Friday, March 18, 2011

The Insatiable Journalist Part 3: Oh the Food!

The kitchen at Le Bec-Fin is hot - the hottest in the city, one of the line cooks tell me, having reached 130 degrees last July. The kitchen is cramped - renovations this summer will open up what is currently barely enough room for the servers to pick up dishes handed over by cooks confined behind a prep line that creates a tight hallway to work in. And the kitchen smells, not of fois gras or rosemary essence or the browned butter that coats each piece of meat before being plated, of cigar smoke.

Chef Georges Perrier, who at 68 no longer slices, dices or plates at lightning speed, is smoking a cigar. Smoking a cigar and releasing a tirade of obscenities at the staff. He yells with such sincere disgust that I'm left cowering and hoping he'll forget I'm there; but the moving target of his anger - now it's Geno, the nineteen year old cold-prep cook who warned me that he would be fired (nominally, of course) before the end of the night; then a sluggish server; then a dishwasher to "clean zis shit up!" - barely bat an eye. They're used to him. And there are enough stories ("all the stories true," the new head Chef, Nicholas Elmi tells me) they could have been used to him before they even started working there. The only thing Chef Georges Perrier is more famous for than his attitude is his food.

And, oh the food! The first day of my spring break I spent nine hours (until I just couldn't stand up any longer!) in the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin. How was it? Exhausting. Hey! When was the last time you were on your feet, on your game and in the heat for that long!? I don't know if I could be there six days a week like so many of the amazing people I met. But as a once-in-a-lifetime experience it was so worth it.

Upstairs in the predominantly-female, Katy Perry-soundtracked, much cooler, and all around sweeter pastry kitchen a mere mention that I had never tried the coffee cake earned me a slice and less than perfect strawberry macaroons were left to me to dispose of.

Back down amidst the frantic hustle and bustle of the main kitchen, all the twenty-something guys working the line offered up tastes of everything they made (even rabbit loin stuffed with shrimp paste!) as side dishes to the bucket of fries meant to sustain me and give me a chance to taste the many sauces. Before the dinner rush, 24-year-old Moses (my stand-in big brother all day) set me up with a plate of turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes, like only Le Bec-Fin can make.

Over the course of nine hours I learned that everyone smokes out back, that drama abounds when Moses can only afford enough five hour energy for the back of the house, and a whole new supply of curse words. Sometimes, it's hard to remember that on the other side of the swinging doors is a dinning room full of people on their best behavior. But ultimately, it's the guys in the back who are responsible for the food worth paying for -- and they know it. Out back in the ally, to catch my breath for a moment, I see 24-year-old Tyler desperately banging on the doors of other restaurant kitchens that let out back here. Inside, they've run out of spinach, but at Le Bec-Fin, you can never let the guest know that you ran out. Because, as Moses reminds me gesturing at my tape recorder, "people somewhere are talking about us."

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