(Note — This is the first of several parts regarding my two days spent in the Herons’ kitchen.)
DAY 1 — PREP WORK
It was a week before I had planned on spending two days working in the kitchen of Herons, the ultra-swank restaurant in the deluxe Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary. I had worked in a small restaurant the month before, but I knew this experience would be different. A lot different. I had asked Chef Scott Crawford what I needed to wear and bring, and I got this email response:
We are very much looking forward to seeing you next week. We are very busy next week, so you will see some action. You can arrive any time around 2:00 or shortly after and I will meet you in the lobby. If you give me your jacket size I will have one ready for you. I recommend you wear a white t-shirt under the chef jacket. Black pants are appropriate. I will provide you with an apron. You can bring a knife kit. We will have you doing a rotation through the stations so you get an overall understanding of how we organize. On some of those stations you will need some knife skills (I hope you’ve been practicing).
Crap. I don’t have any black chef pants, so I was wondering if I could get away with just some everyday, black cotton chinos. And what about the shoes? I knew this was a formal kitchen, so I needed to play the role properly. So I went and bought me a pair of black chef pants and ordered some black chef shoes. Heck they were on sale, so better to be safe than sorry.
But the shoes didn’t arrive on time. Yes, I was worried about fitting in, not knowing what the personality of this kitchen would be like. I knew that my lack of formal skills would already make me feel out of place around all these cooks, but I at least wanted to look appropriate. I mean, I had a knife kit, thanks to me friend Chad, and a couple of decent knives. I even brought a peeler and an instant read thermometer. I was ready to get busy.
Of course, the shoes hadn’t arrived, so I had two choices: wear my black slip-ons, which were definitely NOT skid resistant, and run the risk of busting my ass, or just wear running shoes. Hmm, safety and comfort versus looks. I went the route of safety and wore the running shoes. Of course, when Chef Crawford brings me back into the huge kitchen (the one where the food for the entire hotel is prepared), I immediately realized I had made a big mistake. Everyone was wearing black shoes. I look like a complete dork. “I have some brand new clogs you could wear. What size are you?” Crawford asked me. Fortunately, we have the same size feet, and I had some black socks back in the car. You know the story of not really knowing someone until you’ve had the opportunity to stand in their shoes? I was really going to get to know Chef Scott Crawford. My wife then called me, saying my shoes had arrived. Great timing.
I was issued a Herons chef coat and a long apron. Although most of the team wore short aprons and a hat, I didn’t get those. Once again, I felt a little out of place, but that would quickly change.
I’m then brought out and introduced to the crew. Chef Crawford tells them that I’ll be doing a “stage” (pronounced stahzh) with them for the next two days. He doesn’t tell them that I’m a food blogger or a home cook. For all they know, I might a visiting chef from another restaurant. They’ll quickly learn the truth. Crawford tells them that I’ll be helping out with a number of tasks, but the most important thing is for me to be tasting things. Over the course of those two days, I always had someone sticking a spoon towards my face — “try the salt cod nage” — “want to try some house-smoked bacon or salmon?” — “here are two types of yuzu juice.”
The first person I met was Chef Steven Greene, whose title I believe is Executive Chef du Cuisine. But Steven Greene is no typical Herons’ employee. Greene owns his own restaurant in Greenville, SC, Devereaux’s. He is a good friend of Chef Crawford, and when asked to help turn Herons (and all of the Umstead’s food service) around, Greene came. He has committed to this project for a year. I don’t know many other industries where someone would leave their own business for a year to help a friend with his business, but that’s what is happening here.
Greene would be my primary mentor for the next couple of days. The guy looks like he was maybe 25 years old, with gel-spiked hair. This kid is the number 2 guy in the entire kitchen? I didn’t know his story, and frankly, I thought this guy was going to bust my ass.
My first task was to brunoise shallots. Those fucking shallots. Yes, his job was indeed to bust my ass.
I use shallots a lot in my kitchen, but I rarely care what they look like. I coarsely chop them and dump the shallots into the dish I’m preparing. That will not fly at Herons. Chef Greene showed me how to separate the petals from the shallot bulb, to square them off, and make sure they’re all of the same relative thickness. He then cuts the shallots in 1/16th of an inch strips, lays them across the cutting board, squares off the ends again, and cuts 1/16th inch dice brunoise of shallots.
I can do that. Piece of cake. Except shallots are sticky, and would prefer to cling to your knife or thumb. And 1/16th inch strips of shallot like to roll around the cutting board. But I do it, getting through one shallot bulb in what seemed to be an hour or so (no, it wasn’t anywhere near that long, but it sure seemed so). Chef Greene is telling me I’m doing fine, but I see the little smirk on his face. Mercifully, he helps me finish the shallots, but I really felt I had figured it out on the third or fourth shallot. But I looked over at Chef Greene, and he really is making perfect shallot cubes out of every cut. Teeny, tiny shallot cupes. If they weren’t square, they went into the “trim” pile, which is kept for other uses, such as making stock. Yes, there is a lot of apparent waste in this kitchen, but actually, nothing goes to waste. Scraps are used in stocks or sauces that will be strained. Foie gras trim is used for pate or “foie gras butter.” Apple peels are composted for use on the Umstead garden. Almost nothing is wasted here.
As I — or rather, we — finish the shallots, Chef Greene tells me that this must be labeled. Everything that is prepped in the Umstead’s kitchen must be labeled with green painter’s tape (which must be cut with perfectly square ends). The label must state the ingredients, the date, and the initials of the person who prepped it. I asked Chef Greene if I should use his initial or mine. “Yours!” he exclaimed. I knew exactly what he was thinking. He didn’t want anyone to think that he was the one responsible for mangling those shallots.
The shallots are to be used in the amuse bouche for the evening. Chef Greene is responsible for creating this small pre-meal bite for each evening’s service. Tonight’s “bouche,” as they call it, is Diver Scallop Carpaccio with Apple, Radish, and a Yuzu Mignonette. The dish is even more complicated in its preparation than it sounds.
Chef Greene makes a poaching liquid using Gewurtztraminer as his base, infusing it with a number of aromatics, including ginger and I believe some citrus. He briefly poaches the whole diver scallops until they are cooked to a medium rare stage, and then shocks them in ice water to ensure they do not cook any further. The scallops are dried off, and then put in the walk-in freezer to firm them up a bit. We cut the scallops into very thin slices (which is a royal bitch), and then using a round cutter, they are cut into perfect 1-inch circles.
Greene then makes the mignonette, using two types of yuzu juice, one that is plain and one that has some honey added to it. I’ve never tasted straight yuzu juice before, so I now have one more flavor element that I can knowingly use in my cooking. If I can ever find yuzu at the Harris Teeter. To the yuzu juice, Chef Greene adds some lemon oil and a couple of other elements, and finishes this with some of the shallots that we had just prepped.
I’m asked to cut apples into rectangular cuboids, 1/2 inch long by 1/8 inch thick. Now this is something I can handle, and Chef Greene commented, “Not bad, not bad at all.” I was beaming like a little boy after being praised by his dad.
The dish itself is very simple. Into a chilled dish, you lay down the scallop round. You add a couple of crystals of Maldon sea salt, two batons of apple, very tiny batons of local radish, and just a couple of drops of the yuzu mignonette. One tiny sprig of micro-cilantro is placed on top. That’s it. Fresh, light, with tons of flavor in a single bite. That’s my primary responsibility for tonight’s service. But I end up doing a lot more.
Before the dinner service starts, Chef Greene takes me to see Herons’ herb garden, just outside the hotel. We then sit in the employee dining room, where every Umstead employee gets a free meal. Tonight there’s really tasty Mexican food, with some great pulled pork and tortillas, along with lots of fresh salad. Steven and I talk about our respective backgrounds, and then he looks up at me and says, “You ready?” I don’t have a clue whether or not I’m ready, as I don’t know what’s coming. But of course, I say, “Definitely.” The first guests are about to be seated.