[The Amateur Gourmet is on vacation and, while he’s gone, he’s asked his friends to cover for him. Today’s post comes from Dan Ahdoot, a stand-up comedian (see his website), who spent part of his summer, this summer, working at The Spotted Pig. This is his story.]
I’ve always been obsessed with eating good food. After reading books like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and more recently Bill Buford’s Heat, my obsession took me from the dining room to the kitchen. In a masochistic way, I craved the kitchen’s insanity and abuse that was depicted in such raunchy candor in these books. So you can imagine my surprise, and in a weird way, my disappointment when I walked into the kitchen at The Spotted Pig on my first day as summer intern, greeted by a tender, sweet-faced woman named Nicola who practically hugged me and said: “Hey Dan, welcome to The Spotted Pig. We’re excited to have you.” What? No hazing? No ‘who the fuck are you’? Is The Spotted Pig the Romper Room of kitchens? Seeing Nicola’s arms as we shook hands suddenly dispelled that fleeting thought. Her arms are not only tatted up, they’re also covered with burn marks…deep, violent, permanent burn marks. You know that scar from 1st grade you show off whenever a scar contest starts? She’s got about 15 of those on her right forearm. Nicola was the perfect person for me to meet first because she embodies the kitchen run by head chef April Bloomfield. A very sweet exterior, coupled with a truly hard-core interior.
I found myself in the kitchen here in a pretty non-traditional way. My first passion in life is standup comedy. Fortunately, my comedy career frees me up in the summer to do something extracurricular. Over lunch with my friend Tim Carosi, the manager at The Spotted Pig, I mentioned I was interested in learning how to cook and thought of enrolling in a cooking school. He had the initial idea of me interning at the Pig. It sounded too good to be true. A restaurant that’s been one of my regular stomping grounds for years, the only Michelin starred gastropub in the country, and best of all, it’s on my block so I could literally roll out of bed into the kitchen. It took a while, but as if perfectly scripted for this piece, I received the call the same day April schooled Michael Simon on Iron Chef.
[Me & Tim, the guy who got me the job.]
So there I was, the next morning, in my chefs toque and apron, chopping chives. Apparently, chive chiffonade is sort of like a rite of passage to working in a kitchen. It’s a perfect first task because it’s extremely tedious and extremely messy. So you learn the 2 main tenants of the kitchen: be precise, be clean. A couple of hours into my chive chopping which apparently I kept messing up, Josh Schwartz, the sous chef, came over to me. “That’s good. Let me show you around the kitchen.” He then threw out my chives and walked me around the restaurant.
[Me & Josh, my mentor.]
The Pig is split into 4 floors.
The basement: Most of the grunt work takes place here. Peas get shelled, fish get gutted, meat gets chopped, those famous gnudi are rolled etc. (On a side note, the gnudi are only made by a privileged few and nobody can even be in the vicinity so as to keep the recipe secret). The main staff downstairs consists of about 7 Mexicans and Ecuadorians under 5 feet tall; and lucky for them because the ceiling is about 5’3” high. At 5’7”, I’ve never felt tall in my life. At the Pig, I feel like a giant. Also, Spanish class should be mandatory in culinary school, because being the non Latino who speaks Spanish automatically gives you street cred. And I probably learned just as much from these guys as from the classically trained chefs.
Ground Floor: Here lies the main attraction – the kitchen. Believe it or not, these Michelin star meals which feed about 350 people a weekend night, come out of a space about 350 square feet. At each shift there are about 7 people cramped in this place, not to mention 2 ovens, vats of oil, and lots of very hot steel. I’ve read about how hot it gets in the kitchen, but nothing can prepare you for it. Just one example: one day when I was working the fryilator, my eyes started stinging. I pulled out my contacts and realized they were melting onto my eyes. ‘Nuff said.
Second Floor: Yet another bar, and dining room. Also, each night one chef takes the bar shift, cranking out oysters and other bar snacks, not to mention dealing with minions of drunks.
Third Floor: The office. The door of the office has a painting of a John Dory – the fish whose slick name will don their new seafood themed restaurant due to open in a few months.
Josh ended up being my mentor at the Pig. He taught me how to make souffles (beat the egg whites until stiff, but not TOO stiff), how to macerate strawberries (don’t let the balsamic overpower the vodka and vice versa), how to make pesto (put enough cheese in to give it texture, but not so it tastes cheesy. It should taste like basil) – all without the aid of recipes or measuring cups. Josh taught me what I came to the Pig to learn. How to cook food by relying solely on my senses.
Josh, like everyone at the restaurant, was overly nice to me. Anytime I had a question, no matter how busy the place was, he would stop and teach me. I swear these guys must have thought I was some sort of mole, gearing to write an expose on the kitchen. And in a way, they were right. I have a friend who writes for Gourmet magazine. I would meet with him in hopes of putting together an article, but I kept getting the same note: “Nobody is going to want to read an article about how you worked at a kitchen and everyone was nice.” Well I still hadn’t met the head chef, so hopefully she was a psycho who could get me a magazine deal.
Unfortunately for my expose, this was not the case. My second day at the Pig, I met April. She walked into the kitchen in her usual outfit of jeans, clogs, and a Spotted Pig t-shirt, charmingly greeting everyone in their vernacular. “Hey, Josh, how are you? Ola Angelica, ola Adriana. You must be Dan the intern!” She walked over to a pot of simmering beef tongues, cut off a piece, split it in two, and offered me half. “Here. What do you think?” We both chewed on a piece of tongue that melted in our mouths and exploded in briny, vinegary, fatty goodness . “It’s amazing.” “Great, glad you like it. Welcome to the Spotted Pig.” At the Spotted Pig, they don’t break bread, they break beef tongue.
One thing people often say when they meet a professional comedian is that they are so different on stage than they are off stage. That’s because a good comedian’s act doesn’t mirror his outward personality. It is a door into what lies beneath. It is an expression of who we REALLY are when society’s mask is off. That’s how I understand April’s connection to her food. If you met her on the street, you would say she’s shy, tender, sweet, and almost motherly with her affection. Not the type of person you would associate with dishes like Seared Beef Tongue with Duck Fat Fries, a brick of a Burger – a half pound of beef topped with about 4 tbsp Roquefort Cheese – that’s it, no additions or substitutions (unless you’re Lou Reed, the only person allowed to add a slice of red onion), and Pork Faggots – a sausage of sorts filled with ground pork liver, pork cheeks and farro – an ancient grain from the Mediterranean which was the main source of sustenance for the Roman Legions. The food here isn’t manly, it’s downright Viking – not something you expect from a chef who looks like someone who runs a non-profit.
We all have that inner voice that is sometimes scary to let speak. The one that has no politeness or pretense associated with it. Most people cover it up completely, some let it come out once in a blue moon. However, a small, courageous group lets it speak without abandon. Thankfully for those who find themselves at a charming brownstone on the corner of Greenwich st. and 11th, April Bloomfield is a leader of this group.
[Me throwing in my last shoestring fries into the fryilator.]