Perhaps the best dividend of working at a restaurant is the dissolution of the outsider-insider border. I've eaten at this restaurant a few times before. It's a really, really nice joint so on those occasions I have felt extra-special, on par with the well-dressed and sophisticated people seated around me, if only for a scant two hours. However, the rubber meets the road when I am confronted with a fish knife. Do you know the fish knife? It's short and blunt, fat at the tip, and shaped almost like a spoon but flat instead of concave. I've yet to figure out if you're supposed to flake your fish with the thing, or flake your fish with your fork and use the fish knife to shovel it into your mouth as if it were a spoon. It must be perfectly obvious that I don't how to use a fish knife even as I try to play it off like, Oh, who needs a knife on such luscious, fork-tender food?
The waiters, who manage to stand just on the outside of your peripheral vision so as to be available yet not intrusive, know I'm bluffing. They can see it in the way I pick up my fish knife and wave it around, gesturing at nothing, and put it down and then pick it up again, perhaps running it through the edge of my sauce to make it seem like I'm using it. Part of me wants to reach out for help, but the waiters have mastered the art of "friendly stranger face," which says, in a non-verbal way, "I'm here for you in case you need me. But don't come too close." The waiters would probably leap into your arms if you asked nicely enough, and yet their eyes forbid you to do so. It turns out that once you get these guys (and they are mostly men) behind the partition, the stony-faced pretense drops away like a tie after a hard day's work. If you're on the inside, they let you see what they don't show to the customers. They smile. They laugh and joke around. They curse loudly and play practical jokes on each other. They seem like totally different people.
The conviviality of the wait staff reflects the atmosphere of the whole place, including the top management and the kitchen people, from the line cooks to the part-time butchers to the dishwashers, all of whom look you right in the eye and introduce themselves. I'm stunned, really, at how nice everyone is. There's Tony, the baby-faced sous chef who has been cooking since he was 14 years old, which is about as old as he looks (he's 24). There's the other Tony, the grill chef who has sizable forearms covered in old scars from burns he received from a series of kitchen stoves he has dated. He will happily describe them all to you. "This one is from a pot handle," he says, pointing to a crescent-moon shaped lesion. "This one I got from a wire that got unattached in an oven. So every time you would reach in to pull out a pan there would be this hot thing in your way." He points to another one, proudly telling you that it's barely noticeable because he treated it himself with a hard-to-obtain salve. The scar is about the size of an old silver dollar that's been stretched into an oval and is two shades lighter than his natural skin tone. There's Greg, who is a quiet, glasses-wearing, young black guy whose parents are from Haiti. There's the other Greg, who mans the appetizer station. He's from Toronto and tells me that he might have been a professional tennis player if it were not for a debilitating injury to the cartilage in his knees, suffered during a big juniors tournament when he was 17. "I went down for a forehand and never got back up," he says.
These are the guys who have graciously welcomed me into their kitchen and allowed me to muck around in their mise en place, the French phrase for one's prepped food setup at the beginning of service. Greg, the apps man, showed me how he plates the various dishes that come from his side of the kitchen. The shrimp salad is a relatively easy one to prepare: It's a healthy pile of pristine salad greens, an avocado fan, a sprinkle of imported rock salt, some mushroom slivers, a spoonful of diced tomato, minced chives, a good slurp of the house vinaigrette, and five broiled shrimps, arranged in a circle around the plate and each topped with a dollop of butter sauce made from champagne and shallots. By the end of the night, I've got this one down solid, from the precise number of seconds that I apply vinaigrette from a plastic squirt bottle to the exact number of salt grains that fall from my fingertips to the stepped slices of avocado. Between orders, which come chattering across a paper printout machine, I follow Greg all around the kitchen like a little sister, asking him every question I can think of.
"Does the door to the walk-in refrigerator close automatically, or do you have to push it shut?" (Answer: "It shuts by itself but try not to leave it hanging wide open.") "How do you prevent a shallot from splaying outward as you slice it near the root end?" ("Use a really sharp knife.") "How many times do you wash your salad greens?" ("Until you don't see anymore dirt.") After a few hours of this back-and-forth exchange, it dawns on me that this is all common sense. Greg is just telling me stuff I could figure out for myself if I could just get over the idea that there is a handbook of "correct" answers to all my nagging questions. It seems to me that the professional kitchen is less like a train and more like a road trip. In the train scenario, everyone gets onboard and rides along the same track and arrives simultaneously at the same place. In the road trip situation, everyone's on the road, but each individual car might take a slightly different path or periodically stop for gas and some smokes. It doesn't matter, as long as you get to where you're going. There's a resulting looseness in this kitchen. Need to chop vegetables in the middle of service? Well, find an empty spot and do it. The system seems to work because somehow everything gets done, more or less. (Last night's crisis: a shortage of crabmeat that required a staffer to run across town to borrow a container-full from a sibling restaurant.) I think it's because everyone's at the wheel, in a sense, which forces you to think about driving and about the road itself, instead of nodding off until you reach the destination. In the case of this restaurant, the destination is perfect food.