March 17, 2013

Buying 10,000 dollars-worth of meat a day gave me a strange and terrible thrill, like riding a roller-coaster.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
By Anthony Bourdain

"My job at the Room, initially, was to prepare and serve a lunch buffet for about a hundred or so regular members of the Rockefeller Center Luncheon Club -- mostly geriatric business types from the building who assembled in the Rainbow Grill every day. I had to prepare a cold buffet and two hot entrees, which I'd then serve and maintain from noon to three. This was no easy feat, as the buffet was comprised solely of leftovers from the previous night's service. I'd begin each morning at seven-thirty pushing a little cart with wobbly casters down the line, where the cooks would hurl hunks of roast pork, end cuts, crocks of cooked beans, overcooked pasta, blanched vegetables and remnants of sauces at me. My job was to find a way to make all this look edible.

I have to say, I did pretty well, using a very dirty trick I'd learned at CIA. I turned leftover steaks into say, Salade de Boeuf en Vinaigrette, transformed dead pasta and veggies into festive pasta salads, made elaborately aspic'd and decorated trays out of sliced leftover roast. I made mousses, pâtés, galantines, and every other thing I could think of to turn the scrapings into something our aged but wealthy clientele would gum down without complaint. And then, of course, I'd don a clean jacket and apron, cram one of those silly coffee filter-like chef's hats on my head, and stand by a voiture, slicing and serving the hot entrees.

'Would you care for some Tongue en Madere?' I'd ask through clenched teeth, my face a rictus of faux cheer as I'd have to repeat and repeat for the hard-of-hearing captains of industry who ate the same spread of sauce-disguised leftovers every lunch and for whom the hot entree was clearly the highlight of their day. 'Boiled beef with horseradish sauce, sir?' I'd chirp. 'And would you care for a steamed potato with that?'

The Irish waitresses who worked the Luncheon Club with me were more like nurses after years of this. They had nicknames for our regulars: 'Dribbling Dick' for one ninety-year-old who had a hard time keeping his food in his mouth, 'Stinky' for an apparently incontinent banker, 'Shakey Pete' for the guy who needed his food cut for him, and so on. There were famous names in banking and industry with us every day, all New York laid out below us beyond the floor-to-ceiling picture windows -- eating garbage at the top of the world."
(pp. 109-10)

This next excerpt is from the chapter 'A Day in the Life,' which honest to god, gave me anxiety. I could never work in a restaurant, apparently. The behind-the-scenes, day-in-the-life at Les Halles, where Bourdain was an executive chef when this book was published, is fascinating, though, and the entire chapter is worth reading. 

"As I walk up to Broadway and climb into a taxi, I'm thinking grilled tuna livornaise with roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus for fish special. My overworked grill man can heat the already cooked-off spuds and the pre-blanched asparagus on a sizzle-platter during service, the tuna will get a quick walk across the grill, so all he has to do is heat the sauce to order. That takes care of fish special. Appetizer special will be cockles steamed with chorizo, leek, tomato and white wine -- a one-pan wonder; my garde-manger man can plate salads, rillettes, ravioli, confits de canard while the cockle special steams happily away on a back burner. Meat special is problematic. I ran the ever-popular T-bone last week -- two weeks in a row would threaten the French theme, and I run about 50 percent food cost on the massive hunks of expensive beef. Tuna is already coming off the grill, so the meat special has got to go to the saute station. My sous-chef, who's working sauté tonight, will already have an enormous amount of mise-en-place to contend with, struggling to retrieve all the garnishes and prep from an already crowded low-boy reach-in -- just to keep up with the requirements of the regular menu. At any one time, he has to expect and be ready for orders for moules marinières, boudin noir with caramelized apples, navarin of lamb (with an appalling array of garnishes: baby carrots, pearled onions, niçoise olives, garlic confit, tomato concassée, fava beans and chopped fresh herbs), filet au poivre, steak au poivre, steak tartare, calves' liver persillé, cassoulet toulousaine, magret de moulard with quince and sauce miel, the ridiculously popular mignon de porc, pieds du cochon -- and tonight's special, whatever that's going to be."
(pp. 184-5)

An excerpt from his stint as executive chef of The Supper Club in NYC: 

"As we battled through party season at the Supper Club, Steven and I did a lot of after-work drinking together, sitting around reviewing the events of the evening, planning our moves for the next day, pondering the mysteries of This Life We Live. I came to rely on him more and more, to find out what was going on, to fix things, to help me in the crushing, relentless routine of serving hundreds and hundreds of meals, different menus every day, hors d'oeuvres, à la carte meals, managing a staff of cooks that would swell into double digits for big events then shrink back to a core group of about eight for regular service.

Buying 10,000 dollars-worth of meat a day gave me a strange and terrible thrill, like riding a roller-coaster, and the simple act of moving ceiling-high piles of perishable fish and produce through my kitchen every day was a puzzle, a challenge I enjoyed. I liked being a general again: deploying forces where needed, sending out flying squads of cooks to put out brush fires on the buffet stations, arranging reconaissance, forward observers, communicating by walkie-talkie with the various corners of the club:
'More filet on buffet six,' would come the call. 'More salmon on buffet four!' 'This is security at the door. I got a body count of three hundred and climbing! They're really coming in!' Amusingly, we shared a radio band with a nearby undercover unit from the street crimes division of the NYPD. They were always trying to get us to change frequency, which we couldn't, as we used them all: one for managers, one for kitchen, and a security band. After threats and shouts didn't work, the cops got clever; they listened, got to know our lingo and our locations and would play games with us, calling for 'More roast beef on buffet one!' when none was needed, or creating notional emergencies that would cause security to gang-rush the 'mezz bathroom' to break up a non-existent fight. It was a wild-style life. It wasn't unusual to see naked women hosing ice cream off their bodies in the kitchen pot sink (the Howard Stern event); sinister Moroccan food tasters packing heat (Royal Air Maroc party); Ted Kennedy in a kitchen walk-through eerily reminiscent of RFK's last moments; our drunken crew, in a hostile mood, bullying a lost Mike Myers into 'doing that Wayne's World Ex-cel-lent thing'; Rosie Perez hanging on the saute end, fitting right in as if she worked with us, sitting on a cutting board, 'What's good to eat in here, boys?'; a clit-piercing on stage (Stern again); Madonna fans trying to sneak through the kitchen from the hotel (she brings her own eggs for Caesar salad); concerts, swimsuit models, hard-core hip-hoppers, go-go boys. One day there would be a wedding for 100 people where the customer spent 1,000 bucks per person for lobster and truffle ravioli, individual bottles of vodka frozen in blocks of ice, baby wedding cakes for every table, and the next, the whole club would be tented over, filled with dervishes and dancers from North Africa, serving couscous and pigeon pie for a thousand.

Thanks to the Bigfoot Program, I never ran out of food, was always prepared, was never late, and Steven helped enormously. What finally made him a serious character in my eyes was the night he ran a knife through his hand while trying to hack frozen demi-glace out of a bucket. Squirting blood all over the place, he wrapped his hand in an apron and listened to my instructions: 'Get your sorry ass down to Saint Vincent's, they've got a fast emergency room. Get yourself stitched up and get yourself back here in two fucking hours! We're gonna be busy as hell tonight and I need you on the line!' He returned ninety minutes later and managed to work, one-handed, on the sauté station, very capably cranking out 150 or so à la carte dinners. I was pleased with this demonstration of loyalty. Working through pain and injury counts for a lot with me."
(pp. 213-4)

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