On the Line in Heaven’s Kitchen

It’s all white linens and soft candlelight set amidst a century of history while you enjoy a five-course meal at The Balsams, way up in Dixville Notch. But what goes on in the kitchen, behind the scenes, before that elegant presentation of prime rib and five artfully arranged beans is placed graciously before you?

I decided to have a look while vacationing at the storied resort — not with a kitchen tour, but by working the “line” in a white jacket, apron and high-top toque, the badge of honor for hotel chefs.

Executive Chef Steve Learned suited me up earlier in the afternoon and I reported for duty just as a large corporate group entered the dining room. A few moments earlier I had been enjoying a gracious meal that appeared, for all intents and purposes, to have been pulled out of the sleeves of the waitstaff. In fine hotel dining there is no clatter from the kitchen, just the soft sounds of background keyboards — one is dimensionally separated from the plated presentation and its birthing grounds. Suddenly, I was in a fluorescent bright white room with hot ovens and people on a mission — it was a busy scene, but not chaotic.

The food was on or near the steam tables and the staff was on the line, ready for the orders to roll. Of course, the line chefs at The Balsams are not a typical crew. They are all apprentices from the hotel’s long-established culinary school. The three-and-a-half year program provides training for the specific demands of a hotel kitchen. Foremost in needed job skills would be the ability to prep and work the line to plate 200 to 500 meals in one service.

I had imagined my “duty” would involve the peeling of vegetables, a typical yeoman’s job, but no, all the prep work had been finished earlier, while I had been out golfing. I was already beginning to feel like a fake.

Student chef Nick Williams, whom I was shadowing, was ready. His job that night was to prepare the hot appetizer and plate the prime rib dinner. Earlier he had prepared the beans and tomatoes and roasted several boneless rib roasts in an Alto-Shaam, a special oven that cooks meat to perfection without losing moisture. The “hot app” was a filet of char breaded with grated potatoes and plated with mandarin oranges and a dollop of seasoned greens. I agreed to plate the hot app.

So, my job was to simply slide the filet from the steam table to the plate and add the garnishes and a drizzle of beurre-blanc sauce — all with artistic aplomb. Well, heck, I am an artist of sorts — this should be a piece of cake.

The orders started coming in from the large group now seated in the dining room — mentally a different place than my white and stainless world. The app orders appeared on the top level of the steam table in the form of a stainless-steel plate covers. My former waiter was now eye to eye with me, firmly stating, “Six hot apps.” And he didn’t look too amused. OK, here we go.

I took a plate from the stack (they count the remaining plates to determine how many appetizers were served) and slid the 12-inch spatula under the filet and placed it on the plate. Dipped my fingers into the mandarin orange container (don’t worry, says Nick, the juice is acidic), grabbed a few greens and relocated them to the plate. Finally, the coup de grâce, an artful drizzle of the sauce. Oops, a few splatters. Not to worry, Nick quickly came to the rescue with the quicker fixer-upper — a white rag dipped in a weak bleach solution. Finally, I placed the stainless cover over the plated app to await server pickup.

Suddenly, 18 hot app orders came in at once and just as quickly an angel appeared to my left with another 12-inch spatula with three filets on it. My angel quickly dispatched six orders by doing three at a time. Soon I was mass-producing, too, stopping occasionally to clean the ladle to minimize the drips. To be honest, not all were perfect looking. It isn’t easy being artistic under pressure.

Just as the hot app orders began to dwindle, the prime rib orders flooded in. Nick was in high gear, plumping the baked potatoes, adding a heaping tablespoon of the sautéed grape tomatoes and adding a delicate array of green beans. Hash marks on paper attached to the Alto-Shaam helped him keep the orders straight for rare, medium and well. Meat a little too well-done for a rare order? Nick just added a bit more red au jus, which added a bit more raw appeal to the plate.

I pitched in by plumping baked potatoes, adding the dot of vegetables, ladling on the au jus and alerting Nick when supplies of potatoes or tomatoes where low. He quickly grabbed a new supply from the back burner or the oven when necessary. His careful prep work had ensured that supply would meet demand. Earlier, when it had looked like we would run low on my hot app, Chef Learned quietly and systematically created another tray full. It turned out we never needed them, but better to be prepared than to disappoint the diner, he explained.

After years of experience with menus and diners, the staff is able to predict how many of each main dish will be chosen by diners, and that knowledge drives purchasing and prep work. Oh yes, steak is always the most popular.

It was two hours later and the service rush was over. The pastry staff was filling dessert orders. Nick, wrapping up a few last stray orders, said he likes evenings like this, when time flies as quickly as his hands. He will be graduating next week and this real-world experience here will have him ready to fly at his next assignment at the Equinox in Vermont. For me, the time passed quickly, too. But I had a new insight into the passion, energy and creativity that goes into every restaurant meal I have consumed. Unfortunately, my time on the line would have barely earned me enough to cover the price of the hot appetizer I plated. Working with food doesn’t necessarily mean you can enjoy it in heavenly environs too often — enjoying the work is key. NH