Just when I think I’m running out of excitement and zest… I head to Chicago and realize that it’s all still there…in fact, I’m getting even zestier!!!! Really zesty. I arrive in Chicago on late Sunday afternoon.
Truth be told, I’m excited to be here for so many reasons, both personally and professionally. Personally, I love Chicago. It reminds me of a big Boston and that makes me miss home. I’m a diehard Red Sox fan, with that said, I do like, or shall I say “pity” the Cubs…I think they’re up to 102 years of not winning a World Series. As a Red Sox fan prior to 2004, I have complete empathy for the city… Ok, moving on to reason #2 as to why I’m in love with Chi-town: some of my favorite people reside in this city. For instance, my friends the Morisco’s, an Italian/Polish couple who lovingly stuff me with food, espresso, and grappa, are perhaps the funniest people I know (rivaled closely by the Kang’s in L.A.). It’s hard not to love a place when you’re getting the royal Italian treatment from your hosts! Then there is the part of Chicago that tickles both the personal and professional feather… the Chicago food scene….ooooooohhhhhh.
Chicago is INSANE (insanely good that is), when it comes to the food scene. The city is loaded with some of the country’s top restaurants: Alinea, Charlie Trotter’s, Blackbird, NAHA, The Girl and the Goat, and of course Graham Elliott. From Michelin Stars to James Beard awards, Chicago has major clout.
So, Monday was my first day at Graham Elliott’s. A friend of mine had spent a week in Graham’s kitchen prior to my arrival. While I was at Patina in LA, we had a conversation via phone…a chance to dissect the differences in both places. Patina as I mentioned was run like a traditional and classic French kitchen, minimal ingredients executed with perfect technique. Graham Elliott the opposite of traditional…it is funky, cool, unique, and authentic…Just like the man himself.
When I get into the restaurant I have a chance to meet the crew. I am again, blown away by the noticeable differences. Instead of traditional white chef coats, the line cooks sport trendy fitted tees and jeans. The chef coats are reserved for the Chef De Cuisine and Executive Chef…so in my opinion, everyone looks awesomely cool. Another first impression… it’s noon, and everyone is in the kitchen.
Intros are quick, and immediately I get to work dicing mushrooms…after the dicing I did the two weeks prior, I actually feel pretty confident. The environment seems like it has a perfect flow to it. During prep the crew puts on a varied play list of phenomenal music…it’s blasted nice and loud (shut off prior to service) Don’t be fooled, even though it sounds like a party, everyone is working their ass off and if anything the music is motivation to keep them going.
When I start asking questions about the line and execution of the dishes, I realize another difference from Patina…there is no brigade. Basically a brigade is a breakdown of who handles what in the kitchen. In some kitchen they may have one person handling the fish, another prepping the side components of the dish, and then there is someone else plating that dish. At Graham Elliott there are 5people on the line cold app, hot app, sea, land, and dessert. Each person handles every component and aspect of his or her dish…from prepping, to cooking, and then of course plating. I find this utterly amazing, as the restaurant is nearly double the size of Patina. So really, I can’t wait for tonight and tomorrow (Saturday night). With just these 4 people turning out a hundred plus dinners I am anxious to see how they’re going to do it…imagining it seems impossible to me right now.
It’s not that I imagined every kitchen to be the same, in fact, the reason when I decided to stage in 3 places was really to see variety and expose myself to a world I was not familiar with prior. I appreciate diversity and it’s another reason why I have grown to love kitchens. Everyone I’ve met has a unique story as to why they decided to pursue this tough and at times, less than glamorous path. Regardless of how they started, even in two very opposite kitchens, I have found one common thread…PASSION. The individuals I’ve met in these kitchens are ALL passionate. They not only cook, they eat, sleep, and breath—food. Inspiration oozes out of these kitchens, infecting all those that are nearby. Really it’s that contagious.
If I were to try to describe the kitchen atmosphere at Graham Elliott’s I would probably compare it (slightly) to Charm City Cakes/”Ace of Cakes”…let me explain. I make this comparison in the sense that you have “creative people doing what they should be doing…creating”!!! The encouragement to explore, develop, and create new dishes, comes from the top. Empowering their crew to think seems to produce a more knowledgeable environment. In Patina the executive chef was (mainly) the person doing the teaching. At Graham Elliott, everyone in the kitchen is teaching one another. When this type of creativity is nurtured through this type of environment, expect unlimited amounts of success.
Last bit of inspiration I picked up…well, it’s inspiration for me, maybe not as much for you. Everyone at Patina possessed some sort of culinary education. At Graham’s half the kitchen has an “official” culinary education, the other half has life/work experience. Why is this inspirational?… Because I’m 33 and when considering whether or not to pursue culinary school, I take notice in those that have bypassed it. Their level of creativity seems to shine through a bit more compared to that of their peers. Are they any less capable without a degree? Absolutely not. In fact, when I see their level of knowledge and their commitment to developing their own education, I am in awe. For me it’s definitely food for thought.
So between the time zones and the hours in the kitchen…I’m officially pooped. Even though I’m learning more than I ever imagined, I am exhausted.
Today I am continuing a task from yesterday…finishing fresh raviolis for a staff meal. That’s right another staff meal and I’m making fresh pasta. Not my call this time, however I am looking forward to it.
It’s Friday, there are 5 people about to handle a busy night of service…I’m not sure whether to be scared or excited. I guess I’ll go for a bit of both.