Fear and Stoving

How do chefs deal with kitchen catastrophes?

Like the sirens of mythology, professional kitchens are diabolical fiends bent on destroying any human form lured into their realm.

Think we're being a tad dramatic? Early one evening several years ago, Marc Cassel and his team finished up preparations for dinner service at Star Canyon. Perfection or something near it was critical that particular night because then-Dallas Observer restaurant critic Mary Brown Malouf had called for a reservation. Ten minutes before the doors opened, the kitchen's fire suppression system suddenly kicked in and began spraying the place. "We lost everything," the chef, now at Dragonfly, recalls.

Panicked ruled for a moment. But, he explains, "the desire to run screaming from the kitchen and never come back doesn't help." He and the line cooks quickly began--again--the tedious process of cleaning, chopping, parboiling and all the other necessary stuff.

Yeah, they recovered. The moment, however, "probably took 10 years off my life," Cassel says.

On New Year's Eve 1997, chef Daniele Puleo, now owner of Daniele Osteria on Oak Lawn Avenue, was setting up for a big night at his restaurant in Pasadena, California. More than 250 people reserved tables at the modest 80-seat establishment, so timing three turns guided all his plans. Unfortunately a collision on the main road nearby backed up traffic for several hours. "It was a complete nightmare," Puleo says. "Reservations from 6 to 8 arrived around 8:30, the rest were on time." Hordes of irate diners crowded around the bar as waitstaff hustled guests in and out of seats, trying to force-feed several courses in 60 minutes or less. Thanks to that disastrous evening, the chef suffers from a culinary version of post-traumatic stress: "Every New Year's, I shake."

During lunch at Cuba Libre once, the entire flat-top stove shut down. How did chef Nick Badovinus cope? "Besides figuring out how many different ways I could fit the f-word into sentences, not well," he admits. "We were doing everything but cooking over Bic lighters."

So--shortened life spans, recurring nightmares, a flurry of f-bombs. Nope, we don't think we were being overly dramatic. In fact, the string of horror stories we heard while researching this week's Burning Question proved so distressing we sought escape in massive amounts of liquor and tawdry one-night stands.

Not much different than a normal week, really, but you get our point.

The stories mount up until you wonder why chefs don't just run screaming from the biz. Mild-mannered Joel Harloff, chef at Landmark Restaurant in the Melrose Hotel, stood before a large crowd demonstrating a recipe when the flywheel on his blender failed. It took 15 minutes for someone to round up a replacement. So the reserved man not known for improvisation tried (badly) to fill the extra time with chitchat. Kent Rathbun of Abacus once worked a ball for 1,300 people at the Meyerson. "There were two tents on opposite sides of the symphony center filled with electricity and gas lines," he says, "and there was a rock band hooked up to the generator." You know what happens next: generator overloads and blows, gas lines clog, party coordinators freak out with 400 guests still waiting for entrées--the usual. "It was the worst night in my career."

Keep in mind these guys thrive in a chaotic environment. There's no crying in baseball and no running from the kitchen. "You're exposed to so many problems already, then the stupidest thing in the world will happen," Puleo says. "The kitchen is a constant learning process." Little occurrences, such as spilling someone's entrée, that's easy stuff. "We can adapt quickly," says David Holben of Del Frisco's. "There's always another steak ready to go." Cuts, burns and injuries are common. But equipment failures, power outages, backed-up sewer lines...those things cause some real upheaval (as Badovinus points out, "fine dining and raw sewage don't mix"). It's momentary, though.

"The main thing is to do a quick assessment of what you can use," Cassel says of kitchen breakdowns.

"Once you're a chef, you're a plumber, a dishwasher, an electrician," agrees Todd Erickson of Hector's. "You just have to work through it."

The key is to shield problems from the guests.

In Cassel's story they salvage the evening. The food critic strolls in 20 minutes after the disaster "and we acted like it never happened." When power failed at Cuba Libre and Fireside Pies, Badovinus found every pickup truck owner he could, loaded them up, and drove across the street where they stuffed two restaurant's-worth of frozen ingredients into the small walk-in at Sense. And Rathbun? His sous chef just happened to have two cases of Sterno in his car.

"We turned plate warmers into ovens and cooked 400 steaks over Sterno," he says.

When problems delay service, the kitchen may send out complimentary appetizers or free champagne. That's about the only way diners know something's amiss.

And for the chefs, well, they know disaster stalks them constantly.

 
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