This is the second in our “Behind the Scenes” series. This section and section one take you into the kitchen to find out what happens before dinner gets to your table. Our Star Chefs Dinners give us an opportunity to collaborate and learn from some of our favorite chefs. Our guests get the opportunity to try new dishes and taste the fruits of a culinary partnership. This is how it happens.
“You’ve got time, guys. Make sure it’s nice.” The heirloom tomatoes go on the plate first, followed by freshly sliced avocado. The pattern continues for a stacked salad of lightly seasoned tomato and avocado, topped with pickled onion and fresh, green mint. The tomatoes – bright red, green with red sunbursts, and light orange – are fresh from Little City Farm, Four Town Farm, and Schartner’s. Chef Matt also picked some of the tomatoes this morning from Gracie’s rooftop garden, several stories above downtown Providence. “Somebody’s gonna hold, and somebody’s gonna drop.”
As the kitchen staff puts the final touches on the salad, the wait staff is upstairs clearing tables of the first course. Kristie is at the bar, opening wine for the second course while Stephen is delivering freshly polished wine glasses, six at a time, to each table. At the wait station, between the kitchen and dining area, Jessie is filling silver star-shaped trays with forks. It is 7:45. “Let’s start running food, please.”
With the salad out, the wait staff has enough time to survey the dining room. Alan tells me they “want to make sure everyone has water in their glasses, everything they need, and are having a nice dinner.” Even with this interval, there is not much down time. Kristie is behind the bar making simple syrup, Steph and Travis are polishing wine glasses and silverware for the next course, and the rest of the wait staff is attending to the dining room.
For the wait staff, this sequence continues throughout the meal: prepping dishes, clearing tables, resetting tables, filling water and wine glasses, and delivering each new course. The trick is in timing and pacing, making sure the night moves efficiently and smoothly. There are big changes for the kitchen staff, though. The hot courses require a more intricate level of speed and precision- there is time to make each dish beautiful, but accuracy is key here.
The kitchen is divided into two sections: an outer ring lining the wall, and an inner rectangle filled with a worktable. The outer ring, facing the wall, includes the cold prep area, where, on most nights, salads and deserts are made and plated. To the left of that, along the back wall and the far wall, is a line of ovens, twelve gas burners, a flat top grill, and shelves with dozens of well worn pots and fry pans in a variety of sizes. The rest of the outer ring consists of space for used dishes, a dish sink, dishwasher, a hand washing sink, and a space for clean dishes. The steam rises continuously from the consistent flow of plates, glasses, and silverware making the journey through the cleaning cycle.
In the middle of the floor, surrounded by the ovens, pans, and sinks, is a large wooden work table. It looks like a cutting board that just happens to be the size of an extra large dining room table, and tall enough to work while standing. With the steam from the dish area, fire from most of the gas burners, the heat of the flat top, and the hot lamps that help light this workspace, the temperature in the kitchen reaches 93 degrees.
Even so, the 10 cooks standing at three sides of the table are barely breaking a sweat. It is time to plate and serve the next course. Just like the salad dishes, there is a specific order to follow, and even specific placement; “We need to see the ginger; that’s why it’s going on the left.” The ginger follows the sauce, meat, arroz, gravy, and garden lettuce. Chef Bruce Tillinghast examines the first plate, waving his hand from the plate to his nose to appraise the aroma. Ellen Slattery, the owner of Gracie’s, is the last in line; she inspects each plate, and wipes any trace of sauce splashes.
As the last course goes out, Ellen looks over the guest list one last time to ensure that everyone is served. Chef Bruce looks at her, asking, “Are we clear?” “We’re clear.” Chef Bruce looks around at the Gracie’s staff, and says a heartfelt, and simple, “thank you.” With this Star Chefs Dinner almost over, the kitchen staff at Gracie’s enjoys a toast of wine in honor of Chef Bruce. They will spend the next two hours cleaning, then go home. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and they will all be in early to get ready for dinner.
All photos by JWessel Photography.