October 25, 2014

Your Dish Is Their Command

Watching the head chef of Harold’s on Bay, Renée Graeme, finish prepping truffle cream sauce for the cozy downtown Fort Myers restaurant’s evening fare, I’d never guess the 28-year-old moved here a little over a year ago from Outer Banks, N.C. It’s as though she was planted on the thick, black rubber mat in front of the kitchen’s eight-burner gas range, and she blooms like yellow jasmine here in her element. Even on her days off, her thoughts aren’t far from this brown-tiled, clattering hive. One Friday evening in season, she warmly welcomes me into her world. Here I will spend the next seven hours discovering the art, skill—and yes, passion—that go into every dish offered on the Harold’s on Bay menu.

About 10 minutes to 4 p.m., I enter the restaurant and ask for either of the restaurant’s partners, Harold Balink or Stacy Saiff, who aren’t available. Renée wasn’t expecting me, but beckons me to follow her into the kitchen.

White-aproned Ernesto Borragán, Harold’s grill chef, stands in front of the broiler, sharpening his fright-sized knives, something he will do several times throughout the evening. He glances up before returning to the serious task of trimming fat and membrane from firm slabs of tenderloin.

Tonight, he and Renée will work the line—a stainless steel partition of shelves and counter area, the culinary borderland between the cooking and the serving. The grill, two large ovens, a griddle, a gas stove and a deep fryer all run parallel to this line, along the back wall of the kitchen. For the first time in my life, I am on the production side of the border. I feel like an imposter.

Harold’s garde mange, Lalo, will reinforce the frontline chefs by assuming charge of all cold appetizers, salads and many of the desserts. He and the prep cook, Mariella, are at the salad/appetizer station tucked into a corner, scooping tablespoons of something coral-pink into white ceramic amuse-bouche spoons. "Am-moo-zay," Renée pronounces for me as she writes the evening’s specials on a small white board near a small hand sink in the kitchen. "It means mouth teaser." She finishes writing "Tuna Toro" next to the word. When I taste the fiery tuna dish, a small bite flares pleasantly in my mouth, and its warmth lingers for several minutes.

In addition to the amuse special, tonight’s menu is augmented by ponzu-seared scallops with garlicky carrots and hoisin buerre blanc offered as an appetizer and, as the special entrée, tequila-Key lime-marinated and grilled Kobe ribeye steaks served with chive whipped potatoes, Texas toothpicks (deep-fried jalapeno slivers) and cilantro béarnaise.

At 4:15, the kitchen is seething with pre-dinner activity: Two servers fill small white dishes with tapenade, brew iced tea and load the bread warmer with rolls; Arnaldo the dishwasher clears the post-lunch dishes to make room for more to come; John the manager is mixing a bloody mary potion of Worcestershire sauce, wasabi powder, celery salt and other seasonings with tomato juice; and the petite Mariella is slivering jalapenos for the Texas toothpicks. Ernesto lugs a huge bowl full of school bus-yellow spaghetti squash to the stove. A small radio parked atop the plate chiller sends out mariachi tunes. A large pot of water boils on a back burner, waiting for handfuls of asparagus stalks as thick as a thumb.

Renée grabs an arm-sized whisk to stir the truffle cream sauce readied for the rack of lamb entrée. Below the sleeve of her turquoise T-shirt, her slim biceps tighten with the vigorous stirring. In the middle of the line, more than a dozen sauces nest in a flank of bain-maries: blueberry hoisin, mushroom Madeira, house-made veal stock, Grand Marnier, pine nut and garlic cream, port wine, lemongrass and lobster coconut broth, and various béarnaises—I can’t catch them all as Renée points them out.

Renée usually arrives at the restaurant between noon and 1 p.m. to organize plans for the dinner hour. Her final task tonight before the five o’clock hour is to prepare the cilantro beurre blanc.

Grabbing a six-inch skillet from a clutch of dozens of stainless steel pans hanging within easy reach, she pours white vinegar into the skillet and lets it reduce over a medium flame. Peppercorns are added to the reduced vinegar, imparting their tint before they are strained out. Renée adds egg yolks to the reduction cooling in a stainless steel bowl nestled in a water bath. Within moments, the aerated yolks pale to a tamer yellow. Renée drizzles melted butter into the bowl, steadily whisking until the sauce is lemon-pulp yellow. Mincing a bundle of fresh cilantro in rapid-fire motions, Renée adds the herb to the sauce, along with salt and pepper pinched from a gallon-sized bucket.

She grabs a clean spoon and dips it into the béarnaise, offering me a taste. It’s perfect, I think. But not quite, according to Renée; once it sits, the cilantro flavor will develop.

"I’ve always loved restaurants. I started as a dishwasher when I was 13 or 14," she says. Renée, a 2003 graduate from The Culinary Institute of America, began working at Harold’s in November 2006. The young chef grabs a gangly bouquet of ladles and places one in each of the sauces as she tells me that Harold’s is smaller than other restaurants she has cooked in. "Here we average 80 to 100 plates on a Saturday night in season. One place I worked, we’d get 200 to 250 plates out on weekend nights." It’s clear that she loves her kitchen here, right down to the last fork and tong.

She loves what comes in through the restaurant’s back door as much as she loves what goes out through the dining room door. We’re headed back to the prep area, where a six-foot rack stacked full of trays of caramelized pecans, french-fried onions and thin slices of ciabatta toast testifies to the afternoon’s efforts. Here, Renée happily shows off her organically grown treasures supplied by the local distributor, Herban Gardens. From the cooler, Renée pulls out plastic bins of chopped herbs and sprouts.

"We get our spices from Mermaid Spice, a local company, as well as a lot of our vinegars, oils and rices. The seafood comes from either Merrick’s or the Fish Lady. And we always try to get free-range meats and organic produce."

Renée heads up front to flash fry fresh spinach in the deep fryer—a surprisingly good-tasting garnish. It’s just past 5:30, and no orders have come in yet. Lalo works on a ramekin fleet of crème brûlée, pouring cream and vanilla slowly into the egg-and-sugar mixture. Arnaldo is making ice cream. Ernesto, the man of flashing knives, divides ivory slabs of Chilean sea bass into portion sizes and places them in Ziplocs. "Will you freeze those?" I say.

"Oh no. No freeze," Ernesto tells me. What a silly question. Here, freezing fresh fish or meat would be a cardinal sin.

Mariella rushes to a sink nearby, frantically splashing at her eyes. She has jalapeno juice in her red, streaming eyes. "Try milk," I suggest. A few minutes later, I see Lalo flushing her eyes with cold, whole milk. The men in the kitchen protectively hover over her, alternately teasing and trying to help. When the burning subsides enough for her to keep her eyes open, she swabs them with honey, another folk remedy for burns.

At quarter to six, the first order comes in, announced by the ticket electronically spit from the small printer at Ernesto’s station. The radio is turned off. John, the bloody mary concoctionist, finishes selecting CDs to play in the dining room. Postures straighten around the room. Ernesto lets his sharpening steel rest. Renée dons her white jacket. It’s an almost formal moment.

She goes to work preparing the first appetizer, Seafood Salpicon, which is a wickedly rich medley of shrimp, lobster, scallops, grouper and crab sautéed with butter, Boursin cheese, chopped tomatoes and a tongful of garlic and shallots minced to near liquidity. On frosty cold plates, Lalo arranges two of Renee’s winter salads of poached pears, sugary pecans, Granny Smith apples and crumbled Maytag blue cheese tossed in a warm bacon dressing. Ernesto checks the marble slabs used to cook steaks tableside, progressing toward their final temperature of 650 degrees.

The night is slow starting. But the kitchen staff stays busy mixing desserts, restocking shelves, topping up spice and sauce bottles, and folding towels. In the meantime, I’ve met Harold himself, nearly bumping into the tall man dressed in black-and-white checked chef pants and a white coat.

He’s detoured from the kitchen next door at H2 Tapas and Wine Bar (which he also owns) to remind Renée about a special request for two white chocolate and one dark chocolate Grand Marnier soufflés at 8 o’clock. Special requests are something Harold takes seriously.

"There’s high pressure, an intense situation, to make sure we exceed our guests’ expectations, primarily because of the prices and the product we offer," he says.

Harold’s "product" is astonishing. In between grilling and broiling tasks, Ernesto shapes creamy white mounds of smoked Gouda potato cakes into ovals, then rolls them in Panko bread crumbs for frying. Roasted elephant garlic is the crown jewel atop a phyllo-encrusted brie. That is paired with a pecan-crusted brie topped with a port wine reduction, then surrounded by assorted fresh berries. Another delight: elk tenderloin au poivre offered alongside buttermilk mashed potatoes and Grand Marnier sauce. Or how about a pan-rendered duck breast served with foie gras and sweet potato wontons? Harold’s idea of product is my idea of heaven on earth.

"Harold’s menu is so eclectic, but we have seafood, beef and game, so we have all the bases covered," Stacy tells me during one of the few moments I catch her standing still. The next time I see her, shortly after 8 p.m., she’s breezing into the kitchen to announce, "It’s the land of the six-tops out there."

Suddenly the kitchen transitions from cheerful bustle to high-energy hustle. Lalo’s hands are a blur as he puts together six salads at once. Ernesto sears some scallops on the griddle while Renée starts a seafood risotto. A duck breast is slapped on the grill alongside a veal chop and two cowboy steaks.

Ernesto scoops sweet potatoes onto a plate, adds some spaghetti squash, then Renée spears the potatoes with a wonton. Asparagus and baby carrots are tucked alongside the squash. Ernesto arranges slices of the seared duck on the plate. In an interplay akin to dueling ladles, Renée adds a splash of port wine reduction. Ernesto spoons on a balsamic reduction. Then Renée counters back with some veal reduction atop it all, which will mingle for a moment with the medium-rare duck’s juices.

"Awesome," Renée pronounces as she and Ernesto draw a quick bead on their creation before it sails out the door.

The mini-printer keeps coughing out tickets. A special tasting menu order for two comes in, which is typically four courses, chef’s choice, paired with wines the chef selects to best accompany each course. Renée melts some crusted goat cheese, to which she’ll add crab meat. She pulls out a handful of squash blossoms. "I’ll stuff these with something, but I’m not sure what yet." She grins at me, wielding her tongs like another appendage and at ease in these moments when inspiration and timing must coincide exactly. Seared tuna and foie gras, bacon-wrapped lamb chops, several Kobe steaks and sea bass entrées leave the kitchen. She and Ernesto work in perfect tandem, exchanging few words. Ernesto sings while he works; he is serenading the food like a lover.

"Fire table 10, please. Menus open on table one," Stacy announces. A moment later she steps back into the kitchen. "Did I say that out loud, or did I just have it in my head?" The chefs assure her she had spoken, and she heads back to the front of the house.

The hair around Renée’s nape and forehead begins to curl. Harold returns to join the chefs on the line. The skillet hook hangs empty, and Arnaldo rushes over with several pans he has pulled from the dishwasher. He sees that Renée has pulled out the ingredients for wontons, so he rushes over to the sink to wash his hands, then he jumps behind the line to make the wontons for her. Lalo, too, is on the grill end of the line, offering another set of hands up for service.

At this point, I can be the most help by just staying out of the way. I stand at the end of the line, near Renée’s right elbow, trying to make myself flat against the white tile walls. It’s a compelling sight; this small army of skilled people working so fluidly at such a pace. They’re enjoying the extra pump of adrenaline from working fast and well together.

Acknowledging his staff’s skill, Harold later admits that it’s not always such a smooth effort behind the line. "We had a Friday night about four years ago with 125 reservations and a huge storm. The power went out about 6:30, and we had to place candles all over the bar and windows of the dining room just to see. We iced down all the food and cooked all the menu on the grill and the range, both of which are gas." They lit candles in the kitchen and washed each dish by hand. The power didn’t come back on until after 11 p.m. that night, and by evening’s end, they had served 130 guests.

"We got rave reviews and standing ovations," Harold says. "My staff and I lost 10 pounds each from working in an extremely hot kitchen."

Almost as quickly as the rush started, it subsides. It’s after 10 p.m. Arnaldo is working through the stack of dishes, and the rest of the kitchen staff begins cleaning their stations. Before she breaks down the stove area, Renée asks me what I would like to eat. It’s difficult to choose, but the Chilean sea bass caught my eye several times tonight. She prepares the dish as I listen to Lalo and Ernesto tease each other about being "in the weeds" during the rush.

I take my plate out to the bar to gratefully sit down and eat. The fish is, of course, perfectly prepared. Stacy is behind the bar cleaning glasses. I tell her how impressed I am with how well everyone works together. "Yes," she agrees. "We’ve been open for five and a half years now, and we’re so lucky because everyone in this building still loves their job." And judging from this Friday night, it sure does show in satisfied customers (including this writer).

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