Iso Rabins of forageSF is guest blogging for us every once in a while. Read his last post on his underground restaurant. Follow him on Twitter @forageSF.
LA is a different kind of place. That’s not just my San Francisco love/elitism talking (both of which I have in spades), but a true fact. I recently went down to LA to guest chef at a kind of hipster bakery/restaurant called BreadBar. Once a month, they bring in a guest chef who creates a menu of eight small dishes for eight dollars each: six savory, two sweet. He or she plans and prepares the food, along with a posse of his own cooks (a fact I was a bit confused on, but more on that later), then gets a cut of the night's take. It’s actually a lot like my local Mission Street Food, but fancier—mostly a PR stunt for LA chefs who own restaurants in other parts of town, or Food Network celebs looking for something new. Past chefs have included (this is from their website) The Next Food Network Star Debbie Lee and Top Chef's Michael Rottaggio and Marcel Vigneron.
Now let me back up a bit and level with you. I did not belong here. I was asked to do it because of my underground restaurant, The Wild Kitchen. But running underground dinners (even though they're eight course affairs serving 60 people), and running a professional kitchen is very different.
I found out when I got there that I was supposed to have brought my own cooks with me. Miscommunication. I had only brought my friend Boris Portnoy, a pastry chef who I met a couple months ago after he approached me about helping at one of my dinners. Unlike me, Boris knows all about professional kitchens, and is my go-to when I have questions about things I should have already known. He also makes a mean dessert, so I figured that even if the food turned out sub par, maybe the desserts would make up for it.
I spent the two days before the dinner feverishly foraging and prepping. Picking miners lettuce, slow-roasting boar, collecting kumquats, pickling beets. (I foraged as much as I could in LA; all the greens were picked in Griffith Park, and the citrus was from backyard trees in Silverlake.) When I arrived to find I needed cooks I didn't have, a couple of the cooks from BreadBar were hired to pinch hit for me. They weren't entirely happy about it. I'm lucky the food came out at all.
Turns out guest chefs don’t even do much of the cooking during the night of the meal. My job was to be stationed at front, makes the salads, and also walking around talking to customers. Talking to people about my food comes pretty easy, so that was a breeze. The people who showed up to eat were generally pretty great. I got my picture taken with smiling women, signed some menus. There was of course the obligatory blowhard, who cornered me for 20 minutes with a monologue of all the amazing chefs he knew around the city, but I suppose that's par for the course. Basically I felt like a celebrity, which is what LA is good at.
I learned a lot about how a kitchen works. That miso makes fish skin stick. That driving all the way from the East side to the West side via Santa Monica Blvd. is not the right way to go (no matter what Google Maps tells you). It was great working with a real chef (Noriyuki Sugie). Most chefs yell when things go wrong, but he seems to keep this amazing calmness, taking in the situation and trying to move beyond it, rather than losing control. I'm one notch closer to deserving being called "chef" (a small notch mind you, it still makes me feel uneasy, like I haven't come close to earning the title). I got some good reviews (and some not so glowing, but balanced) in a different city where no one knows my name. I was hoping to gain experience, to jump into a gig that I was completely unqualified for, and hope to swim. I may not have won the gold, but I certainly didn't drown.
Images by Lizabeth Steinhart.