Kitchen Quixote: When I Worked At The Grape, Part 1

Brian Luscher (left) and Chuy Cruz (right) had to put up with Rich Vana for four days in The Grape kitchen. Somehow, it’s still standing.

When I Worked At Lockhart Smokehouse
When I Worked At Hypnotic Donuts

 

As Lazaro Rodriguez tries to explain to me why the man on the radio is weeping, I estimate another 10 ounces of ground beef and put it on the scale.

“He’s cries because he loves a woman, but she doesn’t love him anymore because of drugs – because he was doing drugs,” Lazaro says. “And now he doesn’t do them anymore, but she loves someone else.”

My estimate was off by half an ounce. I get another small piece and add it on for an even 10 and move on to the next one. The man continues to sob.

Te amo! Te amo! Te amo!

No translation needed there. The guy is clearly heartbroken. Drugs will do that, so I’ve heard. As the tragedy continues to unfold, Brian Luscher walks in, listens to what the radio is playing and says to me:

“Oh, lucky you – depressing Spanish poetry day, huh?”

I respond in the affirmative, and observe that if my Spanish teacher had done a better job when I was in high school, I might seem a little more appropriately moved by the man’s plight. I also ask if the kitchen staff at The Grape ever chooses to listen to music.

  “Oh, you’ll get the music, too – add another quarter ounce to that one. Perfect. Yeah, you’ll get the whole deal.”

I smile and grab another 10 ounces. By my count, I’ve only got a mere hundred and twenty seven hamburger patties yet to weigh.

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The story of The Grape‘s hamburger is a well-documented one. Formerly served only during Sunday brunch, Luscher would prepare 10-15 of them a week, and usually have a few left over – which he and the brunch staff would happily consume for lunch. But in 2009, Texas Monthly, with the words “…if ever there were a burger that could sitteth at the right hand of the Almighty, this would be the one,” they declared The Grape’s Classic Cheeseburger to be the singularly best burger in Texas. Within a week, orders for the Sunday-only dish shot from nine or ten to nearly two hundred – all served in the course of a few hours.

“Once the story came out, well, it was crazy,” says Luscher, Chef and co-owner of The Grape, along with his wife Courtney, who is the restaurant’s Sommelier and manager of the front of the house. “I had to hire someone to come in full-time just to do the prep – it’s a four-day process to get them done now.”

And that’s why I’m here. This week, I am responsible for The Grape Burger.

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Clearly, giving such a job to someone who willingly attaches Quixote to his title would be a careless endeavor;  more accurately, Lazaro – the man typically in charge of the burger prep – is responsible for me. Today we will be weighing the patties and then forming them. The process will take five hours.

As I get into the rhythm of shaping the burger – using a circular form to make sure each is the same size as the next – my momentum is slowed by Lazaro.

“No – like this,” he presses down on the patty with the top of his palm, clearly displeased with the finger-intensive approach I have been using. “Make sure it’s even.”

While it’s not great, Lazaro’s English is better than my Spanish, and his ability to communicate displeasure with my burger-making performance is uncanny. It is an ability he will display numerous times over the next few days. Without question, he is by all means a very friendly person, but he takes ownership of all aspects of this production.

“It’s a culture we try to cultivate, and they’re all really good about it,” says Luscher about his staff. “Any chef worth his salt will tell you that he can’t do this by himself, and to be any good, you’ve got to have a good staff. Everyone here knows what they’re supposed to do, and more importantly, they take pride in it.”

For example, there’s Friday’s prep work: the tomatoes, lettuce and onions. We will slice dozens of Lemley’s tomatoes, but not with the abandon I might have displayed with previous tomato-cutting performances in my life. These tomatoes will be precise. Exact.

“None of this,” Lazaro says as he traces an S-shape through the air.

“This.” He slashes his hand straight down.

Got it. Straight down.

Except I don’t have it. It was in seventh-grade shop that I first realized I am incapable of drawing a straight line, and it was in my third Kitchen Quixote that I learned I am incapable of cutting in one.

“Take your time,” Lazaro says. “It’s okay, just take your time.”

I do. The slices improve, though my pace flags. Lazaro might as well be pointing his finger at me and laughing as he slices effortlessly through tomato after tomato, turning out identical slices one after the other. He’ll occasionally grab one of mine and shave a little bit off, like a carpenter with a plane.

“Oh, that one wasn’t very good?” I’ll ask.

“No, it’s fine, keep going. Take your time.”

I don’t bother to mention that if it had been fine, he wouldn’t have needed to cut it again.

After the tomatoes, we continue that day to peel and slice 40 onions (I cry like a baby and everyone laughs at me), and to dismantle dozens of heads of Texas Hydroponic Bibb lettuce. We assemble two onion slices on top of three slices of lettuce, and top that with two tomato slices before seasoning the whole shebang with salt and pepper. After we do that somewhere around 200 times, we make the dijonnaise with mayonnaise, dijon mustard, honey and a few seasonings. Then the day is over. Tomorrow – Saturday – we will address the relatively easy issue of slicing the buns, and then Sunday I will be working the grill. I tell Brian that the prospect of doing so makes me nervous.

“Good,” he says. “You should be nervous.”

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From left: Lazaro, Juani, and Maria are my kitchen companions for my four days at The Grape.

The three days leading up to Sunday are revelatory for me. When I mentioned the story idea to Brian, I had in mind working a night or two at The Grape and then recounting the story. I met his initial suggestion – that I work three prep days and then a brunch – with hesitancy, thinking that I would miss out on the full story of how The Grape operates. As it turns out, my initial presumptions were once again proven wrong by a professional far more informed than myself.

It wasn’t just me and Lazaro in the kitchen for those three days; while the burger may take a half a week to prep for Sunday service, its popularity is a relatively new phenomenon. There’s still dinner to be served to a customer base with high expectations for Luscher’s restaurant, and each day when I walk in at 9 a.m., there’s already a crowd chopping, peeling, stirring and seasoning away, looking at me as if I’m the bird who’s missing the worm. There’s Juana ‘Juani’ Juarez, whose kind smile and small frame (she may stand at 4-foot-10 if she’s on her toes) – belie the heavy workload she’s capable of carrying, and Maria Juarez, whose concentration on whatever task at hand might be confused for shyness – especially when you point a camera in her direction (she’ll laugh and try to hide). They both chat a little bit, but not once do I see them with their hands empty or their focus deterred; like Lazaro with the burgers, they take pride in what The Grape offers, and their daily prep work doesn’t just make nighttime service easier, it makes it possible.

And then there’s Jose Cruz, known simply as Chuy in the kitchen. He’s been at the Grape for 11 years – four years longer than the Luschers have owned it. Chuy preps and cooks, but when the service gets heavy and the heat is on, he becomes The Expeditor – the one who knows the menu in and out, who organizes the orders by table, polishes off the platings and keeps things running smoothly between the wait staff and the kitchen.

“Chuy’s one of those guys who should be a sous chef somewhere; he’s qualified, there’s no question,” Luscher says. “But he works here during the day and buses at Stepan Pyles at night – he makes more money that way than he could as a sous chef. He’s got a family to take care of, and he’d have to take a pay cut to get a promotion because he wouldn’t be able to work two jobs at once.”

My impression of Chuy after the first three days was that he is a man to be respected. My impression after Sunday was that he is a man to be admired.

But we’re not quite to Sunday yet. As I’m walking out the door on Saturday, Chuy pretends like he’s flipping burgers, looks at me and says, “Tomorrow you do the cooking?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Good. You can do it.”

We’ll find out soon enough.

Part 2

About Rich Vana