You Can Judge a Chef by a Banana

02.08.17

It’s a swelter of a Friday in July, the kind of evening where the heavy air wrings moisture from human pores like water from a dish towel. Inside the cool Alinea dining room, a table of diners scrapes the remnants of tender nuggets of Dungeness crab wrapped in a blanket of sweet pea puree from their plates.

As they finish course four of twenty four on Alinea’s “tour” menu, Greg Baxtrom, a 21-year-old cook with a pale face crowned by a spiky tufted forelock contemplates an expanse of porcelain and slurps down fruit punch Gatorade to fend off dehydration. Hundreds of plates have already been served, and by the end of the night over 1,400 will leave the kitchen. But right now, getting out the first four servings of course five, skate with brown butter, capers and lemon, is crucial to preserving the measured pace of the service.

A combination of fish sauced with butter and capers appears in the original book on French cooking, “Le Cuisinier Francois” written in 1651 by Francois Pierre La Varenne. On the Alinea menu which includes lychee paired with oyster cream, and pear with celery leaf, such a classic flavor combo seems out of place.

But as Baxtrom lays down ribbed fingers of glistening skate wing, flanks them with sandy mounds of butter, caper, and lemon powders and sprinkles a verdant confetti of haricot vert, you realize Chef Achatz isn’t channeling Escoffier. The burgeoning plate looks like a primordial diorama of a scene from David Lynch’s “Dune”, and it eats like an adult version of Fun Dip candy. A diner uses the piece of skate to mop up the savory powders in the same way a child uses chalky sugar sticks to sop up grape, cherry, and raspberry sugar.

Varenne who once said, “When I eat cabbage soup, I want it to taste like cabbage” didn’t believe in masking ingredients. By removing all moisture from the capers, butter and lemon, flavors are heightened, and in this concentrated form, he probably would have appreciated Achatz’s riff.

What Varenne wouldn’t have recognized is Achatz distinctive touch, a couple slivers of raw banana, a component missing from this evening’s plating.

Recognizing the missing banana, Baxtrom runs to a speed rack and rifles through sheet pans holding the morning prep. As a culinary extern from a Chicago culinary school, Baxtrom outperformed cooks who’d graduated years ago to land the Alinea job, but now, as four diners drink wine and clamor for their next course in the dining room above, he realized he’d flubbed his daily produce order. There was no banana.

Baxtrom crashes through the back door of the kitchen and sprints into the steamy night. He hustles for a couple of blocks until he hits the corner of Willow and Orchard streets, where he finds America’s Pantry. It’s a typical Chicago storefront bodega located in an orange brick building featuring a white turret trimmed in green and outfitted with bas-reliefs. It’s the kind of place where you buy lottery tickets, newspapers, smokes, and in Baxtrom’s case, daily rations of fruit punch Gatorade.

Baxtrom grabs the store’s meager assortment of bananas, throws money down on the counter, forgoes change, and bolts back to the restaurant. He sprints back in to the Alinea kitchen, slices the bananas, and lays them on the plate just in time to meet the expediter’s call for the table. Sous chef Jeff Pikus said, “He didn’t say a word about it. If he wasn’t breathing so heavily and sweating so much, I wouldn’t have noticed anything. I didn’t even realize he’d been gone.”

Baxtrom’s intensity and awareness is exceptional in most restaurants, but his behavior is the rule at Alinea. In a Michelin three star kitchen, one of the greatest sins a cook can commit is to lose awareness of his surroundings. An even greater sin is to attempt to cover up these moments. Baxtrom was never gonna let that happen.

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Writer’s Note: I had a chance to eat at Olmsted this week, a NYC restaurant run by chef Greg Baxtrom. I had the fortune to meet Greg when he started as a cook and wrote this essay in a slightly different form in 2007 while I was working on the Alinea cookbook. It never made the book, but I was reminded last night while sucking down uni-filled pierogi and killer carrot crepes that sometimes you can spot the good chefs early on.

This article first appeared on Medium.

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