In the Heat of the Night

New Jersey Monthly
February 2007

I learned two things while working in a restaurant kitchen: First, you need about two solid days to prepare a decent suckling pig. Second, it’s hard work, with grueling hours. You couldn’t pay me enough to do it for a living. But for three nights it doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get me into an apron and in front of a blazing grill.

Open kitchens let you watch the flames and the fanfare from your table. You might see sauté pans jiggling above the stove, foot-long pasta dangling from tongs, and the head chef creating such a scene you wonder who’s getting fired next. Still, you can’t fully grasp the life of a kitchen unless you’re part of it. Then you discover that some chefs unwind before the dinner rush with a game of Frisbee in the parking lot. Or that another one winces when someone orders a burger for dinner. Or that some chefs verge on tears on a bad-night, when customers complain and dishes get sent back to the kitchen. I discovered this, and much more, while visiting the kitchens of three top New Jersey restaurants. Two brave chefs even put me to work.

DAY ONE: Struggling with the art of the peel at Nicholas in Middletown

At 6 AM, when the greasy spoons on Route 35 in Middletown are preparing Egg McMuffins and coffee, Anne Renk, the pastry chef at Restaurant Nicholas, is rolling out dough for brioche and flaky fruit tarts. Manuel “Mann’ Perez, the chef de cuisine, briskly chops onions, parsnips and celery root for the rich broth in his signature suckling pig, a dish that requires two days prep and a 50-gallon slow cooker. Chicory coffee ice cream—to be spooned over warm beignets—churns away in a chilled vat as fragrant sauces reduce on the stove. By Friday afternoon, with dinner still three hours away, a staff of 15 is in high gear.

Executive chef and owner Nicholas Harary, who honed his craft at lean Georges in Manhattan, is still basking in the “Extraordinary” rating he received from the New York Times last spring—rare for any chef, let alone a baby-faced 33-year-old. When I stepped into the sleek modern restaurant, I half expected to meet a prima donna.

Instead, Harary is likable and unaffected, though unflinchingly confident. When encounter him, he’s in the trenches. As his staff gears up for the 8 PM crunch on Friday night, he glides around the kitchen, eyes darting, surveying a pastry chef making the chocolate “Happy Birthday” plaques that will crown some fifteen desserts, and another who sautés lardons for the butter- poached Nova Scotia lobster.

Harary, for his part, does comparatively little slicing, sautéing, or searing. His job is “expediting,” which, in restaurantese, means scrutinizing. ‘Everything will go past me:’ he says. At 3 PM, he’s keeping a quiet eye on the five cooks slicing thin cuts of pink sushi-grade tuna. And he’s watching Perez, who scores hunks of Hudson Valley foie gras. He’s even watching me, as I attempt to craft a beaufort cheese salad. Charlie Connelly, a tattooed 22-year-old garde manger (who prepares cold foods), shows me how to glide a metal peeler across the top of the sharp French cheese. “Here, it’s easy—just press down like this:’ says Connelly, as he slices perfect, paper- thin ribbons. It takes roughly 20 seconds— and several mangled strips of beaufort—for Harary to reposition my body so it’s directly in front of the cheese, and show me how to pull the peeler toward my torso.

It’s a tedious process, though not quite as tedious as picking out every blemished piece of mizuna and oakleaf lettuce from a giant box of greens. “Basically, if you wouldn’t use kin your own salad, throw it out,” counsels Connelly. He picks up a barely-wilted piece of frisée. “Would you put this in your own salad?” he asks. Before I can answer, he says, “I don’t think so.”

Just before the dinner hour, Harary dashes upstairs for his nightly meeting with the waitstaff, who scribble notes as their boss spouts instructions. “Two is a deuce at 7 o’clock with a woman’s birthday,” he says. “Thirty two is a four-top at 7:30. Thirty four is a deuce at 7 o’clock. Twenty four is a four- top at 8:15.” (Translation: Expect a couple at Table Two at 7PM, a foursome at Table 32 half an hour later, and so on.) As the sun slants through the dining room windows, he warns the staff not to hover excessively around the lone party of four, and reminds them not to let overly chatty customers distract them. “If someone wants to talk to you all night, you’ve just gotta get away,” he says. “Table 14 could care less if table 12 wants to tell you a funny anecdote. They just want their food.”

DAY TWO: Poking into family secrets at Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield

“See, now these are pumpkin gnocchi,” says Vincent Cipollone, 79. At the back of the tiny kitchen of Tre Famiglia, his Italian restaurant, he shows me a metal tray covered with the plump orange lumps he rolled this morning. Cipollone (just call him Chip, everyone else does) has been making the dumpling-like pasta by hand pretty much every morning since he was a 12-year-old kid working in Chip’s Italian Restaurant, his parents’ red-sauce joint in South Philadelphia. “In them days, when your father said you had to do something, you had to do it,” Chip says. “I loved it so much that when he asked if I wanted to go to college, I said, ‘No: I liked this business. That was it.”

Tre Famiglia, which opened in 2005, feels like the kitchen of the proverbial feisty Italian grandmother, the one who isn’t happy until you’ve polished off a third helping. The small restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, but it has “the family thing” down pat, says head chef Mark Berenato. He, for example, is married to Cipollone’s granddaughter Dana, who is waiting tables.

A local Mercedes dealer who stops in every Wednesday evening has called ahead to request Cipollone’s long hot peppers stuffed with sweet sausage, sharp provolone, and roasted Vidalia onions. “They’re bangin’,” says Darla proudly, before running a caprese salad out to the dining room.

Also present are Cipollone’s son and daughter, Tommy and Angel, who do most of the bookkeeping, and their sister Cindy, the hostess. Angel’s brother Robert, also a chef, is off tonight. Angel’s husband, Paul, is also here, chatting with Cipollone, who is waiting for his apple cake to set.

The recipe for the popular cake is said to be a family secret. Bravely I ask what it is. Cipollone fixes me with an evaluating look, then to my surprise decides to divulge.

“We peel our apples—the green kind—and then we slice them,” he begins. “I put them in brown sugar, a little bit of cinnamon and lemon juice, and I let them lay there for half an hour—they kind of make their own brine. Then I mix the flour, the eggs, the sugar, the vanilla and the baking powder. Then I grease the pan, put the batter in, push all the apples in, and it all goes in the oven. And that’s it.”

As he talks, I taste the gnocchi. One bite of the tender dumplings and guarding the family jewels suddenly makes sense. “My grandson and my children know the recipe,” Cipollone says. “That’s about it. I’m very protective. I watch over everything.”

The crowd seems almost too big for the little kitchen, which is definitely too busy for an interloper like me to shoehorn herself into the cook line.

As the pace picks up at 6:30, Berenato spiffs up the gnocchi with medallions of filet mignon and prepares pasta primavera updated with seared scallops, haricots verts, and tender lumps of butternut squash. He plates the Australian mulloway—a mild fish on special tonight—with lively streaks of beet and carrot garnishes.

“Everything that goes out,” he explains, “gets kind of a little rainbow on the plate.” Darla whisks away three and four dishes at a time. On her way to the dining room, she stops to kiss her grandfather, who is about to head home after finishing his apple cake.

Heard above the clank of risotto pans and the ring of wisecracks in the garlicky air, a loudspeaker in the back of the kitchen is playing Dean Martin’s rendition of “That’s Amore,” serenading the whole famiglia.

DAY THREE: Performance anxiety, plating at Copeland in Morristown

Thomas Ciszak doesn’t usually talk about the amount of coffee he drinks at work each day. But if you press him, he smiles and admits, “Twenty to 25 cups. It used to be more. It’s hard to do this ob in regular hours.” After I spend six hours in his kitchen, I begin to understand why.

Ciszak, a boyishly handsome 36-year-old with mussed brown hair, is Copeland’s executive chef. Located inside Morristown’s Westin Governor Morris Hotel, the restaurant is a big, sleek, well-run machine. Fortune 500 companies hold power dinners here; couples sip $11 martinis; and the occasional fussy food writer from Food & Wine slips in to see just how much lump meat comes in the horseradish-crusted crab cakes. When celebrities like Nick Nolte, Tom Jones, and Toni Braxton are in town, they eat here. On an average Saturday night, Ciszak’s kitchen churns out about 200 dinners, including the best-selling filet mignon poached in Zinfandel with short ribs, and chili-cinnamon-glazed sea boss. The restaurant hosts an average of one wedding per week and 30 mitzvahs each year. I’d be lying if I said I’m not intimidated by the place.

Like most head chefs, Ciszak supervises every move his staff (of 10) makes. If a cook’s pan doesn’t sizzle just the right way when she drops in a diver scallop, he knows it’s not hot enough. If the Alaskan crab doesn’t glisten with exactly the right sheen, he knows it isn’t fresh enough and it doesn’t go out.

Ciszak looks me over. “I think I want to get you plating a little,” he says. “That’s the fun part.”

Suddenly, I’m very scared. Turning food into art is daunting under the best of circumstances, even more so when you have an impatient runner waiting to whisk your would-be masterpiece to the dining room.

Ciszak picks up a squirt bottle filled with grainy horseradish mustard, places his index finger over the spout and turns the bottle upside down over a bare white oval plate. Releasing his finger, he paints an arcing ribbon of mustard on the plate, then places two browned crab cakes beneath the arc. It looks easy—for Jackson Pollock.

On my first try, under the stares of the entire kitchen squad, I squeeze too hard, splooshing out an unsightly slick. I hear laughter. On my next try, the arc is too thick in the middle and not long enough end-to-end. After trial and error, I finally get the initial squirt right, but instead of an arc I produce a straight line. Ciszak says I’m thinking too much, so I let go, unleashing a wild, jagged line. “Maybe we’ll come back to this later,” Ciszak says kindly, as he grabs a dean plate, produces another work of mustard art and tops it with two tender crab cakes. I decide not to quit my day job.

When Ciszak isn’t pouring himself a twentieth cup of coffee or waiting impatiently for his sous chef to finish a tomato confit, he is downright paternal toward his staff—exacting, but hardly demonic. When he hollers out an incoming order for poached egg with braised short ribs and his cook fails to echo it back in confirmation, he cajoles, “Cesar, you need to talk to me, eh?”

“Sometimes, if we’ve had a bad night, you can tell it feels like a patient died,” Ciszak relates, recalling evenings when some of his cooks have nearly cried over their mistakes. “They’re all very emotional, very touchy-feely people. But you need that to be good at what you do.”

By 8:20, the kitchen is operating at peak capacity. “One chicken, one diver scallop, two salmon, one Chilean, guys!” A runner dashes toward the door balancing a tray of desserts—forgetting to grab an order of deconstructed black forest cake. Two pastry chefs behind me yell, “Come on back, bro!” I skirt out of his way, just missing the edge of the tray. Meanwhile Ciszak swirls his pen through the air like a symphony conductor cuing musicians with his baton.

The crowd on the other side of the kitchen door is an almost palpable entity. Ciszak splashes cream into his coffee. Pressure comes with the territory, but it’s amazing how calmly he handles it, considering his daily caffeine intake. In the mealtime maelstrom, that’s what separates the nice from the maestros..