And now, Sarah!
Hello. My name’s Sarah Zettel, and, among other things, I’m the author of the Vampire Chef mysteries. This was not my idea. Seriously. The credit for that belongs to the late-great editor and publisher Marty Greenberg, but as soon as I got offered the chance to write a book based around that idea, I jumped at it. Which says rather a lot about me. I mean, when some people hear, “Vampire Chef,” they say “why?” Me, I say “Why didn’t somebody do this years ago?” Probably the fact that I am a great fan of the old Bela Legosi “Dracula” movie and a Food Network Junkie has something to do with it.
The setting is fairly simple, from an urban fantasy standpoint. The heroine, Charlotte Caine is not herself a vampire, she just cooks for them. Charlotte runs a New York City restaurant called “Nightlife” which is a place where humans and paranormals, such as vampires, can share a meal without anybody getting hurt.
Now, I’m a science fiction and fantasy author by trade. This means I mostly write about places no one can get to. But for this, while I can say what I will about the vampires and the other paranormals, I have a rock hard setting; New York City, and restaurant kitchens. This meant Research was required.
Thanks to my friend the Kitchen Chick, I was able to snag a prime research opportunity. Chef Alex Young of Zingerman’s Roadhouse very kindly agreed to let me come observe the kitchen during Friday dinner rush.
My connection with professional kitchens is tenuous, but it is there. I worked cold prep in the Michigan Union when I was in college. My cheese trays have graced affairs given for then VP, George H.W. Bush. I have fed football prospects, and let me tell you THAT’s an adventure in excess. I’ve still got a scar on my arm from when I banged the wrong part of the oven at Pizza Hut.
Armed with this wealth of experience, I put on a light shirt, nothing flowing, black trousers, and comfortable shoes. I pulled my hair back and just in case, tucked my Tigers cap in my purse and headed out.
For the record, that night I spent 4 1/2 hours observing the line, and my concept of what a hard day’s work is had undergone a serious readjustment.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse is a upper-middle class restaurant that serves new American regional food and as much as possible uses fresh, local ingredients. Chef Young told me how he personally select the cows that get made into the steaks and the burgers, and the restaurant has its own farm about twenty miles away for the produce. I got to help haul buckets of potatoes and greens.
I also got to fetch plates and take empty containers to the dishwasher. But mostly I stood and stared.
It’s tough to describe what I saw. A working kitchen is not the clean, polite controlled sort of space you see on The Food Network. Fortunately, the Roadhouse kitchen is also not one of the dens of sin and iniquity that Anthony Bourdain delights in describing in KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL. It’s a serious, cramped, crowded environment with everybody moving at top speed. With knives. And fire.
I mostly stood next to Javier, who worked the wood-fired grill (I will admit, of all the things I expected to experience, a trip to the woodshed was not one of them). It was Friday, so early on, Javier predicted it was going to be a burger heavy night. And he was right. It was burger after burger, with breaks for ribs, chicken and multiple types of fish, oh, and oysters. I didn’t know you could grill oysters. Javier had burns on his arms and asbestos fingers. He could also keep track of ten different orders put on the grill at ten different times while managing a wood fire.
At the beginning of the night, he had 8 tickets on his station. By the time 8 pm rolled around, 8 was clearly a low-water mark.
Next to Javier was the flat top where, from what I could see, was mostly used for toasting bread, but that could just be because there were so many of those burgers. The salad station and the fry station were at the far end of the line and I didn’t get a good look down there. The line was a narrow place, and there was no way in heck I was sauntering down to the other end for a look-see.
Just past the flat top, Chef Keirnon was hard at work, doing about a dozen different jobs at once. Between four and five he had enough time to show me around, and show me things like the board where they keep their projections and expenditures, so everyone know’s what’s happening with the bottom line, and let me meet the farmer who was bringing in buckets of REALLY fresh really gorgeous ingredients like fresh potatoes, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes. Once rush really hit, at about 6pm, he got on the line and stayed there. Mainly, he was expediting, that is calling out the various orders, and getting the finished plates to the servers. He was also handling a lot of the plating and keeping track of what was going on up and down the line.
The cook top, what we at home call the stove, was Maria’s domain. Maria was amazing to watch. I didn’t get a chance to do more than say hi to her, she was too busy to chat with the audience. But what Javier did with the grill, she was doing with pans. She is said to be able to manage a dozen saute pans at a time. I watched her get at least seven going at once, with greens, pasta, meats, all manner of sides, all begun at different times, all needed NOW. Oh, and did I mention the occasional four foot gouts of flame?
Chef Alex, who did me the great favor of letting me into his kitchen and who runs the show, mostly was in the back, but every so often he would come out to the line, and stand there, watching. Just checking in, just making sure everything was okay. And he’d do whatever it was that needed doing. He’d pick up empty containers, he’d bring in fresh plates, he’d check the stations to make sure they were well stocked and check in with Chef Kiernon to make sure he had what he needed. No shouting or rock n roll. No immaculate white coat heading out to press the flesh or any of that celebrity schtick. Just a calm manager, confident and in control enough to let his people do their jobs.
Then there was the man who was introduced to me as Charlie, but whom by the end of the night I began to think of as Mr. Charles. I didn’t get an exact job title for Mr. Charles. As near as I could tell his job was to do whatever it was that needed doing. If a container was empty, he was the guy who got it filled, so he spent a lot of time in the back. But when things got hairy, Mr. Charles was on the line too, assembling burgers, cleaning stations, organizing tickets, scooping, filling, plating, finding, fixing and generally making sure the job got done, whatever the job was.
I was able to bail half way through the shift, but they of course, had to keep going And going, and going. I went home tired, smelling of grease and smoke and entirely happy. It was the best kind of learning experience. It showed me a world I’d never seen, introduced me to nifty people I’d never otherwise meet, and helped me find the words to create the new characters for A TASTE OF THE NIGHTLIFE.