica invited me back. I’m ready.

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