Kitchen Apprentice: Waste Not

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgNo matter how fabulous the establishment, at the end of a day, a restaurant is a business. In order to maximize profit margins, waste has to be kept at a minimum. At The Restaurant, the sous chefs in charge of ordering take care to purchase the freshest, highest quality produce, whether that entails personal trips to the farmer's market or sourcing dried pastas from Italy. While little expense is spared in securing the best produce for the restaurant, everyone in the kitchen is responsible for making sure that the ingredients go as far as they can.

There must be a better way to describe it, but the way I see it, it seems that "everything is in everything" at the restaurant. When prepping vegetables for contorni, all the scraps and trimmings get saved in a giant cambro for vegetable stock. Similarly, mushroom caps get roasted off for an appetizer, but their stems are kept for mushroom stock. The Restaurant buys pigs whole and uses the entire animal: hams, trotters, shoulders, belly, skin, head, bones.

Even more amazing, I find, is what the cooks can produce at family meal. Family meal at The Restaurant is a casual affair: there is always a starch, a protein, and veggies to balance things out. It's not fancy, but it's always so good. Often, there is also a platter of leftover pastries to choose from. Cooks try to use up product that has been sitting for a while (think: leftover roasted vegetables, not: over-ripened meat) and have a special pantry of items specifically ordered for family meal. The shelves are stocked with rice, beans, chickpeas, canned tomatoes, hoisin sauce, soy sauce--staples for the cooks to build off of.

In addition to getting her station ready for brunch, Sarah's side work on Sunday mornings includes making breakfast for the restaurant staff. Her meals are my favorite: family lunches are a (delicious) blur of pulled pork, beans and rice glazed over with Sriracha, but Sarah changes it up every week. Staff meals are largely dictated by the ingredients available to the line cooks on duty, but Sarah always manages to make breakfast a little special. There is always a hotel pan of perfectly scrambled eggs, but there has also been: "North African hash"; cheesy bread with sunny-side up eggs; a burrito casserole-type thing; bacon; and on two occasions, pancakes.

In the kitchen, consistency is king. A dish should taste the same no matter which cook is on the station or what time of day it is ordered. Needless to say, the "way" a dish is supposed to taste can be a difficult metric to measure up against. On the other hand, I think it can also be very difficult, to be expected to cook with such flexibility: ingredients will vary week from week, service from service. Of course, the pressure simply isn't the same, when you're making individual frittatas for paying customers as opposed to scrambling a pan of eggs for the staff. All the cooks know how to cook proteins properly, but I appreciate that Sarah can come up with "North African hash" when tasked with transforming something as unappetizing as ground beef into a delicious breakfast for her coworkers.

Her philosophy?

"It doesn't have to look good, but it has to taste good!"

The only time a meal of hers looked less than stellar was when I blackened several batches of pancakes whilst "assisting" her. Whether it's leftover bread that gets toasted and smothered in cheese for cheesy bread, or ground beef that gets spiced and cooked with potatoes and onions for a "North African hash," Sarah's breakfasts are creative and un-fussy with unanimous appeal. It always looks great too. But I suppose it's true: if I could get my leftover ground beef to taste half as good as Sarah's hash, I wouldn't worry about how it looked either.