Catching Up with the Joneses

A Visit to the Legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio

Lee Jones talks shop with Chef Skyler Golden in the offices of the Chef's Garden

Lee Jones talks shop with visiting chef Skyler Golden in the offices of The Chef’s Garden

HURON, OHIO – Bob Jones, Jr., whose family owns and operates the legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, turns to me from the front seat of his dust-encrusted truck.

“When we have visitors—especially writers like you—we worry about what they are going to think about our packing facility.”

It’s a frigid, windy day in mid January, and Jones is about to escort me and visiting chef Skyler Golden of the Driskill Grill in Austin, Texas, into a newish packing and shipping facility that just went live in November.

The comment inspires some anticipation, and also apprehension. I am there as a guest of the Joneses, who flew me out for a tour and put me up at the guest quarters of their nearby Culinary Vegetable Institute, a multipurpose venue with an open professional kitchen, library, adaptable event space, and more intimate dining room. (It also hosts special programs such as a coming benefit for the Bocuse d’Or USA this Saturday night, March 15.)  There were no conditions on my reporting, nor was I asked to show the family or their team this piece before posting it. Still, the prospect of an unpleasant obligation loomed before me.  I have enough complexes being a New Yorker in the heartland, the last thing I want to be considered is a backstabber.

I needn’t have worried, and neither did Bobby. The shipping facility, surprisingly, turns out to be my favorite part of the tour, and Skyler’s as well, and for the same reason: It was the least expected.  In the winter, produce is harvested daily from a network of greenhouses, according to what’s been ordered on the day, funneled to this facility, and then boxed up by each department.  The boxes are gathered on racks based on delivery method—truck, FedEx, and so on—each of which carries its own hard deadline.  An average of about 175 orders of varying sizes ship out to destinations all over the world every day, with new orders flowing in right behind them by email, phone, and fax, and the orchestration of the groups that make it all happen is comparable, it seems to me, to that required to run, say, a small regional airport.

Orders start to gather at the packing and shipping facility.

Orders start to gather at the packing and shipping facility.

Indeed the thing that most impressed me about The Chef’s Garden during my whirlwind visit is the thing about which the Joneses are most self-conscious:  The technology required to power their operation.  Ironically, what most impresses me is the breathtaking devotion to cleanliness, safety, and quality, evidenced as much at this facility as it is in the greenhouses:  feet are stomped in a sanitizing agent before one enters the facility,  substandard specimens are tossed into gargantuan bins, greens are bathed in a sanitizing liquid then dried before being packed up, and each individual crop is assigned a bar code that allow any food safety issues to be tracked to the source (thankfully, The Chef’s Garden has never had to do that).

Bar codes that track crops from the soil to the customer.

Bar codes that track crops from the soil to the customer.

Great attention is also paid to the packing itself, as staff members fuss over the contents of each box like florists.  Their coats bear badges that say WOW TEAM.  Is it an anagram?  “It’s a reminder of the reaction we want from the chefs when they open the box,” says Bob.  “We want it to be like Christmas morning for them.  We want them to say ‘Wow.’”

THE FIRST TIME BOB, JR’S BROTHER, LEE JONES, BROUGHT zucchini blossoms to an Ohio farmer’s market in 1983, he did it surreptitiously. He didn’t want his competitors to see him peddling such dainty little curiosities.  His family, hit by a one-two punch of high interest rates and a hailstorm, had lost just about everything that year, and were rebuilding.  They’d suffered enough humiliation at auction; they didn’t need to be seen selling “flowers” in an industry defined by conventional commercial crops such as cabbage, sweet corn, peppers, and eggplant.

But Lee had recently met a chef who had trained in Europe, and had been making the rounds at the farmer’s market, asking farmer after farmer if they could get her the same delicate blossoms she’d come to know and love in Italy. She’d been laughed away at every turn.  Even the Joneses—Lee, his father Bob, and brother Bob, Jr—thought she was “crazy.” But Lee decided to give it a whirl.

The chef was overjoyed, and mentioned to another chef that she had met a farmer who was willing to entertain custom orders. The national network of chefs taken for granted today hadn’t coalesced just yet, but there were chefs out there, many of them, who had staged in Europe and were desperate for farmers who could produce ingredients of the caliber they’d become accustomed to overseas, as well as more and more specialty items that they sought out to add dynamism to their plates.

The Joneses began accommodating more and more special requests for items such as baby carrots, baby beets, breakfast radishes, even edible flowers, until they reached a crossroads.  “The chefs were two percent of our business and eighty percent of our aggravation,” says Lee Jones today, repeating a story he’s told so often that it’s honed to a well-crafted monologue.  The family decided they had to either jettison the toques or else shift their focus entirely to chefs.  They went with the chefs and, in the late 1980s, Farmer Jones Farm became The Chef’s Garden, and before long some of the most influential chefs of the day—Charlie Trotter, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Thomas Keller—were customers.  Framed snapshots of the Jones family with these and other luminaries, past and present, line the walls at key buildings at both the office and the Culinary Vegetable Institute…. 

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Food for Thought

For Chefs on the Road, Every Meal Means Something More

Tasting everything at State Bird Provisions.

Tasting everything at State Bird Provisions. (photo by Jennifer Olsen, courtesy Chefs Feed)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A meal is never just a meal for chefs on the road.  Every trip is a mission to try places they’ve read about, or that are owned by friends and acquaintances; explore movements; and seek inspiration.  Those factors drive every dining decision, from where to eat breakfast or grab a slice of pizza to what table to book for Saturday night dinner.  Meals aren’t just nourishment; they are research and development.

It’s the same for the writers who cover them.  A few days away from home is an opportunity to actually taste all those Twitter teases and, of course, to meet the chefs behind them.

We are in California, New York chefs Jimmy Bradley (of The Red Cat and The Harrison), Harold Dieterle (of Perilla, Kin Shop, and The Marrow), and I.  We have just returned from a few days of cooking demonstrations at Chefs’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, and now we are in San Francisco for the weekend.

Here’s how a typical food-obsessed day, a Saturday, goes:  Harold and I dive in early. We are staying at the Hotel Vitale, on the Embarcadero.  By 8:30am, we’re crossing the street, glorying in our surroundings: the Bay Bridge over our shoulders, the Ferry Building across the street, and the cerulean sky overhead. Our destination, the bi-weekly Farmers Market that wraps around the Ferry Building is already throbbing.  We walk the stalls: citrus, herbs, aromatics, and just about anything else a cook might desire are piled high on tables or artfully displayed in baskets and bins.

“Back East, it’s apples and onions,” Harold says, evoking the tundra we left behind last weekend.

“Squash,” I add. “And gourds.”

In the small-world department, we bump into NOPA’s chef and co-owner Laurence Jossell who was up at the Ahwahnee with us just a few days ago.  Laurence has a rolling cart in tow. He’s calling one of his restaurant kitchens to tell them he’s got grapes. Harold and I both taste one from the crate, sweet and juicy.

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East Meets West: Harold Dieterle and Laurence Jossel talk shop at the Ferry Building Farmers Market.

We buzz through the Ferry Building, our eyes catching on a display of mushrooms, their colors as diverse as a box of Crayolas; I’m especially drawn to the pink oyster ‘shrooms, which I’ve never seen before.  We also ogle a nearby selection of the filled Italian doughnuts bomboloni. Completing our lap, we decide it’s time for breakfast: Harold scores a porchetta and greens sandwich from Roli Roti, I get a breakfast sausage sandwich from 4505 Meats and an order of Gamja fries from Namu Street Food–crispy fries topped with kimchee, kewpie mayo, and a graffiti of additional condiments.  We take a bench alongside the bay and chow down, then its New Orleans-style iced coffees from the least jammed of the three Blue Bottle Coffee stations, and a dip back inside the Ferry Building for one of those bomboloni.

Another small-world moment:   A woman walks by.  She looks familiar.  I think it’s Sue Conley from Cowgirl Creamery.  We’ve never met, but I’ve been brushing up for an interview we have scheduled for Monday, so recognize her from her photo. Her red tote, Fromagerie, stenciled up the side, is a dead giveaway.  I introduce myself.  “What are you doing today?” she asks. I gesture around the market. Food is what I’m doing.  That’s it.  It seems a bit ridiculous to be so one-track in a city as robust as San Francisco, but there you go.

We connect with Jimmy and take a walk. Even the conversation is food-centric: He’s been reading California Dish, Jeremiah Tower’s no-holds-barred account of his years atop the food world.  Jimmy mentions to Harold that there’s a technique described in the book where Tower debones and trusses a duck before roasting it. There’s nothing unique about the cooking technique, but he’s intrigued by the butchery.

“I want to try it,” says Jimmy.”

“For the Red Cat?” asks Harold.

“No, I just want to learn how to do it.”

I mention the pink oyster mushrooms from the market but Jimmy waves me off: “Ah, the pink pleurotes,” he says.”  They look beautiful, but then you cook them and they turn grey, like all other mushrooms.”… 

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Confessions of a Closet Californian

Falling in Love with the State I’m Supposed to Hate

Golden Gate Bridge © Rich Niewiroski Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

BROOKLYN, NY — To be a New Yorker means many things, and one of them is to despise California. That predisposition comes with the territory. It’s not enough to love our concrete canyons, clogged sidewalks, and cutthroat pace–one must also disdain the sunny, happy way of life on the other side of the republic. I mean, the nerve of those people to thrive on all fronts without having to endure the obstacles and obscenities that hurtle our way like a never-ending meteor shower.

Well, as longtime readers know, I’ve been researching a book about the American chefs of the 70s and 80s. Much of the interviewing has happened right here in my home base of New York City, but my attentions have been equally allocated to The Golden State. And, after several recent visits, this New Yorker has a confession to make: I love California.

It shouldn’t come as a shock. I was caught at a vulnerable moment. This month begins my 29th year in the Big Apple. It’s a fun and rewarding existence, but I’d still characterize myself as a striver. The inconveniences and the unkindness of strangers wear on me in ways they never used to. In 2009, we moved to Brooklyn for a spacious duplex and access to an above-average public school, and with twin kids in their tenth year, and all that entails, life can be Sisyphean.

And so, my seduction by the West Coast has been swift.

It began with the people. California interviews have been unexpectedly warm and social affairs.  Before I know it, drinks have been poured, or meals are being shared, sometimes cooked by the chef-interviewee’s own hand. Extra time, follow-ups, and other support have been excitedly offered. Appointments that were booked with assistants end with the revealing of private cell phone numbers and email addresses.  More than a few people, strangers at the outset, have hugged me tightly as we said goodbye. (Of course, many of the same things happen in New York City, but I’ve known people here for 20 years.)

Joachim Splichal, following an interview at his home.

Patina Restaurant Group’s Joachim Splichal, following an interview at his home.

The tone was set over an October lunch in Los Angeles with restaurateur Marvin Zeidler, outside at his Brentwood Cafe.  Not only did Marvin make the time to sit down, but he generously provided a list of contact information for key historical figures he thought I should meet. Over two weeks split between Southern and Northern California, and two subsequent visits in November and December, more than 40 chefs and restaurateurs followed suit.  Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger invited me to raid their vault of press clippings and photographs;  Mark Franz of Farallon and Waterbar encored a decadent lunch with a sit down at his home that lasted for hours;Valentino‘s Piero Selvaggio arrived at our second sit-down with a stack of books and magazines he thought might help me, personal keepsakes that he’d amassed  over the years. “Keep them,” he said, shoving the mountain of paper my way. Joachim Splichal, John Sedlar, Nancy Silverton, Ken Frank, Cindy Pawlcyn and many others–none of whom I’d met before– extended and/or shared of themselves in ways that I will expand on in a coming post of highlights from the research trail.

"Keep them." Piero Selvaggio, outside his Valentino restaurant.

“Keep them.” Piero Selvaggio, outside his Valentino restaurant.

It hasn’t just been the toques. Random characters, as if engaged in a Truman Show-worthy conspiracy, continued to woo me Westward. Chief among these was the hirsute barista at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco’s Mint Plaza who suggested their New Orleans blend to me. (It’s made with chicory, and a little sugar, and was engineered to be served over ice.)  I sipped it, nodded my approval, and stayed in line to pay. He turned to the next customer, then back toward me: “You know what, man?” he said. “It’s on me today.”

“What did I do to deserve this?” I asked.

“I just feel like it,” he shrugged, then smiled brightly and added, “Cheers!”

To put it mildly, things like that do not happen in New York City…. 

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Moment in Time: The Thinking Man’s Profession?

A Lightbulb Moment as Some Woodworkers Learn About Ghostwriting

[This is my second post from Italy, where I’m traveling with Michael White, researching our upcoming book, along with Evan Sung, who’s shooting photographs for us. (First post is here.) I’ll be abroad through Thursday, July 19, so check back for further posts here in the Toqueland Wire.]

Michael White (second from right) and Evan Sung (far right) greet some craftsmen in Imola, Italy, July 12, 2012

While walking to our car in Imola yesterday, Michael, Evan, and I passed by a woodworking shop situated, rather charmingly, in the former home of a small church. Some of the craftsmen there fashioned the original woodwork for San Domenico restaurant when it opened way back in 1970, and they were old friends of Michael, who introduced Evan to the guys. They had no problem understanding when he told them that Evan was photographing his cookbook.

But when he introduced me and told them that I was writing his cookbook, he was met with quizzical glances. How could I be writing his book?

Michael explained, in Italian, the nature of our working relationship. The quizzical looks continued, so he kept explaining, until finally one of them got it. I only know a few words of Italian, but I understood perfectly what the concept-grasper said next:

“Ah,” he exclaimed.  “Tu pense e lui scrive!” You think and he writes!

Everybody cracked up, and after a second, so did I: It was the perfect, five-word explanation that eluded the food-writing world a few months back.

Esatto,” I said. Exactly!

- Andrew

 

Local Hero

Maybe Michael White Really Is Italian After All

[This is the first of several posts from Italy, where I’m traveling with Michael White, researching and photographing our upcoming cookbook. I’ll be here through Thursday, July 19, so check back for further posts.]

Michael White, talking and gesturing like a pro, Tre Monti, Italy, July 13, 2012

When people remark on how much Michael White loves Italy, he’s apt to go them one better, replying that “I am Italian.”

Uttered in the concrete canyons of midtown Manhattan, where Michael is the chef of restaurants such as Marea and Ai Fiori, and of Osteria Morini and Nicoletta further downtown, the line seems like a bit of a joke. If there’s one thing this perennially pale, hulking, former offensive tackle from Beloit, Wisconsin isn’t, it’s Italian.

At least that’s the logical and literal truth of the matter. But spend a few days in Italy with Michael, as photographer Evan Sung (who’s shooting our forthcoming cookbook) and I have been doing this week, and you might be left with the impression that Michael’s birthplace and nationality are mere technicalities and that he is, in fact, Italian.

I had my first inking of this when he picked us up at the Bologna airport Tuesday. He’d come out a week early to do some advance work for our photo shoots and spend some time with his wife Giovanna, and their young daughter, who are summering here. (Gio is a bona fide Italian; they met when Michael worked at the original San Domenico in Imola for a span of several years in the 1990s.)

Having spoken almost nothing but Italian for a week, Michael had a tough time reverting to English. “We have to get on the … the–” he said, trailing off. “Sorry, guys. I’ve been speaking Italian for a week. My English is—“ he made a gesture, indicating “gone.” Finally, the elusive word came bubbling to mind: “Highway! We have to get on the highway.”

Those hand gestures were more exaggerated than they were back in New York just a week prior, as well–more proof of his true nationality?

But linguistic amnesia and a tendency to speak with his hands, was nothing next to the nonstop evidence of his true identity we experienced over the next several hours as we saw Michael walk in and around our hotel in the hills of Dozza, through the kitchen of San Domenico, and in and around the streets of Imola. I’ve never been to Beloit with Michael, but Imola is his hometown as surely as any other place could possibly be. Shopkeepers stop and wave at him, and the chef and waiters at the hotel pool all know him (he never worked there, but this is, to put it mildly, a small and intimate area). What’s more, Michael recently shepherded Tony Bourdain around the region for an upcoming No Reservations episode, and the visit garnered some local media attention, so Michael is also a bit of a celebrity; strangers stop and subtly point at him, or nod in his direction as he passes by.

Word of Michael’s success in the States has spread around his old circle of friends and acquaintances, and they stop him and speak Italian, adapting his American name from the rather innocuous “Michael” to a heavily accented, affectionate, and emphatic “MY-KOL” that seems to have an exclamation mark as part of its spelling.

Everybody here seems to know that Michael’s back in America, in New York, and that he operates a lot of restaurants. They ask him how many, and he tells them. The one they all know about is Osteria Morini, named for his mentor, San Domenico’s founder Gianluigi Morini, which tickles them.

Michael White and Gianluigi Morini, circa 1994. This picture sits in the San Domenico dining room today.

Thanks to his network of friends here, our work has been made relatively easy: we borrowed an outdoor space next to San Domenico to shoot dishes for the book Wednesday (more on that later), and the restaurant’s kitchen has been available to us whenever we need it. Today, we’re shooting at a spectacular outdoor patio that belongs to a friend of his, and most of the mise en place and prep was provided and seen to by San Domenico’s chef Valentino Marcattilii (more on him later, too) who surprised Michael by taking the day away from his own kitchen to come with us and help his old charge prep food for photographs.

I’m writing this post from the patio pictured at the top of this post, the one where we’re shooting today. (That’s Valentino on the right in his chef’s whites). We’re having dinner at San Domenico tonight and tomorrow we push off for a day in Bologna, and then on to Campagna, which will be our base for the next five days. I myself am already getting a little homesick for Imola, and not just because of the incredible hospitality that’s been heaped upon us and the fact that nothing like it awaits us in the south. I’ve come to understand what this place means to Michael, and can only imagine how hard it’s going to be to push off. It’s a contagious feeling.

- Andrew

 

Chefs’ Holidays: You Are There

(Sort-Of) Live Blogging Two Days at the Ahwahnee with Chefs Rick Moonen, Jesse Cool, and Jimmy Bradley

Having written a single, summary piece of my first session at the Ahwahnee this week, I’ve decided to try something different for the next two days: As the chefs (Jimmy Bradley, Jesse Cool, and Rick Moonen) conduct demos and Moonen prepares a five-course dinner for Thursday night, I’ll periodically update this post with glimpses of the cooking demos, socializing, and cooking as it all unspools.

(NOTE: I’m not sure which version of this will be sent out to email subscribers by the automated system, so if you’re reading this post via a subscription, you might want to visit the actual site page for the latest update.)

Here goes:

Wednesday Morning, 10am: Stalking the Green Papaya

We actually begin our adventure with a little ingredient drama from Tuesday, when Rick, who showed up a few days early with his girlfriend Roni Fields and his chef de cuisine from rm seafood in Las Vegas, Chris Starkus, realized that there wasn’t enough green papaya in the house for both his cooking demo today and the gala dinner tomorrow. (Hey, these things happen: happy diners who were moaning over Chef Peter Chastain’s dinner last night would be shocked to learn that the perfectly poached and chilled lobsters we were chowing down on at 7pm hadn’t been delivered to the kitchen until 4:30pm. These kinds of things happen to chefs, and are recovered from, every day.)

Rick Moonen in the Ahwahnee Kitchen, Tuesday afternoon.

The Ahwahnee, located as it is in the middle of a national park, couldn’t procure the necessary papaya on such short notice, so the other toques did what any respectable chefs would do in the same situation: they broke out their cell phones and bailed Rick out.

The final solution: Emily Luchetti, who was part of the Chefs’ Holidays session that wrapped up last night, had her San Francisco restaurant Waterbar order a crate of the precious cargo, which was set to arrive by 9am today in the city. At 10am, Jimmy Bradley, of The Red Cat, is to swing by the restaurant on his way out of town, put the crate in the trunk, and haul it up here for arrival this afternoon. (Can you hear the Mission impossible theme as you read this? No? OK, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic.)… 

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Hotel California

Notes from Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee, Part 1

Sean Baker introduces himself to Chefs' Holidays attendees. (photo by Jessica Abdo, courtesy Ahwahnee Hotel)

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, JANUARY 17, 2011—It’s not right to generalize but I’ve long felt that it’s a victim-less crime when you do so in a positive way, like when you say that you love Italians (which I do) or Australians (guilty, again) or that you never met a meanie from Seattle (seriously, the CEOs in that city will give you a lift to the airport).

I know too much about the cooking trade to believe for a second that all Northern California chefs are nice guys and gals, but the three I’ve been with since Sunday night—Sean Baker, Peter Chastain, and Emily Luchetti—tempt me toward that conclusion nonetheless. The four of us just wrapped up Session 3 of Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee, a magnificent hotel in Yosemite National Park, where the chefs conducted cooking demos and I acted as moderator and host.

Having arrived in San Francisco on Saturday, the “work week” (yeah, right) began for me on Sunday when Luchetti, executive pastry chef of Farallon and Waterbar, picked me up at the Huntington Hotel, perched high atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Emily and I had never met before, but she was kind enough to give me a lift from the city up to Yosemite.

The four-hour drive passed remarkably quickly. Not only was it a beautiful, sunny, unseasonably warm day, but we had the benefit of being total strangers. We discussed everything from the restaurant scene in our respective cities to writing books (Emily has penned six) to the Beard Foundation (Emily recently served on the board; I was married at the Beard House in Manhattan) to the French Culinary Institute (she’s currently a dean; I studied there).

Emily was also kind enough to consent to a lengthy interview in which we discussed everything from the pastry arts in general to her individual career path; she walked me through the formative days of Stars restaurant, one of the most important American dining establishments of the past 40 years, the place where Jeremiah Tower reached full flight and became one of our first celebrity chefs. Emily was part of the opening team of Stars as a line cook, but tired of the savory slog, and with Tower’s support, began transitioning to pastry, eventually becoming executive pastry chef.  Wasn’t it nice of Jeremiah to encourage such a drastic change?… 

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Postcard from San Francisco: Where’s the Beef?

Talking Meat, Eating Veggies, at Nopa Restaurant

Jimmy Bradley, left, and I 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…. 

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