June 8, 2011 | Frank Bonanno
It’s not quite summer and the thermometer in the Mizuna kitchen reads 110 °. I am hot and I feel old—old because I am surrounded by youth. Because although we share the common language of classic movies and bad ‘80’s music, cookbooks and food writing—the banter fizzles when I start joking around about Agent P or SpongeBob. Because while they’re getting a second wind and heading out after work, I am going home to kiss my sons good night. Because I am nearly their fathers’ age.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on the Mizuna line—not as the proprietor or fill-in line cook, but as Executive Chef. We’re short two men in that kitchen, a shortfall that gives me an opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with this young talent who are among the finest cooks in the city. I have this chance to inspire and be inspired by them, to affirm my vision for Mizuna’s menu, to listen to their food ideas and cooking philosophies and take part in their own visions unfolding.
What I learn about these men, I learn through banter and through service. There’s back and forth as we develop the tasting menu, each trying to outdo the other, figuring out who’s using what ingredients (we don’t repeat components on tasters) and how to elevate each course. When dinner comes we find out who has speed, or finesse or who can hit his temperature marks; who doesn’t bathe and who angers or pouts or burns you out of anger or neglect. Who has patience. It’s a long day in a physically and emotionally demanding setting—a room only slightly bigger than a walk-in closet which is open for the the intermittant viewing of the 53 diners who face us. The Mizuna kitchen is set up as a basic French line, and through our five primary stations, here’s what I’m learning:
Zach runs Garde Manger (pantry station). He’s responsible for all of the salads, one cold appetizer, seven desserts and the tasting dessert and cheese course. Zach has, in my mind, the most difficult position on the Mizuna line. His food will constitute the diners’ first and last impressions of Mizuna food, and the preparation of those items is intense and precise. Garde Manger usually arrives around 10:30 to begin his prep work—and plates his last dessert at roughly 11:00. ( A note on desserts: It’s important to me, philosophically, that each line chef takes responsibility for envisioning and preparing one dessert on each month’s menu –a dessert that Zach will execute for service. When I ask potential hires, “How are you with pastry? ” the most popular answer is “Not good.” Not good, indeed. But back to Zach.) He looks like he’s twelve, in spite of a feeble effort at a mustache, but carries a disposition well beyond his years: I would call him unflappable. He buries himself in his corner, executing flawless desserts and perfectly dressed salads with apparent ease. At 23, he’s already starting to come into his own as a chef.
If you were to look at the line from the dining room, Zach would filter in and out of your line of vision on the hard right. Johnny Buerre Blanc works just left of him, on Fish Station. Johnny cleans and butchers all the fish and creates all of their sauces. He also prepares beurre monté and beurre blanc for every station on the line. Johnny has one mood, which I would call staid but goofy. He is an extremely precise and creative chef, with a strong penchant for desserts. I imagine him one day leaving fish-boning and gutting and sauteeing (and its subsequent smells) for sweeter, flour-dusted aromas, even though he’s a really, really, really good cook.
Stephen, directly left of Johnny, cooks the Executive Chef station, and will take over that role in its entirety after this initial menu. He is essentially the saucier and expediter. Stephen makes the amuse for the tasting menu, takes responsibility for four appetizers and all the sauces for the meat dishes—lamb, chicken, veal, and duck stocks as well as velouté. One aspect of his work to consider: each stock will start as sixty gallons. By the time Stephen has reduced, strained, reduced, chinoised, and reduced those liquids some more, the amount of rich, beautiful product will be slightly less than a quart. Stephen calls the wheel and sets the tone for service. He’s light-hearted and calm, and possesses a character quality especially necessary in an Executive Chef: the more intense service becomes, the more calm Stephen remains.
I’m cooking between Stephen and Taylor on Mac & Cheese (which in most kitchens would be considered the hot app station). I’m responsible for four appetizers and the pasta course for the tasting menu–and I serve as general back up to the meat guy, helping him plate food and make it through the crunch (because, although Garde Manger is the most intense station on the line–meat station is the busiest). I have a great time.
Taylor, on the hard left, cooks Meat Station and sets the speed of the line. He butchers five kinds of proteins every day, and prepares all of their accompaniments. At dinner time, once Taylor’s proteins finish their eight minute warm beurre monté bath, every other plate for the table needs to be ready to go. If Taylor fumbles, we all fumble—but luckily Taylor has uncanny focus. He’s a precise meat cook and consistently nails his temperatures. He can get flustered, though, on the busiest nights, as the weight of his station bears down—and it goes back to the Exec to keep that contagion from spreading. On this menu, Taylor’s panisse exemplifies the kind of collaboration I aim for in the Mizuna kitchen: Taylor suggested a goat cheese or yogurt sauce for his grilled lamb t-bone; I proposed a Mediterranean angle on the whole dish; Johnny piped in with the falafel idea—and it all works together beautifully.
Then there’s Josh (“Preacher”), who used to pop in on the Mizuna line from time to time for the pure learning experience. He’s aboard as a full time chef during this transition, and without Preacher my work would be impossible. While I run the administrative end of six restaurants during the day, Preacher sets up Mac & Cheese Station. While I’m cooking at night, Preacher backs us all up, running to the walk-in maybe a hundred times during service and doing all the dirty thankless jobs that need doing from 5 to close. Preacher’s enthusiasm and work ethic keep the line well-oiled.
This is a good group of guys–a great group in fact–and I’m honored that they choose Mizuna as their work home, because in effect, they’re choosing me. I realize that the commonality I respect most in these men (besides their obvious culinary talent)is the even keel with which they pursue their passion. No front-of-house verses back-of-house here, no egos, no yelling, no tantrums during service–just a team of happy professionals.
As I finish writing this, it’s nearly morning, and the temperature in my house reads 70°. I feel cool and energized because all day I have been surrounded by youth. In six hours, I will cook breakfast with my family, play PIG with my sons, and rifle through the garden for tasting inspiration. I’ll play a game of squash, then haggle with our primary vendor over pricing issues–and then, I will be back on the Mizuna line. Look at all the great things I have in my life, and all I have to look forward to.
And I’m only 43.