Yes, Chef: Two nights of the kitchen life at The Brewer's Art
By RYAN DETTER
Feb 28, 2017 | 4:30 PM
It's a busy Friday night in the Brewer's Art kitchen, where five cooks, three food runners, and Head Chef Andrew Weinzirl all move together in a chaotic waltz while I'm tucked away in a corner trying not to fuck up. There's a way of doing things here, and everyone seems to know it but me.
"Fire! Table 18! Two chicken, one scallop, side of fries—and how long on that squash?"
Food tickets buzz out of the kitchen printer. The space is crammed. The grill cook has seven orders all about to get plated and now he needs extra Brussels sprouts chopped, stat.
With newly-blistered fingers and sore feet, I chop a pile of them and then I feel a sudden whoosh behind me and some of the kitchen stops to glare at me, Chef Weinzirl included.
I turn around and a cloud of white is at my feet and the entire back half of my body is covered in oyster dredging flour. I look up to discover a container that had partially slid forward and sent a waterfall of flour directly onto me. The grill cook walks past, "Sorry man, that was my fault." No time to ponder that. I save the rest of the flour container and continue with my head down, eyes on the sprouts.
How the hell did I get myself into this?
I've covered the food scene for about three years now, and interest in food and food culture has never been higher than it is now. It seems that everyone has a food-focused Instagram account, and while I'm just as guilty as anyone of posting dramatic shots of food porn, I notice less and less talk about what actually takes place to create those dishes. In other words, the hard, oft-ignored, or quickly forgotten labor that goes into getting food on the plate. All the stuff that leads up to the Instagrammable food porn photo.
I wanted to know more. So I reached out to one of Baltimore's strongest food institutions, the Brewer's Art, to work shifts on a Monday and Friday night and get a sense of how it all works. They agreed, so long as I assumed all liability for any screw-ups that could result in, say, missing fingers.
I realized I was in over my head right away when I asked Chef Weinzirl when I should come in.
I walk up the stairs and ring the buzzer—taking in the last breath of fresh air I'll get for 12 hours—and I'm greeted by pastry cook Giulia and sous-chef Wyatt, who's been there since 9 a.m. or so taking deliveries down into the kitchen.
We head toward an ancient-looking freight elevator.
His answers are knowing and concise, but it's particularly obvious he's been at this for years when he works: He speaks quietly, if at all, focused instead on diligently completing whatever task he's currently got in front of him. There's a lot on his shoulders.
We soon head upstairs to get dough mixed for the fresh pasta and pierogies that'll be made today. Wyatt explains to me that while prep happens every day, it's extra heavy earlier in the week to prepare for the busy weekend. And with Brewer's being a restaurant that makes most things from scratch, they have a lot of prep to do. I counted over 80 items made in-house, from the croutons to the Resurrection Ale butter used for their bread. We lug the massive ball of dough down into the kitchen and Giulia starts the arduous task of rolling it out while Wyatt gets me working on food prep pulled from what I imagine is the "he can't possibly screw this up" list.
The Brewer's Art is known for its rosemary garlic fries—they go through about 750 lbs. a week—but those potatoes don't cut themselves, so I throw on an apron and set up shop next to the french fry cutter. It's an awkward machine attached to a table that rolls all over the damn place, but I prop a foot up to stabilize it and get to work.
The process seems relatively easy: Put a potato in the cutter, pull hard on the lever, push the potato through a sharp honeycomb blade, and hope the resulting fries land in a bucket that sits on a chair wedged between my knee and the ever-shifting table. It isn't easy. The table moves around like mad and if you pull the lever too hard the fries fly right over the bucket, pull too soft and they limply fall short. It takes me some time to finally get into a rhythm, but 300 lbs. of potatoes later, with sweat dripping from my brow onto a floor littered with potato shrapnel, I beam with pride at the eight or so buckets of fries that are ready for the next step.
After the fries, Wyatt feels comfortable enough to loosen the reins on me and gives me a bunch of items to prep. The mundane work of cutting, dicing, and mixing turns into a Zen-like state of purpose. My first on the list is the pomegranate chutney used on their sausage sandwich.
"Put these latex gloves on and dice about 30 of these fresh jalapeños into same-sized pieces. Do not—I repeat, do not—touch your face or go to the bathroom without washing your hands first," instructs Wyatt.
It becomes my mantra for the next half hour.
When I'm finished, I wash my hands and go to the bathroom. It's not until I start cutting the pomegranates and smacking them to get the seeds out that I realize the gloves didn't help protect me from the jalapeños as much as I'd thought (pro-tip: Hit the back with a spoon to release the seeds). As I go about my job, there's a pang of heat I can feel between my legs—it feels like my junk is on fire.
I start to wonder if contact with hot peppers can cause infertility, but given how this is a show-no-pain environment, I choose to ignore it and refocus on fine mincing the final ingredient: shallots.
2 p.m. Monday
The rest of the afternoon continues with prep until the cooks start showing up, at which point Wyatt goes over the rules of communication that are strictly followed to ensure a multitude of bad things don't happen. If you don't want to stab someone you better yell, "Sharp! Sharp! Sharp!" anytime you're walking around with a knife. If you don't want to burn someone, it's "Hot! Hot! Hot!" whenever carrying something hot. If you don't want to smack into someone's face, it's "Behind! Behind! Behind!"
I choose to try not to move at all and listen like a hawk at all times.
Then there are the walk-in refrigerators, which have their own rules and hold everything the restaurant needs. I half expected a strewn-about situation like the one Anthony Bourdain famously described in "Kitchen Confidential," where the walk-in was a place to take drugs and "conceptualize," but I should have known better.
Kitchens like this are no-bullshit zones and each walk-in is a veritable library of perishable food-things: bins of carrots and celery, racks and racks of cheese wheels, vacuum-sealed lamb shanks and chicken thighs, cinder-block sized portions of butter, bags of fresh scallops the size of a fist, and a plastic container of rendered duck fat large enough that there's no way I could sneak out with it under my coat (and I did consider it).
Both walk-ins are sorted based on the type of ingredient, with each item labeled with its name and date, and arranged in the order it was processed, with newest in the back and oldest in the front (the "oldest" being only a couple days since arriving), so as to use that first. The walk-ins are the lifeblood of the restaurant and they look like it: clean and extremely organized. As we walk out, I learn one last rule.
"Always knock on the inside of the door so you don't break someone's nose when you open it," Wyatt advises.
It becomes so instinctual to me that at one point I even find myself knocking on the bathroom door before leaving.
Once the cooks are all at work, it's easy to see why these rules are in place. It's hectic. With knives wielded at all times, people rush in and out of the walk-ins. There is a constant flow of motion, all within a very tiny space. But so far everything goes smoothly as the cooks start their own prep work and get into a flow, which is when I start to understand part of why they sign up for this crazy food-circus: the camaraderie.
There's one cook who spent one of his two days off house hunting and the cooks ask him about it as if they're family. There's a younger cook, Joe, who starts singing Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' only to be berated by another with "Really?? Fucking Wham!?" But it turns out Joe's never heard of Wham!, which gets a good laugh from everyone. These moments happen throughout my time there, and are evidence of the we've-been-in-the-trenches-together connection they obviously have.
The kitchen is split up into stations, each with its own prepped food: Jenni's working the sauté station, in charge of most of the entrees and sauces—she's been on the line the longest and works calmly and confidently, but with a "don't mess with me" edge; Brian works the grill station, cooking all the burgers, fries, steaks, and most of the oven dishes—he's tall, has a beard, and apparently isn't too keen on Wham!; Joe works the cold line, which is pretty much everything else (salads, charcuterie plates, cheese plates, and some oven items).
Although I walked in with visions of working the hot line, it didn't take long to realize I'd be relegated to a table behind the cold line, where I'll continue prepping and help Joe with some of his dishes.
Given the stress of the situation, that was fine by me.
5 p.m. Monday
It's around this time that Chef Weinzirl, who's been working in a kitchen since he was 18 (he's now 33), comes in for the day. He wears a knit cap and has a slightly graying beard and Popeye-esque forearms that I imagine are the result of years of knife-work. He's got a jovial demeanor that his staff clearly gravitates toward, but there's definitely an air of "I won't be laughing if you fuck up" about him that keeps everyone focused and on their toes.
Although it's his "day off," he says that there's never really a day off and he's checking to see what got used up over the weekend and if any changes need to be made to the menu. He shows up just as Joe is reprimanding me for chopping the herbs too finely for the goat cheese mousse I'm making (pro-tip: Chopping herbs looser keeps them fresh longer). Chef gives Joe an approving nod and then reminds me of the golden rule of cooking: Always keep your station impossibly clean.
Reading between the lines, I hurriedly towel off my area and say, "Yes, Chef."
Chef walks past me to check on Wyatt, who has been rolling out various kinds of pasta, and Giulia, who's making pierogies filled with puréed butternut squash. They've spent over seven hours—the entire time I've been there—meticulously hand rolling and cutting the dough using a pasta roller no larger than the one I own at home. Wyatt explains to me that the pasta will last through the weekend, with some of them being 86'd by Sunday, and the pierogies will be enough for two weeks.
"Since we added it to the menu, every Monday I make pasta," he says proudly.
That same sense of pride can be said for all of the cooks I encounter. They seem to genuinely enjoy what they're doing, despite the long hours, lack of days off, and the pure exhaustion: Twelve hours a day, five days a week on your feet alone can wear you out, not to mention the cutting, lifting, and running around.
I ask Wyatt what his favorite restaurant is, and he deadpans, "Well, I don't really get out much since we don't leave until late, so I guess I would say Chicken Rico."
I'm not used to all of this physical labor. This is a far cry from my desk job and, despite being an avid runner, my feet are already in a world of pain. I vehemently lament my choice of footwear and especially regret silently mocking the cooks earlier in the day for wearing Crocs.
I'm also now the proud owner of two rather large blisters, which, coincidentally, are right where I have to grab the handle of my knife. I look over at Wyatt's hands and notice a hodge-podge of nicks, burns, and calluses that serve as both a warning of the dangers in the kitchen and an armor against them.
As the kitchen continues prepping for dinner service, Barri, the bartender in charge of the cocktail program, comes down looking for alternative ingredients for a vodka drink she's been working on.
"Hey guys, I started muddling apples for this drink last week but it's just not practical, so I need something that tastes the same. Any ideas?" she asks.
"We have apple cider and a ton of citrus," Brian chimes in as he's mincing garlic.
Barri goes into the walk-in, comes out with a box of lemons and a jug of cider, and heads off to give it a spin.
A couple minutes later, she's back down and offers sips for feedback. I'm in the middle of finely chopping an endless amount of rosemary (they go through 6-10 lbs. a week), so she sticks the cocktail under my face and positions the straw in my mouth.
"It needs something more," we all agree, and she repeats the process until she's finally happy with apple purée.
That back-and-forth openness is shown again later in the night when Joe taste-tests a new citrus marmalade that he's been cooking up wherever the large pot will fit and whenever the time allows it.
Eventually we all decide it needs a little bourbon. Then again, what couldn't use more bourbon?
8 p.m. Monday
Over the buzz of orders called out to the kitchen, I spend the rest of my night prepping more food: cutting wheels of cheese into 1 oz. portions ("Make sure you use a towel to hold the cheese. If you slip and cut your wrist, you die. And that won't be good," Joe says, without even a hint of sarcasm), forming Roman gnocchi dough into circle molds, filling mini cast iron skillets with macaroni and cheese, chopping parsley, and mixing crab dip with delicately hand-picked crab roe, all the while triple checking with Joe whether or not I'm messing anything up.
I start to wonder how the cooks here, or anywhere for that matter, handle this amount of grind and hours every day. And Brewer's typically only does dinner—they just started lunch on weekends. I can't imagine places that also serve lunch all week, and/or brunch, too.
Toward the end of the night, as the kitchen winds down, Wyatt grabs me to show me yet another logistical job that has to be done: inventory. As we enter the walk-ins he's now in full-on accountant mode, holding a clipboard with a list of every ingredient on the menu. Quantities are checked and he does some quick formulation in his head to determine what needs to be included in tomorrow's order. The cooks also take inventory of their stations: how much they used up, how much needs to be re-ordered, and what needs to be added to their compounding list of "to prep" for the following day.
It's now 10 p.m., so I say my goodbyes, chug a quick beer, and stumble back home, oblivious to the shit that's about to go down Friday.
5 p.m. Friday
For Friday's shift I chose 5 p.m. because I wanted to see a busy night, and when I walk in, the kitchen's wheels are already churning.
"I heard you really held it down Monday," Chef Weinzirl says.
He directs me toward the pizzas that kitchen manager Joel (there 19 of Brewer's 20 years) made for tonight's staff meal—the one semi-organized meal the staff gets a day. They've already eaten, so I hack off a piece with my chef's knife, quickly shove it in my mouth, and help Joe slice baguettes.
There's a considerably different vibe in the kitchen tonight. For one, there are two more cooks—Jim is doubling up on the cold line and Tim is floating around the hot line (the sauté and grill) to help out when things start crushing. And Chef Weinzirl acts as the kitchen's conductor. He yells out when orders are coming in, asks cooks where they are on certain dishes so everything comes out at the same time and, when needed, lays down the law when something isn't up to snuff. I stand out of the way and watch the mayhem unfold.
Tickets roll in. The first wave is here.
"Coming in, table 16: M.R. Burger, paté, goat cheese, mussels, mac cheese, mushroom ragu, three fries, pierogies!"
It was entirely lost on me during Monday's dinner service that "Mr. Burger" wasn't some cutesy name for their burger orders but actually stood for Medium Rare burger.
"Where are we at with the whiskers [smoked catfish salad]? I need it now!"
"Yes, Chef. Two minutes."
"Fire, table 13: rare steak, scallops, shank."
Tickets start to add up at the pass and Wyatt, working sauté, bounces between two lamb shanks, a steaming pot of mussels, and bread that's being grilled. He runs over to grab more pasta, "Behind! Behind!" and quickly shuffles back just in time to flip the bread.
"I need steak, I need scallops, and I need that M.R. Burger now!"
"On the way."
"Is the pumpkin salad ready? Seriously? This long on a fucking pumpkin salad?"
"Let's go! Fast, fast, fast!"
As quickly as Chef shows his displeasure with the pumpkin salad, he's back to helping the kitchen out as their leader. There are no feelings hurt, just an acknowledgment that something wasn't up to his standards.
Three food runners stand next to Chef and as the dishes come out from the pass, they're in charge of garnish. Chef then inspects each plate, cleans the edges, and sends them out on a tray that's organized based on where dishes go at the table (for example, far left on the tray means far left of the table).
The grill station fires on all cylinders, with seven consecutive burger orders all needed at various temperatures. A row of plates holding empty buns take up a majority of the line as the grill cook flips the burgers based on what's surely a sixth sense—no thermometers here. I ask him later how he keeps it all straight with the burgers and steaks and he says, "Maybe it's my own neurosis, but I have a special place on the grill where I put all rare burgers and a different spot for other temps. Maybe I'm a bit crazy, but that way I know for sure what's where."
Four consecutive tickets shoot out of the printer. "Coming in for 21: rare steak, pappardelle, salmon, medium burger!"
The kitchen phone rings. It's one of the waitresses asking if a dish has gluten in it. There's an entire list on the wall that shows what dishes contain common allergy-inducing ingredients but Chef knows without looking.
7 p.m. Friday
A runner pushes through the kitchen's swinging door: "We've got 21 menus open in the dining room."
A warning to the kitchen that 21 people just sat down and to get ready for the second wave.
I can't help but think that it's all a big house of cards: a balance between the physical labor, the logistics of having your ingredients ready when you need them, and the sheer chaos of the timing of everything. Were any one of those to slip, the whole thing could easily come crashing down. It's a fear that I imagine is in the back of every cook's mind, all over the city, every night.
I'm reminded of a story Wyatt told me where they were mid-service on a busy night and a stack of plates fell and smashed all over the hot line. Everything had to be cleaned up, all of the mise-en-place had to be redone, and every order had to be redone.
"Yeah man, that was a horrible night," Wyatt says, with a pained look of recollection on his face. "We got through it, but I really hope that never happens again."
A dishwasher quickly runs in—"Behind! Behind!"—grabs some dirty tongs and he's gone before I know it. A flame erupts from Wyatt's sauté station as he sears a plate of scallops and the sound of pots clank as he grabs another pan to start another salmon.
"Fire root vegetable, carpaccio, side fries!"
9 p.m. Friday
The orders start to trickle in slower, but everyone is still in full-on go mode. There's no music and no talking other than each cook checking with the other on where they are on their dish so they time everything right.
"How long on that gnocchi, Joe? I'm about two minutes from the mussels being ready."
"Minute and a half and they'll be ready."
And then I hear my name: "Detter, we need five desserts ready in six minutes!"
"But I don't…"
"You're about to learn," Joe says.
I hurry over to the dessert station and follow word for word as Joe instructs me from the cold-line while he's finishing up a cheese plate.
"Now drizzle the sauces on however you want, you know, artsy-looking and stuff, then finish it with a dollop of fresh whipped cream from that pastry bag."
I act like I know what the hell I'm doing and plate the cheesecakes and butterscotch pudding, use the raspberry syrup to do my best Jackson Pollock impression, and deliver the plates. Joe nods with approval and motions me to deliver them to chef. I nervously bring them over, he gives them a look over, and punches the ticket onto a spike, signifying it's good to go. I'm stoked.
As things start to wind down, with only a couple of burgers left on the grill, Chef dips into a walk-in and returns with six cans of Birdhouse beer. Chef hands me one.
"There's a little thing we like to do at the end of good nights: the ceremonial shotgunning of the beer," he says with a laugh, "You game?"
He invites me back into the hot line area, where me and the five cooks all use a knife to open a hole in the bottom of each can and with a "1-2-3!" we tip them back and finish the beers in seconds. I look over at Chef, who's laughing and looking over at me.