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Getting High
In The Kitchen
gourmet articlesarchivegetting high in the kitchen

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 PRESENTATION.

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]

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