Kitchen Quixote: When I Worked at Lockhart Smokehouse, pt. 1

Three minutes after this photo, this face discovers what happens to dewy eyes when they get hit by a wall of Post Oak-fueled smoke.

Getting ready for the New Year. Time for a weeklong KQ redux..

I have dropped the brisket. It is forever ruined.

It’s the middle of the lunchtime rush at Lockhart Smokehouse, there is a Mardi Gras parade going on right outside the door, and 20 people – some sober, some not so much – are in line waiting to get their serving of smoked meat, a quarter pound of which I just dropped on the floor, causing a reboot for that customer’s entire meal prep.

“Oh. I guess that’s why we’re supposed to use the table scraper,” I say to Pitmaster Will Fleischman, whose efforts I have just managed to  successfully impede.

I think he says something like yup – I couldn’t tell, it was under his breath – but in the brief moment he looked up to see who it was that dropped the brisket, his expression was far more elaborate.

Oh. You. I knew this was a bad idea.

It was something to that effect, at least. I was only inferring.

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Sometime around the beginning of February, I had contacted Lockhart co-owner Jill Bergus with an idea I’d wanted to pursue since the inception of Entree Dallas. It would be a series called Kitchen Quixote, and it would be about the realities of working in professional kitchens from the unlearned perspective of someone with no substantive (discovered) kitchen talents or professional experience. She talked to her husband (co-owner Jeff Bergus) and pitmasters Fleischman and Tim McLaughlin, and somehow none of them had the good sense to talk her out of it, as the following emails illustrate:

Jill: Tim just shot me back they could use the help this Sunday with the Mardi Gras events going.  You up for that? Fair warning, it will be a long day! 9 a.m.-ish

Me, naively: Absolutely!

Jill: Pitmaster Will just upped your call time to 8:30 a.m., was the response.

Me, still very naively: Can do! Try to imagine my head bobbing happily as I respond. Today, life is a lark.

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Lockhart Pitmaster Will Fleischman. (Entree Dallas)

But today, people still want to eat meat, and huge amounts of it. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and there’s still a line of 20 people. Yes, the line moves, but it always stays the same length. It’s like some sort of awful miracle. Thankfully, my brisket-dropping shenanigans have ceased, and we’re moving pretty well. Will is still there slicing, and it is my duty to take the meat off the block where he is slicing and chopping it, wrap it, prepare the hot sides, and make sure the right food arrives to Vanessa, the cashier, when the right customer is at the register. I then tell her which meat is wrapped in what (sausage and chicken don’t get weighed, they get sold by the piece), and then wrap the entire meal, with some white bread, in a larger piece of parchment paper. I do, on occasion, fall behind and Vanessa has to open up a piece I’ve wrapped to confirm its contents, but I rest assured knowing that I am no longer actively destroying the inventory.

I realize that doing this right seems easy, and to an extent it is. But doing it exactly right every time – through hundreds of customers every day – is not. And rest assured, someone will notice every time you don’t do it exactly right. Will and JP Shanks – a chef at Lockhart who is also helping to show me the ropes today – are pretty good at getting it exactly right every time, which is precisely why I’m wrapping and they’re cutting.You can’t uncut brisket. And for that matter, you can’t undrop it, either, but I’m pretty sure everyone’s forgotten that little incident. Bygones and such, right?

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 It’s slower now, for the moment – just past four o’clock, and it feels like I just got here. The line is gone, and Will and JP are talking about an incident earlier in the day: with a full line behind him, one of the more inebriated customers ordered three dollars and sixty-one cents’ worth of burnt ends – even after being repeatedly informed that Lockhart wasn’t even selling burnt ends that day. Wanting to keep the line moving, JP chopped up some bark (the brisket crust) and some loose meat and served it to him. The man watched, approved, and happily went back to the party with his handful of  ‘burnt ends.’

Now, JP and Will laugh about it. It’s just another story in a day full of them. Dropped brisket, a shortage of sausage, 20-minute waits at the line; those are all old hat to these two – even Vanessa looks around as if nothing has just happened.

“I’ve worked in regular kitchens before, and sometimes, when you’re in the weeds and those orders keep coming, you get really pissed off at the tickets,” Will says later. “But without that fourth wall here, it’s a different kind of pressure. It’s fun; it’s tangible. You see the people you’re serving, and it makes it so much more rewarding to be able to interact and talk with them.”

Meanwhile, I’m trying not to collapse. I wait for them to throw me some sort of celebration for not ruining their Mardi Gras – I’m not looking for a medal ceremony or anything – maybe a round of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, or something like that. Somewhere around 600 pounds of meat was served today, and I helped to serve a large portion of it. The dropped brisket was the only real error – if a professional baseball player had that high a percentage of successful fielding opportunities, he’d win a Gold Glove every year.

The best deviled eggs that an online writer in Lockhart’s kitchen has ever prepared. (Entree Dallas)

Finally, JP walks up. I realize that I am about to bask in the glory of a compliment from someone in the actual industry. I prepare my Humble Aw-Shucks Face.

“So,” he says. “How was it?”

How was it? His question reminds me that the day is now past tense, and no matter how hands-on they let me get, I am just a tourist in their kitchen. When I’m done with this idea of mine, I go back to my computer and write; I’ll move on to other stories and other restaurants and other people. I’ll write some more stories with my birds-eye view until someone else lets me into their kitchen for a few days to get some more ‘perspective’ about how little I – and most customers – actually know about the workings of a restaurant. I’ll leave knowing that while this is their job and their livelihood, this is just a story for me and whoever reads it.

How was it? I’ve worked in the kitchen, I’ve worked at the counter, and I’ve made a mess and helped clean up a little on the way. I have done everything needed to write a story about a day behind the scenes at Lockhart Smokehouse. It is the first time I have ever been in a professional kitchen, and it has been enlightening, physically exhausting and mentally taxing. I rest assured knowing there’s nothing more I could have possibly fit into the day.

“How was it?” I repeat. “It was awesome.”

“Glad to hear it,” he replies. “You coming back tomorrow?”

The question wasn’t expected, but I didn’t even need to consider the answer.

“Yeah,” I say, rationalizing that a tourist can’t be blamed for wanting to stay a little longer.

“What time do you want me here?”

Kitchen Quixote – When I Worked At Lockhart Smokehouse, Part 2

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