Thursday, October 29, 2009

Respect the Pig: A Defense of Bacon

I’ve been thinking about his comment for weeks now, ever since I saw this Facebook status update from Richard Blais: “Bacon is overrated.” Now, I never thought that in my lifetime, I would need to defend bacon. At the very least, I could just rap my hand against the table like a petulant nine-year-old and proclaim, “But…but…but…it’s bacon!” And that would suffice.

But he’s recently taken his argument to the airwaves, so to speak, via his column in Creative Loafiing, and I must offer my rebuttal. “Bacon is overrated;” I respectfully disagree.

To help explain my position, let me say that I serve as a chef at one of Atlanta’s more prominent Southern restaurants; love for the pig is a part of my culinary DNA. I also have nothing against Chef Blais. I worked under him briefly at a now-defunct location, and he has extended me nothing but great courtesy every time I have eaten in his restaurants. However, I can find little substance to his viewpoint beyond simply declaring bacon overrated due to its current surge in popularity.

First, I simply cannot understand how someone, particularly a chef, can slap the dreaded “cliche” label on praising a food source that occurs in nature—the pig. As chefs, part of the passion that fuels us involves getting excited over ingredients. I must agree with some of the readers’ comments that calling bacon overrated does in fact come off sounding a bit elitist. Like Blais, I also adore Allan Benton’s fabulous bacon and use it quite frequently; but to say that I use it exclusively would imply that, “What I’m eating is better than what you supermarket-shoppers are eating.”

Second, I think that Chef Blais was incorrect in his use of the term “overrated.” How can bacon be overrated? It is exactly what you think it’s going to be. I think that his categorical declaration that bacon is overrated masks the real merits of his second argument: that bacon is used as a crutch. Too often, chefs fall into the trap of using too much of a good thing without a proper understanding of the ingredient. While bacon can improve upon many flavors, the notion that, “Everything’s better with bacon” is quite misleading. Its salty, smoky notes add great depth to dishes with sweeter components—and many others--but it can certainly be added illogically. I understand that the hipster thing to do is to swim against the current of mass adoration, but such a brazen statement as “overrated” seems geared to garner attention.

Currently, Chef Blais has both a bacon cheeseburger and a potato salad with bacon on his menu at FLIP. By his argument, are those dishes now overrated? I don’t believe so…they were delicious when I had them. On the Top Chef: Season 4 finale, Blais offered up two dishes that featured some form of pork belly (braised belly and a bacon ice cream, respectively, if I recall correctly). Would he consider them overrated? I hope not, because they both looked great. Would he make the 140-mile trek to Madisonville, TN and tell Allan Benton that his intensely smoky bacon is overrated? I can just see Allan shaking his head now, throwing a single log into his tiny smokehouse furnace.

So how would he like fellow chefs to take action, if at all? Personally, I feel that bacon (along with delicious cousins like andouille sausage, tasso, and country ham) is a shining example of culinary alchemy—when man’s brilliance meets the succulent and unctuous pig. As the great-grandson of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, I personally have grown up knowing the versatility of the pig, from pan-frying pork chops in streak-o’lean to hoarding a coffee can of bacon grease in the refrigerator for the sole purpose of improving green beans. I’m sure I’m not alone in this practice. Should I now stop using bacon because a segment of the population feels that it is now “over?” That’s pure flummery! I would rather be forced to watch a marathon of Guy Fieri programming than ever temper my love of any cured pork product.

I don’t believe that truly delicious foods fall subject to trends. Foods that inspire intense emotional reactions in people can never be considered overrated, nor do I think any one person has the authority to declare them so. Blais is an incredibly talented chef with a real understanding of food, but I feel that he is missing the mark by throwing bacon under the bus. It’s an easy target, but tasty enough to weather the storm.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eating Out: Cakes & Ale

I was talking with a couple of my fellow Abattoir diners later that week, and we were discussing our mutual disappointment in the place. While I think my criticisms were fair for what they were, I also think that the place was a victim of the hype. Not necessarily by the media, as the AJC review did not get published until nearly a month after our visit. Instead, I think that Abattoir fell victim to meeting the ridiculously high standards set by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison's other phenomenal restaurants: Bacchanalia, Quinones, and Floataway Cafe. These places help set the bar for outstanding food in Atlanta, and I was left wondering: Was it us who were at fault for having such lofty expectations? Shouldn't a place be allowed to stand on its own merits instead of being compared to other restaurants within the operation, but with different concepts? I know that if I worked at Ecco and someone complained that the place did not have the same feel as South City Kitchen, I might be a little offended because the concepts are completely different. The soul of the organization should still feel similar, but one does not necessarily beget the other. And moreover, as a chef, are my expectations out of reach? Is it possible to be "blown away" any more?

These questions were still fresh in my mind when I decided to venture off of my own beaten path into Decatur to check out Cakes & Ale. As I would learn inside, the place hasn't done any advertising until the past two months. They opened in August of 2008--just in time for the recession! Basically, they've been relying on word of mouth from some incredibly loyal guests and the solid reputation of chef/owner Billy Allin, who built his name locally as longtime sous chef under Scott Peacock at Watershed. But from my experience, all it takes is one meal and you can't help but want to be a repeat guest.

My favorite part about the restaurant is the overall vibe. There's not a bit of pretension in the room, and everyone just seems really happy to be there. I wasn't seated at the bar for five minutes when the guy next to me starts gleefully raving about his burger, then quizzing me on the finer points on how to make a great burger...and he didn't even know I was a chef yet! There are no menus to be passed out; rather a giant chalkboard sits unapologetic in a convenient location for all to see. No hipster decor or that faux-industrial feel that seems to be so popular these days--just a simple, understated dining room. Musical selections--I only heard two: Sam Cooke and the Ramones. It doesn't get much better than that.

I'm probably doing the food a disservice by hyping it as grandiose, because the beauty lies in the simplicity. My plan of attack was to order several appetizers, then gauge if I could gluttonously gorge an entree down my gullet. The first to arrive were the arancini: six little golden brown crispy nuggets of fried risotto. These were extraordinary simply for the fact that they were the first arancini I've ever had without some form of sauce. They were just sprinkled with lemon zest and fennel pollen, which added both a brightness and very subtle sweetness to go along with a delightfully cheesy risotto. A sauce would have completely compromised the nuances of the risotto ball.

After mowing through the arancini at a record pace--looking up only for sips of my brown lager--I started on my second course: an heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers, an avocado puree, sheep's milk feta, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. Only recently have I become passionate about my love for tomatoes, and plates like these are the reasons why. Each component of the plate brought a unique flavor to the party, but their primary purpose was to enhance the tomatoes. The tomatoes themselves were perfectly seasoned and, along with the cucumbers, grown in Allin's home garden. I personally love any dishes with balance, and the tomatoes offered great acid, sweetness, saltiness, and richness, that made for a memorable dish.

Even with the disappointing charcuterie plate at Abattoir in the back of my mind, I wanted to give the Cakes & Ale version a shot without any trepidation. It didn't let me down. All cured in house, this board brought forth a bounty of two types of coppa (dry-cured pork shoulder), sopressata (dry-cured salami), lardo (cured fatback), pork rillette (cooked and blended in its own fat), pickled beets, melon, & ramps, dijon mustard, and crusty bread. Pardon me, but holy crap--that was amazing! The rillette alone was so good, it would make you want to punch someone in the face. Don't ask why you would do such a thing, but the pork would likely inspire such a Tourette's-like reaction that would be easily forgiven, so long as you plied the victim with the same great pork.

My stomach gave me the green-light to proceed with an entree, and after weighing my options (all looked original and very tasty) I succumbed to my cravings and went after the burger. It was very straightforward, and absent of many of the bells & whistles you see on a lot of restaurant burgers these days. It came with cheese (don't ask me to recall which one--white, mild, and nicely melted), sliced tomatoes, and an onion-studded mayonnaise. I later learned that the burger itself was a blend of chuck, brisket, and pork belly. It had great moisture, but I felt it was a touch underseasoned. A bit more salt and pepper, or a little more caramelization on the surface would have made all the difference in the world. Still a very tasty burger, nonetheless. The shoestring fries were crisp and addictive, and I would order these again in a heartbeat.

You know when you eat a big meal, there comes a point when your pleasure sensors shut down, and it almost becomes a challenge to finish whatever it is that you're eating? Well, that about summed up the last few bites of my burger and fries. I finished my beer and applauded myself for cleaning my plate like a good little fat kid, when temptation struck from two directions. I won't go into huge detail on the service, but I felt incredibly welcomed and taken care of throughout the entire meal. A testament to that was illustrated after I had finished going to town on my burger. Billy's wife Kirsten (who had been working the door that night) had sat down beside me and ordered food for herself while I was working on my entree. She ordered two or three small plates, and later determined that she wasn't going to finish her last plate--a potato, leek, and ricotta tart with a beet salad. Instead of boxing it up for herself, she offered it to her bar neighbors to sample, so long as we didn't mind eating after her! Since I almost ordered that particular dish, I made sure to give it a try, and was instantly glad I did. The tart was very reminiscent of a pizza, and the beets were a wonderfully sweet contrast to the rich, earthy tart.

My second temptation hit me when my affable bartender broached the subject of dessert. I could barely move, much less consider eating more. Several items on the dessert menu looked fantastic, especially a brown butter tart with fresh blackberries and ice cream (maybe ginger? creme fraiche--sorry, forgot that one too!). But I cowardly waved my white surrender flag and asked her for my check. Along with the check, she brought a small plate with a small sandwich-like cake: one of the restaurant's signature Phatty Cakes. These little three-bite wonders are two very soft spiced ginger cakes/cookies and a vanilla-mascarpone filling. It's essentially an adult version of the Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie! The standard order of three would have likely put me in the cardiology ward of Emory hospital, but one was the perfect end to a great meal. I really implore you all to check out this little Decatur neighborhood haunt; it's worth the trek.

Eating Out: Abattoir

In the immortal words of George Costanza, "Baby, I'm back!" I would love to apologize for not posting any blogs for over two months, but the world of chefdom has quite often been so hectic, that I haven't had the time or the energy to post a quality review. I don't want to turn into some throwaway four-sentence blog that says, "Yeah, go check out the bahn mi at Lee's Bakery. They're really good." A thorough examination of all of the great (and now, not so great) establishments that I visit is certainly required. And because I've already reviewed a large majority of the truly extraordinary places around town, I will now look to include both the abysmal and the mediocre. Hopefully, we can at least find some humor in those...

My first review since the "sabbatical" was prompted by this week's 5-star review of Abattoir by Meredith Ford Goldman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I've been prone to disagree with her assessments of various restaurants in the past (Anyone remember the grossly generous 4-star review of Home back when Richard Blais was there?), and our thoughts on Atlanta's newest high-profile operation differ greatly.

The occasion of the evening was really special: Executive Chef extraordinaire Chip Ulbrich invited all five of his sous chefs from both SCK Midtown and SCK Vinings, as well as GM Paul Hymel out to dinner one Tuesday night. Having had a very good experience, albeit with limited eating, at Abattoir, I offered that up as a potential dining destination for all of us. Unfortunately, the second time did not live up to expectations. All of us met up at nearby JCT Kitchen for a pre-game beer (and an unrequested free Jell-O shot) before walking across a wooden bridge to the White Provisions building, which houses Abattoir. It's a stunning space on the inside, with a large communal table running down the center of the restaurant, and a spacious patio. We all sat down and eagerly pored over the menu, trying to decide what we should order for the first wave. While all of the chefs have our collective noses buried in the menu, I'm a little amused when I see Paul--the only non-chef--ordering the first round of food for the entire table! Round One included the housemade chicharrones, potted chicken liver & foie gras with armagnac, the wood-grilled bratwurst w/ melted spring onions, and the charcuterie plate. If you've ever had pork rinds, then you've essentially had chicharrones. These were light as air, and left me with this porky flavor that was simply sublime. The potted chicken liver w/ foie gras and armagnac was also tremendous, with this smooth and rich liver puree beneath a layer of earthy and aromatic armagnac jelly. Those were perhaps my two favorite dishes of the evening. The bratwurst had a great garlicky flavor, but was a tad heavy on the fat ratio in the sausage. Also, as was the case with several of the dishes, the portion size (even for one person) was a bit small. Now, I want you to imagine a bunch of ravenous chefs trying to divvy each dish up among seven of us. Even though we were all in street clothes, trying our damndest to be civil and polite at the dinner table, I couldn't help but feel that any one of us might stab the other in the hand with a fork should he try to consume the last bite of a favorite dish. The charcuterie plate was incredibly ho-hum; evident by the fact that I can't remember exactly what was on it. I think there was a lomo of venison, a sopressata or coppa, and I'm positive that there was a pork rillette. Regardless, there was an exceptional plate of homemade bread to help sop up any evidence on the plates.

Chip had selected some very nice wines, and with a well-balanced red and white in front of us, we proceeded to delve into the section of the menu devoted to our beloved offal. The word "abattoir" literally translates to slaughterhouse; and the building that houses Abattoir was once an actual slaughterhouse. With that "pedigree," I had high hopes for this portion of the meal. We opted for two orders of the "crisp veal sweetbreads, capers, & egg yolk" and one order of the "lamb liver fritters with sauce meuniere." The lamb liver fritters arrived adorned with some sort of tomato compote. Whatever it was, it did not resemble any meuniere sauce I've ever seen in my life. For the non-restaurant people out there, a meuniere sauce is basically a riff on a brown butter sauce that incorporates lemon and parsley, and often times worcestershire, vinegar, or pecans. Strangely, a sauce of that nature seemed to envelop the sweetbreads, on which I found little to no presence of capers or egg yolk. These little menu oversights make a place look a little bush-league, but would have been overlooked had the dishes in question blown me out of the water. But they were, to quote Julius Caesar in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1, "Nice. Not thrilling, but nice."

We moved on to the entrees and selected the wood-grilled pork chop with local greens, the lamb tasting with mint salad and jus, a roast squab with Carolina Gold rice, and their burger with fries. I can't describe my disappointment in how unmemorable each of these dishes were. The bright spot of the bunch would have to be the lamb tasting--highlighting a lamb sausage, lamb shoulder, lamb loin, and lamb liver. Each had a nice meaty flavor that was not overly gamey, and all were perfectly cooked. Again, though the circumstances may have been our fault (too many of us), it was difficult to get a complete feel for the food through one or two bites. The pork chop was dry and underseasoned, and the greens were accompanied by some simple diced vegetables that really brought no additional flavor to the party. Coupled with a really weak broth, this was one of the two biggest clunkers of the night. The squab had an okay flavor, but I thought it was overcooked. Some of you chefs may disagree with me, but I'm of the belief that squab should be about medium rare. In any event, the squab came with the advertised rice and a pretty insipid jus. I was trying to pretend it was Chip's squab-bbq jus that ended up on the floor at James Beard House in 2001. Dean, your thoughts?

But no level of disappointment with the three composed entrees could match how upset I was with their sorry offering of a burger. A red flag instantly went up when we ordered the burger medium rare, and the server said that it would take around 20 minutes. What?!? What kind of sorry excuse of a heat source are you using when ground meat takes 20 minutes to reach medium rare? Well, she wasn't kidding about the 20 minutes part, but the burger was almost completely raw on the inside--no structural integrity whatsoever. It was poorly seasoned and because of the way the tomato was cut (fileted), fell apart when I tried to bite into it. The basic mayo & ketchup on the side just seemed like a throwaway--kind of a "You don't care, I don't care" kind of attitude. And don't get me started on the fries. Dry and hard, this only exacerbated my anger toward a sub-par burger.

We soldiered on through desserts--maple-bacon beignets and a fried cherry pie with buttermilk sorbet. The beignets were real winners, as they were just plain donuts drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with bacon. More bacon would have made them a bit more interesting by offering up more of a salty contrast--what we all love about bacon desserts. The pie had a nice crust, and the sweetness of the cherry filling matched nicely with the tartness of the sorbet, which unfortunately, was half melted when it arrived.

Having the former chef of Bacchanalia at the helm makes me want to hold out hope for this place, but being burned by non-seasonal items justifies my pessimism. I hope this place can turn the corner, because it has the potential to be better than perennial favorite Holeman & Finch. But the first major experience was definitely strike one.

Afterword: As we walked back across the bridge, we decided to stop at JCT for a post-meal beer. Oddly enough, we were given (again, unrequested) another Jell-O shot. I find it incredibly ironic that despite having high school and college experiences that often revolved around heavy drinking, my first Jell-O shots took place in a casual fine dining Southern restaurant that rivals my own restaurant in concept.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day from a Chef's Perspective

It kills me that I haven't been able to post as regularly as I would like or with the frequency that being a good food blogger requires, but part of writing as a working chef means that I am in the restaurant more often than not. These past several weeks have been pretty grueling, all of which led up to Mother's Day--hands down the busiest day of the year in the restaurant industry. So for this post, I thought I'd give you all a look "behind the scenes" of a restaurant and inside the mind of a chef on perhaps the most chaotic day of the year.

Sunday, May 10th, 2:00am--I'm lying on my couch struggling to sleep. I have two alarms set so that I don't miss my 5:00 wake-up time. Our new sous chef Stephen and I have spent the past two days prepping everything for this special menu. We have over 430 on the books, and I want to be prepared for everything. Chip, the executive chef, will be at the Vinings location all day, and our other sous chef, Jon, will be in to expo dinner. This means that everything good or bad will happen on my watch. I've already made itemized prep lists for us and for each individual line cook (everything they'll need--all the way down to salt and pepper) so that they can hit the ground running when they walk in the door. But what if one of my cooks doesn't show up?...What if the refrigeration finally dies upstairs?...Should I have called Chip about the plate set-up for the special ham dish?...I think we use the small potatoes for that one...Will my produce order be here in time? Too many thoughts are passing through my head for me to fall asleep. I roll over to the Heads-Up poker tournament on CNBC to see Brad Garrett playing some Moose Jockey in a hockey jersey. He and Ray Romano came in earlier in the week--super nice guys. Garrett loses. Time to find something on TV I can fall asleep to...ESPN Classic is airing 1980s pro wrestling--instant slumbers!

4:55 am--I wake up 5 minutes before my alarm goes off, and I'm already feeling alert. No time to take my requisite 3 pushes of the snooze button before getting up. I shave, shower, and get fully dressed here at the house--no time for putting on a jacket once I arrive in the kitchen--gotta hit the ground running.

5:20am--Being a coffee-drinker would probably be a good idea right about now, but since that's just not part of my routine, my breakfast of grocery store sushi (judge me if you want), Greek yogurt, and Propel will have to do. I set my iPod to "shuffle" and the second song to come up is Johnny Cash covering "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Kinda fitting, except that I'm coming down from fatigue. Almost to work...I hope nobody's sleeping outside by the back door today.

5:45 am--I get to work 15 minutes early and begin to turn on the equipment and unlock everything. No one will be here until 7:00, and I always seem to get the most accomplished when I'm by myself. I pull all of the prep lists and today's menu as a reference guide. Must start grits early--not running out of those today! I wrap the hams and put them in the oven at a low temperature, make a quick glaze for the ham, and start portioning the spinach-mushroom fritatta and the peach "french toast" bread pudding that I made the night before. Damn! I just stuck my finger with the tip of the butcher's scimitar--it's just a nick, but any cuts or bandage duties are a minor inconvenience when I don't have time for any of those today. Gotta get bourbon gravy started. I really wish I would have made that last night...

7:00 am--I'm really cranking now! Everything that needs to be heated up by me is already upstairs in the hot box. I even started the mashed potatoes and she crab soup myself--usually a duty referred to the prep guys. Speaking of whom, the doorbell rings and prep cooks Jaime and Omar, along with the most phenomenal dishwashers in the land, Armando and Mustachio, are at the back door. Mustachio's real name is Jose, but the guy's 'stache looks like someone took Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck's from their heyday and stuck it on a 5'6" Mexican. Paul, the GM arrives bearing donuts, and we catch up, sharing a few needed laughs...mostly about colonics, of all things! I'm too wrapped up to eat anything at this point. Things are going smoothly now...I hope everyone shows up.

8:00 am--My fears are assuaged when each of my four line cooks arrive within 10 minutes of one another. Ozzie, my grill man gets in 15 minutes early...Joel, my stud of a middle guy, is right behind him. They both look ready to go. Orlando, my saute guy arrives 5 minutes early looking a little sleepy, but focused. Ariceli, my pantry gal, walks in on time as well. I hope she's ready to go. She has the most to set up, but will get the fewest orders. She usually moves with the speed of a quadriplegic turtle getting set up, so I politely stress the sense of urgency of today with her. She seems to understand, and is a little bit intimidated when she sees how long her list of items is. Steve also rolls in, and I briefly sit to confer with him about how the day should go. He's helping out behind the line today, and that really eases my mind. For the next hour, I try to help everyone get ready to go, while Steve sets about making brown butter sauce and poaching 3-4 flats of eggs in case we really get "dans le merde." Because the amigos' radio is out of commission, I crank up my iPod which has a special playlist for all of the major event days. For some reason, I work faster to funk music; so today's musical selection is a heaping helping of Sly Stone, Parliament, Rick James, Prince, and early Red Hot Chili Peppers. Gotta have sample plates of our "out of the ordinary" items--fritatta, peach bread pudding, glazed ham, and chocolate muffins--to show the servers at 9:30. 10:00 is showtime!

9:45am--Just finished line-up with the servers. Everyone was surprisingly attentive during my descriptions. I don't think I had to repeat anything, which I always appreciate. Most of the "A Team" is on the floor today (except B.A. Baracas), so I'm getting more comfortable with how today is going to pan out. I can't even tell if anyone's hungover--I'm really impressed! Paul comes up to me and tells me the soup of the day is scorched. I'm a little incredulous as I take a sample. It's not scorched, but it certainly doesn't taste good. Chip and I put in some time trying to save the cream of spinach and garlic soup yesterday, but it doesn't seem to have re-heated well. The garlic is way too overbearing and "off." Hating to lose, I try to come up with a new soup that could potentially feed a couple hundred and be ready in 30 minutes. Paul calms me down and tells me to just 86 (run without) the soup of the day. I taste everything on the line and confirm that all of the cooks are both physically and mentally ready to go. As line-up ended, we had our first 3 tables walk in the door. I grab a couple of wet towels for wiping plates, wash my hands, and get my large glass of ice water ready on the expo side. The printer spits out the first few tickets, and we're off to the races...

10:45am--My board is fluttering with tickets, and the kitchen is getting hit hard. Luckily, our menu is designed to be executed with ease--with as little time-consuming cooking as possible. That means no eggs made-to-order and no pancakes, among other things. What's this? A server comes up to me and asks if we can do pancakes. Why won't people order what's on the goddamn menu? I really don't mind accommodating special requests, but an ill-timed one could send the kitchen into a tailspin...I make the call to say no. Our peach "french toast" bread pudding is delicious...tell them to order that. The guys are keeping up nicely with the rush, and the servers are really running food faster than I could have hoped for. I check in with the guys, and everyone seems to be doing well and in good spirits. A good first turn! They all reload, and get ready for round 2.

12:30pm--Oh my God, we're flippin' busy! Joel's fryer is full of chicken, catfish, green tomatoes, okra, and croutons; and none of them can be ready fast enough. I'm calling out orders loudly so that I can sell as many check as quickly as possible. We're selling an abnormal amount of fritattas and bread pudding...Go figure, I guess people actually want breakfast foods at breakfast time! I bellow down to Omar to throw more in the oven. The kitchen comes to a standstill--they're out of plates! I rumble down the stairs to fetch some from the outside storage area. As I'm unpacking them, I realize three of them are broken...gotta remember to tell my Ed Don rep about that in the morning. Oh, just realized we were running low on rhubarb preserves...I quickly throw some more on and tell Jaime to check on it as I hustle the plates upstairs. I usually start singing whenever I'm in the weeds, and it's typically never a good song. Today's Cheffrey Jukebox selections are Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie," and the Gourds' cover of Snoop's "Gin and Juice." Anything to work faster...

12:52pm--Some 11 year-old kid gets his fingers stuck in the holes on the back of a chair. Armed with a ramekin of butter, Paul arrives to the rescue to lube the little butterball's fingers out. That kind of service might cost you extra in Vegas.

1:15pm--For the umpteenth time, someone needs a kid's chicken fingers on the fly (fast as possible). I'm a little annoyed, but everyone's working really hard on the floor today; a few mistakes are inevitable. I translate this need to Joel, who is valiantly struggling to stay out of the weeds...he handles the hiccup like the true pro that he is. We get it out as quickly as we can. Hey, if the kids are happy, then Mom is happy. And that is the goal, isn't it?

1:27pm--A woman just requested to change tables because she thought that her server was trying to steal her husband. Read that sentence again, please. I seriously can't make this stuff up.

1:45pm--Jon arrived almost 2 hours ago and has started getting things ready for dinner. He intercepts me yelling for refills of things from the top of the stairs and passes them on to Omar and Jaime...More she crab! More grits! More fritatta! Whaddya mean, no more fritatta? I made 72 portions! I do some quick mental math and realize that yes, we probably have sold close to that amount. Hopefully sales of that item will dwindle as we delve further into the lunch portion of the day.

2:30pm--Ozzie tells me that he has to leave to start working at Ecco for dinner. I thank him for a job well done--he really busted his ass today and was a total stud behind the line. 86 fritatta! Thought I was going to make it on that one...Orlando moves over to grill and Steve takes on saute solo. Orders are still pouring in. I'm burning a hole in the 10 feet behind the bar between the main pick-up window and the pantry window...I've still got some hustle. Brent and Major were right--I am incredibly fast in distances under 10 feet. I think the guys are starting to lose focus a little bit...some of the plates are coming up a little sloppy...limp, flaccid bacon, giant fatty end of bacon in an otherwise tiny pile of collard greens, overcooked eggs...I hand each of the mistakes back to them and they quickly replace them with perfect plates. Gotta imagine there are some pretty happy guests today.

3:15pm--Everyone's nearly spent from such a grueling service. The fun is only starting, as we have two very large parties ordering at the same time. Even worse is that nearly every item has a special modifier on it..."Fried chicken, no mashed potatoes or green beans, sub scrambled eggs and salad; Shrimp and grits, no grits sub potatoes with sauce on the side; Loin of unicorn, poached in its own tears, served with piopini mushrooms and Grape Nuts...tartar sauce on the side. It's getting pretty ridiculous. I'm calling out what I need and calling for servers to run the food to the tables. I'm really losing my voice now...even the water or tea isn't helping...The servers are still running food with energy--Kevin and Rachel have been real rock stars today. The kitchen is putting up the last few tables when I hear, "Chef, no more grits." Aarrgh! I thought I had made enough! I find out from the tables that a few people don't mind having mashed potatoes instead. Whew! Crisis averted.

3:35pm--I find a quick break in the action to run downstairs and call my mom to wish her a Happy Mother's Day. She is so understanding that my profession limits my availability on the holidays, and is quick to assure me that we can celebrate whenever I'm off. So this Wednesday it is.

3:50pm--My dishwasher left at 3:30, and the dish pit is starting to overflow with dirty dishes. I shake everyone's hand, congratulate them on doing such a phenomenal job, and commence to washing dishes. I'm really hoping none of those glasses fall off the ledge...Nope! Guess I'll order more tomorrow. I wash my hands, grab two slices of pizza that Paul had ordered for family meal, and painfully stumble down the stairs to check how many covers we did. Let me tell you, cold pizza never tasted so good. 490 covers! Holy crap, that's gotta be a record here! Chip calls to see how service went...they did almost 750 for brunch at Vinings, and would go on to serve over 1,000 people. That's just ridiculous. He asks checks on the status of the smoked boneless rib roast he had planned to run for an evening special. I don't remember anything about it! Fortunately, Jon is on top of things and has it 30 minutes away from being comes out perfect. Paul congratulates me on not getting thrown off the train during the day. I feel like I can barely move, and I really don't want to summon the energy to think.

4:12pm--I'm starting to see if Jon needs anything for the night's service when just then, I hear it. The two words I've learned to fear more than just about any other. Jorge, my pm dishwasher utters the painful words, "Chef, agua." That usually means that water is flowing from a source from which it shouldn' a hose or the dish machine. He's right...the toilet in the employee bathroom is overflowing into the prep kitchen. I move everything out of the water's path, take off my watch, and grab a squeegee and some bleach...after such a hellacious service, I wouldn't feel right about ordering anyone else to clean it up. After thoroughly dousing the floor with bleach, we're good to go. I laugh to myself that it only seems fitting that after such a triumph, I immediately move to cleaning up toilet water. And I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school!

5:30pm--I start getting the prep list ready for tomorrow. Emory's graduation is that morning, and we should be super busy for lunch. Man, there's a pretty big load to have ready before 11:00...glad I'm in at 8:00. Ham didn't sell too well...that should make a delicious lunch special. I decide to truss and roast some turkey breast so I don't have to worry about it in the morning...I don't have the energy or the patience to make any sauces tonight. They're already rocking upstairs and in need of mashed potatoes.

6:30pm--I'm done for the day. I shake hands with Paul and Steve and slink to my car for the 30 minute drive home. Needing music that's a little more subdued, I pop in my Cast Iron Filter CD and think how glad I am that it's over. I make it home and have a series of the greatest post-work experiences ever: 1) I take my shoes off--wow, that felt great! 2) I grab a cold Turbodog out of the fridge and head straight to the shower. 3) Enjoy beer while taking shower. 4) Call for a delivery of Chinese food--my moo shu arrives just as Iron Chef airs a repeat of Mario Batali vs Paul Bartolotta. I think back to eating at both chefs' restaurants in Vegas and really wishing I could sample what they're cooking--it's battle rice, and both guys' food looks amazing.

10:10pm--Time for bed. I should be making a game plan for tomorrow, but I'm really thinking about how I've talked a beautiful food journalist into having dinner with me tomorrow night. For anyone who is a fan of this blog, I implore you to check out hers as well. .

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hatred of the Chicken Caesar

To the people who order a grilled chicken Caesar while dining out:

For the love of God, fucking stop it!


Now, I must apologize for my choice of words here. I'm not normally a big proponent of dropping the f-bomb in my writing (my speech--especially when at work--is a completely different story), but this is an epidemic that lights a fire under me. In our culture of mid-level sit-down chain restaurants like LT McSpiff's or TGI O'Shitsters, we seem to be becoming de-sensitized to the garbage that they try to pass off as acceptable cuisine. But nothing represents mediocrity on the American menu more than the Chicken Caesar.

First of all, the salad isn't even American. It shows up on nearly every Italian restaurant menu--must be Italian, right? Wrong! The Caesar salad was created in 1924 in...Tijuana, Mexico. That's right, one of Mexico's most indelible marks on American cuisine contains no meat, tortillas, or any form of salsa. Yet somehow, nearly every restaurant in this country seems obligated to include it on their menu--even mine. And just as a burger wouldn't be complete without fries, there is always the option of adding on the salad's evil doppelganger: the grilled chicken breast. Is there possibly a more boring cut of meat out there? The breast is handily the most flavorless part of the chicken, and grilling does nothing to enhance the juiciness of a piece of meat that is quite prone to drying out when exposed to direct heat.

In my opinion, people order the chicken caesar when they can't decide on anything else for whatever reason. "Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast...pretty hard to fuck that up, huh?" must be the thought running through these people's minds. But the point is, we don’t care really what it tastes like, only that it tastes like the last one we had, that it’s consistent. McDonald’s learned the effectiveness of that strategy early on. Friends, if you are having difficulties deciding on what to order, I implore you to ask your server for some help. Most people in the food industry are both food lovers and fiercely opinionated (especially at SCK), and will certainly help guide you in the right direction. And do some research! Find a place that looks interesting. Find some regional or ethnic specialties. Google some of your favorite types of food and where you can get them in your city. If you don't recognize the name of a national chain, you're on the right track. As a chef, I take a huge amount of pride in the dishes on our menu and the specials I create. So it breaks my heart to see someone deprive themselves of the dishes that we do better than anywhere else in lieu of something "safe" and "predictable." To me, food is such a sensory experience and has the capability to create some lasting memories. I know of no one who has any memory of a chicken Caesar other than when someone asks them, "What did you have for lunch today."

From my years in the restaurant industry, I've also discovered--to my consternation--some people who believe that they are following a healthier lifestyle by ordering a chicken Caesar. I'm gonna let you, dear readers, in on a little secret. The main flavoring components in Caesar dressing are garlic, anchovies, and lemon juice; but the body of the dressing comes from two sources: egg yolks and oil. Would you like to know what else is comprised of egg yolks and oil? Mayonnaise. That's right, a Caesar salad is little more than romaine lettuce tossed in flavored mayonnaise and topped with parmesan cheese. At least we at SCK up the ante by adding fried okra and cubes of fried grits instead of the standard croutons.

Sadly, I fear that this will be part of the lasting legacy of American cuisine. The amazing food writer Michael Ruhlman writes, "those of us who love food understand it as a fundamental part of our humanity: that the gathering, preparing and sharing of our daily nourishment is the core of our days and who we are. It is at the very center of our culture. And our legacy, the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar, bottled dressing, thickened with Xantham gum." Most of these national chains likely get the same bottled dressing from an industrial food supplier in New Jersey. Folks, the only good things to come out of New Jersey are Bruce Springsteen and the Sopranos. That's it.

I guess I would just like to see a little more creativity and imagination thrown at this lumbering warhorse of a menu item. Ruhlman fired the initial shot on his website, and a few big name chefs were quick to respond. Chris "Guts R' Us" Cosentino conceived a version with a deep-fried cockscomb taking the place of the crouton. Now if someone will make a version featuring crispy pork belly, then I might just be inclined to order it.

I would love to hear everyone else's opinions on this. Am I just some psychotic chef on a futile crusade here? Does anyone else feel that this is too much mediocrity to bear? Please indulge me.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Eating Out: Tassa Roti Shop

One of the drawbacks to living in suburbia is that the selection of interesting independent restaurants is quite slim. This wave of dining establishments built around a shopping center nucleus has given way to a proliferation of crappertank restaurants like Applebee's, Chili's, Firehouse Subs, Moe's, Shane's BBQ, and Beef O'Brady's. Throw in your obligatory pizza joints, American-Chinese take-out haunts, and Americanized Mexican restaurants (you won't see nachos or fajitas in the authentic places), and you have a crowded restaurant scene with very few truly tasty options. Chick Fil-A and Waffle House are both Atlanta-based chains (and my two guilty pleasures), so they're not in the "bad" category. But still, the lack of a truly unique dining spot can be a little frustrating sometimes; so I was most thrilled when I first discovered the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago served at Tassa Roti Shop. Big thanks go to my former executive chef Dean Dupuis for turning me on to this little pink house on Johnson's Ferry Road in Marietta, just down the way from Harry's Farmer's Market.

Owned by Trini couple Shaddick and Ria, Tassa Roti Shop specializes in filled rotis, but offers up a number of full plate meals, plus a lunch buffet (all day on weekends). A roti is basically a large, thin flatbread that is filled with your choice of meat (chicken, beef, duck, goat, and shrimp), a curried potato mixture, then you get to choose from a selection of hot sauces and chutneys before it is all rolled up like a burrito. If you get one of the hot sauces, I implore you to get the apple chutney as well. The sweetness really helps to mellow out the intense heat of the scotch bonnet peppers. Also, as a word of warning, I would recommend all first-timers starting with a shrimp roti. I've had the goat and duck as well, and they contain an alarming amount of bones. Everything is just hacked up with a cleaver and then stuffed inside your roti. Not that it isn't delicious--I just don't enjoy eating with an impending sense of dental peril.

The entree options are also incredibly delicious. Two nights ago, I had the oxtail plate, which featured meltingly tender braised or stewed oxtails served in their own sauce. The plate also offered up rice with peas, fried plantains, stir-fried cabbage, callaloo (which is essentially greens cooked down in chicken stock and coconut milk until smooth and creamy), and something called macaroni pie--which more resembled a sweet corn pudding with raisins than anything involving pasta. Washed down by a Jamaican ginger beer, the whole plate was the perfect balance of richness, sweetness, and spice. Really remarkable.

But the single best item on the menu at Tassa is something called "doubles." Often part of an island breakfast, this appetizer consists of a curried chickpea mixture stuffed between two (roughly 3") soft flatbreads, topped with your choice of hot sauces and chutneys, then wrapped in paper. I'm having great difficulty coming up with the words to describe how delicious this is, but a trip to Tassa isn't complete without one or two of these. And at only $1.50 apiece, they're a steal!

I have a certain fondness for ethnic restaurants where I am the only white person to be found--I just know the food will be better in these places. But one of my favorite aspects about Tassa is just how friendly everyone is. All of the diners seem thrilled to be there, and Shaddick and Ria couldn't be more hospitable hosts. And as with any place that specializes in an authentic cuisine, there's not a bit of kitsch to the whole place. It doesn't seem like you've walked into a storage unit for "Cool Runnings" memorabilia. Just really nice people serving the local food that they are so proud of. And I couldn't be more happy to indulge!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The McGangBang

When I first heard the title of this sandwich, I was aghast. Is McDonald's in the porno industry now? Are they referring to a graphic sex scene thought up by some PCP-addled marketing exec involving Grimace, Birdie, the Hamburglar, Ronald McDonald, and Mayor McCheese? What kinds of horror are taking place under the Golden Arches?

As it turns out, this is a customer-created sandwich that originated around 2006. Spreading purely via word of mouth, the McGangBang is taking on cult popularity around the country. This super-sandwich consists of an entire Spicy McChicken in between a double cheeseburger--bun and all. It looks hideous, but since both items come from the Dollar Menu, it will only set you back $2 plus tax--a true recession special! McDonald's employees are gradually becoming aware of this sandwich's underground popularity. The corporate office even issued a statement supporting their customers' creativity, though they neglected to mention the sandwich by name. Can't have the tweens asking for a McGangBang in their Mighty Kids Meals now, can we? There are even YouTube videos documenting people attempting to order the McGangBang via drive-thru, and the poor employees are completely befuddled. A few happen to know about the phenomenon, especially once they consult the shift manager.

In the name of providing you, my dear readers, with an fully accurate depiction, I ordered one of these bad boys the other day. Umm...not really anything earth-shattering. It is what it is. But just the uncomfortable look on an employee's face when a customer mentions "gang bang" with a straight face is worth the experience. Besides, you can always disassemble it when you get home, right?