Behind the scenes in restaurant kitchen
My risotto arm still aches, even after a good night's sleep. Come to think of it, I can feel the muscle in my left arm too.
But the folks who dined on the risotto I made for last night's group at Sapore, enjoyed it so much that Loretta asked me to come out into the dining room and meet them. In between the rather daunting kitchen tasks that need her attention at this restaurant, she's frequently cruising the dining room to greet guests, check their satisfaction and the meal's progress.
Risotto, a dish made with Aborio rice, stock, butter, cheese and other ingredients, is one that requires constant stirring for at least 20 minutes and sometimes longer. It felt like longer, but it was rewarding to watch it absorb the ingredients and transform itself in the pot into the food miracle it becomes. All I really did was steadily stir as Loretta eyed the mixture bubbling away on the stove-top and added ingredients at the right time.
After finishing my day in the newsroom Friday I joined her, and chef Alex Payne in cooking for the Friday evening diners at Sapore, the 30-seat restaurant at 8623 Mayfield Road, next to the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking in Chester. It's open for dinner just on Friday and Saturday evenings as a place for students at the Paganini -run International Culinary Arts and Sciences Center to get real-life restaurant experience before they graduate. I'm no trained chef, but can take directions and stay out of the way, so I enjoyed the opportunity. As it turned out, it seemed that I made a real contribution to the evening's success.
ICASI graduate Gail McNally was running the front of the house on this night with Amy Davis as wait staff. When I arrived at 5:30 they were polishing the glassware to make sure it was spotless, checking table settings, lighting candles and seeing that the fresh roses on each table were perfectly in place.
Loretta explained that on this evening five couples on hand for a "Romantic Parents Night out" were expected along with a couple of tables of outside reservations. The parents all had children next door for a pajama party/kids cooking class at the Gingerbread House, which is the name Paganini has given to the original school where recreational cooking classes take place. The program there is now under direction from her daughter Stefanie while Loretta puts most of her considerable energy toward the professional chef program at ICASI.
The "romantic" couples would have a set menu, including the yummy risotto with zuchhini and shrimp. The others expected would be ordering from the 4-course menu with two or three choices for each course.
I quickly learned that "rush and wait" aptly describes the restaurant kitchen scenario. Tense moments came when one person was running late and the others in her "Romantic Couples" party did not want to start their meal until she arrived. Since we were timing each of the four courses to be ready at the same time, that tended to back everything up.
The 4-1/2 couples all were welcomed with a lovely Bellini , sparkling andserved in a flute and made with fresh peaches and Prosecco (Italian bubbly).
Then came a rosemary piedine flatbread with a diced tomato, basil and balsamic for an appetizer as they waited. The Bellini and flatbread intended for the missing person looked lonely as they waited on the kitchen's sideboard for the latecomer's arrival as I began the risotto.
But risotto waits for no one. When it's finished it must be served or it will turn into mush. So after giving the couples nearly a half hour to converse, the fig and prosciutto salads were served.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the shrimps and zucchini which had been waiting in little bins in the hot and cold mise-en-place were stirred into the steaming risotto and we began plating it, adding fresh herbs grown in the garden out back. Every menu here is designed around the freshest ingredients available locally.
The mise-en-place ( French for "everything in its place" ) in any restaurant kitchen includes ingredients prepared in advance to be used in the meal. They are made and measured according to the various recipes that will employ them and put in little bins so they can be added when they're needed without scrambling around.
Any good cook knows that timing is half the battle in preparing a meal and organization is key not only to a tasty preparation but a pleasing presentation of a dinner in which hot dishes are hot and cold dishes cold all served on time. Orchestration of fine dining is an art when it's well done and seems leisurely to the diners, but those in the kitchen know that's a carefully created— and sometimes hard won — illusion..
Not everyone is interested in a blow-by blow of this experience, so I'll save details for another time, along with many of the photos I shot that night. Perhaps it will morph into a Food page for the News-Herald some future Wednesday since I can also share some recipes then. Let me know of your interest in your comments at the end of this blog and I will take it from there..
In the meantime, consider reserving a dinner for yourself at Sapore at 440-729-1110.