I simultaneously adore and loathe Sunday nights at the restaurant. It’s a typical hectic night of chopping, cleaning, washing, and dodging clumsy backwaiters while balancing large stacks of dishes right up until 9pm on the dot. That’s when things change; that’s when The Chef’s Whim begins.
The Whim is a four course tasting menu, created by The Chef on the spur of the moment. It is done in waves: one each at 9, 9:30, and 10. Each eating member of the wave dines on the same things, though every wave is different. The food is brought out one course at a time by a parade of smiling servers, vibrant colors jumping off the feast of plates. It is an ingenious way to clear out the diminished supplies of food in the walk-in refrigerator before the restaurant closes for our two day ‘weekend’.
I loathe Sunday nights because the service takes hours longer. An additional course and a longer wait between the expedition of plates makes for extended periods of time with little to do and a much more intense post-service cleaning. Stumbling into bed at 3am after an intense Whim often makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing cleaning my brains out at the restaurant and not spending more time asleep.
The lull of work during The Whim, however, is prime observation time. And this is what I love. For each course The Chef lines up the empty, thick white plates (sometimes there are so many they are balanced all over the kitchen; extra space sometimes even found on the edge of the sink). He and the sous-chefs L. and J. follow him, each bearing a sauté pan filled with meticulously cooked delicacies. They all hunch over the plates, working quickly, closely. The Chef swirls an artistic line of bright green sauce, frothy and filled with spring. L. carefully balances a plump pink piece of olive-oil poached sea bass at a left-handed angle. J. delicately arranges a pile of buttery vegetables, careful not to repeat colors. The Chef returns, working his way down each plate, sprinkling lemon zest, fleur de sel. L. comes back with a tiny mound of crispy fried ginger on the crown of each piece of fish. J. wipes the edges of the plates, aesthetically perfect. I am entranced. The nimble delicacy of their work, the visual artwork, the utter penchant for perfectionism that they embody as a team: I drink it in with my eyes.
The highlights of last night’s Whim included a creamy corn soup, pale yellow and glisteningly fresh; a flash of butter poached lobster, dark and small cockles; crispy chicken breast and confit with a shockingly orange apricot puree. The second course for the second wave: a mountain of crispy fried lamb sweetbreads on a creamy ginger sauce paired with buttery sautéed vegetables. As the plates were being carefully lifted to the service window, The Chef called out to the house manager: Call the Mount Auburn Hospital – tell them to expect 11 heart attack victims within the next hour. These people don’t know what’s coming! He was smiling, gleeful with his sweetbread generosity and the delicious bomb of pure gourmet fat the dining room was at that moment happily imbibing.
The Chef later created a special Whim just for the five of us kitchen staff: a four course tasting of buffalo “wings” paired with an emulsified blue cheese dipping sauce. We all crowded around the metal serving cart, laughing and clinking our delightfully cold beers, reveling in our strange and tasty late-night-bar-food-with-a-twist. It was a neon red, eyes-wateringly spicy, unhealthy feast. I was in heaven. We ate crisply deep fried buffalo rock shrimp that burst with flavor in my mouth; a smooth pile buffalo scallops; a interestingly textured buffalo squid; and to top off our own culinary overkill, buffalo sweetbreads. You haven’t lived until you’ve had my special buffalo sweetbreads, The Chef told me proudly. He was right. no matter what else, this experience is still about the food.