From the Archives – observations of line cooking
I found this blog entry in my archives. I hope you enjoy! 

Circa: 2011

Have you ever watched episodes of Kitchen Impossible or Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and wondered what it would be like to work in a restaurant? Well, maybe it’s just me. I always wondered if I’d have the strength and stamina to survive line cooking. It ranks up there with “will I have the guts to get a tattoo” and “would I survive basic training?” If you’re laughing or shaking your head, then you probably know me pretty well to know the answers to those questions.

Well, I have wondered what it would be like to be in the real culinary world. I have had the opportunity to meet several chefs who have shared their different life stories with me, and one of them decided to offer me the chance to work in her kitchen for a start-up restaurant for which she developed the menu. Chef Robin Levinthal is a woman whom I greatly admire for her strength, panache, and attitude as well as for her talent behind the range. Chef Robin developed the menu and the culinary feel of Stopsky’s Delicatessen, a new restaurant on Mercer Island that opened in May. She hired me, not for my talent and experiences since I have none, but to teach me cooking in a professional setting. It is the most direct application of the different lessons we hear in classes.

Stopsky’s Delicatessen is a restaurant that seeks to bring Jewish cuisine to the Pacific Northwest in a way that hasn’t been done before. The motto we use at work is “tradition updated,” and we apply it to virtually every dish we serve. We have the expected offerings of bagel and lox, pastrami sandwiches, and latkes. We even have Reubens and kugels. But they’re not like the items you might find elsewhere.

First of all, our bagels and all other bread offerings are baked fresh daily by Andrew Meltzer, whose pedigree includes Canlis, Columbia City Bakery, and Tom Douglas bakeries, and his crew of bakers. The ever-popular onion bagel just won an award for being the best bagel in town. The bagels are batch made, hand rolled, slowly fermented, individually boiled, expertly baked, and quickly sold.

Our lox is cured in house with a mix created by our own Chef.  We hand slice our hot pastrami, which we layer on Andrew’s Old World rye bread with housemade spicy mustard. It’s pretty incredible. When we have a lunch rush, I have to work hard to keep up with the demand.

The latkes are also made daily – I have had the pleasure of shredding 12 lbs of potatoes during a shift of prep cooking. We serve those latkes with Hollandaise sauce and pastrami, steakon (think beef bacon), or beef salami, all meats that we smoke or cure in house. 

So this all sounds great and romantic, but every time you read the words “in house” or “hand sliced” at Stopsky’s, you better believe that at least one cook prepared those foods mostly from scratch or has made up your order step by step. Take the latke example from earlier. We shredded those potatoes, hand-formed the potato cakes, fried them, and dished them up just for you. We also made the Hollandaise sauce, cured the meat, and chopped all the other ingredients you see on your plate. The only premade products I’ve used in our kitchen are mayonnaise, dijon mustard, stewed tomatoes, and cream cheese. Now I’m sure we have other premade products, but given that our freezer is a reach in that’s probably only 6 feet wide, we sure don’t cook armed only with box cutters and microwaves.

Since I’m new to the cooking world, I am fascinated by all of this. Maybe other restaurants do quite a bit scratch cooking, and I know that many of the restaurants I’ve toured also have extensive production kitchens. As a nutritionist, I have often learned to villify – or at least view with suspicion – professional kitchens that serve up pre-made menu items. I’m not sure if it’s cheating, focusing labor on important tasks, or controlling food costs… or if it’s just standard in a kitchen. What do you think? Should restaurants use pre-made ingredients, and where is the line? Baked, sliced bread seems pretty normal, but what about pre-made soup in a bag or  salad dressing?