Monday, March 19, 2012

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

I haven't written in quite a while. But thats not because there was a shortage of material to write about. The last two months have been unquestionably the most exciting and challenging of my life.

Three months ago, I hadn't cooked fish on more than a dozen occasions. You see, Indiana isn't a hotbed for quality seafood. Tilapia crusted in asiago cheese is about as exciting as fish gets in Indianapolis. And if anyone knows anything about seafood its that tilapia tastes like shit and you never pair cheese with fish. And when I moved to New York to attend culinary school, I was completely unimpressed with the quality of fish we were given to cook with, and most of the fish I had to cook was to be poached in some way. So three months ago when the then fish cook went on paternity leave for a few weeks, and I was given a window to prove myself on entrees, I was understandably quite nervous.

I was promised a rigorous training program on fish. I would spend several days observing, and then slowly take over the station. Day 1, there's a new dish on the menu, I prep the entire station by myself, and then I work the line for a relatively slow weekday service by myself. There was no real training. I was thrown straight into the deep end. But after a few days I was nailing my sears, plates were looking prestine, and complements were coming into the kitchen. We weren't selling a ton of fish, but I was really starting to get the hang of it.

I was extremely lucky that the restaurant made a decision to switch to a new seafood purveyor the day I started on fish. We now buy exclusively from a purveyor that provides fish for some of the best restaurants in the country. Per Se, Le Bernardin, Blue Hill just to name a few. We call in an order, and whatever we order was brought in within 24 hours, and is immediately flown to us on the next available ups flight. The quality of the fish is breathtaking, and the fact that we know all of it was sustainably caught, by respectful fishermen is something that I am very proud of.

Every time I cook a piece of fish I learn a little bit more about it. Every fish behaves differently than the next once it hits the pan. Bar jack is a wonderful fish, and when handled properly, its delicious, but if its overcooked at all, you might as well be eating fishy cardboard. If treated correctly, the skin on a piece of pan seared wreckfish can become almost like a fishy-cracklin. Scallops benefit from a quick, 180 degree rotation right before popping them in the oven just to ensure an even sear. Snapper and italian sausage make an excellent combination. Breaking down a side of sturgeon is almost like cutting ribeyes off of a rib loin. When searing black bass, it will curl up the second it hits the pan. But you can't instantly try and press it, otherwise the skin won't relax and reform to the flesh of the fish. Wait a few seconds, then gently work the fish back against the surface of the hot pan. With a knob of butter and some thyme in the pan just before popping it in the oven, a perfectly cooked, well seared piece of black bass might just be one of the greatest things on Earth.

Before the old fish cook came back I had already been given the station full time. And now, Toby, my old partner on garde manger has joined me on entrees, as the new meat cook. And we're doing big things. There was definitely a learning curve, but two months into our partnership on entrees we're syncing up. We're communicating without talking. We can feel when the other is going down and always know when to jump over and crank out a few plates. I remember the days at the old L'Etoile (I am the only line cook remaining who ever worked in that kitchen) when the cooks were so good at what they did, and had been side by side in that hot, cramped kitchen for so many years, that communication was unnecessary. And the talk that did take place was endless trash talk between cooks. Ed and Ryan (two of the biggest influences on me as a cook thus far in my life) would work fish and meat respectively, bang out 120 covers seamlessly, and then show up for work the next day with blinding hangovers and do it all again. Thats what I want.

This Saturday was the highlight of my career as a cook thus far. 105 guests and the last reservation was at 8 o clock. That means we were on pace to do 140 plus. And boy did I get slammed. The black bass dish has rightfully become the star on the current menu. 40 percent of the guests ordered it. And my other dishes sold relatively well. It was the busiest night I've ever had. Over 50 percent of the entrees came off my station, and I was proud of every single plate and every single piece of fish I put out. It's as close Toby and I have ever come to emulating Ed and Ryan.

I was sitting outside enjoying a few drinks on Saturday night and I started laughing hysterically about what my life has become. It's so insane and so awesome. My arms and hands are covered in burns, the hair on my left arm has been almost entirely singed off from working over a stove all day, calluses have numbed most parts of my hands to any real feeling, I picked a fish scale out of my eye last week when my contacts were bugging me, and I practically have to scrub my hands with bleach every night to get the smell of fish out of them. Any normal person would probably be miserable doing what I'm doing. But if there's one thing that I know now its that I'm far from normal. My life is chaos. But to be honest, I think this is the happiest I've ever been.

I'm officially the most experienced cook in the kitchen. It's up to me to set an example for the rest of the guys. I feel like eyes are always on me, and the pressure has been cranked up a notch. But at the moment I'm thriving and loving it.

Summer is starting early, and whatever's on the horizon is extremely exciting and very promising. Madison feels more and more like home every day I live here. Market starts soon, and Madison will turn back into the city I fell in love with in the summer of 2010. I can't wait.

Also, today, my boss Tory Miller, the owner/executive chef of L'Etoile was named as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards for the title of "Best Chef Midwest", for the second year in a row. I am extremely honored to be a part of this kitchen, and I can honestly say that moving back to Madison was one of the best decisions I've made in my life. The amount that Tory and the rest of the crew here have helped me grow as a cook and as a person is absolutely insane. I don't just want this award for selfish reasons, I want it because Tory deserves it, and because it would be a testament to everything he has done for young cooks like myself and for the farmers and folks of Wisconsin. Go Tory!