Common Foodsense: Friend's Recruitment and Romaine Advice
We looked up gremolata for you. You’re welcome.
If you have gotten anywhere in this business, please remember that you didn’t get there on your own. There has always been, whether you recognized it at the time or not, someone whose proximity made you better at your job than you were before. Sometimes this has come from sage advice, or a sterling example, or from a plastic pickle bucket that was set under the drainpipe of a fryer to catch the hot fat—something you watched with horror in your youth and have been careful ever since not to replicate.
I’ve been thinking about this because I finally found a couple of guys that I’ve been trying to run down for years, and both of them have gone and died. I had no luck finding either of them while they were alive—neither was a celebrity, they didn’t bother with LinkedIn, and Googling “kitchen demigods” got me nowhere. Obituaries, however, show up promptly in a search. I swear, there ought to be a national database of cooks and chefs so we can keep track of each other, since we move so often and die so young.
One of these two was a mentor, and the other an amazing colleague, and both of them were part of the thriving, lunatic foodscape of San Francisco in the ‘80s. This was a period which mixed the famous “outlaw kitchen” ethos with military discipline: You could drink on the job, smoke, swear and do a discreet trip to the Schedule-1 powder room once in a while, but if your line performance was less than stellar, you’d find yourself quickly ejected to the suburbs where you could look for cleaning work at In-N-Out Burger.
The colleague, Donald Hulbert, recruited me while I was flat on my back in a room at Kaiser Hospital Oakland. I had in fact trained him to replace me at a little cockroach-infested dungeon called Esme’s some months before, when I’d decided to stop killing myself with two jobs and just work at Narsai’s. He begged me to come back and prevent a murder: He was working in the kitchen with the owner, one of those your-food-is-so-good-you-should-open-a-restaurant people who combine their enthusiasm, authority and ignorance in a mildly toxic milkshake that they expect you to drink every day.
There’s more to Romaine than its middle. There’s the leathery tops and the thick stalks for stocks.
I had been hit by a car. With a swollen purple face covered with some kindly surgical resident’s embroidery, a vision of the world through one slitted eye and a traumatic brain injury, going back to Esme’s seemed like a pretty reasonable idea.
It had its points. At the time, I was unsure whether the car had finished me off and I was languishing in a foodservice purgatory, especially when the sewer backed up into the downstairs prep room and I had to put on wellingtons to wade through poop to the walk-in. This happened twice, but on the other end of the teeter-totter, I got to work with Donald every day.
He was not a stellar line cook—three tickets on the wheel and he’d start to say we were in the weeds—but he clearly had the makings of a stellar chef. And to be fair, I’ve only worked with a few chefs who were killers on the line (Lenny Russo, Whitney Gaunt, and Brahim Hadj-Moussa were some notable examples from my generation) but many others whose creativity and logistical sense qualified them to run a kitchen without the manic energy of their minions.
But the stuff I learned: We had Osso Buco on Tuesday lunch, like every other Italian or Italianate restaurant in town. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, picture a thick, roundish piece of meat with a bone (osso) in the center with a hole (buco) in the bone where the marrow sits. It’s a veal shank braised in white wine (use vermouth), veal stock (don’t substitute) and a mirepoix, and finished with gremolata (look it up. Do I need to explain everything?). Because it’s braised, and supposed to be served in its recognizable form, it does not have a second day to its life; it falls apart. We had a slow Tuesday once and I was looking at all that money slowly disintegrating in the steam table, when Donald pointed at it and said that those were the ingredients of New Orleans Mock Turtle Soup. We busted up the meat, added veal stock, adjusted the seasoning, and sold out our Plan B the next day.
Donald had apprenticed in New Orleans, so he brought with him a lot of stuff that I had never seen before—chicken wings marinated in one-third hot sauce, one-third white wine vinegar and one-third chicken stock, for instance; black roux; gumbo filé and how not to add it—and we were pretty much left alone in the kitchen to play. But more important than any recipe was the sensibility and care for food. At Washington Square, when we made Caesar salad, we did what I’ve seen in most places: cut the leathery tops off the romaine, cut off the thick stalks a few inches above the root, and use the middle. Yield, about 50 percent. Donald took the stalks, braised them in chicken stock, added béchamel and Parmesan cheese and baked them as a gratin. The tops got shredded and sautéed with shallots, mixed with cream and egg whites and made into a soufflé.
And the ingredient that puts crappy fats and oils to shame—lard.
And when I was searching for a tastier frying oil than Frymax, and was wasting my money on unhydrogenated peanut oil and suchlike, Donald bid his time until I had groused about all the crappy fats in this benighted universe, and he gave a little smile when he asked if I could guess what they used at Commander’s Palace.
Half the price of peanut oil, and it made the best fried calamari you ever tasted. So for this, and all the tiny tricks I find myself using that I realize I learned from him, a fond belated thanks. For the rest of you, think about the things, big and small, that have helped you get where you are, and try to catch up with whomever showed them to you while you still can.
Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-236-6463.