Editor's note: This is the third and final installment in a series of columns about Denver restaurant Luca d'Italia. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first two.
Every artist considers a canvas' size and shape before making the first brush stroke. The wrong choice and the subject matter won't shine. Same is true for culinary artists. The serving piece - bowl or plate - influences the perception of the first sense - sight - perceived by a diner's brain. This is the part of the dining process where a lovely presentation on the right size and shape plate or bowl can help secure a "thumb's up" from diners.
Let's think for a moment that you're dining at Luca d'Italia in Denver and you order one of my favorites, the Olathe corn agnolotti. Chef-restaurateur Frank Bonanno and his executive chef Hunter Pritchett gave thought to which piece of dinnerware they will use for this prima piatto (first course) of smoked lobster brodo, laughing bird shrimp and black garlic. Turns out it's a lovely white bowl with a large rim and small "cup" in which the dish is placed. Your eye will be drawn to the focal point, the small in size, but large in flavor, pillows of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli and traditional to Piemonte. Did you think about the bowl's shape? Probably not, but had it been in a large pasta bowl and spread out in a thin layer rather than having a pleasing vertical dimension, the presentation would not have gotten your brain firing "yum yum" signals. You're now saying, "Where are we going with this, Suzanne?" Straight to the dishwasher is where.
Keeping the 'canvas' supply going
After a hot afternoon of prepping and an even hotter beginning of service slicing beef tendons and watching Pritchett and his team, I was getting a little fidgety. I was weary of jumping out of the way and praying I didn't bump into someone rushing to serve a plate of suckling pig porchetta, grilled baby octopus "Romesco" or some other chefs' delight. I needed a task! And fast.
Unlike most kitchens I've worked this year, Luca's is small and compact. The corner dishwashing area is near the action, not in some far-flung space. It's a short and efficient assembly line that begins where servers drop off used plates and glasses and ends on the shelves at the hot line. In the middle of it all is dishwasher Gus Murilo.
Without fail, each orientation kitchen tour I've had included saying "hi" to the dishwashers, the unsung heroes of the culinary family. Most chefs declare, "This is the most important part of my kitchen." And I learned that it truly is. For months I've wanted to experience this important process that insures a constant flow of pots, pans and utensils for cooking, dinnerware for plating and stemware for drinking.
As I saw racks of clean items start to build up, I saw my opportunity. I grabbed a kitchen towel and set about drying plates, glasses, pans and everything else the dishwashing machine was spitting out. This was the best opportunity help with dishwashing while staying in the center of action. And, I might add, my close proximity to Chef Pritchett meant a steady stream of tasting portions of delectable savory and sweet dishes, from the ricotta and English pea gnudi to the Olathe corn ice cream.
Chefs Bonanno and Pritchett have at their disposal about 15 different dinnerware pieces from which to choose. There's no room for error here. Each menu item has its pre-assigned "canvas" size and shape that must be at the ready when the eight minutes it takes for the chefs to produce an order are up. Therefore, the turnover has to be quick and efficient.
Each time I restocked the shelves, I had to squeeze past the chef garde-manger through the door into the narrow passageway where servers were swiftly dropping off orders and picking up finished plates. I lost track of how many times I called out, "behind you!" or "corner!" But I was hoarse by the end of the night. I quickly saw a pattern developing. From the plates coming through, I could discern where we were in service.
At first, small square amuse-bouche plates and the small round white ones for housemade focaccia and grissini came through in droves then suddenly stopped. Soon, bowls and plates used for antipasti, insalata and primi piatti started appearing. The four chefs at the hotline - Pritchett, Seth Reaback, Andrew Boyer and Eric Cimino - use many of the same dishes for secondi (main courses) so the dash to restock shelves was key to keeping the line going smoothly. All the while, Murilo was making stealth dashes behind the hotline to turn the 32 saute pans - French cast iron and standard sautes - in constant use. This was not something I wanted to do since there were far too many opportunities for disastrous collisions with chefs and servers. But Murilo did it expertly, all the while smiling and getting "thank you" backslaps from the chefs.
'We're all on borrowed time'
I wasn't watching the clock so I had no way of knowing the time. Until, that is, the amuse-bouche and bread plates reappeared. The cycle began again. The 7:30 p.m. second seating was now underway.
By the time Pritchett plated the night's last order, chefs and cooks were breaking down their stations. The slowing pace signaled the night was drawing to a close. Counting would have been an impossible task, but Pritchett informed me that on busy nights he turns the entire inventory of 80 plates and 100 glasses four times. Mind you, the glasses not only have to be washed and dried, but polished, too. A lot of manpower to set a table at Luca! What Pritchett's key to keeping up on dishware? "Stay organized and be ruthlessly efficient."
Working beside Murilo had been quite an unexpected, but enjoyable, experience for me. He couldn't have been kinder and more appreciative of the help. Like I witnessed in every kitchen, everyone showed appreciation to the dishwasher for his hard work in keeping the process flowing smoothly. Everything the restaurant uses runs through Murilo's station and yet, with the heavy usage, on average there is only one chip or break every three weeks.
Sometime during the evening, as I observed Pritchett and his team work seamlessly in the small, hot space that is the line, I asked him, "Why are there no older chefs in restaurants? Do they die young?" Without a heartbeat passing, Pritchett answered with a wry smile, "We're all on borrowed time." Which takes me back to Anthony Bourdain's book "Kitchen Confidential." This is a hard lifestyle. Yes, they are passionate artists although Bourdain doesn't like that moniker. But there's no doubt the late to bed, early to rise life of a chef - whether in a restaurant or as catering or private chef - takes a heavy toll on family life and health.
So, now that you've spent three weeks experiencing my 10 hours on a busy Saturday at Luca d'Italia, you have a greater appreciation for what it takes to create fine dining experiences. Considering Frank Bonanno has eight establishments in Denver, I appreciate even more what he gives of himself in helping to make the Denver culinary scene one of the best in America.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.