Today I followed a day of intensity at Spruce with a kitchen stint on the opposite end of the restaurant spectrum: the Kasa food truck.
Kasa is a gourmet Indian restaurant started up by an ex-Big Law attorney in the U.K. and her friend, a Kellogg graduate. After the restaurant took off, they started up two food trucks to carry an abridged version of their menu all over the Bay Area, and have come to be the poster child for the gourmet artisanal San Francisco mobile food movement. I joined a few Kasa employees today on one of their trucks and spent the lunch hour serving up kati rolls (hot roti stuffed with chicken tikka masala, lamb curry, gobi aloo, or saag paneer plus coconut cilantro chutney, pickled onions, and fresh raita), samosas with cilantro and tamarind chutney, and mango lassis. (Photos courtesy of Kasa website.)
It was quite a departure — in a good way, I think — from my stage yesterday in the fine dining setting.
The (few) similarities: First, Kasa’s food truck is exceptionally clean and well-run; not only are the owners sticklers about hygiene, but also the employees are apparently super careful about it since Indian food already faces a bit of a stigma on that front in the public perception. Second, like Spruce, the food — and therefore the people — moves FAST. (I’m really starting to wonder how most of my classmates are going to make it in the restaurant industry given that a sense of urgency does not appear to be a common trait among our students.) Of course, seeing a line like this out the truck window would probably make anyone hustle at least a little bit.
The differences: That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Working on a food truck is, quite frankly, a hell of a lot of fun. (Working in a fine dining establishment is of course the best possible training, and you get to “interact” with the sexiest food in the world, but it really is insanely intense.) First, the setting. The inside of a food truck is obviously pretty small, so you have to be uber-strategic about use of space. There’s usually no more than 2 or 3 people working on a truck — you’ve got to have more than 1 bc the person handling the money doesn’t touch the food. And, because the truck is on the road, if you forget something at the commissary (the kitchen where you do your prep), you’re screwed. Hence the conspicuous reminders above the steering wheel (in case you can’t read it, it says, “Did you remember the chai urn?” Second, the music. It’s shocking how much funner it is to flip rotis on a smoking flattop when you have Kanye to rock out to. Third, the jeans. Self-explanatory. Fourth, the people. I’m sure the people who work in a fine-dining kitchen are just as crazy and interesting as those working on a food truck; problem is, you don’t really get to interact with them during work hours. Kasa actually only allows seasoned employees to work on their trucks, as opposed to their restaurant, since it’s crucial that the people working within the close confines of a 20-ft. truck get along well with each other. Fifth, the other people, namely, the customers. You actually get to see them, talk to them, (laugh at them), and let’s face it, people who wait in line for food truck goodies are generally more relaxed and happy than, say, summer associates needing to kiss some partner’s ass at yet another firm lunch. Last but not least, the injuries. (I didn’t say this was all a list of positives, just differences.) By now I’ve gotten multiple burns and assorted nicks and cuts on my fingers, wrists, and arms, but it wasn’t until today that I got my first stomach cut, the result of falling into the sharp corner of the hot line while our driver made a sharp turn. (Sidenote: In San Francisco, you’re licensed to drive a food truck so long as you have a regular driver’s license. Scary.) One of the Kasa employees told me that she’d burned her butt pretty badly just last week, falling backwards into the samosa oven when the truck hit a pothole.
And number seven. The best part of working on a food truck? Trading food with other food truckers. Today we shared a parking lot with 3 other trucks — a Chinese bao truck, a burger truck, and a taco truck. By the end of the afternoon we’d swapped surplus kati rolls and samosas for a whole smorgasbord of goodies (here, a roasted pork belly bao topped with pickled daikon). What’s not to like?
Yesterday I was given the opportunity to stage (read: a full-day kitchen interview) the Saturday dinner shift at Spruce, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco. The experience was, in a word, intense.
Just so you know what kind of place I’m dealing with here, and also to tantalize your tastebuds, a couple representative photographs: The charcuterie plate, Maine lobster with potato gnocchi and braised lettuces in a bordelaise sauce, cheese plate, and espresso cake with peanut ice cream and whipped caramel. (Mind you, these photos are courtesy of various internet sources, as I didn’t dare pause to even sneeze, much less take a photo.)
As you can see, this place is serious about food. (I had a moment of yummy glee while writing labels on masking tape for the gazillion mise en place containers used at various stations: “Duck fat fingerlings,” “cocoa nibs,” roasted garnet yams” come to mind.) Spruce actually owns its own farm from where it sources most of its veggies, and one of the chefs told me that “we like to go foraging for mushrooms in the mornings, just for fun.” No surprise that they have a letter like this hanging in their hallway:
Back to work. My shift started at 2pm and ended at 1am. First, let me just say that the people who run a restaurant of this caliber deserve props beyond anything I had previously imagined (and I’ve always had the utmost respect for such kitchens); within about 2 hours I’d decided that this was way harder work, and way more stressful, than being a Big Law attorney. As I told my friend, I could literally feel my hair turning white as I attempted to mince chives to the exact size that the chefs asked for.
To say that this place was a well-oiled machine is a massive understatement. Shockingly, the kitchen was teeny-tiny, maybe about 300 square feet, with a small pantry/pasta-making area on the second floor. (I must’ve run up and down the stairs at least 50 times.) Squeezed into the kitchen was also a temperature-controlled charcuterie room, where housemade speck, prosciutto, and boudin noir were aging comfortably, as well as a temperature-controlled chocolate room.
The kitchen was made up of only about 13 people — 2 on the fish station, 2 on the meat station, 1 garde manger (salads and everything cold), a charcuterie guy, 4 pastry, and 3 chefs in charge.
And when the tickets come in, these 13 people turn into madmen (and women), practically throwing pans at each other amidst foot-high flames and literally not stopping for a drink of water for 6 hours straight. And all this under 99 degree, sauna-like conditions (the kitchen uses special French burners that are even hotter than your typical already-scorching commercial gas burners). Interestingly, while this paltry group of only 13 was responsible for every single plate that came out of the kitchen, it seemed like a small army was in charge of actually getting those plates to their respective dining tables. The kitchen is designed in a way that the plates are “pushed out,” meaning that the stations are set up in a pseudo-assembly fashion such that the last stop for each plate is a table near the kitchen door where the head chef — above center, in glasses — personally scrutinizes (i.e., expedites) each and every element before giving a near-imperceptible nod to the slew of impeccably-dressed bussers standing ready to wipe each plate with first a wet, then a dry, rolled-up napkin. And the head chef isn’t alone; a head server — left, tall dude — is also standing at the table personally coordinating the timing that each plate goes out. If a guest at an eight-top happens to have left the table to go to the restroom, all plates on that course are held until the guest returns, at which point the head server gives a well-practiced “go” and 4 bussers sweep out of the kitchen in single-file, one plate in each hand, so they can appear simultaneously at the table to serve the next course. (Here, a mid-service ticket that I cannot even begin to decipher.) It was truly amazing, and a little bit scary, to watch.
Under these circumstances, all you wanna do is stay the crap out of everyone’s way. Hard to do when you’re actually there to demonstrate that you can make it in a kitchen like this. I was first put to work making brioche rings for God knows what dish (felt a little like a first-year associate who’s told to research some issue but has no idea what it’s for), then told by a chef on the meat station to “mince me 3 bunches of chives, as fine as possible.” I can tell you that after about 30 minutes of doing this, I was ready to kill myself. The level of perfection a kitchen like this demands is near-impossible, and I cut myself no less than 4 times trying to get the most perfect little cylinders out of that @#$&!#@ herb. (I won’t be eating chives for a while, I don’t think.) And still they weren’t nearly small enough. Since this is the type of place where inelegantly sliced herbs are throw in the garbage rather than put on a customer’s plate, there was definitely some pressure. At one point, the garde manger came over and said, “Hey, you mincing chives? Mind mincing me some?” As soon as I said yes, however, he glanced at my cutting board, visibly winced, and politely said, “Actually no worries, I’ll take care of it myself, thanks.” Ha.
Thankfully I did a bit better on the rest of my tasks, which included mincing parsley (much easier to do super-fine since you can just run your knife any which way until the little green suckers are completely eviscerated), frying beignets, slicing garnishes for the cheese course, and plating plating plating. (Again, plating is harder than you’d think, especially when you’re working with 40 tiny chocolate cakes and even the slightest graze of your wrist/fingers/tip of the squeeze bottle ruins the the top ganache layer and renders it unusable. I also learned that when you plate highly colorful items like raspberries, you better commit the second you put it on the gleaming white plate; if it falls over cuz you balanced it poorly or you want to shift it by even a millimeter, you’re left with a red stain that’s impossible to wipe off without knocking over every other item you’ve painstakingly placed on there. with tweezers, no less. it’s a lot like playing Jenga.) And then, of course, near the end of the night I had to go and tip over the entire mop bucket right smack in the middle of the fish line, leaving the chefs sloshing through 2 inches of water while they continued to frantically churn out immaculate plates of sturgeon and dorade. (The kitchen was so busy that no one even bothered to say anything; they just kept at what they were doing like robots. Phew.)
Spruce is kind enough to feed all of its stages (“stodges”) at the end of a shift; they allowed me to pick any item item off the menu. While the braised short rib was tempting, I chose the off-menu item that’s really made the restaurant famous among the masses: The Burger. This burger was first unveiled at Spruce’s sister restaurant, The Village Pub (also Michelin-starred), and is reportedly a favorite of Michelle Pfeiffer, who frequents the restaurant. Since I asked the chef to put “whatever” on it, he threw thick-cut gourmet bacon, caramelized onions, and a fried egg (I like how it’s square) on top. It was awesome, though I really couldn’t in good conscience park my butt down in a chair to nosh on a burger while everyone around me was working like crazy. Thank goodness for boxes; it was still awesome at 2am when I polished it off with a cold beer in my living room.
For the Lab part of our midterm, we were given a distinctly similar menu to one of the first that we’d done in this class 3 weeks ago. Plate 1: Grilled supreme with pineapple salsa, rice pilaf, and glazed turned vegetables (this time we had to include turned celery). Plate 2: Sauteed airline with pan sauce, pommes puree, and sauteed green beans w/ red peppers.
I did quite well. More importantly though, the fact that we’d made these exact dishes before, under less time pressure, really allowed me to see how vastly I’ve improved my skills. (There were points during the test where I was just standing around munching on pineapple.) Nice to know that I’m actually learning stuff.
Yes! Third place in the pizza competition with my submission of a caramelized onion, spicy Italian sausage, blue cheese, and fresh basil pizza! While perhaps not quite as satisfying as winning a motion to dismiss, definitely up there!
Day one of the competition was relatively uneventful, since everyone was just there to make their dough and package it to let it rise for 24 hours before the second day of the competition. Day two, however, was a bit problematic. First, my dough didn’t rise the way it had at home, and so I was left with a flat-looking thing that was way stickier than I’d expected. Second, though I’d originally been under the impression that we wouldn’t have pizza stones at our disposal (and would thus be baking our pizzas in half sheet pans), it turned out that not only did we have pizza peels, we actually had to bake our pizzas in a serious deck oven that would cook any pizza in less than 10 minutes. In light of that, I threw in a bunch more semolina flour, which resulted in a far crunchier crust than I’d done on my test run.
Additional surprises: The only blue cheese provided was maytag blue, which, as many of you know, is far sharper and really altogether quite different from gorgonzola, which is what I’d done on my tester pizza. I ran with it, careful to use only about half the amount of cheese than I had on my tester. Caramelizing my onions was also a challenge, as the kitchen we were assigned to for the competition was a Baking and Pastry classroom with a total of only 6 burners (you can imagine how we were jostling for position given that almost all of us had to cook/reheat at least 2 items on the stove).
My pizza ultimately came out looking a lot less attractive than I’d hoped, and also tasting pretty different from what I’d expected. In fact, the blue cheese was so overpowering — even with the amount cut in half — that I could barely choke it down. (I am not a blue cheese fan to begin with.) I submitted my entry without much optimism, especially since several other pizzas I saw looked far more tasty and/or interesting. (Other entries depicted here: Four cheese pizza with egg and basil; chicken tikka masala pizza. The latter took fourth prize at $500. Sculptor also entered the competition with a sous vide chicken and bechamel pizza.) Moreover, when the judges finished grading and we were called back in to claim the remnants of our respective pies, my pizza had had only a single slice missing, while every other pizza had at least 2, if not 4, slices removed by hungry judges.
Turns out only one bite was necessary. (And the thing really was so salty that I doubt any judge could’ve had much more than a bite anyway.) I took third prize, with the judges commenting that my using the caramelized onions as my “sauce” was sufficiently creative as well as well-executed (I seriously upped the butter content while caramelizing) that it merited a win. $750!!
Thanks again to all my testers…
No, not that kind of noodle-pulling. Starting this Thursday and for the next three consecutive Thursdays, famed Chinese chef Tony Wu — currently executive chef at Martin Yan’s new noodle/dim sum place in San Francisco, M.Y. China — is teaching a series on noodle pulling at our school.
For Day One, he focused on wow-ing us (as well as scaring the shit out of us) with his impressive noodle pulling technique, which involved taking a huge hunk of dough consisting of nothing more than high-gluten flour and water and throwing it up in the air repeatedly, twisting it like a noose, and whipping it all around the classroom. And then he did it blind-folded. Chef Wu is an entertaining guy, and managed to whip the noodles while singing and dancing to Oppa Gangnam Style, and also added some extra flair by swinging his noodles in all different directions while “hah-ing” kung-fu style and slamming the heavy dough into tables, walls, you name it. (He said he’s only hit someone once in his 30+ years of doing this. I wish I’d been there to see someone get noodle-slapped in the face.)
Chef Wu doesn’t really speak English, and, like any self-respecting Asian, spent the entire class speaking to only me in Mandarin Chinese while pretty much ignoring the other non-Chinese speaking students. Regardless, everyone had quite a workout trying their hand at noodle pulling; I’d say each slab of dough weighs roughly 10 pounds, and after swinging it up and down and up and down repeatedly, each of us had worked up quite a sweat. Some of tried to take breaks, to which Chef Wu would just vehemently grab our dough and shout, “NO TIRED! NO TIRED!” Um, yes, tired.
(Random fact that I just realized a lot of people might not know: The term “ramen” technically means “pulled noodles” — “ra” is “to pull” and “men” is “noodles.”)
The other day we were busily making gallons of stock while, in the kitchen next door, Ryan Scott (back center, holding the coffee cup) was filming an episode of his new food show. I don’t have much interesting to say about it, but thought it was still cool to see how they transform our kitchens into a soundstage: