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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Stage in the Kitchens at Betony - Part III

A Stage in the Kitchens at Betony

Part III

Betony Sign

In February I had the opportunity to stage (i.e. intern) for a day at Betony in New York City. The following is the last in a three part series on the experience. Read parts one and two here.

Dandelions neatly placed in the walk-in, it was time to get upstairs.

"Coming up," I yelled as I ascended the narrow back staircase to the main kitchen. It was a warning to anyone who might be traveling in the other direction. Calling out to no one in particular felt awkward. But as I had learned earlier that afternoon, it was better than the alternative: a mid-staircase encounter with an irate dishwasher, his arms loaded with an ungainly tub of dirty pots, panicked shouts in Spanish from a face barely visible from behind the stack. My high school Spanish had never been very good, but I recognized a few of the more colorful phrases offered for my benefit. 

Foie Gras Bon Bons (Photograph used with permission from the Institute of Culinary Education)

The sounds of a restaurant come alive grew clearer as I reached the top of the stairs - the noises I had been waiting to hearing since I arrived. A whir of printing tickets, pots and pans clattering, and many cries of "Chef. Yes, Chef!"

I immediately positioned myself flush against a side wall, minimizing my footprint as best as possible.

The heat from the grill station radiated to my right. To my left labored a team of cooks armed with sauté pans and side towels, each working on multiple dishes at once. 

Chef Bryce stood by the dining room door, monitoring the entire scene as Chef Jack expedited. A ticket would come in. Chef Jack would call out the order. The entire kitchen responded back in affirmation.

I tried to keep up, unable to maintain focus on any one thing for more than a moment, my eyes bouncing distractedly to whatever moved next. Proteins hitting hot pans. Plates being sauced and garnished.

Somehow, little pieces of seemingly disparate chaos repeatedly came together as beautifully composed dishes. And Chef Bryce inspected each one. If the plating was sloppy… if the seasoning was off … if one entrée for a table had been fired slightly too early and had waited while the others were prepared… it all had to be redone.

Standing there, I was the recipient of many of the dishes that didn't make the cut. Grilled short ribs, foie gras bon bons, several orders of chicken liver mousse… more short ribs. What began as polite reluctance to downplay my enthusiasm eventually became an act of self-defense, the limits of my physical capacity being truly tested. And after each plate, Chef Bryce would ask what I had thought. The pace of the dishes exceeded my ability to come up with synonyms for “delicious”.

During a brief lull in the service, Chef Bryce pulled down one of the dinner plates from a nearby shelf. “Look at these,” he said as he flipped it over and pointed to two small impressions in the glazed finish. “We had these custom made for the restaurant. You can actually see where each plate was held as it was made.” He leaned in closely to get a better look himself.

This was someone who truly appreciated the details.

The pace of the tickets appeared to be slowing, the second seating under control. It was a moment of relative calm and my first opportunity to take in the full scene: that small army working shoulder to shoulder, each motion intentional and precise.

“Chef”, I heard Chef Bryce call behind me. I turned to see him standing there with Chef Jack – a single scallop in his hand.

“So, we’ve been cooking for you. Now’s your turn to cook for us.”

Uh oh, I knew what was coming.

Preparing a Pickled Beef TongueHe continued, “You can use anything in the kitchen except for the prepared mise en place. You have 45 minutes.”

This wasn't fully unexpected. In fact, the "Chopped" scenario had played into many of my "what-if" daydreams from the past week. But standing there in the middle of the kitchen, presented with that single scallop, I was living out the culinary nightmare equivalent of giving a speech with no pants on. I looked down to make sure I still had pants on. I did. This wasn't a dream.

Well, you got yourself into this situation, I thought. Time to cook your way out.

I took the scallop from Chef Jack and returned to garde manger, hoping the familiar corner of the kitchen would help me collect myself. But my thoughts were increasingly scattershot. I grew increasingly conscious of my heart pounding in my chest and the pressure of my pulse in the veins along my forehead.

Despite my best efforts, my mind kept returning to images of Ted Allen and Alex Guarnaschelli standing in judgment of what I was about to create.

Like so many, I am a consummate armchair quarterback when watching “Chopped”. I know the rules:
  • Don’t make something ‘two-ways’
  • Get to the ice cream machine first
  • No raw red onion
  • If you call it a coulis, it better be a coulis
  • If you call it a hash, it better be a hash
  • No more bread pudding!!
  • If all else fails, puree it and plate
  • But by all means, get something on the plate, damn it!

This wasn’t helpful at the moment. Basics... start with the basic. 

I had one distinct disadvantage given my mystery ingredient. After a gut-wrenching food poisoning incident involving some bad tuna over 20 years prior, I had just begun to redevelop an appetite for seafood. And while I would now eat almost anything (Uni... Geoduck… I love them), I had just started cooking seafood on my own. Scallops had not yet entered my repertoire.

I knew one thing: get a damn good sear on that scallop! That meant a hot pan and little more than a minute per side. At the very least, I wasn’t going to serve Chef Bryce an overcooked yet colorless ball of rubber.

I had another distinct disadvantage. Even though I had access to an overwhelming pantry of ingredients, I still had almost no idea where to find anything. Meyer lemons, pea tendrils and chicory kits... those items I had covered. But even simple items like garlic and shallots... where the hell were the garlic and shallots?

I ran to the walk-in where, earlier that afternoon, I had reorganized the produce and taken it upon myself to sweep up the floors. I hoped the sub-41 degree temperatures would help slow my thoughts as I scanned the plastic bins for ideas.

Apples, asparagus, beets, bok choy, brussels sprouts... Dandelions, endive, fennel... Kale, leeks, lettuce (I had struggled over whether to categorize Boston lettuce under 'B'... Red lettuce under 'R').

I grabbed the bok choy, a couple of lemons, shallots and a few cloves of garlic. Keep it simple.

I placed the ingredients on my cutting board. The garde manger team turned in unison and squinted at me, confused by the unfamiliar combination of ingredients before me. 

I answered their stares. "I'm cooking a scallop." 

That didn't help explain what I was doing. But explanations could come later.

"Where are the grains?" I asked. I'm sure this only confused them further.

"Dry stock. Door to the left of the stairwell." I appreciated their lack of follow-up questions.

I knew Chef Bryce was a fan of grains. The grain salad with labne, which we had prepared at ICE, was consistently on the menu. And while I bristle at terms like "super foods", my genuine affinity for quinoa had me grabbing for a bag of the red variety as soon as I entered dry stock.

So it was settled. A simple seared scallop with red quinoa and wilted bok choy in a garlic lemon butter sauce. 

My next challenge would be fighting for space on the line. So much for staying out of the way, which was exactly what I had been trying to do all day. 

I took a deep breath, mise en place in hand, and returned to the upstairs kitchen.

Fish for Fumet Blanc

I paused at the top of the stairs and looked at the line of cooks along the stoves. I couldn’t possibly add myself to the mix. As it was, there appeared to be about three too many people operating in the same space.

Chef Bryce read my face from across the kitchen. "Just get in there!"

I grabbed a fist full of clean side towels, a small saucepot and a sauté pan.

"Behind... behind... behind... behind!" I pushed my way to a comparatively open spot at the far end of the line. Let’s do this!

Quinoa first. Everything else will take just a couple minutes to cook.

I put a pot on to boil as I arranged my mise en place and plotted out my next steps.

"Did you salt that water?” came a call several bodies down. I hadn't. Damn! 

“No Chef, thank you, Chef.” I felt stupid. Season, season, season! If I was going to keep it simple, at least do it right.

But the feeling faded quickly. I appreciated the head's up from someone who had no vested interest in how my dish turned out. 

This should have come as no surprise, but at that moment I realized this was exactly how a good kitchen was able to function. It wasn't my dish, your pot or his sauce. The entire kitchen functioned as a unit. A cry of "Chef, you’re going to destroy those steaks!" wasn't a slam but rather a crucial in-the-moment warning not to irreversibly overcook a dish.

The quinoa was approaching 13 minutes and the spirals of the germ were now visible, a telltale sign of doneness. I tasted a spoonful. It was still a bit underdone, but the carryover cooking would bring it to a perfect al dente.

I started to preheat my pan for the scallop. I still had 10 minutes until my time was up. I only needed six.

When the pan was hot, it was time to move. I coated the pan with oil and returned it to the heat. It wouldn’t take long for it to reach the smoke point.

I dried the scallop with a paper towel, ensuring there was no residual moisture that would cause it to pop and splatter when it hit the pan, tragically steaming rather than searing my sole piece of protein. A little salt. A little pepper.

The pan was ready. In went the scallop.

Sizzle. It was auditory proof of a sufficiently hot pan. Now let it sit. Don’t poke or prod.

60 seconds. The scallop was beginning to turn opaque where it touched the pan. Just a few second more and…flip…

The scallop released cleanly. An even, golden crust was my reward.

Now just 60 seconds on this side. Don’t overcook it.

While the scallop finished, I double-checked my next ingredients. They were all ready to go.

At 60 seconds, I removed the pan from the heat and placed the scallop on a clean plate. The sear on the second side was somewhat pale and uneven. My fear of overcooking the scallop had betrayed me. This would not be the presentation side.

I returned the pan to the heat and deglazed it with some lemon juice, then swirled in some butter followed by the garlic and shallots, which softened in seconds. A little salt and pepper joined the mix before I tossed in a handful of bok choy, which took no time to wilt. Then I quickly mixed in the quinoa.

I took a taste. Acidic… definitely too acidic. I should have used a lighter hand with the lemon… maybe combined it with a little fish stock at the beginning when I needed the moisture. But it was too late now.

I added a little butter as a final touch, hoping it would mellow the flavor. More butter certainly didn’t hurt.

I knew I was being watched while I plated the dish, my time drawing to a close.

Steady hand, I told myself. Just make a simple bed of quinoa with the greens. Place the scallop gently on top, the well-seared side facing up.

I was done.

“Chef!” I extracted myself from the line and presented the plate.

“So what do we have here?” Chef Bryce smiled.

I stumbled for words, still catching my breath. I suddenly felt the pain of having to describe one’s dish. Just stick with the ingredients.

Pan seared scallop with red quinoa and wilted bok choy in a lemon butter sauce. 

“We’ll probably need a utensil,” he said.

Yes, that probably would help. I reached for a couple of tasting spoons from the counter as he continued, “Have you ever cooked a scallop before?”

“No”, I confessed. I spared him the food poisoning tale of GI distress.

He cut into the scallop, “Well, the doneness is perfect. Just barely translucent in the center.”

A sigh of relief. Then he flipped the scallop.

“Although the sear on this side is uneven.”

Guilty as charged, I thought.

He tasted the scallop and nodded. Then he tasted the quinoa. “And the sauce is…”

“Too acidic. Absolutely”. At the very least I was going to get points for acknowledging this error first.

“Yes. But just a bit. With some changes, I think you have the beginnings of a solid dish there.

“Thank you, Chef.” I took back the plate and returned to garde manger.

I had survived. And no cuts. No burns.

Striped Bass in Fumet Blanc

By 2:00am, I had moved beyond the point of exhaustion.

I made my way to the basement door that led up to 57th street where I had entered just 14 hours before. At that moment, Executive Chef Bryce Shuman emerged from the nearby office, flipping through several pages of what was likely a prep list for the following day. He glanced up, looking remarkably alert given the hour – particularly compared to the personal fatigue I was feeling.

“So, what did you think?”

“Amazing.” At that late hour, it was the only way I could describe what I had just seen, although I knew it failed to adequately capture the experience. “Thank you, the entire day has been tremendous.”

“Thank you. It was great having you in the kitchen,” he said with a sincerity to which I was not accustomed.

As I left, it was still raining outside, but I didn’t even bother to open my umbrella. I was drunk with fatigue, and I welcomed the cold rain on my face.

It was 2:30am when I finally reached my apartment. I dropped everything on the welcome mat and literally fell into bed. My clothes smelled of tarragon and black truffle. There are worse things.

By 2:31am I was out cold.

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  1. Thanks for sharing the experience, was it only a one day stage or do you head back for more?

    1. One (very memorable) day. As you can imagine, it flew by. More than anything, I walked away with a tremendous appreciation for how hard everyone grinds to make an excellent restaurant function.