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Friday, March 28, 2014


From the Vault Dept.: I put some time in at the kitchen of Donovan’s Restaurant in Clifton Park – a very brief time, because I got hired away by anther kitchen that turned out to be something of a nightmare (not the least of the problems was that no swearing was allowed). But Donovan’s had been fun, and I returned there to research the piece below. Dig that $7 dinner special, but don’t get hungry – the place is long gone.


A SUBCUTANEOUS INCISION must be made. The surgeon, dressed in white, uniform stained with blood, studies the breast in front of him. He pinches the skin at one side, pulls hard, and the whole top layer comes off in one piece.

Photo by Mark McCarty
They do look like doctors, these chefs who trim the chicken in the kitchen at Donovan’s in Clifton Park. And the operations they perform call for the skill of a surgeon and the flair of an artist.

At a little past five on a Thursday afternoon, Joe Morano is at the butcher block stripping chicken skins. There is rhythm in what he does: next breast, strip, next breast, strip, two piles of chicken parts exchanging heights. Like the others in the kitchen, he sometimes breaks into a song lyric.

(“When I was in the Navy,” a Montenegran chef once told me, “the Captain told me I wasn’t getting my work done fast enough. ‘You need faster music: he said, and he was right. I changed to a faster tune.”)

Michael Marafito, manager of the restaurant, enters the kitchen. He’s dressed in white, too, because he alternates between working the front and the back of the house, making him somewhat unusual among restaurant managers. “I don’t see how you can be effective if you don’t know what’s going on back here,” he explains. Simple, right? Tell that to some other managers and see how popular you become.

Mike checks the rails upon which order slips are hung. “They’re coming in,” he announces. “Lots of chicks out at the bar.”

“You’re safe in here, Mike,” Joe teases.

EXECUTIVE CHEF AL POLLACK has just come upstairs from checking the smoker oven, in which he’s barbecuing a couple dozen rib racks. Like Mike, Joe, and the rest, he’s younger than you might expect for a kitchen veteran; but he’s been in kitchens since the age of 12 and comes from a family of restaurateurs. Formerly at the Sagamore resort on Lake George, he joined the Donovan’s team along with Mike last October.

Al, too, checks the rails. The system lets you know how each order is faring at any given moment. “It’s a pull-fire system,” says Mike. “When the order comes into the kitchen, whoever’s working this station announces a pull. That lets the rest of the line know what’s been ordered and what needs to be done to prep the items. And the order goes on the top rail. Then, when the waiter says it’s time, we fire the order—and that means it’ll be on the table in five minutes.”

The orders are delivered electronically to the kitchen from the dining room. Two terminals across from the broiler spit out the slips: one for the appetizers and one for the entrees. The little printers now click out their announcements.

“Pull one scampi,” says Al. “One veal Gallo, one au poivre.”

This prompts activity all up and down the line. At the appetizer station, Mark Zawislowski, known as “Biv,” gets an order for onion soup. He reaches below his prep area to grab a crock. Beyond his cutting board are the soup tureens, kept steaming in a bath of hot water.

He dips a ladle into the onion soup and stirs it before filling the crock. He plunks a crouton on top and covers that with six slices of Swiss cheese he grabs from the refrigerator to his rear. Then the whole concoction goes under the broiler.

Mike works on the steak au poivre: a ten-ounce slice of sirloin trimmed of its jacket of fat is dredged through a tray of crushed black pepper before it, too, goes on the broiler rack.

The heat is concentrated at this station. It gets up to 200 degrees. “Not the place you want to be in August,” says Mike. He pours a slug of soda from a plastic pitcher into his Styrofoam cup. The pitcher is filled several times an evening.

The Donovan's kitchen staff, 1986
Photo by Russell Ley

AN EFFICIENT KITCHEN is a well-oiled but wild machine. The workers bend, swivel, slide, and lunge in a rhythm that looks like a movie running at the wrong speed. The servers, too, move comically faster: bang! through the swinging door, call for a “fire,” stop for a salad, pile up a tray, back to the door – s1ow to a dignified speed as they step out onto the floor.

Mike Dingley moves between the line and a prep area in another corner of the kitchen, keeping an eye on the orders but trying to get some work done for tomorrow’s lunch. At the other end of the line, Joe takes a sauté pan from the rack that hangs over the steam table. He reaches down for a ladle of butter, then turns to put the pan on the tire. All motion is economical: a rank of ovens parallels the long table so that each man can stay at his station to cook.

While the pan gets hot, Joe walks a few feet to a wall of refrigerators and freezers that sit perpendicular to the line. Six shrimp are set to sizzle; haddock goes onto a heavy platter and into the convection oven that squats beside the butcher block.

A waitress – Cheryl – stops to call a “fire.” You have to bend to see her across the steam table through the heat lamps and order rails. “Fire two special rib,” says Mike Marafito.

The special rib is one of five $6.95 dinner specials Donovan’s offers during certain hours Sunday through Thursday. “The portions are a little smaller,” says Al, “but you get everything from salad through dessert.”

The rib-eye roast sits in a place of honor on a cutting board beneath its own heat lamp just across from the broiler, a little rivulet of juice collecting beside it. Al garnishes two platters with watercress and candied apple slices while Mike carves the roast. Sides of vegetable – today a Chinese stir-fry – and potato.

“Need two funny potatoes,” Mike calls out.

“Those are soufflé potatoes,” Al corrects him.

“O.K. Funny soufflé potatoes.” It’s a baked purée finished in the jacket, light and attractive.

The meat slices are laid on the platters, Al’s special au jus goes on top, and Cheryl makes the pickup. “That au jus recipe is something I brought here,” says Al. “It’s pretty special. There’s nothing like it in the Capital Region.” And it’s a secret.

BACK AT JOE’S END, the shrimp are cooking in a mixture of garlic, white wine, parsley, lemon, and other spices. He checks the veal Gallo on a reflex. Waiting for the rush to start, it’s hard to keep still; like most cooks, he has an internal clock that sounds when things are done.

Ray the salad man passes with a plastic bucket of sliced greens. “Ray got a haircut,” Biv observes. “Yeah, now he can hear us,” says Mike.

Ray smiles at the joshing. The good fellowship among these workers here is unusual for restaurant kitchens. “Sure, we have flare-ups,” says Biv, “especially when it gets busy. But we talk ‘em out. We don’t hold grudges.”

And the work gets done. It has to. The kitchen will turn out about 150 dinners tonight. On a Saturday, it can be as many as 350.

The machine is clicking again: more orders coming in. “Pull,” Mike calls out, and begins his singsong as he surveys the rail. “O.K. two ribs we got, sole in the oven, one filet, two filet, three filet we got going; need a sauté pan for another poivre, next stop gonna be this filet deal ... O.K., going up on two filets, sirloin, scallops –  need a baker with this – going up with special pork, special prime with extra side of pasta.”

A waiter stops with a “fire” and pauses at Ray’s station for salads.

“Fire,” calls Mike. “One scampi, one veal Gallo, one poivre.”

Joe dredges a hunk of butter in flour and drops it into the pan with the shrimp. He chops a tomato and adds the pieces, while Al prepares the sauce for a pepper steak: butter and shallots, then seasonings and a generous dollop of Cognac, which catches a flame from the stovetop and burns bright blue.

Platters are prepared quickly but look terrific.

“Pick up!” Mike calls out, flipping a numbered switch that will light in the dining room to call the server’s attention.

The machine clicks and ejects another order. “Pull: one veal Donovan, one scampi, two racks of ribs.”

While Joe is setting up the veal, Mike Dingley gathers the platters used to heat the last pickup and slides them along to Jack the dishwasher, on the other side of Biv. They sizzle when they hit the cold, wet steel.

“Fire,” Mike calls out, and the machine clicks again.

Capital Region, April 1986

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