October 14, 2012

Secrets of a Taverna Banfi Chef

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I have worked at the Statler Hotel’s Taverna Banfi for almost a year now, and I want to take the opportunity to give a “behind the scenes” look at how a restaurant operates. The amount of work that goes into a complete dish — grilled salmon with a potato galette and a fennel salad, for example — is surprising. The salmon is skinned and portioned, the fennel and other salad components are prepared and the potatoes are cooked and formed into disks. All of this prep occurs before a customer even orders the dish. Banfi offers ten appetizers, nine entrees and eight desserts, all of which need to be completely prepped well before service to make sure that the meal goes as efficiently as possible. Working in a restaurant has shown me that much more effort goes into a meal than the customer realizes.

We all love the chance to take a break from our normal eating routines to let someone else serve us a meal, but how does the food make it from the kitchen to the plate? Each restaurant is, of course, very different, but the intense preparation required to produce a delicious meal is universal across food service. The “line,” the part of the kitchen where the final dishes are cooked and plated, would not present quality food without planning and collaboration.

Having to prepare so many components requires an organized division of labor. Taverna Banfi has four general stations: pastry, pantry, sauté and grill. The pastry station is responsible for prepping all of the desserts that the restaurant offers. Pastry does not do the final plating because of limited space on the line. The pantry station, which also prepares cold appetizers, salads and sandwiches, is responsible for plating the sweet creations of the pastry crew.

That leaves the sauté and grill stations, which, as you might guess, prepare all of the hot food that the restaurant serves. These crews work together closely in the scorching, high-stress environment of the restaurant line. Friendships are tested; harsh words are said; hands are burned; but at the end of the day all of the food manages to reach the customer. Beer-braised short ribs, steak and the like come from the grill. House-made ravioli, striped bass and other similar hot entrees are the responsibility of the sauté crew.

Each chef must ensure that his or her station is ready for service. That can mean anything from assembling salad dressings, chopping vegetables, making pasta sauces, etc. Every ingredient required for every component of every dish must be immediately available. Preparation can be a grind, but it is the basis of a successful service. I’ve even seen a Banfi chef spend an entire shift (about nine hours) rolling out, filling and sealing hundreds, if not thousands, of fresh ravioli. Any good restaurant has a crew that is committed to quality prep.

Another aspect of food service that has surprised me is how difficult it can be to time the execution of a meal. If you and two friends order a salad, some pasta and grilled salmon, the line has to make sure that each of those dishes is done at precisely the same time. Meanwhile, there could easily be 20 other guests who are expecting different dishes exactly when you expect yours. It never ceases to amaze me how necessary communication is in a kitchen, no matter how busy the service may be. Much of that is the responsibility of the expeditor, who plays the vital role of liaison between the line and the dining room. Poor communication leads to overcooked food, soggy salads, and an overall horrible customer experience.

Next time you’re in a restaurant, look at the dish in front of you and think about how many components make up your meal and how that plate got to you from the kitchen. Many dishes have a main component, two or three sides, a sauce and a garnish, all of which require planning and prep. Working at Taverna Banfi has taught me to appreciate how much energy goes into a meal, and how the effort of so many people manifests itself in the careful presentation of a delicious plate of food.

Original Author: Zachary Siegel