As a journalist I’ve had the rare opportunity to peek into the kitchen of many Michelin-starred restaurants over the years. But I saw something this week that surprised me, and I think it’s important to share with anyone who indulges in the occasional haute cuisine experience.
Regular restaurant kitchens can be noisy bordering on chaotic, often messy once the sauce starts to fly, with a swashbuckling and sometime slap-dash crew who somehow manage to create impressive dishes out of the bedlam.
Haute cuisine kitchens are totally different. More like an operating theatre, they’re usually hushed aside from the occasional order from the chef, and work like a well-oiled machine where nothing is left to chance. Visiting the kitchen of a Parisian palace hotel, I watched as a half dozen dishes were plated by the chef and his team of six sous-chefs. Working rapidly but silently, they assembled each plate exactly the same, placing each vegetable just so, brushing them individually with a sauce, squeezing the cream into tiny poofs, drizzling the vinaigrette and shaping it into perfection with a special knife, before finally placing the veal steak in its proper place as the crowning glory. They were like artworks, each identical, and finished the exact moment the server appeared to take them into the dining room.
But instead of taking the trays, the server leaned over and said something to the chef, who immediately barked a terse order. His crew stopped what they were doing and removed the steaks, and cleared the plates. “What happened?” I asked the maitre’d who was guiding me through. “Someone at the table stepped away, maybe to have a smoke or use his cell phone. They have to wait now and re-plate when all the guests are back at the table.”
Basically the guest had unwittingly messed up his own meal by interrupting the precisely-planned preparations. There’s no way a chef at the three-star Michelin restaurant is going to stick that plate under a hot lamp, so they simply de-assemble it and start over again once the guests are all seated.
But in the meantime, the entire rhythm of the kitchen was thrown off. They’re pros, so they’re used to it, and I’m sure no one in the dining room will have any inkling something was awry. But even though you can’t see what’s going on beyond the kitchen doors, next time you go out for a fancy dining experience, have a thought for the hardworking culinary artists who go to great measures to create a memorable dining experience, and be sure to take care of your bathroom, smoking and cell phone needs before sitting down.