Now that I've got your attention.....I don't mean
it that way. Although, I'm certain that you have known people
who have been or who appear to be in an altered state at work.
The "high" I'm referring to is the craze that has overtaken
the plates of some fine dining establishments: THE VERTICAL
I've worked in a lot of different cuisines over the years.
No matter which style of food I serve, the one thing it all
has in common is that the chef wants the food to look good
as it leaves the kitchen and is presented to the guest. Sometimes
this desire takes the form of making sure the customer feels
like they're getting their moneys' worth in volume. My father's
sandwiches were always piled high with about 1/3 of a pound
of deli meat. Now, deli meat, having the weight and heft that
it has, was never a problem to get from the kitchen to the
table because it has gravity on its' side. (And, occasionally,
a toothpick to help.) Besides, his customers expected the
sandwiches to look like they were about to fall over. But
gravity is the very thing that vertically stacked presentations
are fighting against.
Why in the world does food need to be stacked in such complex,
architectural ways? I can't figure out why a delicate "basket"
of julienned and fried salsify has to balance on top of the
tower of three slices of venison loin which is resting on
an herbed pancake with matchsticks of celeriac balanced against
the stack like a flying buttress. If I'm going to get this
melange to the table looking as chef intended, then I'm going
to have to take "baby steps" as if I was promenading to "Pomp
and Circumstance" played adagio. I don't have that
kind of time. My station is full and everyone wants a drink.
I once worked for a chef who liked to present his caviar with
brioche piled 10 slices high in alternating triangles, a single
stalk of chive leaned delicately against the stack. Picture
if you will trying to walk 100 feet with this stack of lighter
than air bread while maintaining a calm demeanor and confident
stride. There were lots of return trips to the kitchen to
repair those toppled towers.
There's a dessert I once served that was topped off with a
wafer thin dried apple chip. Now take into consideration that
the kitchen I was working in was unusual in that it was huge.
Walking to the pastry window to pick up your orders and then
getting them out to the dining area was about a 50 yard walk.
That's half a football field, folks. If that apple chip blew
off just as the doors to the dining room opened, I didn't
feel inclined to go walking back to the pastry window for
a replacement. I only have so many steps left in me and I'm
saving them for the future. Besides, my station is full and
everyone wants their check. Now.
And what about the joint that requires you to cover the plates
with a cloche and wheel them out to the dining area on a cart?
If the construction of the plate is complex and delicate then
how do you expect your waiters to know if any little bump
they may have hit along the way has affected the presentation
until the dish is uncovered in front of the guest. Of course,
they could lift the lid before they remove the plate from
the cart for delivery and then if the food has shifted in
transit they can return it to the kitchen for a retouch and
by then the food isn't being delivered as hot and fresh as
you would probably like it. Whose fault is that? Besides,
taking the time to look under the cloche to check the food
takes away from the time that we are actually serving the
food. It makes us look insecure when we would rather look
like smooth professionals.
I like serving attractive, well-prepared plates. I enjoy the
positive responses from our customers when they first see
the plate. The construction of a dish is obviously very important
because guests consume with their eyes first. Unfortunately
I have worked with certain vertical presentations that elicit
the following: "How the hell am I supposed to eat this?" or
"It's too pretty to eat." Or "Am I supposed to start at the
top and work my way down, or what?" Come on, chef. It's just
food. It shouldn't have to come with a manual.
Amy Sunshine's first job in a restaurant was washing the
glasses in her father's Kosher deli. Currently she is a waiter
at The Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton. Please direct any
questions or comments to [email protected]