Michael Nagrant / 10.30.06

Restaurant kitchens are the secular hells of our society, where oppressive heat is the devil. Yet heat is also the inescapable philosopher’s stone that transforms food through the alchemy of cooking, and on this Saturday night, where a flashing LED sign on Western Avenue registers 92°F, the Del Toro kitchen in Wicker Park swelters like an August afternoon in a Madrid bullring.

In the air-conditioned dining room, a DJ spins pulsing electronica for a stylish crowd. Tens of thousands of hand-inlaid ceramic and glass tile shards form wavy patterns on the serpentine walls. The interior, inspired by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi and designed by local designer Suhail, is all plush reds, luxuriant golds and warm browns–a Seussian swirl of surfaces devoid of right angles.

Behind the bordello hues of the dining room, in the stark whites and the burnished stainless steel of the Del Toro kitchen, the air conditioner is a memory. At about six-feet-wide by ten-feet-long, the kitchen is more like a ship’s galley than a temple of haute cuisine. Five cooks are sandwiched between the food pass and a wall of bubbling deep fryers, blue-flamed gas burners, a hissing smoker, sweltering ovens and a wood-fired grill.

Miles Schaefer, who just switched to the meat station two days ago, stands next to the grill’s glowing embers while rivulets of sweat run from his brow.

I’m standing seven feet away behind the pass and my face is already covered in a sweaty sheen. Next to me are two food runners: Nick Campion, who is a dead ringer for Adrian Grenier, the actor who plays Vincent Chase on HBO’s “Entourage,” and Kurt Estopinal, who with his floppy bangs and big sad eyes even looks a bit like Jake Gyllenhaal. I mention the Grenier connection to Estopinal, a Hurricane Katrina-displaced musician from New Orleans, and he says, “Don’t say anything to him about the ‘Entourage’ thing. He won’t stop talking about it for four days.”

In the middle of it all is chef Andrew Zimmerman, the matador of this culinary ring. Zimmerman must slay the bullish heat and the constant tick-tick-tick of customer orders coming in over the receipt printer by delivering hundreds of perfectly executed dishes to the dining room in the next six hours.

Zimmerman has no choice in the matter. I ask him why he would ever want to work under these conditions, and he says, “It’s a disease. I can’t get it out of my system.”

All the guys who work for him are the same, especially the sous chef, Robert Levitt, a taciturn guy who looks a little like a young Charlie Trotter. Zimmerman says, “He gets it. Some chefs don’t get it.” I ask Zimmerman what he means, he says, “It’s hard to explain, but you know when you’re sick in a restaurant, well, you never call in sick unless you’re dying. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Zimmerman has piercing eyes and a tinge of gray in his brown hair. His face is clean and fresh, and he could pass as a young political leader of the Christian Coalition or the earnest vocalist of an emo band.

This is ironic because Zimmerman’s more of a fan of early nineties Chicago rock of the Touch and Go label variety. He grooves on Slint, June of 44 and the driving beats of Steve Albini vehicles like Big Black and Shellac. In fact, Zimmerman initially became a chef to fund his music career. He says, “I really worked in kitchens so I could make enough money to buy guitar strings or get a new amp.”

His first guitar was a double cutaway Yamaha, similar to a thick Gibson SG. He started playing in bands like The Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Peppermints which were modeled on They Might Be Giants and early Ween. They played music that was “intentionally stupid or too smart for its own good and nothing in between.”

While in bands like the Peppermints, Zimmerman worked his way through a bunch of classic Jersey shore “fried fish and mediocre prime rib joints,” such as the Lobsterman, where he shucked oysters and served up pre-packaged slices of chocolate cake, and where his fellow cooks were a bunch of “half-high and half-drunk nutcases.”

In 1989, when he was 18, the Peppermints were chosen to represent the US at the 1989 World College Pop Festival in Yokohama, Japan where they played for 10,000 people, were broadcast on TV, and hung out with Japanese rock stars. Of the rock stars, none of whom he recognized, Zimmerman says, “It was like meeting someone famous and not being impressed. It would be like, why do you have a Bert and Ernie puppet on your hand? Cool. Whatever, you people are crazy.”

Zimmerman likened the Yokohama experience to being in the Rolling Stones for a week and then getting whisked back to reality. This was the height of his rock success. Eventually Zimmerman moved through a progression of other bands that became “musically more unpleasant as time went on,” and he decided to make cooking his career.

It turned out cooking wasn’t too far removed from music. Zimmerman says, “You take a bunch of raw materials, whether they’re celery and carrots, or notes, which by themselves are not all that interesting, and if you’re able to figure out a way to put those things together that pleases people and they like it, they think you’re cool, and they want you to come back and do it again.”

In the middle of the evening at Del Toro, the patrons are clamoring like frenzied fans, and the order printer is tick-tick-ticking. Miles Schaefer is firing all of his burners, and the pans are chockfull of meat. He wipes his brow and calls for an “All Day,” which in kitchen terms means, “I’m so swamped, I forget what the hell I owe you, chef.” Jeremy Moore, the other line cook is right behind Schaefer with his own call for an All Day.

As a small-plates restaurant, the chefs at Del Toro are freed of the constraints of having to coordinate entire tables of plates or using the traditional protein, starch and vegetable model of plating. The tradeoff is that they turn out three times as many plates as a traditional restaurant. Whereas a regular restaurant might do 150 to 200 plates, Del Toro might turn out 600 on a busy Saturday night.

Zimmerman’s used to the fury. He used to cook at these volumes with only one other guy, his mentor Renato Sommella at 2Cenza in Red Bank, New Jersey. The kitchen at 2Cenza had one small Jade range and one-and-a-half ovens with room for only two cooks behind the hot line. Zimmerman says, “I got to stand next to this guy from Italy who was cooking his food, the food that he grew up with, that he really cared a lot about, and it was as good as being at the source in Italy.”

Sommella guided Zimmerman through classic preparation of risottos, pastas and less classic non-Italian food items like foie gras and brioche. The mentorship meant a lot to Zimmerman and he feels he has a similar responsibility to his cooks. Terry Alexander, the main partner at Del Toro, confirms Zimmerman’s pedagogical bent, saying “I have never worked with a better teacher than Andrew. He runs his kitchen by example, which is something I’ve always believed in. He’ll prep, cook on the line, run food or dish-wash. And when the guys in the kitchen witness that, they’ll go to battle for him.”

It’s not a bunch of ego-stroking either. There’s a large party celebrating a birthday in the dining room tonight, and they’ve brought a three-tiered cake coated in colored fondant and studded with gold embellishments. Estopinal asks Zimmerman how it’s made. He could blow Estopinal off, but instead he runs back to his office and grabs a copy of “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Barenbaum, and opens to a recipe for fondant, and they discuss it.

The kitchen’s humming, in fact it’s getting downright athletic. Levitt readjusts his faded Yankees cap, and throws house-cured bacon on the grill, while Schaefer and Moore rehydrate, sucking down gallons of liquid from fat plastic water bottles. There are thirteen undelivered tickets on the pass, and the tick-tick-tick of the order printer is still ever present. An order of duck has just been sent back for being too rare. It’s not, and the chefs are slightly annoyed, but they sear it again. They send it out to the dining room. The customer sends it back again, saying it’s still too rare. Zimmerman looks at it, hands it to Levitt, and says, “Destroy it.” He’s not being petty. The customer is determined to have it charred.

A few minutes later a plate of grilled steak comes back as too rare. This time it is. There’s no angry French chef berating underlings in this kitchen. Zimmerman quietly hands it back and asks the guys to fix it. Zimmerman says that back in the day he would have got bent out of shape and yelled at the crew. While staging at The Inn at Little Washington, Zimmerman witnessed an entire brigade of cooks working quietly in dedication to the vision of chef Patrick O’Connell, and he remembers spending two days in the egalitarian kitchen of Trio and how chef Grant Achatz never raised his voice. These are imprints that Zimmerman has adopted in his own work and now he’s a Zen guy.

A matador is only as good as his banderillas or picadors, the guys who skillfully place pointed sticks in the neck of the bull to weaken it, and Zimmerman’s line cooks, as well as the food runners, Campion and Estopinal, play this role perfectly, sating customers with a constant supply of food. Even though the cooks are riding on the precipice of danger, the dishes are exquisitely plated. On the occasion that something is askew, Zimmerman notices, rearranging a roast piquillo pepper in a salad. Should he miss something, Estopinal, without prompting, wipes errant dots of sauce or rearranges a croquette that’s gone awry.

Estopinal acts as an extension of the chefs, and his passion is no different than Zimmerman’s. Earlier in the night, Estopinal mentioned that he’s been reading Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” He says, “I dig that science stuff. It’s cool.”

“On Food and Cooking” is a 704-page classic scientific tome, the “War and Peace” of molecular gastronomy. Sample chapters include a treatise on the atomic properties of metal mixing bowls and their effect on egg proteins. It’s not something you’ll find on most food runners’ nightstands.

This passion for craft is what differentiates Del Toro from ubiquitous tapas joints where they dish out pre-prepped cold salads and gut bomb croquettas. Zimmerman graduated first in his class from the French Culinary Institute in New York, and he cures his own bacon, serving it as a crispy counterpoint to herb-roasted molten chicken livers. Levitt is experimenting at making a Jamon Serrano-style ham, though they don’t serve it in the restaurant.

Before Del Toro opened, Zimmerman went on a four-day eating tour in Barcelona, dining out four or five times a day, “so that I’d have some taste memory of what I was shooting for.” He was inspired by the simplicity of a monkfish tail cooked ala plancha, or on a flat-top grill, coated only in olive oil and sea salt at Cal Pep. It’s a simplicity he’s applied to his marinated anchovies on crostini with an herb salad and a drizzle of vinaigrette or the Fritura Mezcla-fried shrimp, calamari and smelts dotted with lemon and a micro flakes of Maldon sea salt.

Even an iconic dish like patatas bravas, which at most places is usually chopped deep-fried potatoes tossed with tomato sauce, and slathered with a bit of mayo, gets special treatment. Zimmerman hand-carves potato cylinders, deep-fries them twice and then injects the cylinders with a spicy tomato coulis and then pipes in fresh aioli. His bravas look like deep fried Smurf huts with mushroom-shaped gables of mayo.

Tonight, Zimmerman is also offering up tripe, or beef stomach in tomato sauce with an exquisitely small dice of carrots, celery and onion, all baked in a ceramic cazuela and topped with bread crumbs. It’s a lot like a mock spaghetti Bolognese with the chopped strips of tripe aping pliant al dente pasta noodles. To the disbelief of the kitchen staff, the tripe is outselling the popular steamed clams tonight.

It’s the kind of dish the young Zimmerman would have loved. Growing up in Buffalo, he was a precocious budding gourmand with a hankering for peculiar ingredients. He says, “I would always look at the menu and pick the weirdest stuff. ‘Oh, snails, I’ll have those!’ My mother would look at me like, are you out of your mind?”

When his parents came home from business dinners at classic Manhattan gastronomic palaces like Café Des Artistes and Le Cirque, Zimmerman would grill them on “how the sole was prepared” or how the meal compared to the last place they ate. He figured, “If I sort of heard about it and ate vicariously through them, then if I ever did get to go to a place like this I’d be prepared and I’d know what to get and I wouldn’t look foolish.”

Terry Alexander says, “The difference between Andrew and a large majority of the other chefs I’ve worked with is Andrew’s insatiable quest for knowledge–knowledge of the origin of the dish, history of a vegetable, background of a leading chef… If he’s not cooking, he’s reading about some form of it.”

Indeed, Zimmerman’s office at Del Toro is littered with cookbooks like the “Larousse Gastronomique” and tomes from great chefs like Alice Waters, Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White. The first cookbook Zimmerman ever purchased was “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” when he was 14. He started out by cooking the shrimp étouffée, saying, “It was the most brilliant thing ever, which makes sense, when you look at the recipe because it has about twenty-four pounds of butter in it.”

These days, Zimmerman avoids culinary lily gilding, like adding cardiac-arrest-inducing amounts of fat, and relies more on finesse. Moore, who once interned at Moto says, “This is the most efficient kitchen I’ve worked in and Chef [Zimmerman] is the best cook I’ve ever worked with. You should see him on the line on a Thursday night.”

You hear about line meltdowns, the restaurant war stories of pitched battles between the front and back of the house, but at Del Toro, there is an efficient harmony of communication, and no detail is missed. The maitre `d runs back to emphasize that there’s a shellfish allergy in the house. A waiter comes back to tell Zimmerman that John Manion, the chef at Mas in Wicker Park, has just been seated at table B1. In fact, because Del Toro is open so late, it’s a haunt for local chefs like Shawn McClain and Rick Bayless who have both recently dropped by. I ask Zimmerman if he gets nervous cooking for his peers. He says, “You know, if people who do what we do like to eat here, that’s awesome. That’s all I can ask.”

It’s almost eleven, and the rush is subsiding. The incessant tick is now an occasional drizzle, and the chefs start breaking down their stations, putting meats on ice, and wiping down the stainless. I bid adieu and hail a cab at the six corners, the maelstrom of late-night drunken humanity at Damen, North and Milwaukee. As the taxi hurtles towards the West Loop, I notice the temperature on the dashboard’s digital readout is 67°F.

At least for tonight, the heat has been slain.

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.