Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Logistics on the Line

I am way behind on posting things here for the last few weeks. There's been a lot that I would like to write about, but I've just been too buried in work. My class has moved on to Level 5 now, where we are half of the staff for a pretty nice restaurant operated by the school, L'Ecole. I highly recommend it as a great bargain in New York: you get a five course meal (well, four "real" courses, plus a salad) for just $42 in a city where the going rate for a good three course meal is $90. The menu often has a lot of great choices. Usually the food is excellent, but the risk you run is that often if the food is not good, it is very much not good. You see, among the students, there is a small percentage that doesn't really care about the quality of the work they do, and they aren't interested in any of the details. The rest of us often wonder why they are there at all, but for whatever reason, they are there and they cook in the restaurant when they reach Level 5. The customer reviews I see of the restaurant online seem to me to reflect this reality. About 80%-90% of them say that it is an outstanding restaurant with terrific food at an unheard of price in Manhattan. The other 10%-20% say that the food is awful.

Most people are a bit nervous when they first begin cooking in the restaurant kitchen. (And just like my other line of work, software development, a lot of the people who aren't nervous are the ones taht you don't really want cooking your food.) You feel like you don't know what you are doing and you are in everyone's way. One of the nice things about the way the school has arranged our transition to the restaurant is that our first day cooking there is technically the last day of Level 4 rather than the first day of Level 5. That means that we get to work under the chef we are very familiar with from the last 3 months, in our case Chef Phil. It's much easier to handle your first day in restaurant service with a chef that knows you and isn't going to form his first impression of you from a question you ask about something you're not certain of in the new environment.

That said, the day before we began cooking for customers, Chef Phil gave us a bit of a stern lecture or maybe pep talk about bringing our best game into the restaurant service. In most restaurant kichens, there is a chef called the "expediter" who shouts out orders to the line cooks who are preparing the plates to go out. The idea is that when the expediter shouts out to "fire" the order, you want to have the plate "in the window" (under the heat lamps just behind the doors to the dining room and next to the expediter) in a couple of minutes. Chef Phil in his pep talk told us that when an order first comes in, we should take whatever the main ingredient is (usually a piece of fish or meat) out of wherever it is being stored (for example, in a refrigerated drawer under the stove for fish) and put it on a sheet pan on the counter. That way, you always know that all of the food still stored is available for orders that have not yet come in, and when things start moving very fast, you know whether you are about to run out or not. For example, when it gets busy, you might have 15 uncooked fish fillets on your station, but maybe 8 of those have already been ordered so you really only have 7. If you've removed the 8 from the pile waiting in storage, you'll know that you don't have that many left.

Chef Phil really wanted to emphasize this point to us. He said: "If you do only one thing right during your shift in the restaurant, make sure you get this right. I mean, do NOT fuck this up. If you ever have to tell your chef that you don't have the product to cook an order that has been taken, the first thing you feel is gonna be his foot up your ass. And if you do that to me the first night we're in the restaurant, I will beat you in the head with a stick, and when you come to the first thing you feel will be my foot up your ass."

So far we have done fine with this. The restaurant service is very short because it is scheduled around the fact that dinner is being cooked by students who are only required to be in class from about 6pm until 10:45pm. So reservations for that service are only available between 8pm and 9pm. That makes the dinner hour in the kitchen so short that it kind of rolls through the kitchen like a wave: first the canape station is busy, then the garde manger (appetizers), then the fish station, then meats, and finally desserts. The chef instructors can sort of babysit one station at a time. Later in the service, everyone will at least have some orders being worked on, but because the dinner hour is only an hour, only one station at a time is at risk of getting overwhelmed and being "in the weeds."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

New York Pizza

In reading about the New Haven pizza places in the days before I went there to see what they were all about, I came across an old New York Times article that gave a history, or really more of a genealogy, of the pizzerias in New York that make the style of pizza that is my favorite in the city. The story can be a little confusing, especially regarding the pizza places called "Patsy's" -- Patsy's was some of the best and most famous pizza in New York for several generations, and there is more than one Patsy's pizza restaurant in the city today, but it is often unclear what relationship the current Patsy's has to the original, if any. At one extreme, you sometimes hear that it is still family owned, and at the other extreme you often hear that the name was bought out by a corporation that now keeps the restaurants going. The truth is a little of both.

The article had this nice "family tree" of New York pizzas, available online courtesy of the folks at Slice, the pizza blog. My favorite New York pizza, Angelo's, appears at the top of the tree, second from the left. Angelo Angelis opened a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn in the 1960s called Pizza Chef, and the current Angelo's in Manhattan was started by Angelo's nephews who had been trained by Angelo's son Nick of Nick's Pizza, which was run by Nick and another son of Angelo, John.

At the bottom of the tree you'll find the original New York pizza place (thought by many to be the first pizzeria in the United States), Lombardi's. I had heard of Lombardi's, but I didn't realize until looking into it over this past week that it is only a couple of blocks from school, and it is open until midnight on Saturdays, late enough to get there after we leave class. So on Saturday, I headed right there after we got out of the kitchen and back into our street clothes. Based on that one pizza, it looks like Lombardi's might have eclipsed Angelo's as my favorite pizza in the city.

The two places make a similar style of pizza, as do most of the places in the family tree from that New York Times article. They use a very light tomato sauce, usually made with crushed San Marzano canned tomatoes from Italy, and little or no herbs or spices in the sauce. The cheese is fresh mozzarella, which is too soft and wet to be grated, and is instead cut into round slices and placed on top of the pizza. Unlike most pizzas found across the United States, these pizzas do not have a solid covering of cheese; instead, the sliced rounds of cheese, about two or three inches in diameter, are placed on top of the sauce so that they cover about two-thirds of the surface area, leaving the sauce exposed on the rest. Many of the first pizza joints to open didn't call their product "pizza" in their name, but instead used the term "tomato pie," so instead of "Jack's Pizzeria," in the 1920s the place would be named "Jack's Tomato Pies." And tomato pie is exactly what I'm looking for -- I'm not in the majority when it comes to how I evaluate a pizza, but the most important thing to me is that it taste in some way like good tomatoes. (In fact, the thing I dislike about most Chicago pizza is not that it's thick or greasy or cheesey or bready, but that it arrives covered in a tomato sauce on top and yet somehow they've managed to cook all of the taste out of the sauce -- it is truly a red sauce, in the sense that all it gives the pizza is a red finish, and very little or no flavor of tomatoes. It is, to me, a bad joke.)

Lombardi's pizza. You can see here how the melted rounds
of fresh mozzarella don't completely cover the pizza.
Most New York pizza uses slightly less cheese than this,
leaving even more exposed areas of just tomato sauce.

In addition to the light tomato sauce and splotches of fresh mozzarella, another characteristic of that style of New York pizza is that it is baked in an impossibly hot oven, usually at 900F or more. The classic pizzas are made in coal-burning ovens, which are hotter than wood ovens, which in turn are hotter than gas ovens. The floor of the oven is made of smooth brick, and the pizza is placed directly on the brick floor, which has been thoroughly heated by the coal burning in the oven all day. The result is that the pizza goes from completely raw to completely cooked in just a few minutes. Often less than ten minutes elapses from the time you order a full pizza until the time it arrives at your table, because they can make it in two or three minutes and then bake it in only four minutes or so. The result of the hot oven and the superheated brick floor is that the thin crust gets slightly charred on the bottom, with a bit of grilled flavor to it, but is still soft on the top, and overall it is not at all brittle like a cracker even though it is crunchy underneath. The cheese just barely melts all the way in the short time it takes to cook the pizza, so that even though it arrives steaming hot, you can eat it immediately without getting burned because the heat has not really built up throughout the thickness of the pizza.

This is the pizza that Gennaro Lombardi made when he opened in the very early 1900s, and he passed his tradition on to some new pizza places opened by people who had worked for him, and those places are still around today: Totonno's, opened near Coney Island in 1924 and in recent years at another location in Manhattan; John's of Bleecker Street, opened in 1929, also with additional locations in the last few years (their web site now promotes the Times Square location, which probably generates the most money); and possibly Patsy's, opened in East Harlem by Patsy Lancieri in 1933 (it is uncertain whether he ever worked for Lombardi's), ultimately becoming the most ambiguous brand name on the New York pizza scene.

The name "Patsy's" first gets muddled with the opening of Patsy Grimaldi's pizzeria under the Brooklyn Bridge. Patsy Grimaldi is a newphew of the original Patsy Lancieri. I've read various accounts of the opening of Grimaldi's restaurant, and so far can't really find one that looks authoritative. Some say he called the place "Patsy's," and others say "Patsy Grimaldi's." Some say the name later changed because of a legal dispute about the right to use the name "Patsy's," and others say that he either sold the name or simply changed it. In any event, the restaurant was renamed "Grimaldi's," and remains under the bridge in Brooklyn today. A couple of additional locations have opened in New Jersey and on Long Island, owned and operated by relatives of Patsy Grimaldi.

Meanwhile, a couple of the original Patsy's employees bought the Patsy's pizzeria in East Harlem, presumably from Patsy or his heirs. Not long after that, they licensed the Patsy's name to the daugher and son-in-law of Angelo Angelis, the namesake (though never owner or operator) of my favorite pizza place for the past couple of years, Angelo's. The licensees opened several additional Patsy's, but although the bought the right to use the name, they apparently did not buy the original restaurant, which remains a separate business from the newer ones opened under the license. (You might notice that the original restaurant is not listed on the Patsy's website, which is run by the licensees.) So none of the Patsy's pizzerias today is owned or run by the Patsy Lancieri family, but the original location in East Harlem can still claim a pretty direct descent from the business as it originally existed in 1933.

One obstacle to opening a new pizza restaurant in New York making the original Lombardi's style of pizza is that it is now illegal to build a new coal-burning oven in Manhattan. That is probably why Patsy Grimaldi chose to open in Brooklyn, just across the bridge. More recently, Angelo's was opened in the 1990s by newphews of Angelo Angelis, who happened to find a vacant location near Carnegie Hall on 57th Street that already had a coal furnace installed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hollandaise: A Simple Procedure, A Complicated Process

Like many skills in cooking, making a classic Hollandaise is simple after you do it a few times or have good luck, but frustratingly difficult if it goes wrong and you don't know why. One of the dishes we made many times in the last week or so of our Level 3 class at school was topped with Hollandaise, and for some reason our class had a much higher than normal rate of failed Hollandaise sauces. We made Hollandaise a few times in our Level 1 and Level 2 classes, and it was something that at first I got lucky with, and then later I began to struggle with it. Then our assistant chef was watching me make it one night, and walked over and said, "You're just whisking. You don't ever just whisk a Hollandaise." Once I figured out what he meant, I understood the process of Hollandaise, and I've not had much difficulty with it since. But before I get to that, let's look at what a Hollandaise sauce is.

Hollandaise is an "emulsion," which is a smooth and homogeneous mixture of two liquids that normally cannot be mixed, like oil and water, or in the case of a salad dressing, oil and vinegar. If you whisk oil and vinegar together into a smooth, creamy, cloudy emulsion, and then leave the mixture on the counter, it will usually separate pretty quickly, often in just a minute or two, and nearly always within twenty or thirty minutes. Some substances will help stabilize an emulsion when they are added to the mix, and they are called "emulsifiers." Generally they are long molecules that have a fat-soluble structure on one end, and a water-soluble structure at the other end. (Soap is an example of such a substance, and that's why water can remove grease when you add some soap to it.) Mustard and honey are moderately effective emulsifiers -- adding them to your salad dressing mix will make it hold together longer. But the strongest emulsifier we commonly use in food preparation is egg yolks.

When we make emulsions from egg yolks, we usually begin by whisking the egg yolks with a little bit of liquid for a few minutes before beginning to add any oil. Whisking the yolks causes the protein molecules to "unwind" from the curled-up ball shape they often have in a liquid into long straight strands which both exposes their fat- and water-soluble components and allows them to better coat the droplets of oil when we begin introducing it. In the case of Hollandaise, the sauce is cooked because it is a warm sauce, but also because heating helps to more permanently unwind the proteins and keep them from winding back up like little round springs. But we don't want to get it too hot, or the eggs will scramble (the fancy way to say this is that the proteins "coagulate").

Classic Hollandaise
The classic way to make Hollandaise is this: In a bowl over a hot water bath, whisk egg yolks and a couple tablespoons of water until they have a consistency like a cake batter. Then begin adding clarified butter, at first just a few drops at a time, whisking each addition until it is completely smooth and emulsified, with no sign (such as a thread-like dark streak where you whisk) of unemulsified oil. You can add just over a half cup of clarified butter per egg yolk. When finished, the sauce is seasoned with lemon juice, salt, and maybe a bit of cayenne pepper.

The challenge to Hollandaise is that you must keep it in a fairly narrow temperature range as you make it: below about 100F, the sauce will separate because the butter will start to solidify; a little above 150F, the egg yolks will begin to coagulate and can no longer coat the oil droplets. Fifty degrees sounds like a fair amount of leeway, but if you think about how your home stove probably keeps water simmering at about 200F even on its lowest setting, you'll realize that warming something to such a low temperature on the stove and holding it there while you work with it for ten minutes or so is not always easy. (Mayonnaise is basically the same sauce, made at room temperature using oil instead of butter, which gives it a less rich flavor, but makes it much easier to make.)

Chef Matthew and Just Whisking
One night a few months ago, as we were making Hollandaise, our assistant Chef Matthew walked up to me, and in his typically inscrutable manner demanded of me, "What are you doing?" I knew that in some sense I was busted, but I really didn't know what for, so I stood there looking at him for a moment, still whisking, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, waiting for him to throw me a hint about what kitchen crime I had committed this time. Then he said, "You're just whisking." I stood there even more unsure what he meant, still whisking but now a little more slowly since my chef seemed to be indicating that wasn't such a grand idea, and thinking to myself, "It's Hollandaise, of course I'm whisking!"

Eventually, after a bit of discussion, I finally understood what he was trying to tell me. During most of the time you spend making Hollandaise (after the initial heating of the eggs, and before the final flavoring with lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper), you should be always be doing at least one of these three things to the sauce: adding more butter, heating it because it has gotten too cold (most easily done by stirring in a spoonful of hot water from the water bath), or cooling it because it has gotten too hot (again most easily by adding a spoon of cold water). If you aren't doing any of those, then you can stop whisking (but don't leave your sauce over the heat if you stop), and take a moment to figure out which of those you ought to be doing. Most of us are so uncertain about whether the sauce is about to "break" that we keep whisking and whisking as though if we stop the whole thing will fall apart. But the point of using the egg as an emulsifier is that as long as the sauce is not too cold or too hot, and does not have more fat in it than the egg yolks can handle, it is really quite stable, at least enough that you can leave it sitting still in a warm place for ten minutes at a time.

When many people in our class were fighting with their Hollandaise in Level 3, someone asked our assistant chef, Chef Ryan, whether he noticed why our sauces breaking (whether we were usually getting them too hot or too cold or adding fat too fast). He said that he really hadn't seen what led to the sauces falling apart, and then added, "By the time I come over, usually you're just standing there whisking and hoping that whisking hard enough will magically fix it." No amount of whisking will bring a broken sauce back together. But his remark underscored for me the lesson that Chef Matthew taught me several months ago: Hollandaise is not about whisking, it's about controlling temperature while you incorporate more fat into the emulsion. Whisking happens to be the way you do both of those things.

Chef Hervé's Simple Hollandaise
One night when our Level 3 chef, Chef Phil, was absent, we had a substitute, Chef Hervé. He saw how many people were having problems with the Hollandaise, and at the end of the night he demonstrated a very simple way to make a Hollandaise in just three or four minutes. He whisked some eggs briefly directly on a burner with a very low flame, then added all of the butter at once, but very cold, directly out of the refrigerator. Then he raised the heat just a bit, and whisked madly for about three minutes, at the end of which he had a beautifully smooth and stable sauce. People were so impressed with the simplicity of his method that at the beginning of our next class, they asked our Chef Phil if they could make the sauce that way. He said that as far as he was concerned, any method that gave us a good Hollandaise was fine with him, but that we should know how to make it in the classic way because if we were ever asked by a chef considering us for a position in a restaurant to make a Hollandaise we would most likely be expected to make it the "right" way. He also warned us that just because Chef Hervé made his way look easy, we shouldn't expect that it would magically work for us any better than the classic method. Several people subsequently learned how true that is.

Ultimately, no matter how you make the sauce, the process will be the same: you must form an emulsion by mixing a very small amount of melted butter into egg yolks, and then slowly incorporate the rest of the butter into the sauce. Chef Hervé's method does not change this fundamental process: even though it looks like you're whisking all of the butter in at once, in reality you are only whisking in a little bit at a time, in the form of the part of the butter that has melted at any given moment while you whisk. In a way, Chef Hervé's way of making the sauce requires more skill, because where the classic way allows you to work on adding butter or control temperature separately from each other, Chef Hervé's simpler approach forces you to constantly add butter as it melts, it constantly cools your sauce as the cold butter melts into it, and it forces you to constantly heat the sauce to counteract that cooling. On the other hand, once you master the technique, his quick Hollandaise technique gives you an easy way to monitor and control the variable that most often derails you, which is the temperature of the sauce. The temperature is easily observed by simply watching how fast your butter is melting.