When going out to eat, the experience we crave is perfection. For a brief couple of hours, we buy a title — patron, customer, diner — and we want the royal treatment. Attentive service, attractive table settings, an atmosphere that makes us feel good and, of course, fine food served up with style. If we choose wisely — and there are plenty of places to choose from in Northeast Ohio — we get all that and more. But what does it take to achieve that front-of-the-house experience? We go behind the kitchen doors with chef-owners Karen Small of the Flying Fig in Ohio City and Mark and Giovanna Daverio of Little Italy’s Battuto to find out.
Karen Small opened Flying Fig in 1999. Her whimsical creations draw inspiration from an ever-changing palette of seasonal ingredients spiked with the flavors of Asia and the Mediterranean. The Daverios, trained at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., came here after working in California restaurants for five years. The husband and wife team launched Battuto in 2000 with a farm-to-table sensibility and the goal of bringing contemporary style and flair to traditional Italian food, elevating simple regional dishes to gourmet status.
Thanks to the Food Network, everyone thinks being a chef is glamorous and fun. Is it?
MD: They don’t want to know the truth. My father wouldn’t come into our kitchen for years. He’d noticed the burns on my hands and decided that if he saw what went on back there he’d worry, and never enjoy another meal in the restaurant.
GD: He liked the illusion of calm and quiet. All our customers do. They think we just waltz in, put on our white coats, magically make all this fabulous food appear and keep our jackets pristine, just like the guys on TV. Maybe if they saw what we look like, they’d understand why chefs don’t always like to come out and say hello.
KS: So much goes on that nobody sees. I have what might politely be called a kitchen temperament. I tend to react in the heat of the moment. It’s a good thing I stay in the back. I was a server once in my life, and I got fired.
MD: Our job is to make the people in the restaurant think everything is going smoothly, even when it’s not.
KS: I remember one night. We were packed. There was a big storm and the power went out. It was a nightmare. People had come to eat. The gas was working, so we lit up the place with candles and continued to cook. We kept the line going for about two hours, until it got so hot I thought the automatic sprinklers might go off.
MD: A similar thing happened to us. We lost the exhaust system in the kitchen on a busy Saturday night. It kept blowing a fuse. It was the middle of dinner service, all the stoves were on high. It got really hot and without the fans, I was worried we’d trigger the fire suppression system. But we had to cook. We’d open the doors to cool things down, then close them before it got too warm out front.
GD: Meanwhile I’m in the dining room, acting like nothing’s wrong and trying to keep the food coming to the table in a timely manner.
MD: Every time she walked into the kitchen, we’d start screaming at each other. But of course, our customers never had any idea of what was going on.
KS: Part of being a chef is having the ability to make adjustments. Whether it’s tasting and changing a dish on the spot or handling an unexpected crisis.
MD: If you can’t do that, you’re not cut out for this business.
KS: What was the question again? Are we like the celebrity chefs on TV? Ha!
What’s on the menu?
KS: Getting customers to order unfamiliar foods can be like pushing rocks uphill. I’ve learned you can’t serve people things they aren’t quite ready for, no matter how wonderful you think they are.
MD: But they don’t know what they’re missing. If we can get them to take one bite, it will open up a world of pleasure for them.
GD: And that really does happen. Take tripe. People will say they hate it. But once they try Mark’s ...
MD: I slice it in thin ribbons, blanch it and braise it with pancetta, tomatoes, onions, garlic and veal stock until it’s fork tender, and serve it with butter, Parmesan and parsley. They can’t believe how good it is.
GD: When we first opened five years ago, we couldn’t move things like tripe, pigeon or quail. No one wanted them. Now we sell out.
MD: It shows that diners are getting more adventurous and that we’re attracting a more sophisticated clientele who look for restaurants that have something different to offer. It’s also a part of the process of people getting to know us and trust us.
KS: My braised rabbit is a perfect example of that for me. I serve it with herbed gnocchi that we make ourselves. I use this incredible fresh ricotta from New York; it just blooms in your mouth. The dish was slow to take off, but these days it does well whenever I put it on the menu.
GD: Yeah, it’s amazing. The same is true for us. Our sweetbreads practically fly out the door now. Sweetbreads! Can you believe it?
KS: That is such a satisfying experience for a chef.
MD: It’s the most satisfying part of the job as far as I’m concerned. I wish there was a way for us to get people to sample things without knowing what they’re eating. Because when somebody tries something for the very first time — especially something they’re sure they won’t like — and says, “I’m 50 years old and I’ve never had this and it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted,” that is the best compliment I can get.
How do you keep it fresh?
KS: I’ve been playing with my menu a lot recently. I’ve done some traveling, picked up new ideas and have added a section of small plates: grilled short ribs with spicy hoisin glaze and fried baby greens, a roasted pork empanada, mission fig salad. People are literally eating them up. They change regularly. Each week we add a few and drop a couple.
MD: That’s good. It keeps things fresh for the customer.
KS: Yeah, but it keeps it fresh for me too and that’s so important. I can’t just do the same thing over and over. If an idea for a dish pops into my head, I want to cook it. That’s what got me into this business in the first place.
GD: It does get sort of depressing to keep making the same things.
MD: Right, you lose interest. When you’ve made something exactly the same way a thousand times, it’s not exciting anymore. You want to feel that you can play with the sauce, throw in a different ingredient or take advantage of what’s in season.
KS: My creativity springs from the food, and the great product I find. I like change. I don’t want to be tied down. But that’s hard on my staff. They have to constantly shift gears.
MD: We have the same issue in our kitchen. They know exactly how long it takes to do the prepping. Then I come up with some bright idea and it throws their timing off.
GD: It affects the flow on the line too. Maybe things take a little longer.
KS: Nobody’s happy when I come in with fresh fava beans. I’m a big fan. But it means more work. Before you can even use them, the beans have to be taken out of the pod, boiled, popped out of their skin and the germ removed. And there are only about five beans in a pod. Of course, to me, the result is worth all the effort.
If it’s so hard, why do it?
KS: My work is a labor of love.
GD: I can’t imagine doing anything else.
MD: When you do something that makes you happy, an 18-hour day doesn’t seem that long. But you have to be a little bit crazy too.
GD: Remember when I decided to do a sabayon for 40 people for one of our wine dinners? If you mess that up, which is really easy to do, you’ve got scrambled eggs instead of sauce. It was on the night’s menu. People were expecting it. I had no backup if it failed. I was so nervous. Standing at the stove, I asked, Why did I get myself into this? Then when it turned out fine, I felt great!
KS: Because it was a challenge, and that’s where the fun is. |!|