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Three Days at Three Stars

November 27, 2012 | Frank Bonanno

This summer, four chefs from Mizuna and Luca d’Italia spent time in nationally acclaimed kitchens. Each was offered a job (a testament to the talent and work ethic around me).

I’ve written here before about how important it is for chefs to cook in a variety of kitchens–to learn, to be humbled, and sometimes just to renew. The following story, though, is Mizuna executive chef Stephen McCary’s perspective. He assembled notes on his stage at Aureole for a national website and in rereading it today, I wish I’d posted it here earlier. . .

I’m the executive chef of a 53-seat restaurant in Denver, where owner Frank Bonanno sends us on random 3-day stages as a way to keep us inspired and fresh for the job. The night before mine, I worked the Mizuna line until midnight. Of course I couldn’t sleep afterwards—not just because I was busy doing laundry and packing for a 6 am flight, but because I was headed to New York, to spend time in the Michelin rated kitchen of Aureole working under chef Marcus Gleadow-Ware.

When a chef packs for a 3-day trip, there’s no way to get around checking luggage; there are knives in there. You have to bring your own tools if you’re going to cook in someone else’s kitchen (using another chef’s knives would be like kissing his girlfriend). So once I squared my luggage away, I took a cab from the airport to Times Square—exciting in itself—to go directly to the restaurant, still in my street clothes (I didn’t want to be in my chef whites if that was the wrong thing to do). After trying to navigate a maze of tunnels to find the kitchen entrance, I ultimately had to circle the building and go back around to the front door, find the hostess, and humbly ask her to lead me to my work area.

The prep team put me right to work at simple tasks–dicing potatoes, cleaning baby turnips. They have day crew of eight, which is pretty different from Mizuna, where we prep our own stations. In fact, everything was on a bigger scale at Aureole. The kitchen was huge; during service, physically cooking in the hot kitchen, Aureole had six on the hot line, a chef and two sous’ expediting, plus another four in the pastry station. By my guess, there’s probably 35 people on their kitchen staff. We have seven.

Even though everyone was focused on their own responsibilities, the prep guys talked with me as we worked, answering my questions along the way, and during service (I was helping sauté and grill) someone actually brought me a hamachi with pineapple and avocado. I thought it was a mistake plate, an extra, but then three more courses came my way. I got to enjoy a tasting menu while sweating it out on the line (langostine, tortellini, snapper with mussels. . .beautiful food).

After service, I walked around Hell’s Kitchen by myself, which, I have to admit, I thought was going to be a lot rougher, but was actually really cool—even more so because it was raining. I don’t want to say I had a special moment, exactly, but it was fun walking around in the rain and having to duck under covers in between drinks and pizza. The night ended perfectly, in an air conditioned hotel room, falling asleep to oversized words painted on the wall: “Lights out please.”

In the morning I exited the Union Square subway station right into the Green Market. The entire area was filled with produce from upstate, heritage meats, different prepared foods, cookies and pastries—even butter and dairy—and fish, too, which obviously isn’t in the Denver farmers markets. The cultural diversity was so wonderfully, strikingly different than what I see back home, with five times the range of product at maybe half of what our vendors charge.

After the Green Market, I went to Spotted Pig, but it wasn’t open. I waited as a crowd formed to try April Bloomfield’s food. I ate “roll mop” herring with crème fraiche and a great toasted Cuban with house-made prosciutto, then returned to Aureole.

The second night staging at Aureole, I got to really see all the stations in action. I love being even a small part of all the cooking, tasting, and plating; wiping rims, composing, perfecting. The highlight of the evening, though, was a post-service. Chef Gleadow-Ware took me down to the lower East Side and we went to a great Spanish place called Tertulia to split a bottle of Rioja. Over Iberico ham and smoked deviled eggs, Marcus let me pick his brain about all the places he’d worked in London and Italy and his time under Marco Pierre white. We did what chefs do—deliberated over food theories and ideas, discussed about how our kitchens work and how the scenes differ from New York to Denver. He talked about working toward Aureole’s second Michelin star and all the fine tuning that entails, right down to having an ex-health inspector on staff to insure their inspections are tight, Our conversation carried on to Momofuko Ssam, where we enjoyed a few more plates, and I talked about Denver as a food town. Cooks are just coming into their own here, and the independent beer scene is just amazing. When Marcus comes to Denver, I’d like to cook for him at Mizuna, by way of thank you for the real estate he let me take up during weekend service, and for all the professional kindness he and his team showed me—also, to maybe demonstrate the professional non-stage side of my skills.

I was going to stage a third night, but Sunday is Marcus’ day off, and he told me it might be more beneficial to just go out and eat in New York. So I did.

I tried incredible Malaysian at Lauts, the gastropub fare of Strong Place, enjoyed pints at Brooklyn Inn, and was blown away by the service at Jean George. I ended my stay with a little sushi hopping and a lot of drinking. Too much drinking—I slept only enough to oversleep, and managed to be the very last person to board my plane back to Denver, where I got home
Over-tired, over-fed, and over-boozed—but thoroughly excited to get back to my own kitchen. I look forward to creating new dishes, and spreading my experience and enthusiasm among my crew–which was, after all, the point.