Well Done But Juicy

well-done-steak

On an otherwise smooth night, a guest summoned me to his table in a panic because he was disappointed with the Filet Mignon he had ordered well done. His complaint, easily foretold, was that the steak was dry. Everyone (except this guy, apparently) knows that Filet Mignon has very little fat and should not be served past medium rare. But before I could even respond, he launches into a five-minute diatribe about how a properly cooked well done steak should still be juicy. He pointed to the dark crust on the outside that was studded aggressively with black pepper and explained that it also shouldn’t be burnt (it wasn’t). To prove that it was dry, he offered me a taste of his steak—one of my pet peeves because I find it insulting to be offered someone’s half-eaten food. Only a person who doesn’t see you as an equal would offer you his leftovers. 

I brought the dish back to the kitchen bracing for the inescapable moment where the chef needs an explanation for the inexplicable. I told the chef that the guest wanted the steak remade, juicier this time. The silence in the kitchen was deafening. You could hear the chef’s blood pressure rising as he stared blankly at the dehydrated Filet. He explained the obvious that re-firing the steak would yield exactly the same result. It would also take an extra twenty-five minutes to cook. So, I returned to the table and, on the chef’s behalf, suggested we prepare the steak medium well instead. The guest agreed and, of course, was annoyed by the wait and underwhelmed by the second iteration. The whole ordeal was a reminder of how often in hospitality we’re expected to show deference to ignorant people.

well-done-steak

When a guest doesn’t like the way a dish tastes, it’s easy. You take the dish away and replace it with a refurbished one or you offer alternatives. When a guest doesn’t like something because he thinks the dish is improperly cooked, it’s more complicated. “My pasta is undercooked” (no… actually it’s perfectly al dente). “These clams are too salty” (no… they have natural salinity). “My cappuccino isn’t hot enough” (no… a properly made cappuccino isn’t supposed to be scalding). The customer is not always right and, when these things happen, the staff is faced with the inevitable dead end of having to confront someone’s meritless complaints. We usually choose the path of least resistance, but taking the high road requires us to prostrate ourselves before untoward guests. 

Some diners describe the way they like their meat cooked in abstract terms. “I like mine pink but not bloody, just a touch more to the rare side of medium.” Sadly for them, a line cook with twenty steaks on the grill doesn’t have time for an existential conversation about how each individual steak is cooked. The mnemonic scale of doneness (R-MR-M-MW-W) exists for a reason. If we don’t standardize a language for cooking meat, then we will spend the entire night recooking steaks.

Incorrect meat temperatures are the most common instances where food is sent back in restaurants, and so often the guest’s judgement is wrong. Chefs will rarely stand their ground and refuse to make the dish again when it was cooked properly the first time. In the hospitality game, we’re trained to give people what they want and sometimes that means putting our pride aside and doing it over again even when we know it was right the first time.

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The Triumphant Return of the Tiki Bar

For six years, Brian Miller hosted “Tiki Mondays with Miller” at various venues all over New York City. These workshops became an incubator for new ideas and, as he spread the Tiki gospel, thirsty disciples followed him faithfully from bar to bar. Brian’s vision reached an apotheosis earlier this year when he commandeered the opening of The Polynesian, a new rooftop multiplex in Times Square dedicated to all things Tiki.

“The Tiki movement has always been around,” Brian said over a neat snifter of Foursquare Premise Rum from Barbados. “There are plenty of people that have loved Tiki for many years. They’ve just been celebrating it in their own home Tiki bars.” If Tiki has always remained popular, I asked Brian, why all of sudden has it gone viral?  “In the state of our current political climate it’s no wonder people want to escape to the islands,” Brian smiled wryly and swilled the rest of the rum that was left in his glass.

Vaya Kon Tiki at The Polynesian

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail—the annual alcohol-soaked geek-out in The Big Easy—Tiki was having a moment. In the middle of the week, several hundred attendees filtered through the rooftop of the Hotel Monteleone for a “Pool Party” sponsored by Rum Barbancourt that featured its Haitian rums shaken in Tiki-inspired mashups. At another tasting event, the legendary mixologist Don Lee—who recently opened Existing Conditions in New York City—partnered with Tiki Tolteca conjuring island potions he’d created using Ming River Sichuan Baiju.

Reintroduced by a faithful cabal of Tiki evangelists like Martin Cate (of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco) and Paul McGee (of Lost Lake in Chicago), the canon of Tiki recipes—once the butt of bartenders’ jokes—has shown it can be about so much more than just fruity beach drinks. Bartenders are finding a new freedom—honoring Tiki tradition while also experimenting with ingredients outside of the lexicon. “I’m trying to expand the bounds of what is considered a Tiki drink,” Miller said, “by including other spirits like scotch, gin, bourbon, tequila, mezcal, sherry and cognac to try and appeal to wider audience.”

At Tales, mixologists from around the world, decked out in their most audacious Hawaiian shirts, flocked to Latitude 29—Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s iconic New Orleans Tiki bar—like making a pilgrimage to Mecca. My thirsty comrades and I tasted our way through the “Longpulls” section of the menu. Our favorite was Beachbum’s Kea Colada—an exotic blend of island rums, coconut cream, lime and pineapple. The cocktail had surprising depth to it, undoubtedly due to the quality of the rums he uses, with a soothing creamy coconut flavor that lingered but not in a way that lesser Piña Coladas make you feel like you just drank suntan lotion. The Beachbum himself worked the room—you could barely see his eyes peeking out from under the wide brim of his straw hat as he generously poured us a taste of a special Plantation limited edition Jamaican rum called “The Collector.”

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The Banshee at Latitude 29

At Cane and Table in the French Quarter, they have an extensive rum program and cocktails they refer to as “ProtoTiki.” The bartender there happily made us a delicious off-menu drink in one of their vintage-style Tiki mugs. He improvised—drawing from the bar’s comprehensive inventory of rums—shaking three different ones (Plantation, Hamilton and Banks 5 Island) together with passionfruit, cinnamon, orgeat and grapefruit. Of course, he didn’t forget to finish it with an umbrella (the Tiki umbrella was originally invented to keep the ice from melting in the hot Sun). “Proto tiki is a way to explain our focus,” said Kirk Estopinal, the owner of Cane & Table. “Drinks that deliver the tropical experience without throwing a million things into it.” Although Cane & Table is rum focused, Kirk is quick to point out that it isn’t really a Tiki Bar in the traditional sense. “Tiki is fun and a backlash to stuffy cocktail experiences and precious historical stuff,” he said, “but we aren’t interested in the kitsch.”

Despite its exotic Polynesian motifs, the Tiki Bar is a uniquely American invention. Its history traces back to the post-Prohibition 1930’s when two Americans—Don “the Beachcomber” and “Trader” Vic—inspired by their Caribbean and Polynesian travels imported the laid back island style and attitude they’d encountered and paired it with great rum cocktails incorporating fresh tropical juices. The decor and menus of these bars had its own distinct flavor too—bamboo walls, signature ceramic mugs with Tiki idolatry and Americanized Chinese food. In the midst of the Great Depression, Americans needed an escape. The movement continued to flourish for several decades before fading into obscurity. By the early 1990’s, the Tiki Bar was all but extinct. 

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Tiki Mugs from Cocktail Kingdom

Back in New York, Captain Miller—swaddled in his signature sarong and his face painted with dark eyeliner a la Jack Sparrow—serves his signature  “Vaya Kon Tiki” in a menacing ceramic skull mug with a flaming lemon carcass filled with smoldering coconut meat. Brian infuses rum with rooibos tea and shakes it with a cayenne pepper coconut cream to give it a warm, subtle afterburn. I was tempted to call for backup to sample the large format cocktails, but after my third drink I knew there was no way I’d be able to pronounce the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a Blue Curacao cocktail served in a fishbowl for four people.

It was fitting that Tales of the Cocktail concluded with Lost Lake, the famed Tiki Bar in Chicago, winning the award for Best American Cocktail Bar. It was the second time in the last three years that a Tiki Bar took home the national crown. Navy Strength, a new Tiki Bar in Seattle, also won the award for Best New American Cocktail Bar. “Tropical drinks never went away they just got gross,” said Estopinal of the Tiki trend. “The public has a keener eye than years past. No way are we going back to all the mixes made in a factory, so it’ll be around indefinitely. Or at least until I retire in my little corner of the world.”

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Goodbye, Uncle Tony

Bourdain

The outpouring of emotion within the restaurant community in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death last month is a sobering reminder of the familial aspect of restaurant work. His unexpected passing hit many of us harder than most celebrity deaths because we considered Tony an honorary member of our restaurant family.

If you spend any meaningful period of time working in the restaurant industry, the tree of people you work with in different jobs has long branches and deep roots. The word “incestuous” is often used when we describe how intertwined those relationships are. The meals we eat together before our shift are called “family” meal. We preview our newest restaurants with mock services referred to simply as “Friends and Family.”  If industry comrades visit our restaurants, we shower them with extras and we charge them for less than they ordered. Our solidarity is only something you can understand if you’ve ever burned yourself on a hot Rondeau or entered an order into Micros—we live and die for each other.

Bourdain had expressed in interviews that he wrote Kitchen Confidential with his fellow line cooks in mind. His criteria for publishing it hinged on whether they would consider it worthwhile reading. If not, he said, then no one should read it. Surviving restaurant life was a badge of courage that Tony wore proudly and he had the scars—both literally and, sadly, maybe also figuratively—to prove it.

No matter how mainstream he’d become in the culinary world, Bourdain was royalty to line cooks all over the world—the Michael Jordan of blue-collar chefs. It was rare for a cook, one who never seemed particularly comfortable being regarded with the same reverence as a chef, to be revered. As a populist food personality, he flourished in an era of swirly sauces and molecular gastronomy without being tempted to cook that way. Of course, he respected the talents of those chefs (ok maybe not all of them) but always viewed his membership in the club with skepticism. Though he may not have been cooking in a professional kitchen as of late, Chef Bourdain was one of the first to make it cool to be a line cook. This blog—as well as every social media outlet related to food and restaurants—likely wouldn’t exist without Tony having fascinated laymen by revealing the secret world of restaurants.

I often wonder why I still work in the industry. I’m tired. My feet hurt. The hours are terrible—routinely over 50-hour weeks along with 10-12 hour double shifts. Cooks are underpaid and overworked. When you wait tables, the only way to get a raise is by waiting on more tables. Vacations are a luxury that most of us can’t afford or are told by management that we don’t deserve.

Many of us come from disjointed family backgrounds. I lost my mother to cancer when I was seventeen. My father and I had a contentious relationship. In the late nineties, after graduating college, I stumbled into restaurant work by accident. My first job was in a second-rate theme restaurant in Times Square that was a discombobulated mess. It was a sucky job and I made no money, but the staff was made up of misfits like me. Like so many subsequent restaurant staffs I’ve been a part of, we were a band of gypsies—unsure what to do with our lives so we pitched our tent in the restaurant business while we figured out how to find the Yellow Brick Road. For many of us, we never figured it out and our restaurant family became a surrogate.

One gets the feeling that Chef Bourdain walked a similar path. He steadfastly defended his restaurant family against malfeasance, speaking out in support of undertipped servers and immigrant dishwashers. To restaurant professionals, the world is divided into two groups: People who dine out and the rest of us. There was never any question who Tony sided with. He was a lovable loser who grew up in our neighborhood. He made it big—which made us proud—but he never forgot where he came from.

Once you’re indoctrinated into the restaurant mindset it’s hard to work anywhere else. Unlike corporate environments, there’s a proprietary nature to what we do. A line cook has her station to manage; a waiter’s domain are his tables; the bartender presides over the bar like a judge’s bench. The disposable nature of our responsibilities makes us feel less indentured to our jobs. No matter how badly you fuck everything up, the restaurant will open again tomorrow. Yesterday’s transgressions are easily forgotten because restaurants don’t think linearly about success like a normal company thinks about building its business. A restaurant’s lifespan is a slog forward not a steady climb. Most of us just hope we make it through each night alive.

Of course, we find a way to survive and will likely retire to a neighborhood bar to share a few pints. The bartenders know us. They’re family. We might vent about the assholes who terrorized us in the dining room but the conversations are usually far more provocative. Restaurant staffs consist of some of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. When you see someone you’ve worked with in a previous job, no matter how much time has passed, you pick up right where you left off… just like you do with family members.

Through the years, I’ve lost restaurant friends to drug use, alcoholism and suicide. Chef Bourdain was always forthright about his struggles with controlled substances in the past. Our hearts ache because we know the perils of life in the restaurant business—the pressure, the thanklessness, the financial hardship. As we know from reading Kitchen Confidential, restaurant life is not nearly as glamorous as people think.

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