Kitchen quintessential

Beyond the swinging door lies a fast-paced world of sweat, stress and chaos. To unlock those mysterious inner workings, TONY surveyed the staff in action at five city restaurants.

Photographs by: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Traditional brigade kitchen

Eleven Madison Park
(11 Madison Ave at 24th St, 212-889-0905)

Once upon a time, professional kitchens were dungeons of disorder, where foulmouthed ruffians ruled the hearth. Then came Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), the godfather of classic French cooking, who replaced the chaos with a military-like hierarchy known as the brigade system. With clearly defined roles and responsibilities, kitchen staffs became more efficient, capable of serving the public the type of food that previously was available only to nobility. Some kitchens, like EMP’s, still stick closely to Escoffier’s original vision. This real-life blueprint outlines the crew members’ turf as well as their tasks.

—Daniel Gritzer

NEXT: The dim sum kitchen»

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The dim sum kitchen

Photograph: Jeff Gurwin

(813 55th St between Eighth and Ninth Aves, Sunset Park, Brooklyn; 718-871-2880)

Jimmy Ching, general manager
“Our dim sum chefs arrive at 6am. There are four during the week, and on busy weekends part-timers help too. Except for steamed buns and sticky rice, nothing is prepared in advance, so they have a lot to do when they arrive, starting with items that need to be baked or fried. There are about 300 people eating here now [a weekday at noon]; it’s busy but manageable. On the weekends it’s crazy: We can hold about 550 people at once, and we turn the tables four or five times. The dim sum chefs have to make anywhere from 30 to 60 different types of dumplings, all by hand, and all to order. The cart ladies tell them when an item has run out, and the dim sum chefs will make more orders. We have one chef who does all the barbecue. He roasts about four to five suckling pigs—with banquets at night, sometimes more—and 20 to 25 ducks every day. Then, from the main kitchen, which opens at 11am, two chefs make other dishes in the woks. They make everything in small enough batches so that little is left over at the end of the day, which the staff eats, takes home or throws away.”

—As told to Daniel Gritzer

NEXT: The open chef’s counter»

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The open chef’s counter

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

(239 E 5th St between Second and Third Aves, 212-979-1012)

Wesley Genovart, executive chef
“When we first opened, it was very nerve-racking being in front of people. But little by little, you get more comfortable. You start talking to customers, you start multitasking a little bit more. You can engage people. You can see who you’re cooking for, and it almost drives you to be better because you just want to make people happy every night. Sometimes you do want to be in a closed kitchen, so you can scream and yell. But you know that it doesn’t make you a better chef. [In an open kitchen] you have to be a lot cleaner—you are cooking within three feet of people. You have to be aware that you are working with hot stuff that could potentially injure one of your customers. I mean, if the spatula accidentally flicks something, you could have a piece of octopus on your forehead. We’ve gone through many people who can’t handle this space. And it’s not that they’re bad cooks, it’s just that this is not the right setting for them.”

—As told to Jordana Rothman

NEXT: The fast-food kitchen»

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The fast-food kitchen

Photograph: Sophia Wallace

Five Guys Burgers and Fries
(284 Seventh Ave between 6th and 7th Sts, Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-499-9380)

Nitin Yadav, general manager
“Each customer’s order starts a six- to seven-minute process coordinated by a team of 8 to 12 employees—more on the weekend. Order tickets are printed in the kitchen, and then they’re arranged according to number on a 96-inch metal prep table. Buns are toasted on one grill, while on another, a grill chef cooks hot dogs and hamburgers. The burgers and the french fries are prepared fresh, starting from scratch every morning at 8am—we don’t use any frozen foods or even have a freezer, only a walk-in cooler. While the burgers and hot dogs are cooking, another employee dresses toasted buns with toppings. Then the buns and receipts are slid to me and I check the toppings and ticket times. If we’re running even 30 seconds late to our target time, I speed up my team. After the final check, the burgers are wrapped, bagged and given to the two-person team handling fries and expediting. They started cooking the fries when the burgers were halfway finished, so they should be hot and ready. The fries are placed in the bag, completing the order, and the customer’s number is called.”

—As told to Joshua M. Bernstein

NEXT: The kosher kitchen»

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The kosher kitchen

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Le Marais
(150 W 46th St between Sixth and Seventh Aves, 212-869-0900)

Jose Meirelles, executive chef, owner
“The mashgiach is the rabbi on premises. He makes sure anything that comes into the restaurant is kosher and regulates the policies of the Orthodox Union. The fires have to be turned on by an observant Jew, so he lights the pilots. He must wash all the leafy vegetables and check them for bugs on a lightbox. The mashgiach also controls all the storage: The only way you can guarantee that nothing has been switched—that nothing nonkosher came in accidentally—is if he is the one who has sole access. Once he leaves, everything should be locked. In a nutshell, he wants to make sure that I don’t buy some bacon and stick it in the walk-in without him seeing. At dinnertime, I’d say 90 percent of clientele are here because this is a kosher steakhouse. We also have a lot of tourists. Most of them don’t realize they’re in a kosher restaurant. They see a lot of people in kippahs, but after all, it’s New York.”

—As told to Jordana Rothman

NEXT in Kitchen report 2008: How it works»

Chef secrets...spilled! | Kitchen quintessential | How it works