Fore Street Confidential
In the relative calm of 9 a.m., Ken Thomas, the kitchen manager of Portland's Fore Street Restaurant, stands at the prep kitchen's stainless steel island, its top crowded with plastic containers of whole peeled cloves of garlic and shallots and tubs of spices, the knife in his hand reducing stock vegetables to chunks on the cutting board in front of him with a grace not commonly found in someone as broad as a linebacker and so tall that his funky beret nearly touches the thicket of ladles, slotted spoons, whisks, and spatulas dangling from the rack above.On one of the two long gas ranges against one wall, three battered aluminum pots only slightly smaller than compact cars bubble away, each containing a different sauce in the making. The other stovetop is equally crowded: a wide, shallow pan filling the air with the smell of simmering onions and cider vinegar jostles a double boiler, its top brimming with gleaming yellow chunks of melting butter in a sea of dark, almost black chocolate. With every burner of every stove lit, the ovens in the far corner going full tilt, and the dishwasher against the street window contributing its own clouds of heat and steam, the small, narrow room quickly becomes a sauna, which is why the ventilator hoods are cranked, adding their racket to the crash of pans against stainless steel, the rat-a-tat-tatting of knives on cutting boards. The cooks, of course, don't seem to register any of this, controlled chaos being the normal state of most restaurant kitchens.
Andrew, also on morning prep, works quietly away at the other end of the table, trimming out the backbones of and flattening a few dozen quail, while Michele, the morning pastry cook, shuttles from her station at the far end of the room to stir the double boiler from time to time and to tend a pot of poaching quince. The three banter back and forth, but mostly the atmosphere is one of concentration and hustle, as, quite simply, they have a hell of a lot to do.
The side door bangs open, the Maine-ly Poultry deliveryman dropping plastic sacks bulging with organic rabbits and chickens on the floor and in the same motion thrusting a receipt at Ken. That door will be banging open all day, as it does nearly 360 days a year. By the end of this week, through it will have come an entire deer carcass, forty chickens, thirty-six whole halibut, four fifteen-pound dorado, 250 pounds of untrimmed hanger steak, thirty-five eleven-pound pork loins, fifteen rabbits, thirty-six ducks, three whole lambs, and three to four dozen quail. Depending on the season and the catch, this will be supplemented by several hundred pounds of Bang Island mussels, a few hundred oysters, the same of scallops, several ten-pound tubs of fresh, peeled Maine shrimp, and various other fish from skate to plaice to char to wild salmon. And that's just in the slow of winter, when, as Ken says, "We'll do 225 covers [meals] on a Friday night, maybe 1,500 a week."
Viewed in this way, Fore Street can sometimes appear as a streamlined, very sophisticated protein delivery system. Meat, fowl, fish, and seafood — the best and freshest and much organic and local — are simply prepped and dressed and then spit-roasted or grilled over coals, or seared in the brick oven and served with uncomplicated side dishes. "The beauty of this place is, we keep things as simple as possible," Ken tells me. "We don't alter the food so the prep is pretty easy. Most of my day is portioning, when I'm not talking to suppliers."
He tells me this because I've asked where the day's menu is, and it turns out there won't be one until late afternoon, when the line cooks — those who actually put the fire to the food on your plate — will finalize exactly what they'll be cooking for their 200-plus invited guests. Holding in my hand the previous day's menu — sixteen appetizers, twelve entrées, six vegetable sides, and five desserts — my jaw drops, provoking a smile from Ken. A handful of favorites are always on the menu, and about half of last night's dishes will be held over. Still, re-inventing the other half every night seems extreme. In most high-end restaurants, the executive chef comes up with a weekly menu, orders the necessary, often pre-portioned, ingredients, and oversees the rigid hierarchy of cooks doing their specific jobs — one making the sauce, another filleting the fish, a third searing it, a fourth prepping the starch and vegetables, and a head chef putting the whole thing together on the plate and making it pretty. This is not, evidently, the way things work at Fore Street where, unusually, each cook is responsible for a large part of his or her own prep.
Sam Hayward, the co-owner and executive chef, pops in the side door, says hello to one and all, and lays his black, rectangular knife case on the counter. He fetches coffee, the universal restaurant lubricant, and takes Ken aside to discuss what's come in, what needs to be used, and ongoing issues, such as "the cassoulet problem." Sam grabs his knives and the rabbits, going into the restaurant to set up a prep station at one end of the twenty foot-long butcher-block counter separating the cooking line from the tables. He's decided to contribute a rabbit dish to tonight's menu, exactly what he doesn't know yet. He'll do his own prep, just like everyone else, which means, first, an hour of repetitive labor just to joint the carcasses.
As we talk, Ken's wide, shovel-shaped hands are never still. First, he's thin-slicing potatoes on a mandoline for scalloped potatoes, then it's on to the portioning of a half dozen two-foot-long racks of lamb, his sharp boning knife deftly separating the chops one by one, from there chopping more vegetables, attending to the sauces, and dispensing bits of advice to Andrew. If he's got a knife in one hand, in the other is invariably a clutch of papers to read and sign, or a cleaning cloth to wipe down his workspace, the constantly ringing phone often clenched between shoulder and ear as he works.
Ken and Andrew are joined mid-morning by Charles, yet another prep cook, all three working from a list taped up beside the stove. On it this day are twenty-seven items, a few already crossed off, from "make mussel butter" to "braise venison shanks" by way of "wash oysters," "clean and pick clams," "prep quail," "prep fish: 1. plaice 2. dorado 3. char," and on and on to that ubiquitous restaurant task: "Put up stocks: veal, duck, chicken, lamb." Charles, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and with the powerful shoulders and forearms of a butcher, takes up a place down the counter from Sam and attacks a huge pile of hanger steak, trimming excess fat and cutting this long, ugly cut of beef, one of Fore Street's most popular entrées along with the pork loin, into recognizable portions.
Every dish on a typical Fore Street menu seems simple; unadorned food, "honest food," is one of Sam's hallmarks as a chef. But "simple" in the world of Sam Hayward can take on a whole new meaning. One offering this night is called "Cassoulet for a Maine Winter," evoking some down-home, uncomplicated fare. Traditional cassoulet, from southwestern France, is indeed a rich, winter stew of white beans and any variety of cuts of duck, pork, and even lamb, some of which are "confited" — dry-rubbed in salt and herbs, then pre-cooked very slowly at low temperature in their own fat. The problem with cassoulet, says Ken, "is to make sure the dish is as good in February as it is in December. You can get complacent because it is tedious. And then pretty soon the line cooks end up throwing in things without too much thought. So we decided this year it will pop up on the menu from time to time when we can do things with it you won't see anywhere else in town."
How do they make this "simple" stew? Make a duck stock (twenty-four hours), simmer flageolet beans until just tender (two hours), dry marinate (two days), then braise (three hours) a slab of nitrate-free bacon, make caramelized onions (one hour), make confited duck legs (three days plus three hours), make venison sausage (fourteen-day dry-aged shoulder smoked five hours plus two hours to pull, shred, prep, and case the meat), confit lamb or venison heart (three days plus three hours). Finally, make your own breadcrumbs (thirty minutes). Now you're ready to actually assemble the dish. If you started on Monday, by the way, "now" would be Friday, and you would have a thorough understanding of "the cassoulet problem" and why "simple" at Fore Street can be a very deceptive word indeed.
The lunch hour comes and goes, a pause so brief in the gathering scramble that its only distinguishing characteristic is cooks eating rough sandwiches as they work. Michele, Andrew, Charles, Ken, and Sam plow through their preps, while, in the restaurant foyer, the phone rings off the hook. The weather this day has gone from snow to sleet to rain, and, with the roads terrible, some of the evening's out-of-town guests are canceling. Robyn Violette, the general manager whose duties include managing the reservations as well as much of the office work, reports that the locals seem to be taking advantage of this, booking in last minute.
By early afternoon, the line cooks begin to trickle in; the first to arrive is Nate Nadeau, who plays Patton to Ken's Eisenhower. Sam explains: "Ken and his staff have built stocks, sauces, bouillons, portioned the meats and fish for the cooks to work with. When they first come in, they see what's left over, what's come in, and Ken will explain what the [prep cooks] have made up. After, it's their responsibility and challenge to figure out what they're going to do with it." If Ken is largely responsible for everything that happens to your food before it's cooked, it is Nate, the line boss, who pushes the cooks to be creative in their preps, checks their excesses, and, equally importantly, orchestrates the final cooking during service so that your table of eight gets eight different main courses all at the same time — and at the right temperature.
You can actually see this late afternoon crew transition take place as more and more of the action and personnel move to that vast countertop in the restaurant between the tables and Fore Street's dominant feature, the smoke-blackened, fire-breathing hot line. The restaurant is laid out like an amphitheatre, most tables in raised tiers in a rough U and all looking down on the stage, that long brick edifice with its massive oven at one end, the steel grates of the grill, and the gleaming silvery machinery of the turnspit over its well of flame.
In the space of a half an hour, Mary Ann, Josh, and Corey, the evening's cooks, have buried every inch of the counter in front of the line under a clutter of knives, cutting boards, sauté pans, piles of vegetables and herbs, bowls of spice, every inch taken up with some item of prep. Nate comes and goes among them, asking, tasting, commenting softly but with authority. His round face and neatly trimmed beard make him appear gentle and a bit avuncular, an impression that lasts only until he opens his mouth, telling a cook, "Hey, that's really not going to work."
What are they doing? Tonight, Corey, for example, is on the grill, which means having the quail, the foie gras, the venison chop, the hamachi, the dorado, and the rabbit on hand in the right quantity but also having all the "accompaniments" — the side vegetables, starches, sauces, and garnishes — ready to go, too. So he's making a basil-ginger vinaigrette for the dorado, reducing Maine cranberries into a syrup for the foie gras, and cleaning and steaming baby Brussels sprouts which, sautéed with apple-smoked bacon, garnish the quail.
Through the front door comes a man carrying cardboard boxes, on top of which he's piled bunches of thick greens so high you can't see his face. "Frank!" Sam calls to him, "we didn't know if you were going to make it. What have you brought us?" This is Frank Gross, a year-round organic gardener down from Lisbon who first showed up bearing exotic greens at one of Sam's restaurants twenty-five years ago. Sam asks what Frank has brought because he ceased long ago to actually order. "We take whatever he brings," says Ken. "It's always beautiful, table-ready," Sam adds: "He's always surprising us."
Today, there are peppery micro radish greens, parsnips with snow still clinging to their roots, winter radishes, Gilfeather rutabagas, Alaskan stiff-necked garlic, red-veined sorrel, squashes, even a bunch of lemongrass. "Careful!" Frank says, "the edges of the stalks are razor sharp. Cut yourself and you'll know it." Sam opens a box and pulls out a bunch of tan, wrinkled roots. "Hamburg parsley root," Frank says. Sam's already got a knife and is carving chunks for the gathered cooks to taste, and then it's on to a discussion of those bushy stalks, which turn out to be cardoons (like artichokes without the choke, Sam explains), and how to store and cook them. The cooks ask questions, taste a bit of this and that, and I get the impression that this is one reason they work here and not somewhere else, that the people who grow and raise the food they cook are such a part of the process.
Two hours later, it's showtime for the cooks. They sit down with Nate, each clutching a stained sheet of scribbled notes on ingredients and preps for the dishes they've worked up. This gives Nate a final chance to make sure no two dishes resemble each other too closely, and that no one has broken any of Sam's unwritten rules: No fruit with fish. Use the whole animal. Not too many exotic ingredients. Don't fiddle with the food — a chop should look like a chop, you don't make fresh sardines into p?té.
Nate spits rapid-fire questions, takes notes, thinks out loud as the cold salad cook, another Josh, presents his bluefish and crab salad. "You got what?" Nate begins.
"Put the crab on the crostini," Josh replies. "Yukon Gold potatoes, the fish, celeriac in a vinaigrette. . . . . "
"Whaddja do for that?" Nate interrupts.
"I shaved the parsley root, Dijon mustard, rice wine vinegar, some of those salt herbs."
"Is this salad or platter?"
"What about some rocket and mizuna? The greens would work great with all that acid you got goin' in the vinaigrette."
As each takes a turn, Nate resolves issues big and small. How many figs on the fig and cranberry salad? I'm gonna eighty-six the hamachi with a Dijon. Isn't the other Josh using celeriac and potato with his bluefish dish? For the grilled venison, start with the rib chops, not the loin chops, even if they are ten ounces apiece. Jeez, that musta been a huge deer. By four, finally, he's got the night's menu ready to type up, just in time for a brief staff meal, then a meeting with the eight servers, when, with Sam and Ken, he'll present the menu, give them a taste of new dishes, and answer questions.
On the line, things are heating up. Mary Ann built a fire in the brick oven at two; three hours later, the temp's up to somewhere around 800 degrees, flushing her cheeks red as she pushes the burning logs to the back and clears out the ash with a ten-foot-long rake. For the rest of the evening, every time she needs to feed it, she'll be throwing logs over three feet of cooking food. "You get to know its hot spots, cold spots," she says laconically. She may not be much of a talker, but, as Nate observes, "She moves so fast, sometimes you can't even see her!" Earlier, he had explained the peculiarities of the oven, turnspit, and grill, all of which demand huge amounts of fresh air to draw properly. "Where we keep the wood," he points at the spaces set under the grill and to one side of the oven, "air is coming in off the roof. We're freezing from the waist down and very hot up top this time of year. Yeah," he adds, "and the oven guy looks more like a mechanic than a chef by the end of the evening from all the ash and soot! It's physically demanding, the oven, and cooks burn out on it after a while."
By five-thirty, when the first customers take a seat at the bar, the wide counter in front of the hot line has undergone its third and final transformation. Gone are the coffee cups, notepapers, dirty dishes and utensils, and other detritus of the final prep. In their place is everything the cooks will need to put any dish together. Mary Ann, responsible for ten dishes and parts of several others tonight, has built around her what looks like a barricade of teetering oiled cast iron pans and plates. In one corner, a forest of stainless steel containers holds all of the accompaniments that go over, under, or around the actual piece of fish or meat she will take from the under-counter fridge. Corey's turnspit has been loaded with chickens and hunks of pork loin while Josh's army of sauté pans await their turn for the stove.
"Are we ready?" Nate calls, taking a final sip from a can of Red Bull. Facing the roomful of customers, forty of whom have arrived in the last ten minutes, he seems somehow taller, more impressive in his snazzy black-framed specs and clean ball cap. At his elbow, the order printer connected to the servers' computer begins to clack and spit out a few feet of paper. He rips it off, draws a breath. "Haddock order in! Plaice order in! Fire two mussels. One rabbit all around order in! And we're off! Two sardines, side by each, char well done order in, fish stew, runner please, bar up!" Sam leans against the wall near the kitchen door, surveying the crowd, the cooks, the scurrying waitstaff, Ken beside him. The restaurant will serve until after ten tonight, with the bartender locking up some time between midnight and one a.m. An early night. Tomorrow, of course, they start all over again. . . .