Old School

Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

In a previous century I worked as a waiter for one of New York’s well known chefs. I will not mention any names here – not because I have any juicy gossip on the guy – but because the anonymity will give me freedom from the fear that if any of this ever got back to him his reaction would be, “Michael who??

To say that I never bonded with the guy would be a tremendous understatement, although I think it is a safe assumption that chefs, as a rule, don’t bond with the wait staff. More accurate would be to say that in the better establishments they view the wait staff as the only socially accepted conduit to get the food to the table. A necessary evil. I’m not evil, I’m just clumsy.

Unconfirmed legend around the restaurant had it that Chef enjoyed Cuban cigars – strictly illegal mind you – so he only smoked them in the privacy of his office. One day when I had been asked to deliver a phone message to Chef in his office, I opened the door and was greeted by a fog of cigar smoke. I thought, “I will not cough, I will not cough, I will not cough…” and stumbled my way through the windpipe-constricting mist to where he was sitting. Delivering the folded paper containing the message, I politely queried, “Is someone burning old tires?”

Understand: I had, indeed still have, no idea where that came from, except of course that his Coroña Grande did indeed smell like burning tires.

He glowered at me, but in his eyes I recognized one resolute thought: “I will not laugh, I will not laugh, I will not laugh…”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the extent of our bonding.

You’ll be relieved to know that in the intervening years I have sharpened my self-censoring skills. To his credit, I think Chef appreciated the fact that I trusted him enough to make an attempt at joking banter, lame as it was.

When I think back on my career as a waiter I think of two things: sore feet, and tableside service. I have no idea how many hundreds of Caesar salads I made tableside, but here’s where I have poor Martha Stewart beat. Some years ago on her show I watched her teach an actress how to make a Caesar salad – incorrectly. Drove me nuts.

For a waiter the fun thing about tableside service is that you and the folks at the table have a few minutes to bond. If you are able to bring a little obvious skill to the task – a bit of show biz – it is an opportunity to earn a little respect as more than just an order-taking drone. There’s also the remaining fork-full or two of salad that somehow didn’t make it onto the plate.

Whole Dover sole, filleted tableside, was a staple item on Chef’s menu. Filleting, or “de-boning” as some folks called it, was one task I actually enjoyed. It looked like it required a bit of skill, but the truth is that a chimp could do it with two sticks. The only snag was when large groups ordered the sole. On those occasions the business of the restaurant would pause as most of the staff stood quietly de-boning the fish.

I love to follow fashions in food the way some follow hemlines in the rag trade. Last year Short Ribs were everywhere. Every time I turned on the TV some chef was extolling their virtues and how tender and meaty they are when cooked “just so.” But I knew they were really thinking, “Short Ribs are dirt cheap and I can still charge $18.95.”

Lately it seems as though these chefs’ attentions have migrated to roasting whole Branzino. Branzino are delicate little Sea Bass that are rapidly becoming every menu’s “must have” item. While not as friendly to the chefs’ bottom line as other fish, they have a European cachet. They abound in the Mediterranean, and have been on the menu over there for years. I would guess that individual whole fish require less Sous Chef attention too.

I realized that nature was offering some help to me for January, my month of virtuous eating. Small whole fish are perfect portions; just enough, very healthy, and a good dose of protein. While I have filleted hundreds of Dover soles, I have never roasted a whole fish at home. My month of virtue seemed like the perfect time to try.

I ran to my fish market and, voila: no Branzino! My choice that day was Porgy, but Porgies have a mouth that appears permanently fixed in a frown. There’s something about my potential dinner frowning at me that I found unsettling. I’d be frowning too if I were on his plate.

I could preach to you now about not being squeamish about food that looks back at you. Most of the folks who ordered Whole Dover Sole asked me to remove the head. Yet, I’m just as guilty as the next guy; this is something I wrestle with constantly. A few years ago I roasted a chicken. Delicious. That night as my head hit the pillow a thought flashed in my mind: “There’s a dead bird in my refrigerator.” (I still slept just fine.) Some months later I had no problem plopping a live lobster into a steaming pot. No thoughts haunted me that night. I think this is a symptom of being a bit disconnected from the true source of my food. We all try to operate under the illusion that our food was born wrapped in plastic.

Anyway, I was about to leave the fish counter empty handed when I spied some happy little Sardines sitting in the chopped ice. I remembered Chef serving fresh Sardines as an appetizer. Up ‘till then I thought Sardines were something you got from a can, but he served them delicately roasted, and topped with something I couldn’t entirely remember –I just remember it was unobtrusive and tomato.

While I was convinced that I could come close to replicating my Sardine memory, I also wanted to experiment a bit. So I filleted one of the Sardines before cooking, and the other two I roasted whole with just a few sprigs of dill in the cavity where the fish had been “cleaned.”

I filled the bottom of my roasting pan with a layer of salt. Salt allows a gentler, more even heating of the fish. I placed the fish on the salt and roasted them at 350˚F for twelve minutes. Larger fish require closer to twenty minutes.

If I hadn’t filleted one of the fish, dinner would have been ready in less than twenty minutes. Rachael Ray would be proud.

The result was simple, clean, and so totally unlike the denizens of the tin cans that you may think they are different animals. I enjoyed the one I filleted before cooking the best, but the preference was one of convenience. I was starving and could eat it sooner.

On top of the fish I tried two simple toppings. The first was a simple Tomato Oil I made by lightly sautéing a couple of chopped cloves of garlic in some olive oil then adding diced tomato and warming just until the tomato was warmed through and the oil was stained by the tomato.

The other was a Mango, Jicama, and Pineapple salad that I bought at the market. Which one did I enjoy more? The answer, admittedly a dodge, was that I enjoyed most whichever was in my mouth at the time.

While roasting whole fish is an appealing addition to my month of virtuous eating, the process of shopping for the fish and preparing them is so much fun, and the final result so gratifying, that they have officially been added to my year ‘round repertoire.

Except Porgy. I can’t deal with that frown.

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Saveur CoverThe kind folks at Saveur Magazine found my August 31st, 2009 posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas and asked me to distill it for inclusion in their readers’ 2010 Top 100 list. You’ll find it in the Jan / Feb 2010 issue of the magazine, now on newsstands everywhere. Take a look and let me know what you think!

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