“All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place.”
Jan. 19 2016 - Jan. 24 2016
I’ve been working a morning prep shift on Thursdays. If there’s a hidden joy in life, it’s having an entire restaurant to yourself, something much better than any visit I’ve had to Disneyland. I hog the entire range with everything on the to do list: simultaneously simmering dashi, burning sugar for caramel, tempering 45 egg yolks into a vat of warm, vanilla speckled cream. There’s sunlight shining through the window – a rare element in any kitchen – to keep the overheads off, and it’s cold enough in the winter where the fans don’t need to be turned on. The tiny galley kitchen, half flooded by natural light becomes totally silent sans the melodic sizzle of onions sweating on the backburner and kombu merrily bubbling away; the steam combined with the warmth of the ovens makes being here cathartically cozy.
I sync my phone to the main dining room’s sound system, so every time I go through the restaurant to reach the walk in, either “Dancing in the Moonlight” or Franki Valli is blaring at an obnoxious volume. Back in the kitchen, I take up all the counters in sight just because I can, and call dibs on a particular wooden spoon because its pointed corner perfectly fits the corners of a saucepan.
If the list is short and I’m extra efficient, I clock out early and tackle a fun side project, for the most part pastry or baking related - things I normally wouldn’t have the time or space for during service. Another foie gras torchon, perhaps some kouign amann, or today a surprise for the hotline: a portly loaf of challah to use for mushroom toast.
You might wonder how restaurants charge what they do for a seemingly innocuous plate of ingredients and produce. The amount of prep it takes for a single order of mushroom toast might explain why:
After kneading the egg enriched dough, you need to let the challah proof for an hour. I resent the idea of aggressively punching down such a soft dough, so instead I press and fold the gas out of the mass of flour and eggs as if it’s a burping baby, before letting it rise for another hour. The wonder of a morning shift is you actually have the patience for excessive leavenings - the dough gets a chance to slightly ferment for more nuanced flavors, and the rises give a finer, more tender crumb. Gently sculpt the dough into a loaf, and rise for a third hour, before varnishing the top with beaten egg and baking it in the oven until the internal temperature is around 190 degrees. Out emerges the world’s most perfect loaf of challah - lovingly bronzed and shiny, with a thick, lacquered top. Once sliced open steamy, amber notes of yeast and sweet butter frolic around the kitchen. The crumb is tender but still has enough structure to be torn apart into buttery shreds, better than any loaf we’ve ordered from a bakery.
Take split marrow bones. Brine them with rosemary and peppercorns for a few days to draw out the blood. You’ll see the brine turn from clear water into a transparent rogue color, not unlike a glass of flat rose, while the actual marrow itself – the consistency of cold butter when raw– has turned a milky off white. Roast the bones in a hot oven until they begin sputtering in their own fat, and the marrow itself turns into an unctuous, gelatinous mess. Grab a few pounds of European butter, and mix in minced shallots, herbs, and the cooled marrow you’ve scooped out of their canoes.
Get your veal bones in the oven. Roast them until kingdom come, so every inch is charred and browned just before the point of burning. You always know when it’s demi glace day, because roasted veal bones have an unmistakable smell - almost like a milder, gamier, beef, with a slight hint of musk. Sometimes we leave it overnight in a low oven because we seem to never have enough time to roast all the bones we need. Precariously dump your twenty pounds of bones into a stock pot three feet high and fill it to the top with water, making sure to vigorously scrape the baking pan of all the fond that has accumulated over the hours of roasting.
Simmer it on low, otherwise at a roiling boil you dislodge the impurities in the bones and your stock becomes a murky, cloudy mess reminiscent of bilge water. Meanwhile, brown your mirepoix in the oven as well, perhaps with a bit of tomato paste until they’re also well charred. Deposit the vegetables into the stock, making sure the flame is still low enough where you hardly see any bubbles puncture the surface, and are instead looking at a quiet lake, barely shimmering from the movement below. Continue reducing your stock at this annoyingly slow pace until the liquid just exposes the bones on top. Demi isn’t the most convenient thing to make in the world - by the time the stock is reduced enough, we’re usually at the end of day two.
Strain the stock. By this time the veal bones have given up all of their gelatin and have become pale and somewhat tender due to their lengthy hot bath. It usually takes a two man job, straining a fifty pound stock pot. One person trying to accomplish the feat by himself usually ends up overshooting and dumping a few cups of precious stock on the floor.
And on the third day, after you let Jesus rise from the dead, pour the stock back into a pot, and add bottles of wine. Again, reduce slowly and languidly, until after all your veal bones, gallons of water, and patience have left you with a little over two quarts of demi glace, so loaded with gelatin that when chilled it becomes savory ballistics gel.
So you take your challah, ever so regal compared an ordinary loaf of Grandma’s white, and take a slice maybe half an inch thicker than you think it should be. Toast it so the outside makes the desirably sandpaper-esque noise when you run a knife across the top, while the inside still has a desirable squidginess.
Now get your mushrooms from the farmer's market, brush them off, clean them, prep them – a mixture of chanterelles, shiitakes, oysters, pioppinos, and maitakes.
Melt butter and let it brown, and just before it smokes saute your mushrooms. Let them cauterize in the sizzling fat; the smell of browned butter singing the spongy edges of mushrooms signals you to add a small handful of minced shallots, and maybe a sprig of thyme.
Meanwhile, start melting your demi glace, and once it has liquefied into almost a viscuous syrup, mount it with a big hunk of butter. It emulsifies, so instead of pooling into a greasy mess on top, it thickens and enriches the demi.
Whip out another pan. Start leisurely frying an egg - not so it’s frizzling around the edges and becomes a crispy lace (not that that’s a bad thing at all), but hanging out in the background, dancing quietly as the whites slowly become opaque but retain their signature silkiness, and the yolk barely comes to temperature so it’s trying everything in it’s power not to break it’s delicate barrier.
Spread a dense layer of marrow butter over your toasted challah. Place your browned, crispy mushrooms on top and enrobe the whole thing with the demi glace that took you around three days to make. Grab a handful of wild arugula – spicy, bitter, and robust, and only available on Saturdays from a man named Ozzie (who happens to be Maria’s husband), and artfully scatter it on top. Season your egg, and praying the yolk doesn’t pop it’s thick elixir everywhere, use it to coronate your toast, making sure it's done at the exact moment the risotto, hanger steaks, and cod are being plated for the ticket.
You’ve just made one good dish on the menu.