When you find yourself knee-deep in incoming orders, with hot fry oil splattering your hands and batter exploding across your chest like a doughy gunshot wound, you start thinking that line work in a restaurant kitchen is not an easy job.
But that's the condition I found myself in on Nov. 22—a couple of days before marathon Thanksgiving cooking would begin at home—in the kitchen at Corazón, cranking out chiles rellenos on a stick.
During a sudden bout of inspiration (or was it inebriation?), I had agreed, with three friends, to take over the temporarily unused kitchen at one of Santa Fe's busiest nightspots, and churn out bar food for as many friends and strangers as we could feed.
We called this foodie folly "Bar Food Brawl" and tried to put together a menu of left-of-center pub grub that would read as satisfying twists on snack classics. Mostly, I think, it was successful. In addition to the aforementioned rellenos on a stick, we plated up wings in a guajillo sauce; a difficult to explain but easy to eat concoction of pork belly wrapped in a french-toast tortilla; chocolate ice-cream sandwiches; gougères with a savory fois gras ice cream; and a couple of other things, including a shot of salad—basically a traditional house salad blended into baby-food consistency and mixed with vodka vinaigrette.
Not everything worked, but I’m a fan of heroic failure, and the food was cheap enough not to alarm anyone if something failed to be as good as it could. I also believe that, if you’re going to be critical of something week after week, such as restaurants and chefs, you ought to at least be armed with an understanding of what it takes to perform the task you’re critiquing—not that bar food is laying it all on the line exactly. But I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want the sum total of my own talent and ability to be judged on a randomly pulled relleno on a stick.
This, of course, is the reason food writers try to visit a restaurant multiple times (budget permitting) before writing a review. There are a lot of moving parts between raw ingredients and the plate that hits the table. Anything can happen in between, and often does.
Controlling those variables is as much a part of being a capable chef as creating great food. That's why most of us should have the opportunity to play restaurant, rather than actually run one day in and day out.
As Anthony Bourdain points out in his somewhat tiresome last book, Medium Raw, most people who fantasize that they could be culinary heroes are probably too old, too out-of-shape and too normal to stand the literal heat of the kitchen and the demands of cooking food to order for throngs of people who are, in fact, going to be immediately judgmental.
Another lesson is the difficulty of managing a kitchen budget, even for one night. If I were a benevolent dictator, all restaurants would serve inventive, ever-changing menus sourced from local, seasonal, artisanal ingredients. But then eating out would cost a lot more—it’s not easy to radically alter a menu every day when buying in bulk. And as Santa Fe’s recent spate of restaurant closures demonstrates, operating a restaurant is as challenging today as it has ever been.
The good news is that, within the next few weeks, the kitchen at Corazón should be once more cranking out food on a regular basis. And this time, it’ll be in the hands of young, fit professionals who know what they’re doing.
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