Thursday, August 12, 2010

The French Word for Jump?

The unbloggable is blogged: A stage at Schwa.

The events leading up to this stage are just plain lucky. Enjoy.

Getting a reservation at Schwa was a trip- it was recently ranked in the top 5 hardest places to get a reservation in the country. My foodie friend Phil and I were scoping out restaurants for my September visit and started kidding around about Schwa knowing that it was totally hopeless. When I called from Italy it more or less as a joke. When someone picked up and yelled, "Fuck" followed by a quick hang-up, I wondered if I had called the right number. I called back. Through the screaming motor of blender in the background I asked if they had anything for the 10th of September, but they weren't taking reservations for September yet...Again, I figured I'd made a joke. I asked for August 5th. The guy who I now know is Seth said, "We just lost one reservation, how is 8:30?" Insane.

So, when August 4th rolled around and Eric told me duty called back in Aspen, do you really think I was going to back down from this magically obtained reservation just because I was dateless? Hell no.

I picked up a bottle of decent Pinot Gris and headed to the restaurant solo.

The space is so unimpressive that I was so incredibly impressed. It was kind of hidden, but not because of some illusive hidden door like the one that brings you to Alinea, but hidden because it's just a door held open by a string attached to the barred window in a spot that used to be a storefront in Wicker Park. Inside there's nothing but a few totally unadorned tables and a plastic window into the kitchen. The entire dining room is roughly 15x15, about the same size as the kitchen. The picture below is the view from the kitchen into the dining room. When I walked in someone who looked like a cook says "Hey, Shannon?" Turns out he was a cook. The cooks are the servers,

the chef is the maitre'd, the maitre'd is the busboy and the busboy is the chef. The whopping five employees, excluding the dishwasher are jacks of all trade. Incredible. I even watched Chef's brother Seth, the "maitre'd in jean shorts," fill ravioli and plate a few things last night when all of our hands were full.

Upon sitting down someone threw a few glasses on my table and says, "Do you mind if we just pour you different shit the whole night?" This someone was Chef Michael Carlson dressed in jeans and a black tee doting a cooks apron like everyone else- The same guy who declared last night, "I'm NEVER wearing a chef coat EVER again." My idol? Either way, this dining experience was extremely "unfine" already, and I loved it.

When I asked Chef Michael if he was in fact himself, he said yes and threw my name back at me. "And you're Shannon." I've never met a Chef who knew my first name before I even got his. I hadn't eaten anything at this point, but I'd already decided this is the greatest restaurant I'd ever sat in. I watched the same guy plate the food, walk it out to me, clear a few tables, then hold a conversation with some guests and not even break a sweat. This concept was so intriguing.

The food was stunning. My favorite dish was the ravioli not featured on the menu. It was out of control. I described it with words too inappropriate to type out. Ricotta, quail egg, brown butter, and truffle. Oh my god. I watched him make this last night and the best part about it was how reminiscent this process was of making pasta at home. It was refreshing to see that Chef was the one prepping and making the ravioli. Sometimes it's hard to decipher where the credit belongs in a kitchen, but here, it belonged to the team- and for once, that meant it belonged to Chef, too. He rolled the dough out on a pasta attachment to his Kitchen Aid setting out to make 20 portions for the evening with 26 on the books. That's a minute number compared to the 50-100 portion pastas we made and froze at The Nell almost every day of each kind. Then, he went around and made little individual ravioli without a former- something unimaginable in large quantities. Each one was hand filled with a beautiful little quail egg yolk, covered with another pasta sheet and cut one by one. The sauce is made to order every time- butter mounted with white truffle oil and chives. A small piece of parm is set over it and a line of brown butter is streaked over. It was intensely good and when I was eating it, I could tell something was done to it that made it better than every other pasta I'd eaten. It was made with me in mind a few minutes before service. This place is one of a kind.

Michael Carlson's food is constantly compared to Grant Achatz's, understandably. He trained under him at Trio and refers to him as his mentor, but I believe and even told him this food was better. It was far more approachable than Alinea's and it just tasted better. Isn't that the point? Or maybe it's not. And for god's sake, Chef knew my name before I gave it to him. You could feel that in the food. The food did had a modern fling to it although I wouldn't go as far as calling it molecular gastronomy because everything that showed up in front of me was within my reach of understanding during my stage. It was creative, but not far-fetched.

Even the most extravagant tasting tagliatelle with veal heart, huckleberries and truffle was super simple. The veal heart is sous vide. The taleggio cheese mousse on the plate was elementary, and the noodles came from the same dough as the ravioli, made about the same time as the ravioli- when the first table had already sat. The final course was a Hendrick's Gin Sorbet over a clear Hendrick's "pudding." This place just stole my heart.

I watched this restaurant pump all night. Sittin' solo left me with nothing better to do but grill the cooks/servers/chefs/busboys/nicest guys to cross the lines between kitchen and dining room as much as I could. When the dinner ended, Seth walked over to my table and said, "The guys think it's really cool you showed up alone and want you to know they appreciate it. Dinner is on us tonight." dinner at Schwa is on Schwa? Should I thank Eric again for bailing? Best birthday present ever!

Before I could ask to wander into the kitchen to thank them, Seth came over and said Chef would like to show me how to make the bloody mary consommé. Right now. So I left my dinner and hung out in the kitchen decked out in stilettos and a brand new birthday dress. I asked all sorts of questions about the reasoning behind his approach to a "restaurant" and some about the food. The most important question was, "Do you need a stage Tuesday night?"

The answer was less important because it was kind of a no. He told me they don't really take stages, but it was fine. And when I said I didn't want to get in the way and he responded with "Then don't come." Whatever- I was going to make sure I didn't get in the way, but you couldn't tell me not to show up.

The two assisting chef's Matt and Matt had been there since 8 am. I showed up at 9:30. Their prep list was seriously long and loomed over our epic day ahead of us, time to get crankin. I started on the salted caramel that shows up on the dessert plate.

Every project I worked on had surprising variations in what is considered typical to those recipes. For example, the caramel is cooked with milk.

That's all wrong. And rum, totally raw, is blended into it at the end along with xanthan gum for consistency and what they call a "sheen" texture. If you tasted it, you'd argue that this was the only possible way to make caramel.

Similarly, the biscuits for the sweetbread dish are totally flawed at first glace. They had me kneading this like pasta dough, the one thing your not supposed to do to your biscuits. It heats up the butter you've carefully flaked into the dough incorporating the fat into the dough too much for it to turn out flaky and develops the gluten in the flour. There wasn't even butter in these biscuits, but they said by trial and error they figured out this was the absolute best way to make fluffy perfect biscuits and they're right. They are not just good, they are far better than the regular biscuit. I just don't know what to say about that.

To the right is the Chimay Mousse I made for the Pretzel and Beer dish.

The little tweaks to standard concepts made so much difference. I cooked bananas sous vide with bee balm. After their spices are ground for something like rubbing short ribs, they are passed through a chinois with the back of a spoon so even the mouth feel of a spice grind is better than anyone else's. It just made sense.

While I cracked green and black cardamom pods for an hour, I kept my eyes on Chef's hands as he made pasta until he finally asked if I wanted to try. He was super hesitant in allowing me to cut the pasta to the point that it was humorous. He just took the knife out of my hand and told me he was nervous. I assured him it would be fine. He showed me how to cut his tagliatelle...the process of which can only be described as touching. He makes just enough for the amount of reservations each night, not a single noodle is ever frozen, just set out to dry on top of the cooler until the diner is ready. That's pretty unique, but only possible because of the capacity of the dining room is so small.

The amount of love and work that goes into the dishes there is unimaginable unless you've done it. We left around 2 am and you better believe those boys were back in there before 10 am this morning making the next 26 people's dinner unforgettable. So I asked why they don't make the workload more manageable? To quote Matt, "The hours are like nothing I've ever seen before, but here, for this...It's worth it." There's something different about this restaurant. It's not there to make money, that's for sure. So...What's driving Michael Carlson?

The way he has it set up each cook has prepped some aspect of each plate, and for the most part will take part in plating each plate on every course. After that, the same cook that arrived at 8 am loads these plates onto their arms, carries it to a table, places it in front of the diner, explains the components that they slaved over throughout the day, and then offers them another glass of wine.

The amount of passion that drives this chef to ignore all financial consequences of this business plan must be immeasurable...and I got to work with this passion all day. I see why his cooks think it's worth it. I'd probably sleep in this guy's closet if he'd let me. The only time he got stern with any of the cooks or me was when I tried to clean the coolers or cut parsley. He'd yell at them and say, "Give her something important to do, something she can take with her." And, when I didn't bloom the gelatin properly and Matt simply told me to do it again, he stopped him and said, "Look, she's here to learn. Explain to her why we do it this way. Not just to do it differently."

Anyway, around 3 pm the crew was getting pretty edgy and nervous. Only a few hours before service and our prep list was still intense, not to mention Matt forgot to write slice octopus down on the list and we realized we were a lot further back than we thought. The coffee brewed earlier went into the Red Eye Gravy, so I was slowing down a bit. They were telling me stages, the few and far between, never get to stay through service. In such a small kitchen extra hands just get in the way. People usually get booted around 5. Around 5, I thought my doom was approaching. But Chef just kept talking to me about pasta, the Nell, my next stage, school, NY, shootin the shit...5 came and went without getting asked to leave. So did 6. and 7. And I was staying. When my hands became useless, I put them to work in the dish pit. I sure as hell kept myself out of the way, earning myself a spot all the way through service. When Chef saw me in dish multiple times, he instructed the Matts to show me how to plate everything so that I could at least take charge of a few components on all 9 courses.

I wasn't kidding when I said the hours were long. When service ends, they are starting on projects for tomorrow. It was midnight and we were knee deep in stocks, searing meat to braise overnight, and prepping tomorrow's "birthday cake bites."

I made cocoa butter, or Mycryo, and liquid birthday cake for birthday cake bites. These little candle molds get filled with the liquid cake, frozen, then coated in the mycryo. When they come to room temp, the inside is a liquid while the outside cocoa butter stays crips, all of which tastes like a birthday cake exploded in your mouth. Simple, but super cool.

Some shots from the stage:

The grill at Schwa.
The beginning of the roe course. Watermelon gelee setting, then adding a layer of roe, violet flowers, and another layer of watermelon.
The making of roe fritters...key lime oil goes into the batter, pretty delish.

The final product complete with violet foam and pickled watermelon rinds.
The octopus course walking. Pickled pineapple cores (that I got to make!), marinated young coconut noodles (I got to do those too!), and black charred pineapple puree which gets its color from squid ink. The octopus itself is sooo good all by itself, sous vide and marinated right before service in pineapple and numerous other delicious components.

The next are pics of the Smores course, not my favorite but interesting concept.
Gaetano plating the course. Graham cracker puree and cocoa nib consommé down on the plate.
Trying to capture what they call "campfire" which is the smoke of wood chips contained between two glass pieces of the dish. When you lift the dish to eat it, campfire pours out. Are you feeling the smore idea yet?
Braised short ribs slathered in an incredible mole sauce top the graham cracker puree followed by...
Caramelized cardamom marshmallow.

The bathroom of Schwa is situated next to the mise cooler inside the kitchen. That means everyone that has to go to the bathroom has to get through the kitchen first. The guests always looked startled when they found themselves staring at us plating the next table’s food. Then they found themselves looking for someone’s hand to shake and say thank you. The general consensus of the bathroom goers was that they were blown away, this was the best, most unique dining experience of their lives. And then they personally got to thank the people that did it, including the chef...and if they wanted to stand there long enough, could watch us make the next course.

Something about Schwa resonates with me deeper than I expected. I never want to call myself a chef. I'm a cook. From what I'd seen, there's nothing about being a Chef that I identify with. I always thought it stripped you of all cooking responsibilities...stripped you of a connection with the people you feed- the very reason I love cooking. Since stepping into a restaurant a year ago, the concept has come to represent a bunch of barriers between the chef, cooking, and the recipient of the food. This place theoretically and physically crosses all of those barriers. If there is a way to make a place like Schwa financially feasible- Sign me up and call me a Chef.


It means Jump.

I leave for NY in one hour, wish me luck!

On reservations at Schwa:

They have phones. Two of them actually. Both create the background music to prep and not a single person has time to put down the blender, knife, or hot stock pot to grab the phone when it rings once every two minutes. If they hired a reservationist to answer the phones, that's one less person they could have in the kitchen. The ringing phone never gets answered and when service started, they unplugged the phones. Leave a voicemail. If it's full, wait until next month. They'll listen to it when they start taking reservations for the next month and the night I was there, they started taking Septembers. It doesn't help that they can only seat 26-30 people a night, 34 was the most they ever did which almost broke the kitchen. Think about what it would be like if they added another 10 seats in the dining room. It wouldn't be Schwa anymore.

They told me some hilarious stories about people waiting outside the restaurant to get reservations or finding Chef post-grocery shop to score a reservation.

Be patient and grateful that they don't have more seats.


Robert said...

Truly a great read! Sounds like it was a awesome experience.

Phillip said...

You were right...this sounds like an amazing experience. I guess I'm somehow glad I wasn't around to be your stand-in date, since it worked out so well for you. I'll get there sooner or later!

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