The Accidental Palate

After nearly ten wonderful years of editing Northwest Palate magazine in Portland OR, I've handed over the reins and am now enjoying the leisurely (not!), ever-changing (and then some) life of a freelance bon vivant. Hope you enjoy these posts, and if you want to reach me, contact ajabine (at) yahoo (dot) com. Cheers! Angie Jabine

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Guest Post: Love is a Restaurant Battlefield

This post comes courtesy of Northwest Palate editorial intern Peter Szymczak, who has just completed his studies at Oregon Culinary Institute. He’s dividing his required OCI “externship” between our magazine and a well-known Portland restaurant.

Valentine’s Day is right up there with Mother’s Day as one of the Hallmark holidays that instill fear in the hearts of food-service workers. In a nutshell, stakes are high.

From the opening of their doors to well past closing time, most restaurants will serve a continuous stream of diners who have heightened expectations that Valentine’s should be a night to remember — an aphrodisiac dining experience that will spark the evening’s passion to follow.

Restaurateurs also have high expectations: Valentine’s Day can be one of the highest-grossing days of the year, with the possible added payoff — if the staff delivers a memorable experience, if the food is cooked perfectly, and if every desire is attended to by the wait staff – that diners can be converted into regular patrons.

This year, Valentine’s Day fell on a Thursday, a day I don’t normally work. Chef asked if I could come in since the restaurant was booked solid with reservations and the crew was already down a dishwasher. “Count me in,” I said, sounding like a soldier who doesn’t know he’s volunteering for a suicide mission.

I arrived for my shift just as the doors were opening. The moment I walked in, it hit me like a slope-sided stainless sauté pan: this feeling, call it instinct or premonition, that tonight was going to be brutal. I exchanged some brusque hellos with the wait staff and my fellow line cooks, strapped on an apron, and grabbed a couple of side towels. I prayed silently to the restaurant gods for the night to go smoothly.

The first tickets of the evening started to print out, but everyone was behind on their prep. Chef had created a special menu for the evening. “It was supposed to be easy,” he humbly remarked. But what had looked good on paper was proving to be more difficult to execute. The line cooks were unfamiliar with the recipes, cooking times were different, and they weren’t sure how to plate certain items.

I jumped into triage mode. I went down the line asking the cooks what they needed. “Make some sauce!” “Bring me salad greens!” “I forgot the cucumbers. I can’t believe I forgot to dice the &*%$ cucumbers!” With my orders, I hustled to the back-of-the-kitchen prep area and made or retrieved the items needed and brought them out to the line.

On one trip back, the pantry cook was struggling with shucking oysters. We don’t normally have oysters on the menu, but since they are de rigueur for Valentine’s Day, we were serving them tonight.

As anyone who’s ever shucked an oyster knows, they are difficult and dangerous to open – and even more so during the demands of restaurant service. For every oyster the pantry cook successfully shucked, the shell of the next one would shatter, or her knife would slip and she’d cut herself, a pain made worse by the acidic mignonette that made her cuts burn. An order of a half-dozen oysters was taking her five minutes or more to shuck and plate, which was too much time, given the other orders that were piling up on her line. Miraculously, she kept her cool and got the oysters plated.

After about an hour of finishing up last-minute prep, Chef said to me, rather sternly, “Don’t leave the line again.” The window for completing prep had officially closed; from now on, he wanted me to assist directly on the line for the rest of service. We were, as they say, “in the weeds.”

During the rush of service, time just flies by, punctuated now and again by memorable events – like when somebody shrieks. It wasn’t a customer, thankfully: it turned out to be one of the waiters, who was holding a plate up high and run-walking to the back of the kitchen. He threw the plate down on the prep table and a crowd of cooks gathered around. “It’s right there,” he said, pointing at an oyster. We stood aghast at the sight of something squirming around – a parasitic worm in the oyster. “It was standing up looking at the customer,” the waiter said, using his index finger to mimic the worm’s movement.

“86 oysters,” Chef said, telling the waiters that the oysters were now off the menu. The pantry cook sighed with relief.

The restaurant has an open kitchen, which affords diners a view of their meals being cooked. At one point, a lady wearing a silky red blouse came up to the line, pointed at a plate of food, and asked Chef, “Is that going to be my meal? Can I take a photo of it?” Before Chef could respond, she drew her digital camera and – FLASH – shot her photo, blinding the Chef. She returned to her table, squealing with glee.

The open kitchen also affords the cooks a view of the dining room floor. During a rare lull in the service, I scanned the room and saw many people laughing, eating, drinking, and generally enjoying their night out. But I also saw stoic faces on some of the couples. Were they unhappy with their dining experience, or just unhappy in love?

I asked one of the waitresses how it was going out there and she said, “Eh, Valentine’s, shmalentine’s.”

The rest of the evening was a blur at best. When we finally served the last plate of food, I asked Chef if I could leave the line: I had to go to the bathroom! You don’t think about it, but when you’re on the line, unless you really have to go, you don’t… go to the bathroom, that is. I stepped into the bathroom and was immediately struck by the image of myself in the mirror. My work uniform had never been so dirty. Spatters of sauce covered my chest. I had new burns on my hands and arms and my hat was soaked with sweat.

Returning to the line for cleanup, I asked Chef for his thoughts on the night’s service. “We never got our feet under us,” he said. “From the get-go we were behind and never made up the slack. Tonight was certainly trying by any measure.” Then he added, “But you graduated tonight. Now it’s time to go to graduate school.”

I took that to mean I’ll probably be working Mother’s Day this year.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Premier Cru That Wasn't

I spent all of last Saturday shopping, cleaning, and cooking in preparation for a dinner and overnight visit from our friends Mike and Joy, who live on a chestnut farm outside of Sheridan, Oregon.

I was really looking forward to our evening together, but my wine-loving pals will understand perfectly when I say that one of the things I was anticipating most eagerly was that I was finally going to pop open the first—and only—Premier Cru wine I’ve ever owned.

It was an NV Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs, to be exact, from a biodynamic producer in Champagne. Real Champagne from France! Surely it would redefine my entire experience of sparkling wine, a drink I’m inordinately fond of to begin with.

Being a cheerleader for all things local (in my case, the Pacific Northwest), I mostly drink wines from Oregon and Washington. This treasured Champagne was a gift from a Portland wine merchant who sold me the case of (Oregon) Domaine Meriwether bubbly that my husband and I served at our wedding in 2004. We’d been waiting more than three years for a fine enough occasion to open up the real Champagne.

For you non-wine geeks, NV means non-vintage, which is very common among Champagnes—the makers strive to minimize vintage variations by combining wine lots from more than one year. As for “Premier Cru,” it’s usually translated as “First Growth,” and it alludes to the vineyards that France, in its almost comically fierce dedication to wine classifications, has determined are la crème de la crème--the very best.

Firm in my belief that sparking wine goes with everything, I made polenta con maiale, a dish of polenta with pork braised in wine. It’s a great, easy recipe from La Buca restaurant in Portland. By the way, the recipe calls for pork butt, which the butcher at Zupan’s told me is another term for pork shoulder—I ask you, does that make any sense?

My husband Scott had to work that morning, supposedly just until noon, and he called at noon to say they’d hit some snags and he wouldn’t be home until after 6pm. Great—we were expecting Mike and Joy at 4pm. I called Mike with Scott’s updated plan and the dinner menu, only to learn that Joy doesn’t eat meat. The horror! But no worries—I had a spinach salad and bread on the menu, so I added some roasted carrots for insurance. With macadamia nuts and walnuts and a few nice wedges of cheese, no one would go hungry.

The enticing Premier Cru, meanwhile, was up from the basement and chilling in the fridge. Mike and Joy arrived around 5pm laden with gifts—a lovely maple burl and a slab of walnut for Scott (a weekend carpenter), eighteen eggs of all shades and sizes from their specialty chickens, and a blue hubbard squash so big that it would take a saw to cut up. We talked about chickens, nibbled at the cheese, stirred the polenta, and waited for Scott. And waited. At 6pm I said, Let’s open the bubbly! No, no, no, they protested—such special wine—Scott will be here soon! And he was.

By 6:40pm we were sitting around the table with our dinner and, finally, four flutes of real, honest-to-God Premier Cru Blanc de Blanc Champagne. We toasted one another’s health. We sipped. It tasted…terrible. Just terrible, like a wet dog sitting on moldy newspapers under a dockside pier. I’ve never in my life had a bottle of bubbly that was afflicted by cork taint. That couldn’t be the problem! Maybe it’ll just blow off, I said lamely.

No such luck. Minutes after our guests had tactfully changed the subject, I was still glaring at my glass and feeling robbed of my Premier Cru experience. In my mind, the Blanc de Blanc Champagne was now the blankety-blank, no-good, %#*&@?*! Champagne.

There was nothing I could have done differently to keep the wine from being spoiled by a tainted cork. So what’s the moral of this story? There is no moral, except, perhaps, that when it comes to entertaining, you should always have a Plan B. Plan B in our case was to say “C’est la vie,” and enjoy one another’s company. Which we did.