Greg Baker is the chef-owner at Tampa's The Refinery, where he mixes classical French technique with nearly lost Florida ingredients. He has been named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for the past three years. Here, he writes about one wild service.
On August 22 — two days before the most daunting service of my career — I looked at my wife and confessed what was on my mind. “I’m nervous.” She looked at me, placed her hand on my shoulder. “Why? What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
“Well, I could fuck everything up, for starters.”
“Do you think you’ll be the first chef to fuck everything up?” She cocked her head to the side, smiled, kissed my forehead. “Besides, I’ll kill you if you fuck it up.”
Rewind three months: Chef Norman Van Aken had invited me to prepare a canapé course for his namesake restaurant’s 10th anniversary celebration. I’d met Norman two years ago and had since essentially crashed my way into his kitchen for the 8th anniversary party. I’ve always had the utmost respect for him, not only as a chef, but also as a business and family man.
“Do you think you might like to come and join in the Anniversary this year again? It will be a bit larger this year. We have more guest chefs than ever.” The email read.
“Oui, Chef” is the only acceptable answer to that question — never mind the fact that the date conflicted with my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. With the hope that my parents might forgive me for missing such a huge event, I investigated who else would be cooking that night. When I read Dean Fearing, Emeril Lagasse and Jeremiah Tower, I nearly choked. My parents would have to celebrate without me.
Panic began to seep into my brain. Memories of epic mistakes came rushing back. I recalled the time I mistook a decanted Flaccianello as a spit bucket during a Gambero Rosso tour. And then there was that time that my feeble command of the Italian language resulted in me unwittingly shaving a $1,200 serving of truffle fonduta. The subsequent jab in the ass with a meat fork was well deserved, thank you very much.
Feelings of self-doubt, self-loathing and self-deprecation quickly became my best friends. I’m just a cook. Dress it up any way you want to, but at the end of the day, I’m a cook. It’s my art form, my expression. And I had just agreed to cook with the chefs that were shaping the face of American cuisine almost 30 years ago.
When the day arrived, my chef de cuisine, Eric McHugh, and I were guided through the labyrinth that exists underground between Norman’s and the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. It was a leisurely stroll, about the equivalent of the Trail of Tears. We arrived at a dedicated prep kitchen just outside of the Grande Plaza Ballroom. A smiling Dean Fearing, dressed in jeans, boots and an apron, stopped searing bison to introduce himself. A proper and distinguished Jeremiah Tower, wearing pristine chef’s whites, took a break from putting final touches on his items to warmly greet us. Emeril and his crew arrived with his quail, and a similar jovial introduction. I started unpacking my measly shrimp and pickled okra. It appeared as though I was being welcomed as an equal. Regardless, I kept my head down and cooked, determined to hold my own.
And then the wine (and perhaps a little bourbon) started flowing. My mood lightened. We were all still working, but it felt no different than my own kitchen during daytime prep. The only thing missing was Turbonegro blaring from a vintage '90s boombox duct taped to a fridge to make it feel like home.
Obligatory photos were taken. Canapés were passed. Champagne was poured. Chef Norman delivered a heartfelt welcoming speech before each chef explained his course. Then we all headed back behind the scenes for service. A small army of cooks and chefs lined each side of the plating station — the titans included — placing countless proteins, sauces and garnishes; wipe the plates, then pass each off to the awaiting servers. Eric and I threw a few elbows to get into the line. There was no way we were going to miss the opportunity of plating with these guys.
More wine was poured.
This solemn and glorious occasion was treated with all due piety – bad jokes and ball-breaking were rampant. Even while I rolled veal tongue with one hand and placed julienned truffle with the other, it felt natural to warn Chef Fearing of black helicopters filled with copyright lawyers descending on him after he let out an unapproved “Bam!” About this point, Chef Tower’s smirk was etched on his face for the night. Chef Norman was beaming about having the band back together.
Did I mention there was wine?
The last plates were served. Stations were broken down. More wine was poured.
In the nearly empty ballroom, Chef Emeril sat with the piano player and belted a fairly good rendition of “New York State of Mind.” Chef Norman produced a harmonica and the pair gave us “Chicken Cordon Bleus.” You know, the same way most services end.
But that’s the point. These inspirational and intimidating chefs, trailblazers of American cuisine, who came up through the ranks the way we all did — making mistakes, learning from the mistakes, playing as hard as they worked — long before they found their distinctive styles and voices. At the end of the day, these guys are all just cooks.
And no, I didn’t fuck it up.
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