Tuesday, July 26, 2005

a complex man, great pork

Luckily I have redeemed myself in the eyes of The Chef. I spent the rest of this week nimbly rushing around the kitchen, prepping and washing my heart out. I shelled fava beans in record time. I wrestled valiantly with large vats of chicken and veal stock. I checked every refrigerator door at least twice.

I walked into the small cozy dining room on Saturday afternoon, prepared for another hectic, angry night. Expecting the flurry of pre-opening cleaning and cooking, I was surprised when I saw The Chef, surrounded by a little crowd of staff in an otherwise still room. Instead of the electric tension in the air of the last few days, this afternoon there was laughter. Everyone was gathered around The Chef, watching him tell an animated story. He was wearing a pair of oversized dark aviator glasses, straight out of the 1980’s. His hair, usually tamed into a ponytail, was wildly flying down around his shoulders. He was grinning, pleased with himself and his goofy act. Everyone was happy.

Later, we were all in the kitchen; our pristine white shirts glistened in their last few minutes of cleanliness before service began. The Chef walked in, whistling. He looked around the kitchen, thinking, taking it all in. He was rubbing his chin, slowly, thoughtfully. He sauntered around the stations, inspecting all the equipment: the four burners and one large griddle on the stove, the gleaming metal of the counters for hot and cold prep, the deep fryer, the sink and sanitizer. He didn’t appear to be looking for anything in particular; he was simply surveying his empire. He chuckled to himself a little, inexplicably, and grabbed his big chef’s knife. He began the clanging, driving motion of sharpening it on a long metal rod.

It’s Saturday
, he yelled gleefully, not missing a beat with the knife. YEAH! He whooped. His smile extended from one ear to the other. Are we ready for some cookin’?

Everyone looked up, laughing. YEAH! We all chorused back, cheerful and excited. The Chef’s good mood was contagious. I felt like doing a little dance right there next to the sink.

Alright – countdown 10 minutes until our first four-top.
Let’s get excited!! Espresso all around!! The Chef was practically bursting with his enthusiasm. He waved at the head waitress, who immediately started making the coffee. The five of us (The Chef, three sous-chefs, and I) had a brief moment of calm, standing at our stations, sipping nutty espresso from tiny china cups before the storm of orders began flying in.

And it was a great night. The Chef was buoyant, vibrating with a thrum of excited movement. He smiled; he encouraged; he yelled only a little. Instead of accusing and slamming pans, he joked and shouted words of confidence. It was infectious; every single person in the restaurant could feel his energy. We luxuriated in it, reveling in the happy drive that it gave us all. I’m not sure where this good mood came from. But with its unequivocal difference from the recent hellish moods, I am asking no questions.

Half way through service I heard The Chef yell my name, MOLLY!

Yes, Chef. I came running. Had the mood turned? I immediately thought of all of the fridge doors I could have left open.

But instead, a smiling Chef bearing a delicately concave white plate: Here, this is for you. Tell me what you think. Shocked and surprised, The Chef handed it to me: a crispy oval of pork confit topped with a matched circle of fried egg, trimmed to rounded perfection, nestled on a bright swath of green sorrel sauce and drizzled with a luminous red chorizo broth. The Chef does not usually encourage eating during the height of service (a rule that I generally don’t adhere to, but still). It was wonderful.

1:30am, I was finishing mopping the floor. L, a sous chef, was finishing a foie gras terrine while J., another sous chef, was pureeing the last of the raspberries. The Chef called us all out into the dining room. It was one of the waiter’s last night of work before moving out west. The Chef doled out delicate flutes of champagne, smiling. Despite the blurry eyed exhaustion, we all happily accepted and toasted to the waiter’s new life in Portland. In a soft voice, The Chef said: We are very sad to see you go. This restaurant is a family, my family. You are all my family and I will miss you. We will all miss you. I wish you luck; but just know that you will always have a place here with us. There were tears in the waiter’s eyes. I felt bathed in the warmth of deep camaraderie. A family; his family. We all looked around and smiled, drawn to the light of The Chef’s words and emotion.

Looking back on this week from the safety of my days off, I see small brushstrokes in the portrait of a complex man. The Chef is a force almost impossible to describe. His light is vivid and infectious. His darkness is cloying and disturbing. His talent is undeniable and his passion intense. I am at once drawn to and repulsed by him. I want to know what makes him tick.

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