From the ﬁrst movement to the ﬁnal behind scenes at Larkspur
July 15, 2012
Since last we “spoke,” I made corn “tea” described in part one of my behind the scenes experiences at Larkspur Restaurant in Vail. As text-savvy teens would write – OMG! It was wonderful. So easy to make and such a joy to drain the last lovely flavors from corncobs I stripped to make corn pudding. Never again will you see me leaving papery husks and delicate strands of corn silk in the trash bin at City Market! I used part of the “tea” as a boiling liquid for barley and froze the rest for my “gumbo zee herbs.”
So, with that said, now come back with me to Larkspur.
After four intense hours of prepping, the pace picked up as chefs and line cooks prepared their stations in the open kitchen. Each station was stocked with food products, utensils and pots and pans needed for cooking or finishing dishes. Dishwashers, whom I consider the linchpins of the kitchen because they fill the constant need for clean pots and pans, had cleared the decks and were ready for plates, glasses and cutlery to flow in. Family meal had ended, Chef Richard Hinojosa had briefed the wait staff, and wine glasses were given a final check and polish. Dinner service was beginning. Showtime!
As the Dallas Symphony played its first movement of a Brahms concerto at nearby Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, diners arrived at Larkspur. Chef David Bielecki was sending me out to the front line to assist at the garde-manger for service. I grabbed my overused black Moleskine journal and quickly completed my prepping notes. No time for note taking, just work. Our own performance was beginning.
Like most words in the culinary language, the origin of garde-manger is French. From the two verbs garder (to keep) and manger (to eat) we get “keep to eat.” I won’t take you now through the history of the term and how it has morphed through time, but in brief, it’s the cold (or salad) station in a restaurant kitchen. At Larkspur, like most large restaurants, it’s the place where the amuse bouche and first courses are plated. Although it is considered a starting point for cooks when they are first put on the line, I believe it is a vital part of the process. One disaster or even minor disappointment can taint the entire dining experience.
In the first day of trial advocacy, law students learn the rule of primacy and recency: start strong, finish strong. The first and last statements jurors hear are crucial to winning at trial. Same in a restaurant. The amuse bouche is meant to “amuse” the mouth. If it isn’t amused, that’s a little stumble. But if the first course fails, that’s a face-plant. The ensuing courses will have to be beyond perfect to regain the diner’s interest. It’s now up to the next chefs on the line – saute, grill and so on – to put the dining experience back on a positive track. With luck, they will order dessert and give the pastry chef an opportunity to save the evening. At least that’s been my dining experience.
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Cooks Collin Elwell and Dustin Pauls were already busy shucking oysters and plating hors d’oeuvres for a private dinner for 41 when I joined them. I believe initially they were a bit leery of my presence on the line. For them, it was probably akin to going into battle with an unknown soldier. I watched their body language for any signs of displeasure, but none were present. Quite the contrary. The level of trust and support they showed me, plus the patient, albeit occasionally urgent, voice of Bielecki, gave me the confidence to stand my ground at garde-manger and not retreat as I had in another restaurant. As orders came in, Elwell, Paul and I soon worked fluidly in the roughly 5-foot-by-3-foot area. It was the first night for Hinojosa, but it seemed to me as though he had been there forever. Hinojosa and operations manager Allana Smith served as expos (expediters) to insure orders came out on time, in correct sequence and properly plated.
My first task was to plate and garnish the amuse bouche, Bielecki’s fresh corn soup. Amazing how daunting pouring two ounces of creamy soup into a 3-inch-long, boat-like cup could be as I tried not to drip or overfill. I soon got the hang of it. Finishing the first thing diners would taste that evening gave me a sense of accomplishment. Don’t roll your eyes, chefs. I’m a novice and I take very seriously each task entrusted to me. I quickly graduated to finishing plates of carpaccio, tuna crudo and frying up Parmesan croutons for Caesar salads.
Some background on carpaccio. I often hear people say, “Why does relatively uncooked beef cost so much?” Here’s why. Larkspur’s carpaccio has nine components: certified Angus beef, ground Schezuan and tellicherry peppercorns, star anise, sesame ponzu, thinly sliced avocado, radish from the Larkspur garden, Tobiko wasabi caviar and pickled baby shiitake. As if that wasn’t enough, the sesame ponzu is made from freshly pressed jalapeno and Braeburn apple juices, mirin, yuzu juice, ginger, rice-wine vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, grapeseed and sesame oils. That means, to get this plate to you, the diner, 20 ingredients must come together. It doesn’t all happen at the garde-manger.
Earlier in the day, beef is cleaned and rubbed with the peppercorns and star anise before being seared at high heat in a large rondeau with a little oil to caramelize the exterior without cooking the interior. The seared beef is chilled, thinly sliced and plated. Each plate is double wrapped to prevent oxidation, dated and placed in the walk-in. Before service, plates are moved to the garde-manger refrigerator. But that’s not the end of it. The sesame ponzu and toppings – five items in all – are all added just before serving. By the time the diner sees it, three cooks or chefs, one expediter and a server have had a role in creating and presenting the dish. Do the math on the labor and materials.
I quickly lost track of how many carpaccio and tuna crudo I plated. Both dishes were in big demand, requiring me to restock the refrigerator. I probably fried to order close to 80 Parmesan croutons. The few dashes I made to the walk-in required negotiating three corners, each time having to call out “corner” to avoid disastrous crashes.
When we finished breaking down our station, my night was sadly over. Needless to say, by the time I got home, I was hoarse, my feet hurt and my back was sore, but I was happy. What a fabulous experience! Owner-chef Thomas Salumonvich and his team could not have been kinder. My mind was brimming with newfound recipes and techniques they had taught me. Once again, I had been graciously and warmly welcomed into the behind-the-scenes world of a Vail Valley restaurant. And I was all the better for it. So where to next?
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 http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.