Richard Blais

Chef by trade

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Knife's Edge: Amateur night

It’s a three course dinner culminating with a warm molten chocolate cake. Preceded by lobster or Black Angus beef, or both for a $25 supplement. A complimentary champagne toast. Live music from a band charging four times its standard rate. And party favors, my favorite being the shiny plastic top hat, epitomize the schlock that is: New Year’s Eve Dinner, Anytown, USA.

Amateur night.

Amateur night could be any Friday or Saturday night, when people who don't usually dine out head out on the town to blow a paycheck. But the serious amateur nights are New Year's Eve, Valentines Day, and Mother's Day brunch. These are reserved for that special brand of customer, many of whom haven't ventured into a restaurant since the previous holiday. It's a night that shiesty restaurateurs gouge prices. A night when guests ask for ketchup with their aged rib eye. And also a night when burned out chefs retreat into ubiquitous schlock, and overly ambitious young chefs mistakenly puff their chests out...

As a much younger chef, I relished my first experience with New Year's Eve. I viewed the evening from an unusually naive yet honest perspective. People would be looking for luxury that night, surely, and I was most willing to supply it at a premium. I persuaded my food and beverage manager to order the type of things chefs in neighborhood bistros can’t typically get.

Seven loins of milk-fed veal. Six blue-shelled lobsters. Five pounds of golden porcini. Four lobes of foie gras. Three pounds of beluga caviar. A wooden crate of Belons. Two pounds of Dover Sole. And one baseball size, fresh, black truffle. And as each special order was hand-delivered, it was truly the Twelve Days of Christmas for me.

Our restaurant didn’t serve any of these items ordinarily. Not even close. But it was a very important day. Because the next day would be the first day of 2001! Certainly, considering the occasion, my guests deserved this decadence.

I shut down our regular menu, because it would be much easier to produce a prix-fixe five course menu. And honestly, who wants fish ‘n chips on the most important day of the year? They can have that tomorrow… on Wednesday.

I got my staff going and toured the kitchen.

I gave our fish guy a demonstration on how to fillet Dover Sole. It took some time to get the hang of tugging off the skin. I followed that up with a tutorial on rolling out the fresh pasta for the porcini ravioli. First, of course, detailing how to clean the porcini properly. The pasta had to be very, very thin. “I’m coming back to make sure I can read the newspaper through the dough” I told him as I walked away.

My prep cook was curious why the blue lobsters weren’t so blue after blanching. It was a good question. But, to me, that wasn’t the point. They’re special! They’re blue. It’s a once a year treat! The garde manger chef kept mumbling about how he couldn’t believe the tin of caviar in his hands represented one thousand dollars. My sous chef had never dealt with foie gras, and the de-veining wasn’t going so well. If you can imagine what play dough might look like if it had bloody veins, was cooked in the microwave for a few minutes, then picked at with needle-nose pliers.

As we got deeper in our prep, we had to requisition a server or two to shuck the Belons. Shucking oysters is a skill. Shucking Belons, a finer skill set within that skill. And, oh shit! You guys have to rinse and scrub them first! How can a server working on a doctorate degree from Tech (and with years of service experience at The Mellow Mushroom!) not be able to do this?

Good thing it was winter, because the night was beginning to snowball.

Fifteen minutes prior to our first seating, I headed into the dining room. All I had to do was explain our entirely new menu to our staff. Oh, and the fact we were doing a tasting menu, and would not be using the computer system to fire orders. We would hand write tickets. And as each course left we would fire the next course. It would be much easier I told them. Like clockwork.

And clockwork is of course what New Year’s Eve is all about.

I left our staff meeting prematurely because our first guests had arrived. Clad in beige dockers, golf visors, and sherbet orange colored sweatshirts.

Back in the kitchen, my twelve days of Christmas had transformed into the frightening aftermath of gift giving. A splintered box full of seaweed on the floor. Wrapping paper from the lobsters all over. Cutting boards strewn with half done work. That bloody play dough? Abandoned. Veal trimmings. Tins of caviar. An unwrapped truffle. A pile of fishbones...

I was excited to hear the computer register the alarm of the first order incoming. Except, wait... there shouldn’t be any computer orders tonight...

I was sent into a rage that I can only describe as McEnroe-esque. My own brand of degrading, whiny, slightly (ok, very) narcissistic management style du jour. I summoned the server who dared dishonor my craft, to ring in, on THE most important day of the year; Two crab cakes and one fish ‘n chips.

“Chef, the hostess is giving out regular menus. And these folks are from Tennessee here to see the Volunteers play in the Peach Bowl.”

My first service as an executive chef on New Year’s Eve was, needless to say, unforgettable. Many customers walked out upon seeing the menu. They were in the mood for conch fritters and cocktail sauce. I was serving a dish I called “pigeon millionaire” complete with foie gras and truffle sauce. And those who ordered truffle couldn’t grasp why they weren’t tasting chocolate. Caviar was being sent back because it was too salty and too fishy. Dover Sole was being requested blackened. Belons, fried...

After the last plate went out, well after midnight, I stood in the walk-in with the night’s sales sheet and took inventory. We sold one order of caviar all day. They just didn’t get it.

I was mad at my staff. And mad at rednecks. Mad at Tennessee. Mad at the world. But at least I had my three thousand dollars of caviar. So, harrumph!

It was amateur night, but in retrospect, who was the amateur?

Happy New Year!
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