Today was not your average Monday, or at least not the Monday I have gotten used to living.
Last week, the Owner decided the Inn would only be open for lunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We have been open everyday. Monday has been my day to run the kitchen, which meant getting to work early to do as much preparation as I can because we’ve usually used up most of everything over the weekend. Once the lunch service starts, I have to be line cook and prep guy. But today I was given the gift of time to get ready.
Chef called me late last night to tell me to come in at my regular time. As I expected, they had used everything up. “There’s no point in leaving a prep list,” he said. “Just make everything.” I left the house when Ginger did and got to the Inn around ten-thirty. I started pulling things out of the reach in refrigerators under the counters and then realized I had time to do something I never have time to do: clean. I pulled everything out of the reach in and put it all on the stainless steel counter top, and then got on my hands and knees and scrubbed the units to a shine. I wiped them down and then organized things as I put them back, taking note of what was missing and what needed to be replaced. By the time noon rolled around, I had done two things: changed the oil in the fryer and cleaned out all the reach ins. I had already had a productive day.
At the place I worked before the Inn, the restaurant was closed on Monday and two of the dishwashers had the job of breaking the kitchen down and cleaning everything. In a place that is all day everyday, we don’t have that option. (I don’t mean to imply we are cooking in squalor; the stuff just stacks up.) As I was wiping out one of the reach ins, I thought to myself, “This is what we need at home: a day when we are closed to clean and organize.” We do our best to get stuff done on the way to something else, but things stack up at home as well.
The other thing I thought about was the last page of The Soul of a Chef, which I finished this morning before I went to work:
This is the kind of satisfaction that people who truly love to cook are after. We seek, in our collective struggle, to learn more and to cook better, but we are in fact reaching for that connection to humanity that we’ve lost or maybe never had or simply want more of.
This connection will forever elude us until we learn to move deliberately, to take a long time, to make sure our counter is clean every night. And it will elude us if we ever lose sight of cooking’s fundamental importance to others.
The book ends with this sentence:
They were all great chefs; they never forgot for a moment what the work was all about: to cook for people and to make them happy.
One of those reasons those words kept rolling around in my head as I polished and prepped was I had gone to work this morning wanting to try something new I read in the book and knowing it was Monday night and I got to make up the special. We had pork chops that were begging to be used and I kept thinking about what kind of dish to create. We also had a bunch of zucchini, summer squash, and eggplant, which made me determined to try my hand at making a grilled vegetable terrine for the first time in my life. (It has to rest for at least a day. When I see if it worked or not, I’ll post the recipe.)
The Monday Night Special gives me the chance to inhabit Ruhlman’s words: I’m cooking to make people happy. My primary targets are the three servers who work with me on Mondays. Two of them are sisters and they hit the door every week asking what the special is. And every week at the beginning of the dinner service, I make one of the specials for them to share.
Tonight, I floured the pork chop and pan seared it and then put it in a sauté pan full of the sauce to finish. The sauce was a combination of the wild mushroom demi-glace with teriyaki red onion jam we use on the chicken in the function kitchen and the lemon sage cream sauce we use on the salmon. It struck me that all those tastes – the mushrooms, the demi, the onions, the lemon, the sage – would compliment the pork. Combining the brown sauce and the cream sauce would turn it into a gravy. I was on to some serious comfort food. I served it with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
I kept the tradition and put up one of the specials for the servers. One of the sisters came in , took one bite, said, “Oh, my God!” and promptly ate every last bit of it. The non-sister server got a bite of potatoes and gravy and asked for one of her own. When the second sister came in and got the reviews, she called her brother to come eat with her. He got there about eight and I made two more dinners, which they ate in the pub. Two people sitting with them at the bar heard their “yummy noises” and ordered pork chops as well. It really is what this work is all about: cooking for people and making them happy.
Tomorrow night I get to cook for my favorite customer: Ginger. Though her palate is plain, she is quite enthusiastic about what she likes. And, I’m happy to say, of the dishes she does like, she likes my versions best. This is a good way to spend a life.
Oh — and there’s a new recipe.