You were all so kind and had such nice things to say the last time that I’m back to post another installment in my tale about a chef, her life and her food. This little story actually takes place before Stinging Nettle Saag Paneer Pizza, and gives you an insight into what Faith is like in her element: a small, steamy restaurant kitchen.
I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment if you like…
Please note this story contains coarse language…as does every story to ever come out of a professional kitchen. ;)
“Where’s my mash? I have two short ribs in front of me, going cold, and the mash is MIA. Let’s go!”
“Give me a minute!” came the exasperated, slightly muffled, response as Simmons straightened up in front of the ice machine on the other side of the tiny, smoking-hot kitchen, a couple of cubes pressed to his red, sweaty face.
“A minute?! Tank called one minute to the pass four fucking minutes ago…the rest of the table is gone. We’re mid-service on Saturday night, Simmons; don’t take us to the weeds over fucking mash. Ice down later.”
“Bitch nags like my mother…” was almost lost in the cacophony of convection ovens, clanging silverware, stacking plates and Alex’s KitchenAid, whipping cream on full at her cramped pastry station tucked in the corner by the fire escape, but his light-pitched, tenor whine carried just far enough.
“Did your mommy kiss you with that potty mouth, Simmons? If you can’t keep up, I’ll put someone in there who can. It’s veg for fuck’s sake. Deal, or get the hell out of here,” Faith ordered, lifting the plate of shredded short ribs up to the far side of the overhead grill to keep them warm. She inhaled as the plate passed under her nose, then closed her eyes for a moment of peace as the heady scents of red-wine, fresh herbs and slow-cooked beef infused her soul.
Simmons threw his half-spent ice into the prep sink, turned and stood on his toes to bring down two warmed plates from the shelf above the stove. He lifted the lid from the bain-marie and mounded identical piles of aromatic olive oil & preserved-lemon mashed potatoes into the centre of each, took his time smoothing them down with the offset spatula from his breast pocket, then shoved the plates, saloon style, down to Faith at the pass.
“Sorry, Simmons, I can’t hear you. Come on, give it to me with feeling this time, eh?” she demanded, her voice pedantic, taunting. Her eyes lit on his at exactly the same time as her left hand shot up to stop the plates of mash from going over the edge. If he wanted to go, she was happy to oblige. Cesar was finally about to give her that permanent place at the pass, and Simmons the kitchen mongrel wasn’t going to fuck it up.
“Yes, Chef!” he bellowed and snapped his mouth shut over tobacco-stained teeth. He wiped his spatula almost clean with his towel and slid it back into its pocket, never taking his bloodshot, droopy eyes off of hers.
She flattened her own icy blues and served the look right back, relishing with a smile the moment when he broke away. Still watching him, she dipped her spoon into the piping-hot mash and tasted. Satisfied, she nodded to herself as she grabbed down the short ribs and nestled them into the mash. She spooned braising liquid around the plates, garnished each with butter-fried sage, wiped the edges clean and then sent them, entreating the new waitress, whose name Faith couldn’t remember, to hurry.
She was considering having one more go at Simmon’s sexist ass when Genarro tapped on her shoulder.
“Phone call,” he whispered in her ear.
She’d worked at La Pergola for three years, and in all that time, the formal, distant Maitre d’ had never gotten any closer to her than absolutely necessary. And he sure as hell had never whispered in her ear. Taken aback by his new found intimacy, she turned into him, then leaned back to gain herself a bit more space. She looked up slightly to his long, haughty face and was surprised to find his eyes full of a sort of tense sympathy.
Curious, but too stubborn to allow her focus to wander, she returned her eyes and attention back to the row of tickets pinned to the bottom of the grill with magnets.
“Seriously, Genarro? Take a message. And back off a little, will you?”
She tore the latest ticket from the printer, wiped her black terrycloth wristband across her brow and absently tucked a dark, damp curl behind her ear as she brought the slip to eye level. “Heads up!” she said, scanning. “Table twenty-two, two covers. One asparagus, one octopus to start. Entrees: one gnocchi, one rabbit.”
“Yes, Chef!” came a chorus of two, with Simmons half-heartedly chiming in a half second too late. A pan slammed onto the stove at her left and the sear and smell of brined octopus hitting the grill to her right made her stomach growl.
Faith backed Genarro one step closer to the door with a firm palm in the centre of his chest, but he stopped there and firmed his face in resolve. “Table: 17. Six covers. How long on the mains, Tank?” she called, deciding the Maitre d’ was now far enough away to ignore.
“You must take this call, Chef,” Genarro persisted.
“Not now, Genarro! Tank, how long?”
“The fish are in and I just pulled the meat out. Three minutes, Chef!” boomed Hank the Tank, king of his own domain over on meat and fish, crowned in a cotton camouflage bandana tied at the back of his shaved head.
“Chef, I really must insist that you take this call before you do anything….” the rest of Genarro’s ultimatum was lost as Faith barked out the first dessert orders to Alex over the constant thrum of the exhaust.
She looked back to find him still standing there, shaking his head in disapproval. “I have left him waiting, and the telephone off the hook, for too long. You must take this call Chef, please,” he said, his voice low and urgent. A single bead of sweat dripped down his cheek, briefly giving the appearance of a tear, before it was gone with a sweep of his hand.
Curiousity was overwhelming her; she checked in with Tank. “You under control?”
“Yeah, I got this. Go – seems important,” he shrugged.
“Thanks. Back in a sec.” She took off her stained apron, tossed it in her crate under the counter and pulled her black chef’s jacket straight in a classic Picard maneuver. “Simmons, don’t be a dick while I’m gone,” she remarked, then pushed through the swing door into the front of house.
“Now…who is so damned important to interrupt Saturday service, Genarro?” she demanded quietly on the other, much cooler and quieter, side of the door.
“He said his name is JJ. He is calling about your Grandmother.”
Her stomach knotted in fear and perspiration turned to chills. Faith regularly imagined the worse, knowing that Nanna was getting far too old to manage alone on the island homestead. She had made a half-hearted attempt to broach the topic the last time she was home for a visit, but had been brushed adeptly aside by a woman long accustomed to keeping others out of her business.
“They’ll take me out of here cold, and not before,” Nanna intoned, setting a plate of her chocolate meringues in front of Faith with exaggerated care. Faith enjoyed sweet a whole lot more than sour, so she had wisely surrendered then and there, chomped down on a meringue and let its dry, hollow sweetness absorb all the moisture in her mouth, thereby making speech impossible.
Her face must have betrayed her thoughts of death, because Genarro shook her gently by the shoulder to bring her back to the here and now. “No, no…she is not dead. Here,” he said softly, handing her the cordless receiver.
With a look at Mark behind the bar and a jerk of his thumb towards the kitchen, Genarro picked up one of two bus pans full of glasses and returned to the back, dumping the heavy load at the dishwasher, just inside the door. The sleek, dark barman quickly picked up the other one and followed him.
“John James, is that you? What’s wrong?” Faith asked into the phone, her voice small and strained, her eyes watching the kitchen door swing back and forth until it finally lost momentum and stilled.
“Faith…oh, Faith. Thank God. She’s sick…been sick for a long time and wouldn’t let me tell you, wouldn’t give me your number. Ellie showed up at my place this morning, whining and scratching at the door, and when I got down to Wit’s End, I found the old girl on the floor in the kitchen and the kettle dry. It was fused to the stove element.”
Faith closed her eyes against the pain as anguish crushed her heart.
“She was alert though, and pissed as only she could be,” he continued. “Got her to the sofa, then she yelled the whole time I was on phone with 911, saying they were coming in here over her dead body. I told her we were a lot closer to that reality than I was comfortable with, and they were coming for my sake, if not hers.”
“Thanks, John James..JJ. Thank you for being there. Where is she now?” her voice regaining some of its strength.
“They medevaced her to Victoria General. Oncology Building, Room 322. Do you have a pen handy? I’ve got the direct number for the nurse’s station on her floor.”
“I won’t forget. Give it to me,” she said, knowing that every single second of this phone call was forever etched on the hard drive of her mind, never to be deleted, downloaded or forgotten. Notification of your own inevitable status change to orphan, even for the second time, was one of life’s watershed moments.
Mark pushed through to the front just as Parneet opened the dishwasher full of glasses. As she listened to the rest of the details over the muffled noise of the dining room behind her and began to make a few tentative plans in her head, Faith watched the kitchen disappear as the door swung closed in a billow of steam.
- Beef Short Ribs – 3 to 4 lbs
- Onion, chopped – 1 medium
- Carrots, chopped – 2 medium
- Celery, chopped – 3 medium ribs
- Tomato, quartered – 1 medium
- Garlic, crushed – 6 cloves
- Olive Oil – 1/4 Cup, divided
- Fresh Sage – 6-8 whole leaves, still on the stem if available
- Dry Red Wine – 2 Cups
- Beef Stock – 2 Cups (see notes)
Olive Oil-Preserved Lemon Mash:
- Red or Yellow Skinned Potatoes, peeled and quartered – 2.5 lbs
- Whipping Cream, warm – 1/2 Cup
- Olive Oil – 1/2 Cup
- Parmesan Cheese, shredded – 1/2 Cup
- Preserved Lemon, minced – 1 tsp (1/4 lemon) (see notes)
- Fresh Sage Leaves
- Butter – 2 Tble
- Olive Oil – 2 Tble
For the short ribs: Season the short ribs liberally with salt and pepper. Combine the onion, carrot, celery, tomato and garlic into a food processor and blend to a smooth pulp.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the short ribs meatiest side down, and brown without disturbing, about 5 minutes. Turn to brown on all sides. Do not overcrowd the pan. Brown in batches if necessary. Remove the meat to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the same pan, add the vegetable pulp and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Pour in the red wine and stock. Nestle the short ribs into the liquid and add the sage leaves; the liquid should just about cover the meat. Bring to a boil over medium-high, then place the lid loosely on top and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the meat is very tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
When the ribs are finished, remove them to a plate and strain the braising liquid into a saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the sauce until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Skim the surface for fat, season to taste with salt & pepper and keep warm.
Shred the short rib meat from the bones, removing the gristle and some of the fat. Season the meat well, toss with a bit of the braising liquid to keep it moist, and keep warm, covered, in a warm oven.
For the Mash: When the short ribs have about 1/2 hour of cooking time left, cover the potatoes with cold salted water and bring to a low boil over medium-high heat. Cook until tender, 20-30 minutes. Drain.
Mash or mill the potatoes until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Keep warm.
To Serve: Heat the butter and olive oil for the garnish in a small pan over medium-high heat. When bubbling, fry the sage leaves until crisp but not brown, about 1 minute.
Mound the mash in the middle of the plate, top with the shredded short rib meat. Spoon some of the braising liquid around the plate and garnish with fried sage leaves. Serve.
Wonderful with sauteed kale.
- I used homemade chicken stock, because I didn’t have any beef on hand. I chose homemade over store-bought because I think the former always tastes better.
- If you’re using store-bought stock, use low-sodium….otherwise the dish will be overly salty.
- I put my mash through a food mill rather than mashing it. I find it results in a lighter, smoother mash. Give it a try if you have mill!
- Preserved lemons are one of my favourite secret flavour weapons. They are easy to make, but take a few weeks to be ready. In the meantime, you can always substitute the grated zest of a lemon in its place.
- No sage? Use fresh thyme and skip the fried garnish.