Talking Meat, Eating Veggies, at Nopa Restaurant
When I relaunched this site a few days ago, one of the things I wanted to do was give you a seat at the table for some hang time with chefs, which inevitably produces something worth sharing, whether it be a nugget of industry insight, or simply a war story, anecdote, or memorable quip.
So, here’s the first: I spent Saturday in San Francisco with my good pal Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat and The Harrison in New York City. During an evening divided between drinks at the Hotel Huntington bar and dinner at Nopa restaurant (both with a civilian friend along for the ride) we lapsed into a running discussion of the distinct challenge of cooking meat to its proper doneness, and the madness to which it can drive toques.
Can’t remember how or why it came up, but Jimmy told the story of how, years ago, while working the sauté station at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, he tried to warn the kid on the meat station next to him that he had been cooking various cuts to the wrong degree of doneness all night long.
And how did Jimmy, standing several feet away, know this?
“As with anything that’s blue collar and repetitive in nature, you learn things over the years,” he said. “Meat starts out red and ends up gray; in between, there are shades of both, and of brown.” But the answer goes beyond that: Most seasoned chefs will tell you they can just look at a piece of meat and tell what doneness it is, or at a piece of fish and know if it’s cooked through or not, but none can quite put words to what they see, beyond color cues, that reveals this; it’s an intuition that must be earned personally.
Anyway, the guy didn’t heed Jimmy’s warning, and put up three pieces of overcooked filet mignon, their shortcomings as apparent to the chef as they had been to Jimmy. Already reeling from the mounting pressure of an intense service, the chef went ballistic, chucking piece after piece of meat right at the cook’s head.
This, in turn, reminded me of a story, witnessed firsthand while trailing in a South Beach, Miami, restaurant many years ago, that involved a customer who couldn’t get no satisfaction with a rack of lamb. After it had been sent out to the dining room, a waiter returned the lamb to the kitchen, reporting that the guest wanted it more well done. Though slammed, the meat cook was happy to comply, slipped it under the salamander (broiler) for a bit, and sent it back out….