Saturday, April 23, 5:55 p.m., Salazar Restaurant
“Stage looks like a puppy lost behind a Walmart,” chef de cuisine Andy Hiner mutters to the three other line cooks. I can’t help but hear him. It’s a tiny kitchen and personal space is always at a premium.
“Don’t let him burn the bread!” Hiner barks seconds later.
Too late. I’ve already charred it past any edible state.
How did I end up, slightly lost and burning toast, in one of OTR’s hippest restaurant kitchens? Technically, I am completing my six-month apprenticeship, or stage as the French call it, at Salazar with a full shift cooking “on the line.” It’s a Saturday night, the busiest night of the week, and I’m shoulder to shoulder with Neal, Erin, and sous chef John Fox. Hiner stands at the expediting window calling orders: “Gnocchi! Polenta! Pork belly! Fire any time! XB right now! How long on the steak, Erin? Where’s my bread, stage?”
Jose Salazar, who opened his eponymous first restaurant at the end of 2013, took a significant financial risk. According to the research firm NPD Group, there are 19,000 fewer independent restaurants today than in 2012. In the same time period, chain restaurants have added 17,000 spots. And yet Salazar was undeterred.
“I don’t want to do anything else. I really don’t know how to do anything else,” he admits. “If it sails financially I have the satisfaction of cooking my own food.” However, he notes, for a restaurant like his and others without the protection of a chain’s purchasing power or the backing of a larger financial group, “a bad quarter probably means you’re out of business.”
My wife Carla and I eat at Salazar regularly. So much so that Chef Salazar used to jokingly invite me to come try my hand in the kitchen. When he shifted his attention to an even more ambitious undertaking, his downtown restaurant Mita’s, Hiner took over the litany of invitations.
“You could start right now if you wanted,” Hiner would offer. Followed by, “I’ve added more to my list for you. You’ve got some catching up to do.” He saw free labor. I saw the opportunity to learn more about great food. I saw talented people who interested me. Truth be told, I saw escapism impervious to even the sharpest work e-mail. I dove in.
Beyond a general familiarity with knives and hot surfaces, though, I knew nothing. I was as prepared to work in a professional kitchen as my blind cattle dog, Enid. Now after six months working 8 to 12 hours a week, mostly in the basement prep area of the restaurant after my day job as a librarian, I am operating in close proximity to a hot stove on a Saturday night. I’d only expected to “sort of” work the line tonight. For effect. For this article. But in an unusual move, Tall Patrick, fourth cook on the line, called in sick.
When I arrived at noon, Fox broke the news: Training was over. “We need you to actually work the line,” he informed me. “Don’t eff this up.”
Mise en place is the defining concept for every restaurant, from the temples of high gastronomy to a basic barbecue trailer. Essentially, it involves putting everything a cook will need “in place.” In the kitchen at Salazar, each cook’s station has a precise array of small containers packed tightly above a 16-inch allotment of white plastic cutting board. Tonight, everything I’ll need to assemble burrata plates, duck rillettes, rhubarb stuffed fritters, fried oyster sandwiches, and green salads is well within reach. There are locally grown fresh lettuces, pickled ramps, sprouts, and cubed apples in vinaigrette to keep them from oxidizing. There are small plastic squeeze bottles of truffle oil, sambal sauce, and aioli. There are pipe-able pouches of marrow butter for the bread appetizer and foie gras mousse to accompany truffle gastrique, strawberries, and challah croutons. Underneath the counter in the compact refrigerator are back-ups of just about everything.
On the hot side sits a small two-basket fryer (to cook oysters), as well as a compact grill and the sheet of gas-fired steel called a plancha. I rarely use the plancha and absolutely never use the big gas stove next to it. Those are the primary domain of sous chefs Fox and Isaiah. Every pan, every ingredient, every plate, every bowl, and every body is “mise-d out,” as the guys like to say. There is not an item or a cook out of place at the beginning of service. If there is one thing that I have learned during this stage, it is that line cooks are completely wedded to their fastidious preparation. No contingency has been left to chance. Professional cooking is no place for slapdash improvisational spontaneity.
My first day as a stage I cleaned hot peppers for jelly. Fox met me at the employee entrance—technically, one parking meter from the main entrance where I’d entered as a diner many times yet another world away. As sous chef, he is second to Hiner in the kitchen hierarchy. With his full-arm tattoo sleeves and intense gaze, Fox is pretty much mise en place personified. I’d seen his aprons on other cooks around town; constructed of heavy gauge denim, they have little pockets and loops to hold everything a cook might need. Fox walked the talk.
He led me downstairs to a bushel box of jalapeño peppers waiting on a stainless steel work table, passed me two latex gloves for each hand, and proceeded to show me how to split the peppers and scoop out the seeds. “This shouldn’t take you more than an hour,” he said.
The small whitewashed basement area is broken into three main sections by walls and blind doorways. There are work tables, a walk-in refrigerator, a bathroom, storage shelving tucked into every available cranny, and a dish washing station. Like drivers honking as they navigate switchbacks, staff yell “Corner!” or “Coming up!” as they maneuver through, carrying knives or a hot pan. It’s important to make your presence known.
A line cook’s life is fraught with occupational hazards. In the few months that I was there, I went home with several cuts and burns. Every kitchen member has their own set of scars or missing fingertips; physical harm is a well-accepted fact, almost a badge of honor. It’s not unusual for a cook to finish a shift with a wound super-glued closed or electrical-taped together.
What is not in the nature of this occupation is health insurance. Chef Salazar, who worked for years in prestigious New York restaurants before coming to Cincinnati, went for long stretches of his early career without health insurance. In an effort to correct the working conditions he experienced, Chef Salazar offers a subsidy for health insurance to his staff. As the market to attract competent cooks tightens, more independent restaurants are doing the same, though it remains beyond the financial reach of many in the industry who do not have access through their parents or a spouse. “I’ve been lucky to get on my wife’s insurance,” he told me.
Fox returned to the pepper project when my hands were completely cramped from cutting and scooping. I had hardly made a dent in the box. Magnanimously, he admitted that it took him and three other cooks over an hour to clean the same sized box.
“But Fox, you said it should only take an hour!”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Well, I always tell the stage stuff like that. Makes you work harder.”
I contemplated working harder and becoming more efficient but it’s difficult to imagine how anyone else in the kitchen could. It takes hours to prepare for a dinner shift, and on top of that cooks must think ahead by days and even weeks because there are so many regular menu items that require time to brine or pickle. A typical line cook’s week is about 50 hours long. For the sous chefs and chef de cuisine Hiner, the hours per week stretch into the 70s and even top 80 on occasion. With the margins between success and failure razor thin, cooks and chefs are not operating in a lucrative field.
Data from Ohio’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that high-end cooks with several years of experience make less than the starting salary of library assistants and about the same as funeral attendants and chauffeurs. Sous chefs might make a little more. With years of school, intense experience in the business, working days that are commonly 12 hours long all year round, Hiner probably makes about as much as a starting teacher. Any teaching gig is hard, don’t get me wrong. But in the three years I’ve known him, Hiner has taken just one vacation. I’m not going to even guess at how many hours a week Chef Salazar works.
In addition to my ever-increasing dexterity (try cleaning a case of pearl onions, you’ll see), I have picked up a smattering of culinary French, the likes of which I’ll probably never need while watching a Truffaut film. Right away Hiner introduced me to the all-important pâte á choux. “Spell that,” I demanded. Hiner is patient with my spelling needs. “P-a-t-e…”
Pâte á choux is water, butter, flour, salt, and eggs. At Salazar choux is often made into dumpling-like Parisian gnocchi. The cooks cut the dough into inch-long lengths as they pipe it from a pastry bag into boiling water. The cooked dumplings are then lightly browned in butter just before being served. It’s one of my favorites. Hiner emphasizes the versatility of choux—it’s also the base for éclairs and beignets. “There’s no rising agent,” he explained while cutting into a blanched dumpling to test it for doneness. “You can put the dough in the oven and they puff up because of the steam in them.” To demonstrate Hiner piped a few mounds onto a tray and put it in the hot oven. A few minutes later out came light-as-heck puff pastries just waiting to be filled with something creamy or savory.
I have discovered that I heartily dislike English measurements. Hiner wanted 2.5 quarts of vinegar and water with coriander seed, fennel seed, a few knobs of fresh ginger, and a balance of salt and sugar to pickle spring green onions. But how does one get two parts water to one part vinegar if the total needs to be 2.5 quarts? My little notebook is filled with these calculations. Two-thirds of a quart plus 1.3 cups vinegar, maybe? But how much water? I curse all the kings and queens back through to when the Romans beat up on the Isles. If Hiner ever tells me to measure out drams (60 drops) or a pony (4 drams) I’ll tell him to go drown in a kilderkin (2 firkins).
It pained Hiner that a professional adult who had spent some months in his kitchen couldn’t easily move between quarts, cups, and pints.
“Two-and-a-half quarts is five pints. Can’t you do this?” he asked impatiently. “Two cups in a pint so there are 10 cups. For a 2-to-1 ratio you need three parts, so one-third of 10 cups is three-and-a-third cups for the vinegar and six-and-two-third cups water.” I scribbled it all down as he walked away shaking his head.
In addition to my newfound longing for the metric system, I have found that cooks rarely think about anything other than food. They love to chat up the vendors making deliveries of meats and cheeses or the mushroom hunters who stop in with mycological treasures. The cooks pore over specialty produce harvested by Sallie Ransohoff, whose nocturnal deliveries (via Subaru wagon) are timed toward the end of the shift. And when they’re not geeking out over ingredients, they practice different techniques in their spare time. The second sous chef, Isaiah, once gave me a quart of ethereal pork consommé he made. He was just trying out a new clarifying technique.
A professional kitchen is a 100 percent results-oriented workplace. Either you hold your own and are a valuable member of the team, or you don’t last long. Nobody in the Salazar kitchen cares that I’m a middle-aged guy with an advanced degree. Nobody cares that I have a job at a library where I aim to reduce my e-mail inbox to zero before the end of each day. My fellow cooks only want to know how fast and how well I’m going to fold pierogies. Speed is crucial in a kitchen, but so is craft. If the pierogies fall apart, we’re all screwed.
A professional kitchen is also invariably composed of a mix of characters: the unconventional, the irregularly educated, the occasional erstwhile felon. While most chefs have a formal culinary education, cooking is one profession where you can earn your stripes by dint of cuts, burns, and old school hard knocks. As a result, the very best kitchens end up with cooks as sharp as their knives—highly disciplined and impeccably clean. For many, mise en place is a lifestyle, not just prep for cooking. Hiner is a prime example—he doesn’t do anything halfway. His respect for classic techniques, unflagging creativity, and skillful management seems super-human in comparison to the average 9-to-5er. Though I’m still not sure how his abiding love for ’80s heavy metal fits into the equation.
“Did you see what’s in the walk-in?” is a regular greeting from Hiner. As I shrug out of my coat, I’ll head downstairs to find some mildly exotic dead animal or unusual plant matter stashed on the walk-in shelf or draped over the beer kegs. A dwarf cow’s head might be there on a Tuesday followed by a pair of dead squirrels on Thursday. A puffball mushroom the size of a volleyball isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. No matter what lurks in the basement, I can always be sure that Hiner will try to make me eat it.
To be fair, open-mindedness is considerably easier in the dining room where the lamb tongue or cow brain is carefully prepared and lovingly plated with colorful sauces and attractive garnishes. A pig trotter, for instance, appears less threatening in context with several fresh mustards, a handmade plate, an attractive dining companion, and engaging conversation. Eating downstairs is a rough-and-ready affair: You do it standing up, under garish fluorescent lights, with no front-of-house foreplay to get you in the mood.
While there is certainly an element of ritualistic hazing that happens in kitchens, it’s also part of a cook’s commitment to “try everything.” There’s kind of a zero tolerance policy when it comes to finicky eaters. For the record, I never saw any squirrels make it to the dining room—though Hiner’s hunting bounty has been known to fill a mean pot pie for staff meal. However, I did see him tug a gray, fist-sized, frayed eyeball from that heirloom dwarf cow head. The eyeball gave me significant pause, but not Big Rick the dishwasher. Big Rick is always hungry. Rick took the eyeball, cut it up, salted it liberally, and started munching.
“It’s gooood,” he purred.
So I caved and tasted it. It was indeed good. Hard to describe what an eyeball tastes like, but it wasn’t a surprise. The head from whose socket the eye had come had simmered for three hours for stock so it had a very mild, slightly nutty taste.
Balut was another challenge altogether. Pop the intern is from the Philippines where a partially grown duck embryo—cooked while still in its shell—is a delicacy. Hiner shot a docu-drama video of me sampling my first balut. As I crack the shell, pulling away the outer pieces, my cursing begins. Hiner scientifically identifies the head of the embryo. There is still some yolk and egg white left inside the shell, and small feathers forming on the body. In the video, Hiner instructs me to eat the head. Somewhat terrified, my cursing escalates. I take a bite of the embryo’s little head. I can’t remember anything about the flavor; I was just too freaked out. But the broth I conserved from the egg was delicious. The yolk was strong tasting and a bit chalky. The white was, as Hiner warned me, “pretty much like Styrofoam.”
While nothing was as bad as the balut, the pig’s testicle was an experience to remember. Surprisingly large and smooth, with an eerie green tint, Hiner first battered then deep-fried it. Honestly, it wasn’t too bad, especially with a little sambal sauce for dipping.
Saturday, 4:50 p.m.
“Make something with that pineapple for the staff,” Hiner tells me, pointing to an item that would otherwise go unused, which is the general criteria for ingredients served to the kitchen. Service starts at 5!
“Check the walk-in for strawberries,” he says. “Make a smoothie. Hurry. Lots to do.”
I set aside the asparagus I’m cleaning for Erin and the marrow butter I’d been putting in pastry bags for Neal. I peel and core the pineapple, put it in the jumbo blender with ice, strawberries, apples, lime, and some ginger. Since smoothies are typically the domain of the lanky dishwasher Shauntez, he gets the first try. “That’s OK. Not bad, not bad,” nods Tez. “This your first smoothie?”
“Hol-breazy,” Hiner commands using my kitchen-coined nickname. “We need chocolate cake. Now…” He cues up Ronnie James Dio’s Rainbow in the Dark on the speaker over my work table in the basement. “No one touches that effing speaker!” he barks, then instructs me to “mise out the ingredients and call me. Have you made it before?”
I tell myself that I am not afraid. I have made the chocolate mousse, which is in the same family. Kinda. I switch the digital scale to grams and measure out the chocolate cake ingredients.
When there’s lightning… Dio’s voice ululates. I measure each of the ingredients into a separate deli container, as if I’m on a cooking show.
You know it always brings me down.
Hiner is long gone, distracted by the rush in the dining room upstairs. I could tell they were getting slammed when Fox came down, harried, to get something from the walk-in and yelled, “You’re too slow! We need you NOW!”
Do your deeeee-mons…
I get a double boiler going and melt the butter and chocolate.
Do they ever let you go?
I whip eggs and sugar to soft peaks, fold in the flour, measure the batter into little rings, and put it all in the walk-in and rush upstairs, finally free of Dio’s torturous screeching.
The line is barely controlled mayhem.
I immediately burn the bread, accidentally grill my thumb, over-cook an order of oysters, and look like the proverbial lost puppy. It is a dangerous operation to have four bodies moving frenetically in a small space with fire and knives. I quickly show Erin my burnt thumb. “Aw, that’s nice,” she says, without looking up or breaking stride. I force myself to settle in.
Customers with napkin-clad cocktails in hand are lined up three deep by the bar, oblivious to the intensity of the kitchen. Hiner barks out the orders like an auctioneer at a county fair. “Two rizzo, two B and B, and an oyster. Fire any time!” This is followed immediately by: “Snapper, burger medium rare, broccoli, rillette, and a nut allergy at bar four!”
We are busier than I have ever seen it. Bearded Neal and I are in charge of starters and appetizers while Erin is at the plancha cooking proteins. Fox oversees the entrées that are finished on the big gas stove. Technically, I’m also the runner for anyone who needs anything else. I am not afraid. I’m a grown man. I’ve got this. Farm green salad. Oyster sandwich. Plate chocolate cake. Bread for rillette.
I run downstairs to refill the large container of marinated olives. When there’s lightning… Dio again. “Coming up!” I holler. When I return the olives to the station I get yelled at for not placing them in the exact spot where they belong.
I drop broccoli into the fryer. Do a quick sweep of the floor behind the line. Plate a pork belly dish. Hiner sends me to fetch a couple quarts of broth for the snapper entree and two lemons “while I’m down there.”
Do your deeeee-mons, do they… “Coming up!” I get yelled at, again, and this time my manhood is questioned for not correctly placing lemons exactly where they belong. I grill an order of bread, shelve clean plates, fill small dishes with sambal sauce, and plate a burrata appetizer. I’ve over-fried the oysters for Neal so I do another order. There is no clockwatching here.
The kitchen closes at 11 p.m. on Saturdays. Orders of doughnuts and chocolate cake finish the night. I’m keenly aware of the 11 hours I’ve worked today. My reward for not messing up too badly and not getting in the way too much? I’m given the plancha to clean. The original planchas were made of clay in South America. This one is made of steel and needs to be deglazed and cooled with water, sending up a wall of steam. It’s then scraped, then scraped some more. Like almost every aspect of kitchen life, there’s an unofficial contest in who can do it best. I fall somewhere in the lower middle.
Jordan Patton, the general manager, confirms that tonight we reached the highest revenue yet for a regular night at the restaurant. “Yeah! And we did it with only three and a half cooks!” cheers Bearded Neal.
I’m a half cook and I’ll take it, because a half cook is a far cry from where I started.
It’s 1:30 a.m. before Fox ushers me across the street to Low Spark for a beer. We’re joined by Hiner and Patton after they finish placing orders for additional food and wine for the next shift. The conversation flows from one topic to another—what’s happening in the kitchens at other restaurants, the OTR revival in general, our overall lack of sleep, and Hiner’s ongoing refusal to get his oftentimes painfully debilitating finger looked at by a doctor. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” he assures me.
“Have you been up on the roof?” he asks, perhaps to change the subject. We leave our belongings with the bartender and head back to 1401 Republic. We go down into the basement kitchen and for once don’t yell “Coming down!” I’ve spent nearly 250 totally engrossing hours down here over the last six months. We go to the elevator and take it up to the rooftop. Stars and moon compete with street lamps and the lighting on blocks of renovated buildings. Several sites are wrapped in heavy scaffolding. At 2:30 a.m., parking spaces are full. All is still. We look out over Washington Park for a minute without speaking. In the silence I think about how hard these people work to create such transcendent food and how engrossing it is to be part of it. Then, against my will, I wonder how many e-mails await me in my inbox.