A Day (and Night) in the Life of Brooklyn’s Most Celebrated Open Kitchen
For some time, I’ve had it in my mind to introduce a recurring feature about a day in the life of different restaurants. The name of this intermittent series, “The Trail,” is the term used to describe a potential employee’s observation of, and sometimes participation in, a day of service at a restaurant where he or she hopes to work.
Along with a lot of things here at Toqueland, I had to back-burner that concept in deference to a pileup of book deadlines. But the perfect union of my book and blog lives presented itself recently when I needed to trail at Battersby, the successful Smith Street (Brooklyn) restaurant, for the purposes of a book proposal I’ve been writing with chef-owners Joe Ogrodnek and Walker Stern.
I normally don’t bother trailing at a restaurant for literary purposes, but in this case, observing happened to be integral to the content of the book we have in mind. As those who have dined there know, Battersby’s heart is its small, open kitchen, situated right at the end of the bar in the dining room, where three cooks engage in a game of culinary Twister, turning out an impressive roster of sophisticated food seven nights a week.
In order to function in such a miniscule galley, Walker and Joe have devised a repertoire of dishes that can be mostly prepared in advance, then finished quickly and efficiently for service. The book—Battersby: Extraordinary Food from an Ordinary Kitchen—will share the tricks they’ve developed for doing the lion’s share of the work in advance, requiring minimal time during service; in fact, each recipe’s ingredients list and methods will be divided into “To Prep” and “To Serve” sections.
I divided my trail into two parts, as well: The first was spent watching the place in the daytime (prep), starting with the arrival of the cooks around 11:30am and ending around the time the first guests of the night rolled in at 5:30pm. On another day, I arrived at 5:30pm and stayed until the last guest disappeared out the front door.
The menu changes frequently at Battersby, with different scenarios providing inspiration on any given day. The afternoon I was there for prep was what Walker described as a “clean-the-house day” meaning that they didn’t order much, instead utilizing what was already in the walk-in. (This is common practice at restaurants; even if the menu doesn’t change daily, surplus items might be utilized in one or more verbal specials.) And so, one of Walker’s first tasks that day was to take to the previous night’s menu with a pen in hand and revise it to bring it in line with the current inventory: they hadn’t ordered fish or shellfish that day, so he took a scallops starter off the menu, replacing it with a sunchoke salad. With just enough bass on hand for twelve portions, he decided that would be a dish only available on the spontaneous tasting menu; and there were just five orders of my favorite Battersby main course, the short-rib pastrami, so that would be offered as a verbal special until they ran out. And so it went, until the margins of the menu were lined with notes that the general manager could type into a new menu, printing it in time for service.
Then the guys settled into the prep portion of the day: Walker set up camp at the bar, turning artichokes right from the box they shipped in before moving on to shaving root vegetables. Joe worked on salads and other cold preparations, while in the kitchen, Carl Dooley, an easygoing cook who recently moved here from Washington, DC, prepped meats and fish, made the sauce for the chicken dish, and prepared a duck pâté, among other tasks.
Along the way, the guys imparted some tips that will certainly find their way into our book, as when Joe sold me on the benefits of peeling vegetables with a paring knife rather than a peeler, shaping them as you work. It saves a step, he explained, makes you focus on what you’re doing, and the end result is that both you and the vegetable feel a little more special.
One of the dishes being prepared that day was a new one: roasted carrots with buttermilk mousse, peekytoe crab, vadouvan spice, shaved raw carrot, and cilantro. It’s the kind of thing the guys love to have in their back pocket because it’s served at room temperature so can be plated and out to its destination table in record time, freeing up hands and space for other dishes.
Periodically, throughout the day, all the guys shuttle up and downstairs to and from the basement, where Battersby’s pastry chef works, returning with trays and bowls piled high with vegetables, fish, meat, and dry goods–the next things they’ll convert into prepared components for the coming service.
Whenever I spend time in a restaurant in its dark hours, I’m struck at how many people Out There are eager for a piece of its business—a steady flow of unexpected visitors drop by with resumes, food samples, and business cards. The guys also have no PR firm (until we began work on our book proposal, they didn’t even have written biographies), so field their own calls from journalists. They seem a little bemused by all the attention they’re garnering: on this particular day, it came in the form of calls from a fact-checker from Time Out New York and a reporter from a London food rag.
The servers arrived around 4pm and began dressing the dining room for service, setting tables, rolling hand towels for the bathroom, and lighting votive candles and setting them along the bar, and in recesses in the wall.
There’s one daily certainty at Battersby: the guys are going to get hit early and they’re going to get hit hard. That’s because with a no-reservation policy (except for the tasting menu), a line forms outside beginning around 5pm, and as soon as the doors open at half past five, the seats—23 of them, including the bar—fill up.
On any given night, either Joe or Walker expedite, standing at the pass, communicating with the service team, readying cold dishes and assembling hot ones as their component parts are delivered from the two other cooks. Between the kitchen and the bar, there’s a staging table that functions as an extension of the pass–many times during the night, Walker and Joe emerge from the foxhole of the kitchen to fuss over a half dozen or more dishes on that table, applying garnishes and sauces before the plates are whisked away by the servers.
I’ve eaten at Battersby about half a dozen times since the guys and I began working together, and always pay a brief visit to the pass to say hello, but I’d never lingered long enough to appreciate the constant dance the three cooks have to do at any given time. It’s a constant improvisation as they keep each other informed on the status of in-progress dishes, and employ moves designed to save time and space; for example, Carl did a cool thing when, in a matter of about 4 seconds, he finished basting a piece of triggerfish in a pan, tasted it, added a squirt of lemon juice from a squeeze bottle, delivered the fish to Walker on a sizzle plate, wiped the pan out with a kitchen towel, hit it with fresh oil, and got the next piece of fish going.
Although each man has a well-defined role, things are flexible: “You working on anything?” Joe asked Walker at one point. When the answer came back “no,” Joe asked him to plate five tagliatelle. The mental and muscle memory required to work in a kitchen like Battersby’s is formidable: each cook needs to know how to finish and plate a number of the dishes that are in regular rotation–both the standard plating and the tasting-size version–as well as be able to replicate a steady proliferation of new compositions.
The kale salad is the restaurant’s breakout menu item—Bon Appétit named it the dish of the year in 2012 and New York Magazine proclaimed it the best salad in town—and people order tons of it. At one point, I counted 13 salads being prepared at once .. . they covered the staging table and a portion of the pass. The greens were shaved that morning, and the guys make the dressing, an addictive, Thai-inspired concoction of palm sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce, by the gallon. It’s the fried kale and Brussels sprout leaves that are prepared à la minute, and as Joe topped the salads with them, Walker followed him, adding a final drizzle of dressing, and a scattering of peanuts.
The six-burner stove gets an incredible workout as the night rolls on: two of the burners are topped with a flat-top allowing for more than six vessels to be going at once. At any given moment, there are fingerling potatoes rewarming for the short-rib pastrami dish, barigoule sauce for the salmon, one or more pastas being finished, sauces being reheated, and so on.
The role of the general manager, Jeb Wiseley, is also all-important during service at Battersby. Jeb is engaged in a constant dialogue with the expediting chef, reporting how far along certain tables are in their consumption of the current course, which determines which table’s next course will be fired, and when. In this age of computerized communication between front- and back-of-house teams, Battersby’s system of old-fashioned, hand-written dupes (tickets) has charm and practicality, as when Walker dictates a spontaneous tasting menu for one table to Jeb, who furiously scribbles it onto a ticket so it can be tracked as the meal progresses.
Between the constant shuttling in the kitchen and the back-and-forth with the service team, things get intensely busy for long stretches, then suddenly calm when several tables turn simultaneously. During those lulls, the guys have a few minutes to hydrate (canned seltzer is the beverage of choice here) and to talk. I asked them how they manage during the spring and summer, when the outdoor garden almost doubles the number of seats.
“In the summer, it just doesn’t stop, there are no moments like this,” said Joe. “It’s like it just was for five hours straight. You cook and cook and cook, and then you go home and go to sleep.”
Spend enough time observing a kitchen like Battersby’s and the most random things become fascinating. For about thirty minutes, I became obsessed with the dishwasher: I’d never noticed before, but he’s stationed between the bar and the kitchen, right there in the dining room, with his back to the action, rendering him nearly invisible. Dishes are shuttled to him via a bussing tray under the staging table, and he washes and dries them—working as consistently and silently as the cooks—then stacks them up on the partial wall between the kitchen and the dining room.
A running joke between me and the service team was my own constant interaction with customers: Because I was perched just outside the bathroom, they kept asking me if I was waiting to use it. Finally, one of the servers had the brilliant idea for me to wear an apron so I could pass for one of them. It worked.
A little before midnight (this was a Sunday), the last customers of the night dribbled out and there was one final bustle of activity as the service team cleared the tables and the kitchen team packed everything into little plastic containers, stacked them impossibly high on steel trays, and returned them to the walk-in downstairs. It’s a quirk of this particular house that staff, or family, meal happens after service is finished. (“The servers come in late,” Walker explained to me one day, “And if the cooks get hungry, they can just figure things out for themselves.”) On the night I was there, somebody had made a pizza and we all pulled up to the bar to dig in, then I headed over to Brooklyn Social, a local watering hole, with Walker and Joe. It was late, about 1am, and there were other cooks in the house, chief among them Franny’s chef Danny Amend. Each of their kitchens no doubt run according to their own needs and tics, but some things are universal: at the end of the night, there will be drinks.