(Note — This is the second of several parts regarding my two days spent in the Herons’ kitchen.)
Chef Steven Greene and I walked out to the front of the house to address the waitstaff, letting them know what tonight’s amuse bouche was and to inform them that we were not out of any items on the menu. They looked at me, the new guy, trying to figure out who I was. Later on, one of the waiters asked me if I were the new sous chef. I had to laugh after informing him that I was just hanging around for a couple of days.
Tonight’s dinner would not be particularly busy, with maybe only 35 or 40 customers. Chef Greene and I made a sample bouche, and he had me taste it. “Too much salt,” I responded, as the 5 or 6 grains of sea salt overpowered the scallop and yuzu mignonette. We determined that two grains was the perfect amount, and this small bite of shellfish, apple, radish and citrus was a flavor explosion. The guests would like this one.
They set me up with a cart, holding a tray of ice and all the ingredients except for the scallop rounds, which were stored in the refrigerator. I’d pull a cold dish from the fridge and using an offset spatula, place the scallop slice in a depression in the dish. Two grains of salt, two batons of apple, and using tweezers, several threads of radish. I’d then use a spoon to drizzle a couple drops of the mignonette onto the dish. Aaron, who was working salads, showed me to hold the spoon near the bowl, rather than at the end of the handle, as you had more control. I’d then take the dish over towards the main pass line and add a sprig of micro-cilantro. It was a very simple dish to plate, but it was somewhat colorful with the radish and cilantro, but most importantly, the flavors popped.
Speaking of the pass line, Herons does something that I had never seen before. They tape down clean white linens over the stainless steel counters, as doing so keeps the plates and counters clean and cuts down on the noise. With a kitchen open to the dining room, reducing the amount of banging and clanging makes for a more enjoyable dining experience.
The Herons kitchen (and the entire Umstead food service area) is very formal. Scott Crawford and Steven Greene are referred to as “chef.” When a question is asked, the answer is “Yes, Chef,” or “No, Chef.” When an order is placed or a command made, the correct response is, “Heard,” as in, “Yes, Chef, I heard that.” Sometimes the command is repeated, but not always.
Chef Scott Crawford is not working the line tonight, as he is in the back kitchen working on the new “all day” menu. Behind the Heron’s stove is another small kitchen that is used to feed the bar guests and those in the hotel requesting room service. Today is the first day of the new iteration of this all day menu, and Crawford is working with the cooks to ensure everything is sent out perfectly. He occasionally checks in on how we’re doing out front, but for the most part, Steven Greene is in charge.
Everything goes quite smoothly, as one would expect, because there are not a lot of guests in the Herons dining room tonight. Some of the salads take awhile to plate, but I jump in to finish a Caesar salad now and then (and this is one funky looking Caesar salad, with three rings of parmesan cracker orbiting a bundle of dressed romaine).
Tim is on meats, and he’s a complete pro. He always has his orders together, and I’m amazed how he keeps track of everything. He frequently hands me a piece of pheasant or pork to try. He also cooks the mushrooms, including chanterelle, maitake and black trumpets. He’s in charge of a bunch of vegetables, including sous vide-cooked fennel and tiny florets of multi-colored cauliflower. All meats are seared on an ultra-hot griddle, with copious amounts of oil, as Chef Crawford believes that’s the best way to develop a great crust. Above the burners is a rack filled with lidded pots containing purees of purple Okinawan yams, chestnut, pumpkin and an equal number of sauces.
Colin is on seafood and hot appetizers. Colin was formerly the chef at Chapel Hill’s Azure Grill, but for whatever reason, he’s now at Herons as is Jay Beaver, former chef at Frazier’s in Raleigh. Beaver runs the kitchen at lunch and makes killer bacon and smoked salmon. It’s amazing how so many individuals who used to run their own kitchens are now at Herons, working under Scott Crawford. The man has a huge reputation among chefs, and cooks are coming here to improve their culinary skills and knowledge.
Colin has me try the mushroom soup, which is amazingly rich, particularly when paired with the white truffle custard. Damn, that is an amazingly tasty dish. I also try the risotto, which is made with a butternut squash stock and served with toasted oats, pumpkin seeds and raisins. I actually had the audacity to suggest that the dish could be improved if they slightly caramelized the pumpkin seeds and added a bit of heat to them. Chef Greene didn’t laugh at the suggestion and actually conceded the idea had some merit. I don’t expect a menu change to be forthcoming, however.
The kitchen is quiet, with the loudest noises coming from the three machines that print up the order tickets. I hear “Three bouche,” and I respond, “Heard, three bouche.” Another order comes in, “Four bouche. That’s seven bouche all day.”
“Heard, seven bouche all day,” I state. I then ask Aaron what the hell he means by “All day.” Sure, I repeated the order, but I didn’t know that “all day” meant the total number of a given dish that is outstanding. I think I’ll start using that term in my legal practice with the associates: “I need that memo tomorrow. That’s four memos all day.” I suspect I’ll get a lot of blank stares.
Anyhow, I keep up with the bouche orders, and I make sure I keep my workstation clean. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but in the Herons kitchen, cleanliness trumps God or any other higher being. I know I won’t get yelled at, but I don’t even want to get a dirty look. I’m part of the team, and I want to make sure that I don’t screw up my part. Chef Greene compliments me on the composition of my dish and I grin. I may be 46 years old, but I can still act like a proud 6-year old.
As the line cooks take care of their business, they bring the food to the pass, where Chef Greene plates the dishes. The protein is brought out on a tin foil pie pan, along with the vegetable accompaniments. The line cooks also bring out the small saucepans of puree and sauce, each containing their own spoon. Chef Green artfully plates the puree in opposite directions on the warm plate (which has been wiped down to rid it of any fingerprints). He gently places the protein and any large accompaniments on the plate, and then using tweezers, adds the final delicate items, piece by piece. Microgreens are often added for additional color, flavor and texture. Each plate truly is a sight to behold, and before heading to the table, is briefly stuck under a hot salamander to ensure the customer’s food has not cooled down. The server wipes the plate one more time and then delivers it to the diner.
It’s now 9:45, and dinner service is winding down. But there are some issues in the kitchen. Tomorrow night is one of the biggest nights in the history of Herons, as the restaurant will be hosting a bunch of corporate VIPs (think not Fortune 500, but Fortune 50). The problem with this is that neither Colin nor Aaron will be there tomorrow, so two of the three regular line cooks will be absent during this crucial time. On top of that, one of the cooks in the all day kitchen will be gone, too. Colin’s absence was planned, and Sean, the hotel’s main butcher, has been trailing the hot apps line to ensure that he can cook on that station. Chef Crawford was unaware that Aaron was going to be gone, but he excuses him without a fight. The all day cook, however, is another matter. “I need you here tomorrow, and I don’t care how many days in a row you’ve worked. You have to show me your dedication as a cook. I busted my ass without ever taking a day off when I was your age, and I don’t see the same commitment from you.”
Crawford finally excused the cook, but he let him know that unexpected absences are not appropriate. The chef is a bit on edge, in part because tomorrow is such a big day, but also because he’s been working too much with very little sleep. He finally leaves the hotel at 10 PM, after working a 16 hour shift, and he’s to return tomorrow at 6 AM. A huge day awaits.