Kitchen Apprentice: Pasta, a Process

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgThe members of my family take varying degrees of interest in my kitchen work. My brothers can barely remember the name of the restaurant, whereas my parents assault me with the same questions every week.

"What do you do all day?"
"What did you cook?"
"What did they feed you?"
"Is that different from last week?"

While I appreciate their desire to understand where I disappear to every Sunday (and why), I have a hard time bringing myself to answer the same questions week after week. Most likely, I helped make pasta, quartered some mushrooms and cut my weight in artichoke hearts, just like the week before.

"But what did you cook?"

Contrary to my parents' stubborn belief, I don't cook much at The Restaurant. On occasion, I bring pots of water to a boil and even help prepare family meal from time to time, but I am not a line cook. I just help Jeff produce the swatch of fresh pastas offered on the menu in the safety of the pasta closet. Up until recently, I did not even know the recipe or process for making dough.

"Well, you must be very good by now."

There is so much to learn about pasta. There is a reason behind every step in the process, an understanding of the dough's chemistry that you must achieve. Sixteen weekends isn't nearly enough time to begin learning it all.

Each recipe is just the starting point, especially when working with high volume production: you have to adjust for moisture in each batch while taking into consideration a number of variables. In the summer, when it is humid, your dough will need less liquid to bind it as opposed to drier seasons. Even depending on the time of day, pasta dough can dry out at significantly different rates.

Then there is the rolling of the dough. Even with a machine, there's a meticulous, pasta-specific method for rolling. There is a correct way to fold the dough before feeding it into the machine. There is a correct way to feed it in. There is a correct way to flip the sheets of dough (lengthwise, never width-wise). Some pastas get floured in between rollings, some do not.

Depending on the pasta, the dough will get rolled a specific number of times to varying degrees of thickness. No two pastas are the same.

Forming and portioning each type of pasta takes time to learn as well. Filled pastas can burst if they are not sealed correctly, and noodle pastas can crack or gum up if portioned improperly. While no one step is particularly difficult, it is the combination of all the steps, executed perfectly, that produces restaurant-quality pasta. If any part of the process is neglected, it will show on the plate.

The pasta production process is complete once we've filled the freezer with fresh portions of new stock. All of the pasta sauces are prepared ahead of time by line cooks. I've only ever prepped parts of sauces. I prepared an egg slurry for our carbonara and cubed up quarts of mirepoix for the Bolognese. I am more comfortable with the Bolognese prep because I can surreptitiously eat whole handfuls of my mistakes—no such luck with the carb egg. Beyond those two, I know little about the more complicated sauces that top the pasta dishes.

So, to answer my parents, I'm not very good just yet. How can I be when I can't even name all the ingredients in any given sauce, much less cook up a serving?

Hopefully with some luck and a lot more time, I will eventually commit all the sauces to my repertoire. But for now, I'm just going to concentrate on cubing more than one layer of carrots at a time.

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