Editor's note: Each week "Chris P. Beycon" shares tales from behind the kitchen door, where she works as an apprentice at a popular restaurant. Read her column here each Thursday! --The Mgmt.
Every pasta has its nuances. It isn't enough simply to know the recipe; anyone can add 480 grams of this to another 500 grams of that. But how does the dough feel? What is the color, the texture, the marbling telling you about its doneness? Does it need another yolk? Does it just need a little more time? Maybe another pass through the pasta roller?
It's these subtleties that draw me to pasta production. Cooking is about adapting, an exercise in observation, utilizing all your senses. Every pasta comes with its own set of rules, finicky things to look out for. For the most part, I enjoy learning about each pasta's characteristics and familiarizing myself with their quirks.
But I cannot even pretend to like "spaghetti."* I will portion hotel pan after hotel pan of pasta on my own, I will make eight batches of cavatelli, I will de-seed and peel entire cambros of roast peppers, I will fetch you the Golden Fleece. Please don't make me do spaghetti.
* This entry is not actually about spaghetti, but a different noodle-pasta for which I have substituted the name in order to preserve The Restaurant's privacy.
Spaghetti is produced twice a week (or additionally as needed) in mammoth batches. The process for making spaghetti is labor intensive, tedious, and requires two people to complete. Once the dough has finished resting, Jeff will begin to roll out each ball through the machine into rectangular sheets. Each sheet gets halved and rests again: the moisture content in this particular dough is so high, it needs to dry out before it gets cut into noodles. When the sheets are sufficiently dry, Jeff will pass them through the cutters, lay them out on a sheet tray, and flour the noodles.
I take the tray into the corridor that separates the main kitchen from the pasta room; there is a ventilation duct in the corridor, and a slight breeze that helps aerate the noodles further. Before I can portion the spaghetti, they must be completely dry (but not brittle!). This is a little difficult to determine sometimes: are the noodles dry? Or are they just cold from the breeze?
Once they've dried out enough, I bring the sheet tray back into the pasta closet. While portioning the spaghetti, I have to pick out every single imperfect (brittle, cracking, too short) noodle from the batch and discard. Each serving is weighed and whorled up into a little ball before getting placed in a fishtub.
That is one. Thirty one more sheets of noodles to go.
Sheet trays of cut spaghetti begin multiplying on a speed rack while I scurry back and forth, alternately airing noodles in the corridor and picking out every single imperfect noodle from the batch. My neck starts hurting about halfway in, and the cut trays of spaghetti start to over-dry: the more time I spend picking unsatisfactory noodles out of each batch, the more time the sheet trays spend resting on the speedrack and in the breezy corridor. The drier the incoming batches, the more pieces of brittle spaghetti I have to pick out and discard.
Every time I am producing spaghetti and the noodles begin drying out faster than I can portion and there are six trays lined up on the speedrack and I see twenty-something more balls of dough waiting to be rolled out and my neck is cramping I think...this too shall pass.
But it seems I've overcome the previously insurmountable hurdle of spaghetti production! Just last week, instead of the usual 3+ hours, Jeff and I wrapped up spaghetti production in two. Everything just clicked: the noodles weren't overdrying, and I did not have a lot to pick out before I portioned each serving. I still had to hustle to keep up with Jeff, but I did not fall very far behind his pace. The noodles were beautiful and portioned well: they weren't sticking to each other or knotted up in mini spaghetti rat's nests. Jeff was pretty pleased too.
"That was the fastest spaghetti I've done in weeks!"
I can't take too much credit; there are so many variables involved in producing a perfect batch of pasta (humidity, drying time) that production is bound to differ a little every time. I'm just glad everything seemed to fall into place this once.