It is a balmy summer evening in downtown Providence. On Washington Street, across from the Trinity Rep Theater, a small group is waiting for the doors at Gracie’s to open. Chef Bruce Tillinghast, founder of the famed New Rivers Restaurant, just a few blocks away, is this evening’s special guest chef. Tillinghast sold New Rivers in 2012, so this is a rare opportunity to enjoy the talents of one of Rhode Island’s favorite chefs. Some of the guests are long-time fans of Chef Bruce, and others are here for a first taste of his famed dishes.
Doors open promptly at 6 p.m. Guests gather in the candlelit lounge enjoying a Peruvian Cerveza Cusquena Lager or a lightly spiced Pisco Chicha Morada, a Peruvian-styled cocktail. The wait staff carry small wooden trays as they thread through the lounge; they offer canapés of marinated fresh tuna, with potato puree on a bed of Boston Lettuce, chicken and swiss chard empanadas, or fried root vegetable chips with a selection of chili dips. Gracie’s Chef Matt Varga and Chef Bruce are in their cooking jackets, greeting guests.
Light from a dozen candles dances on bottles of Battle Cry Single Malt Whiskey, and Redemption Rye. Above the bar, an inconspicuous flat-screen television brims with colors from photographer Jason Wessel’s images of vegetables, knives, and flowers – all part of tonight’s meal preparations. Ceiling fans spin leisurely, and from behind the bar, slipping through the sound of many conversations and laughs, is the rattle of ice in a metal shaker.
Away from the activity and conversation in the lounge, Melissa and Andrea are working quickly in in the lower level of the Gracie’s kitchen – a section known by the staff as Pastryland. Dessert is Coconut Tuile Cones with passion fruit ice cream, tropical fruits, and chocolate crumble. Keeping ice cream cold in a kitchen is a tricky task, so the pastry chefs place a tray of ice down, then work on top of that to remove the fresh ice cream from silicone molds. Melissa moves the mini ice cream balls back to the freezer to await final assembly just before the dessert course.
With all the activity, it would be easy to forget the planning and preparation that goes into an event such as this. The reality is that this evening’s meal began several weeks ago.
Chef Matt Varga and Chef Bruce sit in the lounge at Gracie’s, with the light of a sunny day illuminating the bar and their work. An open box of pastries, a bottle of water, and several notebooks with recipes and ideas sit on the table next to them. Chef Bruce relates the joys of a recent trip to Peru, and his experience with the exciting food and culture. He wants to bring this same food culture to the Star Chefs Dinner at Gracie’s, with local food and ingredients as the means to express that aesthetic.
Mid-summer produce offers an abundance of choices for the two chefs to work with. The waters off the coast of Rhode Island are also teaming with Black Sea Bass, Tuna, and squid, as well as clams and quahaugs in shallower waters. Chef Bruce says a seafood course, such as ceviche could nicely combine the richness of Rhode Island waters with the fishing culture of Peru. The two chefs meet on several occasions to plan and prepare for this meal, and the final product of that work is taking place now.
Before the first course, nine members of the kitchen staff gather downstairs to set up the ceviche plates. Two long tables are placed end to end, and covered in a white tablecloth. Two rows of rectangular white dishes, 52 in all, are arranged side by side on the table. Chef Matt prepares one plate as a model for the other plates. There is a very precise order and placement for items on the dish, and each chef is responsible for one item. The lobster tail is positioned first on the plate, then a small section of corn on the cob, seasoned with oil, salt, and pepper. Two scallops come next, followed by a portion of sea bass, mussels, squid rings, a dash of fleur de sel, a lobster claw, and lastly, a seasoned sweet potato.
Each member of the kitchen staff works around the table, carefully positioning their piece of the culinary artwork one by one as they go. Chef Matt reminds the team to “be tight on the line, guys”, making sure the “line” of ceviche is thoughtfully placed to ensure that the fresh plate is presented looking its best. Chef Bruce walks around the table last, finishing each plate with cilantro.
The colors are brilliant- bright golden orange marigold petals, beautifully flecked red and white lobster, and summery green cilantro give the dish a visual warmth, and show off the groups ability to step back, and allow the ingredients to present their full potential. With the dishes ready, Ellen, Bruce, and Matt attend to checking the guest list to make sure everyone has arrived, but also to check guest notes for any allergies. “We need a watermelon salad for a shellfish allergy.”
“These are ready. Do you wanna go get runners?” Alan, a waiter at Gracie’s, heads upstairs to notify the staff that it is time to go. The room switches from preparation mode to an energetic and noisy conversation that would only make sense to someone familiar with restaurant language.
“Alan, two go to eight.”
“Laura, you have one and two.”
“Why don’t you take five and six.”
Jesse, you wanna do one and two at twelve.”
Table numbers, seat numbers, and a call and response (“Alan, two go to eight.” “Heard.”) come from a dozen different voices in the low-ceilinged preparation room downstairs. The swinging door to the stairs and up to the main kitchen and dining room moves continuously for the next few minutes as waiters are in and out, up and down the stairs, until all 50 guests have received their plates.
Chef Matt, Chef Bruce, and Ellen all smile, then head upstairs to address the dining room.