Remember a while back I told you I'd won "Chef for a Night" at a local restaurant? That restaurant was Tin Fish and I took advantage of my prize last week. Would you like to see how it went?
I reported for duty at 5:30 and decided to wear black pants and a white shirt because that just felt kitchen-y. No matter, they provided a smock and as soon as I donned it, I looked like I fit right in (yeah, right!). The only wardrobe requirement was that I had to wear close-toed shoes. No problem there.
Brandon was the real chef on duty that night. Super nice guy, he reminded me just a bit of Nicolas Cage. I can't actually put my finger on why, but he did. He was making a corn chowder soup in a huge "tilt-skillet" (oh, Ollie's going to need one of those!) and I was surprised to see his cooks harvesting corn by slicing it straight off the cob. No packets of frozen Niblets here! Brandon told me that they try to buy local as much as possible and the corn on the cob was probably purchased from a Tinley Park farmstand. Very green. (The mindset, not the corn!)
Oh, by the way, Brandon asked me if I had any food allergies (I don't) and asked if I'd like a glass of wine or anything. I was fine with water for the time being, but he brought me a plate of buffalo shrimp. Of everything on the Tin Fish menu, I think the Buffalo Shrimp is my favorite. Here's a shot of the appetizer, when I remembered to pull out my camera. Of course, most of it is already gone!
It seems that the Chef of the Night enjoys food and "entertainment" but isn't expected to do any work. I offered to pitch in because I always feel better when I'm contributing and they let me chop onions. It's been *years* since I chopped onions... but the process remains the same. LOL Last time I did so many onions in a row it was for Ben's Hot Dog's on 31st Street in Chicago - my first job.
Anyway, my onions were part of the chowder that would be served for the next two nights. Pretty exciting. After combining the corn with peppers (green, red, poblano) and my onions, Brandon sizzled them up on this tilt skillet while he cooked the bare cobs in a deep pot of cream for the base.
Yeah, this recipe isn't exactly step-by-step, nor would you (or I) want to make so much at once, but the idea can inspire us, right? Brandon removed the cooked veggies then made a roux in the tilt skillet without cleaning out the crispies left behind. Adds to the flavor. He explained a white roux and then went on to discuss rouxs (how on earth does one pluralize roux?) that were cooked overnight and became very dark. These, he said, were often used in Cajun dishes and he warned that the line between a dark roux and a bitter/ruined one was very fine. Don't worry... I don't have any 8 hour rouxs (?) planned in the near future.
Eventually he added the veggies back to the roux, then added the corn-flavored cream. Kosher salt, some chili powder, fresh oregano and tarragon. A little more salt. and ... yum!!
It was fun to watch. And that was early, before the restaurant started to get busy. At that point I snuck into a corner to keep out of the servers', cooks', and runners' way. Manny was the man who took all the finished dishes, garnished them with whatever they required - lemons, parsley, soup spoons, steak knives, doilies, and hoisted them on his shoulder to take out to eager diners.
Primo seemed like he was the main cook in the back end. I think I'd like to develop a character who looks like him. Tall, Hispanic, quick with a smile and with a red tattoo (I think it was a dragon) on his chest... he would be fun to write about. Anyway, about midway through the evening, Primo asked if I'd like to try anything. There was a special salad offered that night - King Crab and Avocado. I told him that looked good and in moments they'd prepared it for me. Absolutely, phenomenally delicious. It was garnished with watercress and fried wontons, and drizzled with cilantro oil, and a balsamic vinaigrette (IIRC). Tomatoes, obviously. So, wonderful!
Janet was probably the friendliest server. She kept asking what I'd like and would have been happy to bring wine, or anything else. Seriously, back there, in the heat (there was an occasional cool breeze) water was what I wanted most of all.
Throughout, Brandon oversaw the kitchen. He stepped up to help Manny dress the dishes when it got super busy, and I wandered about, asking questions which they all graciously answered.
Did you know that when frying fish, you want to use minimal oil, but you need to get the pan very, very hot? That's what prevents fish from sticking -- not the amount of oil you use, but how hot the pan is. Brandon walked me through that too.
By the time I left, I was satiated by the delicious dishes I'd sampled and I'd learned a lot that will help me make Ollie's kitchen scenes more real in future books.
Thanks so much, Tin Fish!!
Guess what? I was on Rick Kogan's radio show - Sunday Papers. If you're interested in listening - I talk a bit about Grace Under Pressure, about becoming an author, and about the White House Chef novels. Here's the link: SUNDAY PAPERS