I knew that the chefs at Herons had taken it easy on me on the first day, giving me plenty to do, but simultaneously allowing me to see what goes on and to taste dishes as they were being put together. I also knew that my second day might be a little different, as it was a big day – the biggest day for Herons since Chef Scott Crawford took over. The Umstead Hotel and Spa was hosting a group of powerful CEOs from across the nation for a few days – we’re talking Fortune 100 companies. I joked that if someone had dropped a bomb on the hotel that day, the US economy would be crippled. No one thought that was funny, of course, as they knew that 35 of these heavy hitters would come into the dining room at one time and our job was to feed them as quickly as possible.
Even though the menu was going to be limited for these guests, they could order whatever they wanted if they truly chose to do so. Herons is all about taking care of the customer, even when the customer is wrong. Yes, the customer can be wrong, but the customer gets what he or she wants.
I actually wore my new chef shoes for this day, and after putting on my chef’s coat and apron, damn, if I didn’t look the part. Sure, it was the part of the fat, over-the-hill chef, but I was fine with that. After ogling myself in the mirror for a few seconds, I walked out into the large hotel kitchen and was introduced to Sean. Sean is one of the butchers at Herons, but on this day, he was filling in for Colin on the hot apps station. Sean had never worked this part of the line before, and he picked a pretty crazy day to start. Sean showed me how to clean a lobe of foie gras, how to remove the veins and soak the pieces in iced milk. He showed me the quickest way to break down lobsters. He had me make little orbs of apple, each about 1/3 inch in diameter (10 apples’ worth, which was a royal pain in the ass). I cut up walnuts and almonds and learned that warming up the almonds helps to ensure they don’t shatter when slicing them in ¼ inch pieces.
I also spent more time with Chef Steven Greene, who was in the process of making tonight’s amuse bouche, a flavorful creamy lobster soup, served in demitasse cups with a truffle froth and a sprinkling of vanilla powder.
I was a bit excited, too, as my wife and 15-year old son would be in the restaurant along with a dear family friend. I didn’t know what my son would think of the place, but I was hopeful that it would be a great experience for him.
Chef Greene and I met with the front of the house, where he describe tonight’s bouche. He stated that if a customer ordered the lobster appetizer, they would get an alternate bouche – the scallop and yuzu mignonette item I had made yesterday. The flavor profiles of the soup were fairly similar to the lobster appetizer, so they recognized the need to have this second item. The staff was told who was going to be in the restaurant that night. Folks, these are some of the most prominent executives in the country, and I sense I might have been the only one even the slightest intimidated. At that point, taking care of the guy from the local convenience store might have bothered me.
I spent a little time chatting with Pastry Chef, Daniel Benjamin, who showed me how he works out of his little room. Pastry was originally located in the back half of the Herons’ kitchen, but it got too hot there. Chocolate wouldn’t set. So they moved the pastry area over to an area that looks like a storage closet with a window. Hell, there’s a locked door in this area, even though there is a window for the dessert pass. Honestly, the design of the Herons’ kitchen is preposterous, which Chef Crawford indicated was about to change. While the restaurant will be undergoing major renovations, they will also be adding one of the most beautiful stoves I have ever seen, featuring a number of French flat tops that will change the way the line cooks operate. The kitchen will be glassed in from the dining room, such that the customers will still be able to see what goes on in the kitchen, but they won’t hear anything.
The line cooks were making final preparations for tonight’s service, but I noticed Sean was struggling to get ready. He had not finished all of his prep work and was frantically working on – what else – shallots. I grabbed a knife and began making those perfect 1/16 inch brunoise. Sean showed me another technique to do the shallots, which I immediately grasped, and we went to work. Chef Crawford came by and lit into Sean, telling him he had 5 minutes to get his mise en place done. He couldn’t believe Sean hadn’t gotten this done earlier in the day, and I really felt sorry for the kid. Chef Crawford then took a look at my shallots and said, “This is your brunoise? That’s pretty damn good.” Yup, not only could I brunoise a shallot, but I could do it quickly. We had those shallots done in a flash, and I think I actually kept up with Sean. Granted, I wasn’t sweating bullets like him, as my job wasn’t on the line.
Chef Crawford demands perfection in his kitchen, and he’s very hard on his line cooks and sous chefs. Work areas must remain spotless at all times, even when everything goes to shit. The line cooks must remain focused on their tasks, and if they do not respond when he calls out an order, Crawford will jump all over them. But there is no screaming in this kitchen, and shortly after he tears a cook a new one, Crawford compliments him on something else.
That’s the thing about Crawford. He demands perfection, and his cooks want to meet that standard. He will attack their weaknesses and ask them questions like, “Did you learn this shit from Chef So and So? Is this how you were taught?” The response – the only response – is, “No, Chef.” This process forces the cooks to focus on their task, but it ultimately makes them stronger, particularly when things get really crazy. But just when you think the cook can’t take it any more, Crawford will praise him on his ability to remain calm, such that he ends up more confident in his abilities than ever before. Crawford is by no means cruel, but he is tough. And his cooks completely respect him and do everything they can to meet his demands.
The dining room only has a couple of customers at 6, but we know it will be crazy when this group of CEOs arrive at one time. They are supposed to arrive around 7:30, but no one really knows the exact time. As we wait, I say, “Don’t you feel like the Spartans in the movie 300, knowing we’re about to be ‘slaughtered’?” I try to lighten up the mood by saying, “We are Sparta!” a couple of times, and I think I succeed somewhat. Chef Crawford asks everyone, “Are you ready?” Of course, I’m now cocky enough to respond, “Bring it!”
“Be careful with what you ask for, Dean,” Crawford replies while shaking his head, knowing how clueless I truly am.
Before it gets crazy, however, I see that my family has arrived. They get seated at the table closest to the kitchen, where they can see everything going on, including me in my fancy chef’s outfit. I walk out into the dining room and greet them. They are quite impressed with my garb, telling me how professional I look. I let them know what I think are the best dishes, and then I head back to work.
Tonight’s amuse bouche is extremely simple, as we keep it warm on a little hot plate. I pour a little soup into a cup, top it off with the froth, and sprinkle vanilla powder over the froth. Yes, even a caveman could do this.
My family is loving their meal, and I check on them a couple more times. Other customers stare at me – I wonder if they think I’m one of the chefs and why I’m not visiting their tables, too.
Meanwhile, Chef Crawford looks at how the salads are being plated, and he jumps in, saying, “You’re too stiff, and it shows on the plate. Relax when you’re doing this.” And then he plates a poached pear salad, drizzling the dressing in a far more elegant manner than his garde manger. He uses tweezers to place the frisee perfectly. The difference in the two plates is noticeable. I would have thought this process would have been this worst way to get this guy relaxed, but it works. Whereas the plating was previously sloppy – I actually could have done better, I suspect – the improvement is noticeable. The salads are beautiful.
Then the CEOs arrive, and Crawford reminds everyone to stay focused. The kitchen suddenly quiets down, except for Crawford’s orders and the response, “Heard, Chef.” Tim, who is running the grill and entrees, starts searing off steaks, which he knows will be a big seller. Powerful people like their beef, apparently, and these steaks are so thick that they take awhile to cook – even if ordered rare.
I do what I can to help, getting the lobster soup and an occasional scallop out there. I dress an occasional salad. Mostly, however, I stay out of the way, as I can only slow these guys down. I was worried about Sean, but he’s holding his own. Crawford later tells me that Sean is only 23 years old but his skills are far beyond his years. That’s why he had the confidence to put him on the line on such an important night.
Then I suddenly realize there is indeed a problem. Most of the guests are ordering the poached pear salad, and we haven’t poached enough pears to meet the demand. So three of us spring into action, peeling, coring and poaching a couple dozen small pears. No one asks me to help, I just jump in. I know how to peel pears, and I can do it quickly. No one says a word, either. We’re totally focused in getting this done as quickly as possible, as we need to avert a mini-crisis. The last thing you want to happen is to run out of an item when the menu is already substantially limited.
Pears go into the poaching liquid, and then pulled out and quickly cooled in an ice bath. We deliver the pears in batches to the garde manger. At this moment, there’s no time to say thanks – we’re a time with a singular task of taking care of the customers. I realize that I’ve made a small difference in this kitchen. I’ve helped avert two crises. Granted, my role is very nominal, but no one is looking at me like I need to get the hell out of there.
The dinner service is going very well, and when I look up, I notice that Chef Crawford is now talking to my family. Oh, crap, what the hell is he saying to them? I hear them laugh, and I know that he’s not telling them I’m incompetent. But why do I feel like a 7 year old, standing in the hallway, during a parent-teacher conference? I later learn that Crawford said, “We really didn’t know what to expect with Dean, but we were really surprised at what he could do.” Yeah, baby!
As the night winds down, I begin to get a sense of why these guys do what they do. Why they bust their asses for 12 hours a day. They do it because they absolutely love it. They take pride in their work and like being part of a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They’re cooks, goddamn it, and they just fed some of the most powerful people in the country. And fed them well.
I check in with my family one last time. My son is beaming, telling me that this was one of the best meals he’s ever had. My wife later texts me, telling me that he said this on the way home: “Excuse my language, but I don’t know what the hell just happened in my mouth. And I mean that in the best way possible.” When I get back in the kitchen, waiting for me is a plate of food – the prime strip steak with smoked portabello and Okinawa yam, served with a maple-rosemary jus. There’s also a bowl of the wonderful mushroom soup, poured over a white truffle custard and pickled shallots. I can only eat a portion of each, as I’ve tasted so many things over the course of the evening, that I don’t have much of an appetite. But damn, this food is really, really kick ass.
As we finish up, Chef Crawford pulls the team together, and tells me how much he and the crew enjoyed having me, and that they were impressed with what I could do. He said that I was a big help, and although I know he was just being nice, I also know there was some truth to his statement. And then he said, “Dean, when someone stages in a restaurant, they end up getting one of three things. They get a job, but I sense you’re not looking to make a career change. They get the boot, and we’re not going to kick you out of here. Or they get a gift.”
He then presents me with two items, a Gray Kunz spoon and a small, offset spatula. “These are two items that every cook in my kitchen receives. They are essential tools of this kitchen, and we use them every day. These items represent a small token of our appreciation for your assistance, and when we get our new kitchen finished, we want you to come back.”
I’m taken aback, and then I realize everyone is staring at me, waiting for me to say something. And this is how I conclude my stage at Herons: “There is one word that describes everything that goes on in this kitchen: Respect. Each of you has the utmost respect for what you do, taking great pride in your work, striving for perfection. You also have complete respect for the food that you prepare, treating it with care. But most importantly, you have respect for each other. And you showed me a ton of respect. I was honored to spend two days with you, and I will carry these memories with me forever.”
Photos are taken, hands are shaken, backs are slapped. For two nights, I was a part of a very special team, and my perspective as a diner and home cook will forever be shaped by this experience. As I walked to my car on that rainy Wednesday night, I know I could never do this for a living. But damn, there’s no greater feeling than to be a part of an elite team. Even if only for two days.