The work that goes on behind restaurant kitchen doors is often taken for granted and why not? They make it look so easy! So I went behind the kitchen doors of the Idlewyld Inn in London, Ontario to see if it is indeed as easy as they make it look.
The Idlewyld is a stunningly beautiful Inn in the centre of London. Co-owners Marcel Butchey and Executive Chef Alfred Estephan run three busy dining rooms in the 23-room Inn and amazingly they do it in a postage stamp sized kitchen. Chef Estephan let me stand in a corner where there was the least amount of activity so I could watch first hand, what it takes to make it all look so easy.
A peoples’ chef and you can often see Estephan mingling with his guests when he’s not orchestrating his kitchen. Estephan has no choice but to run a tight ship in this small space. At any time there could be 4 white jackets scurrying around, flipping skillets, stirring saucepans, carving meat or hovering inches away from dishes constructing food like an artist creating a sculpture. Globes of lobster and shrimp pate are topped with butter cooked lobster meat and drizzled with vanilla lobster broth. Luscious pickerel fillets are perched strategically over sweet potato medallions and portions of ultra thick, juicy pork tenderloin are stacked on patties of crunchy potato rosti.
Waiters come in and out of the swinging door, bringing in little slips of paper with an unrecognizable language on them and they talk of table numbers and dishes to Estephan – it’s gibberish to me. Chefs take the paper slips and chatter about time and dishes and each word inspires a flurry of great activity. Maybe it’s me, but I notice the absence of the Gordon Ramsey language here.
The room is full of food. Pails of colourful heirloom tomatoes, small bins of sprouts and flowers, baguettes piled high on the top of a baking rack. Inside the rack are layers of sweet potato medallions and potato rosti triangles.
I watch as classic dishes are created by chefs who hover very low over the dishes. They’re so low I think they’re trying to read tiny words on the plate with bad eyes. In the centre of the work space are plastic bins, julienned vegetables on ice, slivers of fennel, fried cauliflower, fresh shucked corn, sweet candy cane beets and a bin of wheat berries. Large squirt bottles of oil and other coloured liquids stand next to them.
Everything in the kitchen is spotless. One of the chefs open the oven and with a pair of tongs, pulls out a skillet with the most seductive rack of lamb sizzling in its juices. He walks it to the carving station and leaves it. Then he walks back and shakes a skillet only to have the flames lap up and almost touch the hood above the 12-burner stove.
In between the dishes the chefs clean the counters and their workspace. They never stop moving, like a dance with a million miniature partners. Dishes are warmed under heat lamps, then they’re dressed with beautiful colour, bright zucchini slices, beets and a few blackberries. Then on top they lay slices of cherrywood smoked duck breast. The chef returns to carve the rack of lamb and he sits it, brick red insides showing to tempt diners – or me, and it’s working.
Waiters stream in and out with black notebooks, they rip pages out of them and call in new orders. Escargot with chantrels looks incredibly creamy and luscious, I just want to dip my finger into the sauce I’m swooning over this dish and I haven’t even tasted it. Pans of roasted tomatoes come flying out of the oven and like a symphony of movement, aromas and food coexist to perfection. Oil squirts into skillets followed by spoonfuls of butter and the pan begins to spit and sputter then smoke. This is where, as a home cook, I’d be intimidated, but not here, these guys are masters of their kitchen and to them, a hot sputtering pan is to be tamed not surrendered to!
The baker arrives from her downstairs bakery with cookies. She’d just baked over 800 of them for an event the next day – now there’s a job I’d love! The chef indulges – or as he puts it, tastes the cookies. Estephan admits to having a sweet tooth but has no interest in baking himself. Ok, the cookies seemed to distract the symphony long enough for the smoking skillet to burn and the chef tosses it into the sink and starts over again.
This busy kitchen changes by the minute. I stand in my little corner for over an hour and no one stops. Everyone just keeps going, faster and faster, reacting intuitively to the language that goes around the room, food moves faster than a freeway, juggling skillets with food flying through the air while whispers of “behind you”, “coming in front” are warned by moving chefs. This tiny little workspace is busier than Toronto’s Union Station at rush hour.
Chefs move around tasting dishes on the stove, offering suggestions for improvement, although there’s little room for movement on perfection. Food safety stickers line the refrigerators, I think I just spotted a culinary secret – you know one of those moves a chef makes that he never tells you about but it makes the dish ultimately better than you could make at home. I saw a squirt of honey in the poaching liquid – or was it honey? It was so quick, now it’s gone forever. Should have never doubted what I saw.
More food is created on a dish and put on the steel shelves with an order for Estephan. He takes the dish and inspects it for presentation. He takes a rolled up towel and wipes away fingerprints and anything else that splashed on the rim of the dish, next he garnishes with something fresh, crisp and brilliant green – pea sprouts I think.
The chef approaches with a small dish and I notice something foamy. He holds it up to me – yum, I run my finger through the foam that feels more like a cloud. I feel nothing in my mouth except a delightful airy texture on the palette and a huge vanilla, cream, lobster flavour in my mouth – wow I’m speechless and utterly excited – excited enough to lick the plate, but how embarrassing for me if I did. He takes the dish from my hand and puts it into the sink. OMG - I have this uncontrollable urge to dive into the sink after it…aughhh this liquid gold shouldn’t be wasted!!! I notice my notepad has a few smudges on it, perhaps I can lick it later tonight.
I’m getting to understand some of the language and lingo of the kitchen. I now know when to duck and when to pivot. I can’t help but admire the dishwasher, he hasn’t stopped all night. He washes dishes and puts them away, waiters bring in more dirty dishes and pile them on top of the pots and pans the chefs contribute. He keeps on going the entire night. The pile of skillets on top of the stove goes up and down as does the dishes and silverware – this guy is just as amazing as the chefs!
It’s now 8:30 and I’ve been here since 6 o’clock. I’m exhausted just watching and writing, learning and tasting. The line begins to slow and the cleaning begins. They call this the calm before the next storm, the time to catch their breath. I look around and they don’t really stop, the work just changes. I suspect if they did stop, they’d collapse.
Throughout the evening the chef disappears periodically. He’s smoozing the guests in the dining rooms. A waiter comes in and announces one appreciative guest wants to order a round of drinks for the kitchen staff. Smiles widen across the kitchen – hey I’d never thought of doing that after an amazing meal! Dessert orders begin to come in and the chefs are busy hovering over sweet smelling syrups and sauces. They flambé crème brulee and scoop ice cream. Talk turns from dishes to planning the next days business – tomorrow will be twice as busy.
Ok, this is my queue to exit. I’d much rather be a diner, being pampered by an amazing dish – perhaps I’ll order the lobster. Part of the pampering of dining out is having the establishment make you feel like your meal is effortless, it contributes to your relaxation. But having spent a few hours in the Idlewyld kitchen I now am so much more appreciative of my dining experience and I will never again, ever complain about restaurant prices!