Kitchen Quixote: When I Worked At The Grape, Part 2

Rich Vana works in The Grape kitchen for Sunday Brunch, where his secret hopes of being an uninvolved bystander are soon put to rest.

Rich Vana works in The Grape kitchen for Sunday Brunch, where his secret hopes of being an uninvolved bystander are soon put to rest.

When I Worked At The Grape, Part 1

Rich! Come here!

I’m on edge. The command makes me jump. It  is 9:37 on Sunday morning in the kitchen of The Grape. Brian and Courtney Luscher’s 90-seat restaurant on Greenville is about to feed 250 people in 5 hours, around half of whom will be ordering the Classic Cheeseburger. I will be working the grill today, and my relative lack of experience in a restaurant setting (see: none) has me questioning my nerve, my resolve, and to some extent, my sanity. I walked into the kitchen this morning expecting that I would be yelled at today. I didn’t know it would happen so soon.

I turn around to respond to Brian, who is already repeating the command.

“Come here! Hurry up!”

I hasten to his location and eagerly inquire what’s expected of me. Brian hands me a quarter of a Belgian waffle.

“Here. Eat this.”

“This?” I ask, holding the waffle, noticing that he’s perched over the trash can, eating what appears to be another quarter of said waffle.

“Yes. That. Here’s the syrup. Make sure you get a little in each square.”

My confusion, however, does not stem from the question of how one should apply syrup to a waffle. Everyone knows that the only way to properly use syrup with a waffle is to ensure every square has a judicious serving distributed within it. The syrup situation is not of concern to me. My present quandary has more to do with why I am eating a waffle at all, and I pursue this line of inquiry with Brian.

“It’s good luck,” he says.

I promptly consume the waffle.

———————————————————-

Brian will, in fact, be working the grill ‘with’ me. More accurately I expect the reality of the situation to be the other way around. I have never worked at a grill in a professional kitchen, and to have my first experience be at The Grape – during a Sunday brunch when they’re serving The Burger – leaves me heavily daunted, regardless of who will be standing next to me. As 10:30 approaches, he runs through the plan.

Okay, we turned the grill on at 10, so it will be hot by 10:20, when we’ll put the first batch on.

We call the Breakfast on a Bun a Bobo – when you hear ‘Bobo!’ take one of the sausages from over here and put it on the griddle.

Keep the cheese for the Bobos here, and the cheese for the burgers here.

Two slices of cheese for the Bobos. Arrange them like this.

When Chuy calls for Haystack, grab a roesti and put them on the griddle – he likes them on this side.

The trout and salmon are in here – bread them here.

Wash your hands here.

After several minutes, I ask the only question Brian hasn’t seemed to answer yet. How long do I cook the burgers?

“Use the force.”

I smile, waiting for a real answer. He looks at me as if he’s already given me the real answer. I raise an eyebrow. It does the trick.

“I’ve been doing this long enough that I know when they’re ready to be flipped and when they’re ready to be taken off – you can’t just say ‘three and a half minutes for medium rare,’ because there are days that the grill is hotter than others, he explains to me. “There was a really cold Sunday last year, and everyone in the neighborhood was running their gas heaters, so our grill, which is on the same line, wasn’t nearly as hot as it usually is. You can’t just time it. You have to know. Use The Force.”

I smile weakly and muster the most confident laugh possible.

“Cool,” I say. “I can do that.”

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There’s not a whole lot of room in the kitchen during service, but (from left) Maria, Lazaro, Juanie, Brian and Chuy (behind Brian) all seem to get where they need to be with no problems. (Rich Vana)

The grill is hot, and the kitchen is, too. An hour ago, just before The Grape opened for lunch, Brian told me to keep an eye out for Juanie Juarez during service. She may not look it, he says, but she’s a force to be reckoned with. I see what he means. As Chuy Cruz, the Kitchen Expeditor, plates dishes and pulls items off the grill and griddle, Juanie ducks in and out of the galley-style kitchen, juggling plates and dishes in and out of the oven, flipping frittatas – literally, flipping them three feet in the air and perfectly back into the pan – all while taking charge of the fries, polenta fritters, and chicken biscuits.

But it’s Chuy that astounds me. I’m not sure when he’s last looked behind him at the grill, griddle, oven and fryer, but he knows exactly how far everything is from being done. There are seven active, open orders of food being cooked at this very point, components of which come from every food group and every means of cooking them, and Chuy is acutely aware of the status of each . Not once does he fall behind – in fact, he never even looks hurried. He takes an extra moment to adjust the presentation of fries on the plate, and one happens to fall to the ground by the grill. Brian kicks it back into Chuy’s domain, and The Expeditor looks up and smiles. He’s done this before.

I am glad that the grill is located in the corner of the kitchen, as I become aware of just how new I am at this.

“Chef! I need two medium rare!”

Brian responds accordingly.

“Rich – two medium rare. Which ones are the medium rare?”

Brian has been next to me the entire time, yet this is the moment I’ve been dreading. They’re expecting me to do something helpful. I panic and start looking around. For some reason, I look for a medium-rare burger where the sausage patties are stored. No. I spin around and observe the grill. There they are, right in front of me. A quick recovery of the nerves ensues.

“These.”

I  apply the Cabot Cheddar to the patties. Brian covers them with a saucepan to melt the dairy. The cheese melts and I put the patty on the bun, which is already plated neatly with the vegetables and will have the fries next to it the second they are out of the fryer. I wonder if my initial display of ineptitude went unnoticed, and am quickly assured that it most certainly did not.

“You’re going to have to get better at this before the lunch rush,” Brian says as he hands me the spatula. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He puts eight more patties on the grill.

Beginner’s luck? That’s entirely possible.

“Okay, so you want me to …?” I ask.

“I want you to grill the burgers,” he responds as he walks away. “Remember The Force.”

I stare at the patties, spatula at the ready. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for – and if I’m honest with myself, slightly dreading. People are going to be having these for lunch, and expecting greatness at that. And it’s my job to deliver. I ponder the true culinary greatness that I have delivered in previous circumstances, and observe that the list is almost embarrassingly short.

Good job, Rich. I think. Way to inspire some confidence in yourself.

I am sure that the customers are going to start sending their burgers back and taking to Yelp in angry masses. I envision Nancy Nichols and Scott Reitz and Leslie Brenner all sitting at the same table, eating my burgers at the exact same time and spitting them out in a highly critical – yet sophisticated – manner. In my mind, they all agree that those were the most unprofessionally cooked burgers that they’d ever had, and with that mutual agreement they become best friends for the rest of their lives and go on long weekend trips to the Hill Country together.

I envision myself ruining the reputation of The Grape Burger.

But my melancholy scenario is interrupted. I think – I’m pretty sure – that the two burgers that were almost cooked to medium rare are now ready. I don’t analyze it, I just take them and put them on the buns.

“Good,” Chuy says. He preps the rest of the plate and it goes out.

“Yeah, those were good,” Brian agrees with Chuy. He’s been watching through the serving station. “I told you you could do this.”

I hit a rhythm. I don’t know if The Force is with me, but what I do know is that burgers expand when they’re cooking, and that the gradual expansion is indicative of their donenness. I know enough to tell that firmness is a telltale sign, too. I learn where the hottest part of the grill is.  When Chuy yells ‘Haystack!’ I respond by placing a roesti on the right side of griddle and a tomato on a cooler part of the grill; I then season it. If I hear ‘Bobo!’ I get the cheese ready and get a patty on the griddle.

When Brian comes back fifteen minutes later or so, he’s got a thermapen; it’s an instant-read thermometer. He puts it against my apron and it reads 128 degrees Fahrenheit. I had consumed nearly half a gallon of water, yet hadn’t even noticed the heat.

“Not bad,” he says. “But we’re about to get the lunch rush.”

He takes the spatula. I relinquish it gladly.

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Chuy makes the final adjustments to the burgers before the servers take them out. (Rich Vana)

Though Brian worked the busy-yet-manageable (for him) lunch rush, I would have several other stints working the grill that Sunday, but none as eventful or enlightening as the first. By the end of brunch, I will have consumed a gallon of water, two 32-ounce agua frescas and a quarter of a Belgian waffle. The thermapen, which Brian has left turned on and sitting behind him, will read 108F. Chuy is laughing – he has been cheerful the whole time, really – and is acting like what just happened didn’t entirely exhaust him. Maria Juarez, Lazaro Rodriguez and Juani – my companions through the week of kitchen prep – are cleaning up quietly, also looking particularly unmoved by the day’s work.

“That was a pretty easy one,” Brian says. “I’ve had times when I simply didn’t have room on the grill to fit more burgers, and what do you do then?”

I don’t know.

“You get creative,” he says without elaborating. “You want a burger?”

I’m not even close to hungry. I am hot and I am tired – exhausted. The payment for my labor was going to be The Best Burger in Texas, and now I don’t even want it. I tell Brian as much, and ask if I can take a rain check.

“We’ll have one for you next time you’re here,” he says.

I assure him that I appreciate it. Every bit of it.

About Rich Vana