Saturday, 9 April 2011

Here, Eat This

It's about 4:30pm and as I make my way through the doorway of The Short Story, the wait staff gets ready near the bar area for the first customers to arrive and talk about who has already eaten some cake makes its way to me, at which point I'm given a healthy serving of moist chocolate cake and told "here, eat this." Eventually, I'm given a fork and Robert Harrison, executive chef of The Short Story, meets me at the entry way to a fairly small kitchen and asks me if I'd like to be introduced to the cook staff (which he forewarns me is a small one). In between bites of cake, I'm introduced to Dylan (a.k.a., the head dishwasher; a.k.a., the 16-year-old-who-cooks-like-he's-30; a.k.a., "the Prodigy") and then to Carly (the baker and plater of the chilled small plates and desserts). And as I finish my plate of cake, service begins.

Slowly, I make my way to the back of the kitchen by the oven. My vantage point gives me a clear shot of the entire kitchen which, though small, is substantial when I reflect back on pulling off a single five-course meal for eight or nine in my little apartment in Paris. As we near dinner service with the first reservations scheduled to come at 5:15pm, the kitchen starts to heat up as large pots of water (which I would soon find out would be kept at a constant boil for pasta or poached eggs, respectively) begin to boil. As Chef Robert sets Pandora to a station called "80s throwback/90s comeback," the mood of the entire kitchen continues to be relaxed while energized, light-hearted and laid-back while focused. Carly finishes up her final prep by dicing beautiful slices of tuna for the Spicy Ahi Tuna Tower, as Dylan first finishes the prep work on the crab cakes that would later be joined by a saffron whole grain mustard aioli, and pulls together a dough and cuts it into squares for biscuits which would later be used for Strawberry Shortcake. In retrospect, I realise this is just the fourth day of working with the new spring menu which, understandably, has taken quite a while to put together and, notably, is influenced by what The Short Story crew enjoys preparing and serving.

As I continue to take in the sights of this crew at work, Chef Robert finishes the prep work on the puff pastry that would sit atop the Quick Fire Lobster Thermidor Pot Pie, gets that into the oven, and asks me if I've ever made a hollandaise sauce. While it's been on my laundry list of culinary challenges, I never have; quickly he separates three yolks and with a bit of water whisks the eggs over a flame (as opposed to a double boiler) without scrambling them, and follows that up with some clarified butter, correcting and seasoning the sauce which--after meeting up with some lobster meat--would be served over the Pan Roasted Sea Scallops joined on the plate by truffled cauliflower custard. The process is seemingly seamless and is soon followed up by his plating of "the Soup of  the Moment" (mushroom) and a set-up on the stove top for both a regular and a vegetarian option of the Goat Cheese Ravioli Carbonara.

Meanwhile, Carly goes with the flow of the orders as they come in on a receipt printer and plates among the early first courses of the night which included the Bread Basket Family Rustic Italian & Crisp Flat Bread, the Chilled Truffled Asparagus served with Manchego cheese and a poached egg. Dylan continues to talk about a wide range of varied interests--from baseball to business to, of course, food--as he separates thirty eggs in a matter of minutes which would later be used for the crème anglaise to compliment Carly's warm chocolate soufflés.

Back in Chef Robert's corner, which can register [especially] during the summer season up to 120 °F, he boils macaroni (to be served with lobster and French black truffle), slices goat cheese and spinach stuffed chicken breast (to be adorned by a lemon beurre blanc), sears filets of beef tenderloin (to be served with a foie gras bread pudding), crusts rack of lamb (with a wonderfully green mix of herbs), and heats up some roasted garlic hummus (which will rest under crispy lamb belly). With much more controlled ease than it took to write that last sentence, Chef's multi-tasking skills are superb and rarely strained.

And again, the manner in which Chef Robert rules the kitchen is very much communal and is a consistent learning ground for (it seems to me) himself, Carly, Dylan, and even me. Relative to the culinary scene, Robert's experience is nothing short of extraordinary. Born and raised in Hawaii--a literally natural melting pot (oh, the puns in this restaurant are certainly a plenty)--Robert graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and has worked in such establishments as Peter Pratt's Inn (as executive pastry chef), The Castle at Tarrytown, and the Russian Tea Room, the latter of which have honed his skills in French technique, as noted in this late October 2009 article. (Read more of Robert's story at the aforementioned [linked] source.)

From the biscuits Dylan had baked to a variety of dish components cooked by Chef Robert (goat cheese and spinach stuffed chicken; crispy macaroni with lobster and French black truffle; and the foie gras bread pudding), my visionary experience was certainly a deliciously satisfying one both in terms of food and culinary shadowing experience. And to bring this story full-circle, Robert and I join a couple of Short Story regulars at the bar, and decompress with a refreshing St-Germain cocktail and a taste of the spicy ahi tuna tower--served with stories throughout Robert's personal culinary journey.

To watch, envision..even dream of..working in a professional kitchen environment is one thing, but to step foot in the kitchen itself and be a part of it (albeit, for now, in the open shadows) is another. The endurance of standing for five hours of cooking service, not including prep time, as well as the organised chaos in the kitchen as multiple orders arrive are aspects of the dining (let alone fine dining) experience which is often times far too under-appreciated, or at least is unknown and unrecognized by many.

Yet, for those who appreciate the subtleties of the fast food nation, for those who subscribe to the slow food revolution, for those who cook for the joy of cooking, and for those who dine in the company of others, let it be known that this blogger finds a home in all four of these camps. To bring a long culinary evening to a close, or rather to make a long story short, it is in the memory of experience, family, heritage, and cultures, that I end this blog post with the expectation of writing another.

For a brief review of my first dining experience at The Short Story Brasserie, click here.

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