I was fortunate enough during JazzFest to do what I love most (at least professionally) — work in a creative kitchen with other inventive folks, tweaking the menu a little each night and leaving room for whatever inspiration happened to hit. While I was limited mainly to pantry work (salads, saucing and desserts), there was still plenty of back-and-forth about what might work and we could each throw out ideas for possible use. The creative spigot was wide open, even more so when things got busy. It was delightful.
It was the first time in several years I had done “fine-dining” and my first time ever to work in the French Quarter during a major event such as JazzFest. It was also the first time since running my own kitchen that the “creative” knob was turned up to 11, with pretty much anything being potentially useful as inventory. We used a nearly half-dozen different kinds of fish, duck, rabbit, beef, pork (no chicken, thankfully), oysters, whole shrimp, crawfish and any number of vegetables, garnishes and sides. Sauces ranged from a variation of hollandaise to my white BBQ sauce to some more unusual reductions.
In a lot of ways, I think white-linen is easier to do than, say, running a poboy shop. In the former, so much is (depending on the place, of course) done ahead of time by prep staff and/or simply brought to temperature by a line cook, passed to the chef or expediter, sauced, garnished and shoved out the window. This is more difficult to do at a lower-echelon place, where every plate is essentially built from the ground up and there is a lot more room for variation, specifics and error. I was, frankly, uncomfortable with my recent brief time in the Warehouse District. I never felt like I was really cooking anything because I wasn’t – I was supervising someone else doing my dish or someone else’s. If this is being a “chef” anymore, I’d rather be a cook.
As mentioned in my last column, we had a few instances in which customers tried to skirt the rules or demand special treatment. Believe me – nothing is going to slow your meal down or make it unavailable faster than trying to argue or nitpick with a veteran staff. We had posted we’d be walk-in only during JazzFest, but there were daily calls from those who couldn’t quite grasp the concept of “no reservations.” The kicker was on the final Sunday, a guy calls and asks for a reservation for Sunday night. He was informed we were walk-in only during JazzFest. He comes back with, “Well, JazzFest ends at 8pm. What if I make a reservation for 8:30?” Seriously dude? I wanted to ask how his law practice was going.
(Note: I am purposely not mentioning the name of the place because I was only helping out for JazzFest. No sense in fueling speculation I might work there longer-term. It was only temporary.)
My JazzFest culinary experience reinforced several things on me – some of which had been put on the shelf during my interim time in a corporate production kitchen. The largest of these was the importance of common focus, underwired by the sheer joy of Being There. On this small staff, there were a half-dozen languages and not everyone was a competent English speaker. But the right words aren’t needed when everyone is on the same page and working to a common goal. If any of us needed something, it was as if we were all native-born and with the same mother tongue. It worked, and it was a true joy.
Life Itsowndamnself should work this way, right?
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.