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A Night in the Kitchen

Last night, I spent five hours in a working restaurant kitchen. The experience was interesting and enlightening and I’m glad I got the chance to do it. I hesitate to say which restaurant it was, but suffice to say it is a very well known Spanish tapas restaurant in Chelsea. A friend of Kelly’s knows the owner and soon after we moved here, connected us and the owner/chef was nice enough to let me come in and hang out in their 10′ x 5′ kitchen.

This might sound pretty silly to somebody that works in the food industry, but I was a bit nervous before I headed off to ‘work’. “What do I wear?” and “Do I bring my knives?” were all questions that went through my head. In the end, I settled in old jeans, a black t-shirt and a baseball hat. When I got there, they gave me pants and a dishwasher shirt to put on as well as an apron and towel. It was 5:30 when i got there and the place was already busy.

We went into the kitchen and the chef/owner (let’s call her ‘A’) started showing me around and when tickets came in, demonstrating how to plate. Being a rather straight-forward tapas place, service is pretty simple. In fact, the kitchen was surprising absent of things like knives. Yes, there was one to cut bread and one to slice eggs in half, but that was about it. Everything else is already prepped correctly. And there were very few complex platings.

The first thing that hit me like a brick wall was that EVERYTHING was in Spanish. I knew that the cooks would be Spanish speakers but in tapas, all the plates are in Spanish too. On top of this, the cooks were low-talkers. I could barely hear what they were saying. An order would come out, somebody would call it off and everybody would start working on it. And I’d be sitting there wondering what just happened. They’d always have to come over to me and say “Tim. The tortilla.” and I would be “Oh. OK.” I don’t think I understand one dish request off the printer all night.

There are normally three cooks in ‘the line’. Tonight Chipo, Victor and Ulysses were working the line. All three were very nice, putting up with my lack of Spanish and over-concern for the plating of the dishes and my “do you think it’s done? a little longer? take it off?” questions. One thing I learned is there apparently isn’t a straight time conversion from Spanish to English. I would throw some croquettes in the fryer and Chipo would was “2-3 minutes”. About 35-40 seconds later Chipo would say “OK. They are done.” and I’d pull them out. Almost everything that had to be fried went in for a Spanish “2-3 minutes”, or an English “35-40 seconds”.

Ulysses told me he was from Puebla to which I responded “Is everyone from Puebla?” If you’ve ever watched No Reservations or read Anthony Bourdain, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Ulysses just laughed. The guys seemed to be pretty happy working here. Even when it was busy it wasn’t THAT busy and a lot of times it was dead for 15-20 minutes. We quietly sat around and bathed in the heat of the salamander, oven and fryers. The nice thing about tapas is that you don’t have to put whole orders together. Unlike traditional restaurants where all mains go out at the same time, in a tapas restaurant, as soon as you finish any dish, it goes out. There are no timing issues.

So what did I do? Not a ton. I helped with the mixta salad, cheese plates (3-5 cheeses, 2-4 condiments), tortilla (which meant nuking the tortilla – a spanish tortilla is a big egg and potato quiche like thing – and plating next to mayo and laying a strip of roasted pepper on top), frying croquettas, garbanzo beans and peppers as well as plating a few other things.

I also spent a lot of time talking to A about good places to eat in NYC and Seattle, which she used to live. She even gave me a name to a great Yakitori place nearby that I will have to visit. After 5 hours, it was time to leave. I switched out of my uniform and headed home. My feet hurt from standing for the last five hours and I needed a shower. I stopped by a local pizza place for an 11pm slice and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

The experience was great and A told me to call her when I get back from my travels (I’m off to Seattle, Florida, London, and Vegas over the next few weeks) and she said I could help with prep. I really just want to learn how to make the croquettes…

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2 Responses

  1. Nicely done. Congrats! Will you be taking me out for a beer with your earnings?

  2. I didn’t get paid 😦

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