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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Intern and the Hollandaise: A Cautionary Tale

Haziz Likovic instructs the young author
in the fine art of Hollandaise Sauce
THERE ARE TWO very distinct paths to follow to achieve restaurant chefdom. One is to work your way through the ranks. By the time you end up in charge, you’ve worked every station and seen every disaster and learned what it’s like to crank out a hundred dinners or more in the space of a Saturday night hour.

Or you can go to culinary school. There you work in a fishbowl created to satisfy curriculum requirements, and you generally don’t taste the real world until you grab an internship towards the end of your studies. This is a story about one such encounter.

(There also are hybrid approaches, such as putting in a few real-world years and then grabbing a culinary degree, or seeking a variety of kitchens in which to work, usually for nothing, preferably in widely spaced parts of the world. Based on my many interviews with chefs, these are the rarest but often most fulfilling paths.)

My entry into the professional kitchen occurred when I was barely into my 20s and already had put in a few years as a fine-dining waiter. Fed up with a particular chef-owner, I’d stormed off in the middle of Friday dinner, my anger satisfied but the rent still due. Fortunately, a friend who worked as a waiter at a nearby white-linen joint told me that, while they needed no floor staff, the chef was looking for someone who’d been in the business but not in the kitchen.

The chef’s name was Mario Scala. He looked like Jack Klugman, with a saturnine, impossible-to-read face. The restaurant was The Elms Inn in Ridgefield, Connecticut, which Mario’s father John had purchased in 1951 – creating a small scandal by being the first Italian-American to own property on the snooty town’s Main Street.

But The Elms had flourished in the intervening 25 years, during which John passed the business to his sons Mario and Bob, the latter running the front of the house. An old-fashioned continental menu was served from an efficient scratch kitchen, where I learned how to make basic sauces, break down a leg of veal, slice a basket of soup-destined onions so quickly I didn’t suffer tears, and many, many recipes. Some of them basic, like grilled tenderloin or sirloin au poivre; some classic, like veal scallopine or parmigiana; some hybrid, like chicken veronique; some original, like veal venus, which topped a breaded cutlet with mushroom purée before topping the topping with hollandaise and sending it for a quick shot under the salamander flame.

“When you really learn this kitchen,” Mario told me, “there won’t be any talking on a Saturday night. All I’ll have to do is point.”

Communications grew even more succinct than that. Mario’s number-two man was a Montenegran named Haziz Likovic, who brought the supple energy of a ballet dancer to the line. They threw me at all of the stations: prep, grill, sauté, whatever. We would alternate throughout the week. I learned to make every step, every movement count. I learned how to time the prep as the orders came in: duck into the oven first, then prep chicken, then deal with beef, then fish. Nobody had to point for anything. We knew, and silently anticipated what one another needed.

Into this well-oiled world came a Culinary Institute of America intern one day. He came with toque and knife kit, and he came with naive notions of what the restaurant business might be.

The author, new on the job, with Mario Scala
and Haziz Likovic. We donned the toques
and neckerchiefs for a newspaper photo.
Friday nights we traditionally served broccoli or asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Although the sauce was always on hand for the veal venus, and part of Sunday brunch’s eggs Benedict, on Fridays it hit the vegetables, too. It’s one of the most glorious ways to overindulge in butter. And none of this make-it-in-a-double-boiler jive the cookbooks suggest. Several egg yolks went into a broad-bottomed pot, thinned with lemon and seasonings and a little light stock. It’s whisked fast over medium heat – it usually took me one chorus of “That Old Black Magic” to bring it to the correct stage of frothiness – and then, off the stove, it’s finished with a whisked-in drizzle of warm clarified butter.

It was one of the first things prepared when the kitchen opened in the late afternoon for dinner service, and the CIA kid shadowed me as I prepared it one Friday during what would be his brief tenure here. The finished pot sat throughout the evening at the back of the six-burner stove or, when orders were flying, nestled among the steam table’s saucepots.

And orders were flying this particular night. “Chef!” cried a waiter. “Fire table twenty-six!” “Chef!” called another. “Table eight wants to know if they can get rice instead of potatoes!” “Chef!” “Chef!” And on in on in an endless rhythm of orders and need.

At about 8:30, with the craziness peaking, the CIA kid added his voice to the melee. “Chef!” he said to Mario, who stopped dead. He was not accustomed to being addressed by anyone on this side of the line when the dishes and pans were flying. “What?”

“Chef, the holding time for Hollandaise is four hours.”

The kid didn’t see the searing heat in the chef’s Klugmanesque stare. “So?”

“So we made it at four-thirty. It’s been four hours.”

Haziz and I exchanged a glance. This would not be good. We could see the boss beginning to tremble. His eyes widened, his lips worked silently – and then he grabbed the pot of Hollandaise and hurled it into the nearby pot sink, spattering the poor guy stationed there. “Oh yeah?” Mario shouted, seizing a clean pot from the overhead rack. “Then MAKE IT, goddammit!”

As I said – six burners. All were aglow. Pasta water simmered on one of them. A special order of veal chops finished on another. Filet of sole was sautéeing, as were breaded parmigiana cutlets and the thin medallions of scallopine. At the rearmost corner, the ever-simmering stockpot.

The Elms offered a modified French service. Entrée items were plated, but potato and veg were served at tableside out of individual copper skillets. “Chef! I need a broccoli for table twelve!” “Chef! Where’s the sauce?” The waiters thronged unhappily.

The kid fumbled his way through separating the eggs and getting them seasoned, but there was no space to be had on the stovetop and I’m sure Mario would have found something else to crowd in there just to prove his point. Finally, “Give me that shit,” he snarled, and pushed the pot onto some source of heat and whipped up the new hollandaise batch in record time. For the rest of evening, he occasionally could be heard to mutter “four hours!” while shaking his head. The kid disappeared into the night.

The reasonable moral is that one must balance one’s formal education with a hands-on perspective, but I’m going to say we should consume less butter and leave it at that.

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