In the back of Le Mandrac Restaurant, in Opatija, Croatia
Some of the most informative, intriguing, and hilarious experiences of my life have been in restaurant kitchens, learning from accomplished chefs all over the world. So how did I manage to get into the back of the house, and how has it helped my own home cooking?
I asked. That's it. After sitting down, scanning the menu, and putting in my order, I usually inquire of the server if I may briefly visit with the chef who's preparing our meal. Nine times out of 10, the staff of any restaurant accommodates this request. Most often, the chefs I visit are happy to answer a few questions about the food.
Many chefs are effusive in describing the food they are preparing for you. "The herbs for tonight's Spring Nettle Risotto? I plucked them from my neighbor's garden," said one chef. After putting me to work stirring the risotto, he's invited my family for dinner at his parents' country house for, "the best food in the country — of course, my mother is cooking, not me."
There's also been many occasions where I've been taught exactly how to make the meal I'm going to eat. Step-by-step, real-time, real-life preparations of samosas, aloo gobi, vegetarian pho, crepes, curries, breads, ice creams, chocolates — you name it, I've watched it being prepared. I've been transfixed by the economy of movement displayed by people who cook for a living. It's an awesome sight to behold, one that most people don't even think about asking to be a part of.
Frequently, in parts of Asia, I was even offered a private cooking lesson the next day, before the restaurant opened for business. Food is the common language within all cultures. When you ask someone about what they like to eat and cook, you're inviting them to speak of their childhood, the seasons, the place they live, and their philosophy on life. It's that big! The discussion can quickly move to politics, current events, family, and the journey leading up to that present moment, as a person who prepares food. It's a primal thing — everyone eats, so everyone wants to talk about eating. It's the ultimate springboard topic.
Why do I ask?
Because not only do I want to understand the food and learn new recipes, I want to further connect with the world I inhabit. I like food. I love conversation. This intersection of eating and chatting is the perfect way to dig deeper and appreciate a meal out, so much more so than as a passive diner. No matter how humble or fancy the circumstance, it's also plain fun. Language barrier? Even better. The great part of food preparation is it's a visual and tactile exercise. Communication through pointing and laughter is all that's needed in learning a new recipe and exchanging a story.
How did I learn to do this?
I learned from my dad. And he learned from his dad. My grandfather, Sidney, was a gourmand before they invented the term, eating at Vincent's, a food cart in little Italy, with religious frequency. He plucked the eyeballs of whole fish at the local Chinese restaurant, popping them into his mouth with relish and glee. For us kids, this adventurous, outrageous way of eating was the stuff of legend. He caught a 125-pound swordfish with my Dad in Mexico because he asked around as to who the best fisherman was in the sleepy village — didn't matter that this "guide" had never taken out Americans, and his "boat" was closer to Huck Finn's improvised raft; a far cry from the slick, white sailboats most tourists toodled around in. Grandpa Sid knew everyone (called everyone "doll" — expert polite move, when forgetting a name) and asked questions whenever food was around.
Yes, it was scary the first few times I stepped behind the Oz curtain, but I got over that fear.
The rewards of a fun kitchen visit so outweigh the rare "sorry, no, he's too busy" by about a million. The worst thing that can happen in this scenario is you get turned down, which rarely happens. Now, wherever I am, near or far to home, I jump into the kitchen flame, guided by the vision of my grandpa chatting with his food-cart friend while dousing his scungilli in the firey red sauce he loved so much. And years later, my dad prompted me, "You like this rava masala dosa? Get back there and find out more about it!"
At the end of the day, I'm always thankful that I did ask about what I'm eating, and even more thankful for parents who pushed me to seek answers (even if it was scary at first). And my food tastes that much better knowing a bit of its history and the person behind it.
Oh and that absurdly flavorful red sauce all the generations of my family so adore? The chef at Vincent's won't reveal his recipe!
5 Tips for Restaurant Kitchen Visits
1. Bring your camera.
This helps for taking visual notes and referring to recipes later on. I know there's lots of talk about too many foodie folks taking pictures of their food, but I say, click on. Who cares? You'll have the documentation you need should you want to try the dish at home or print images to plaster on your walls.
2. Bring your notebook.
Take notes! I have referred to my journals from as far back as age 7, when I was writing and sketching about my new and exciting sandwich: cheese, golden apple slices, and honey (still sounds good). This "recipe" is from a sandwich I had in Sienna, Italy, earlier that year. Later on, I even recorded notes on my daily bowls of pho soup, using a small tape-recorder to be later transcribed into my journal. I was an aspiring Nancy Drew, only floating down the Mekong with my dad on a canoe, powered by an attached helicopter engine. It was so loud, the Lao soldiers we were with handed us small tears of white bread as ear plugs. What can I say? I was a lucky kid.
3. Bring a friendly, open-minded attitude.
Remember, the chef, staff, and restaurant are all taking time for you; you are there to learn from him or her (although it's usually a him). Be gracious and listen up. There's a lot to learn in this environment.
4. Remember your dining companions need you, too.
You can't spend your whole evening back in the kitchen — even if you're having a rollicking good time — if your spouse or family member is sitting alone in the dining room, waiting, then eating their meal solo. If things are getting really interesting in the kitchen, ask if your guest may come in for the fun; usually this is okay if there's only one other person. If not, make sure to get back to your table before the food arrives. You can always return to say thanks after your meal.
5. Send a thank you note and a print.
I'm amazed at how far a small gesture like a thank you note can take you in this situation. I've been invited back and over for "dinner at my mother's place" countless times due to a sincerely written note. I try and send a decent-sized print of one of my photos from the evening to the chef who so kindly invited me into his world. In this digital era, a physical photograph says a lot.
Have you ever visited a restaurant kitchen?
Originally published January 2011
(Image credits: Leela Cyd)