For most restaurateurs, it's simply about gluttony. But James and Wendy Porter of Petite Maison in Scottsdale are gluttons for punishment. There's no other explanation for why they would invite Chow Bella contributors to work both the front of the house and the kitchen on a weekend, and during Arizona Restaurant Week. Today: Zach Fowle mans the soufflés. Later this week, Lauren Saria shares her experiences as hostess and Wendy Porter offers the view from the other side.
Most people in the restaurant industry are of the opinion that everybody who wishes to eat in a restaurant should, at some point in his or her life, work in one. The idea is that after this compulsory period of service-industry work, of sweating in a hot kitchen or getting shit on by whiny customers while working hours that get you home for bed at a time when others are just waking up, you'll be a little more likely to treat your servers with respect, a little more willing to wait an extra few minutes for your meal, and a little more appreciative of the precision required to make your experience -- and that of each of the dozens of diners also flowing through the restaurant that night -- perfect.
"There's a lot more involved in running a restaurant than the pictures of the food, the good and bad reviews, and the uneducated opinions that come out," James Porter, chef-owner of Petite Maison says to me on the afternoon I've come in to work my shift at the Old Town eatery. "Those are all the things that we deal with on a daily basis -- this whole sea of people who are experts but have never actually worked in a kitchen."
I know, I say. It's why I'm here.
The hardships of working in a restaurant can't really be told -- at least not by those who've done it for years and are somewhat immune. They've got to be experienced. And Chow Bella, always willing to put its overeager contributors where our mouths are, has dispatched me for just this purpose. Having never spent an instant on the working side of a restaurant, I'm to spend an entire night working for one of the most well-respected -- and demanding -- in the city. And during Spring Restaurant Week, no less.
"This is a great time for you to come, because we're going to be totally, extremely busy," Chef Porter says. "The stress level will probably brim at about 98 percent. But it's been going on for a week now. Everybody's tired already. At least we're not tired and hungover, like I was yesterday."
So I've got that going for me, which is nice. Still, I'm expected to work.
"The only way you're going to be able to see this is if you actually jump in and do it. I've done this long enough that we know where to throw the life preservers -- close enough that you'll have to paddle your ass to reach them. You're not going to die, and you're not going to physically get hurt or hit or whatever, but those paddles are going to be stationed around you at more than a swimming pool's length. We're not going to let you go down, but we want you to actually see what it's like. It wouldn't be as fun or as informative if you just stood around and watched everyone work."
Cool. Any more words of encouragement?
"Yeah. You're going to work with really sharp knives. We've got a lot of Band-Aids. You cut yourself? Oh, well. You cut yourself really bad, we'll Super Glue it and duct tape it, then you'll go back out there, because we've already counted you as a body tonight and we need you to perform. It's not like you can cut yourself and, oops, story's over. We gave somebody the night off so you could fill his position." Properly motivated, I make my way to the prepping area -- which is not in the kitchen, since Petite Maison's kitchen area isn't much bigger than the one in your home. "This isn't a hotel; it's more like a French country shanty," Porter says. There are multiple buildings -- the prep area is a converted storage unit behind the restaurant.
I get washed and suited up -- chef's coat, apron, and bandanna -- and say hi to the guys: Chef de Cuisine David Bowman, Berto, Shane. They've been briefed on what's going on that night and they all have tasks for me. First, I dole out a mixture of salmon and mushroom and roll it inside crepes. Next, I chop some bread, then chop some beets, then pour out and label a few packages of creme anglaise. I even do a bit of dynamite spatula work, folding egg whites into some batter that will eventually become the night's souffle.
And then about 5 o'clock, everybody migrates into the kitchen. We pack ourselves in like sardines, each man to a station, each with an assigned array of dishes. There's some conversation, morale is high. Soon, the printer spits out the first order of the night. A silence drops over the kitchen as the chef reads. Then, we cook.
The speed at which these guys operate is insane. At home, a meal might take me three or four hours to prepare; these meals are cooked up in minutes and done at flavor and presentation levels I'll never reach. Drawers and oven doors open and close smoothly -- these guys seem to communicate telepathically, each knowing where the other is and what he requires. It's a beautiful dance.
For a good portion of the night, things go swimmingly. I'm watching and learning the steps to each dish; I step in when asked and get out of the way when I need to. Time flies by, and at my next glance at the clock three hours have gone by, easy peasy. I'm even learning the lingo.
"I have three crepes, four beef, four monkeys, five souffles all day," Chef Porter calls out.
"Three crepes, five souffles all day, chef. Can I get dessert runners on 38?"
"Do it, baby. Runners on 38!"
But the restaurant is a machine, and each part of the mechanism needs to operate correctly for it to work. One monkey wrench in the works and the whole thing gets backed up. Our monkey wrench came in the form of a new server, who at around 8:30 started getting his table numbers confused. Those dessert souffles somehow made their way to table 48, another diner got beef when he ordered halibut, an entire table was still waiting on their first course to arrive. These screw-ups obviously create problems for the server who committed them -- he was fired that night -- but they cause utter chaos in the kitchen. Chefs are told to create dishes "on the fly," meaning get them cooked up as quickly as humanly possible. The cards hanging in front of us are now meaningless -- Chef Porter simply calls out dishes and implores us to cook while he sorts out the madness.
After that, things never seem to slow down. "This is when it gets a little crazy," Shane whispers conspiratorially. The orders continue to pour in -- course after course after course, tables of five, six, seven, eight people who each want their meals done slightly differently. At one point, I have 20 souffles in the oven, each cooking at its own pace.
It's past 11 and still the orders come. Who eats this late? I want to bash the receipt printer with a mallet each time it screeches out fresh demands. I can't say Chef Porter didn't warn me: "I will tell you that when it comes to the amount of work and just actual physical hours involved, this is probably one of the worst positions besides maybe a guard watchman out on some ship out in the Arabian Sea."
But through it all, we cook. As temperatures and tempers rise, we cook. We cook until after midnight, when the last order goes out the door. By the end, oddly enough, I'm not reaIly feeling like I've actually become part of the unit, which Chef Porter warned would happen. "You're going to see this miraculous camaraderie that comes together while you're back there, this nonstop strain," he says. "It's like the steeplechase that doesn't end. We keep running and running and running, and we get close to the finish line, and then we get over it, and we drink a beer and call it a day and get back and sleep for a few hours and get ready to do it again."
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When I finally do make it out of the kitchen, I try to jot down some notes for this article. I want to document how I feel. I want to write down the ways my view of the job cooks do has changed. I want to share how, from this point on, I'll give the guys working the ovens the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the food and its correspondence to my subjective level of quality.
Mostly, though, what I want is some bourbon. I turn my head (the creak in my neck will feel much worse in the morning), reach out my arm (now streaked with burns from encounters with the oven), and order some.
It was possibly the best damn glass of bourbon I've ever tasted. A hard night's work will do that.