We sat down at a cleared, round 8-top in the front of the house. Me in my polyblend tee, skinny jeans, and pumas, and seven chefs in their whites, each looking more different from the next, listening quietly as Chef Allen began the meeting. Tonight there would be a private party of 70 at 8:00 p.m. A la carte tables were booked for 7:00 and 7:30. And, we would have another reality cooking experience. Me. Chef de Cuisine Daniel Serfer, who I would come to know as Danny, went over the details of the menu, who was responsible for prepping what, and before I knew it, I was whisked off to dress the part and get started. Of course, the smallest chef jacket on the rack hung on me just like mom’s clothing when I played dress-up as a little girl. (Thank goodness I wore acceptable shoes.)
Had kind and gentle Allen Susser, the chef with eyes like a bear hug, lost his mind? Only a maniac with an appetite for disaster would bring customers of any level of cooking experience into this mine field of flames and knives. Not so! The experiment actually worked. Really well, in fact. And this is probably the only restaurant kitchen it could ever work in, credit to his staff.
Chef Danny, who lives around the corner and walks pug Bacon on breaks, runs the kitchen and also had the good fortune to land a job as my handler for the afternoon. Like me, he grew up eating at Chef Allen’s, mostly for special occasions, and has seen it evolve over the years since the doors first opened in 1986. Somehow the restaurant has stayed true to its roots and customer base, while at the same time, as Danny notes, “it’s not your grandmother’s Chef Allen’s.” How could it be, with everyone behind the line all under the age of 30?
Dinner service comes together in phases. There is prep, cooking, plating, and the task of dish washing, overlooked by most – except chefs who know better. At Chef Allen’s, Henry, Jacques, and Jimmy execute diligently and without a complaint. This time of day is devoted to prepping the ingredients that will later be used as hot and cold dishes come together on plates. My first task is slicing in half, length-wise the contents of a very large can of olives from Provence. Rather than one at a time, which I proceed to do (quite proudly – and evenly, I might add,) Chef Danny shows me how to lay my hand over a bunch of them and pass a rather large serrated knife horizontally through. First lesson: you are never too good for a mundane task. Second lesson: it is actually not mundane. It took tackling half of the olive container to get a rhythm going. And there were still plenty of rogue olives that escaped the blade. When Chef wasn’t looking, they became snacks, not part of the warm mixed mushroom salad.
I quickly felt at home inside Chef Allen’s kitchen, learning the most important skill of all — pushing Chef Danny’s buttons by stealing his towels. Chef Lindsay would hand me yummy things to munch on during my prep work like freshly-fried yucca chips from the Ahi Poke appetizer, and romaine lettuce spears dipped in creamy Caesar dressing, gray with anchovies. Pastry Chef Andy surprised me with my own liter bottle of Pellegrino, special treatment that was only topped when I was allowed to trade in my lemon slice-adorned glass for an aluminum container with a straw, like his. Just like a chef. He also dispensed important advice: Don’t eat too much during family meal, when the staff gets together at 4:30 to eat. Today it was his tres leches and fish and chips, but there would be plenty more eating is in store from 5:00 on. At the time, “plenty” didn’t translate to Chef Danny’s exotic bowl of piping hot clams in a broth of sake and bananas, pistachio-crusted Mahi Mahi, rock shrimp and grits with bacon… all for me and enjoyed from behind the counter, with a clean napkin and silverware setup. And Andy’s chocolate, berry and vanilla souffle sampler platter, with bittersweet chocolate sauce, fresh whipped cream and creme Anglaise toppings?
I worked hard for my indulgences. After the olives, Grill Chef Kyle showed me how to break down par-cooked lobster, whom I met live earlier in the day. It’s not a table-friendly maneuver, but removing the shells works best when you can swing a knife into their backs, cracking down the middle to split the tasty crustaceans in half. They would eventually be broiled with a rich bechamel sauce, cavities cleaned and stuffed with succulent claw and knuckle meat. I took a quick break to get a lesson in stoking the fire inside of the wood burning oven, one exactly like the one Chef Allen used in 1976 while at Le Bristol Hotel in Paris. Chef Kyle showed me how they dry out the wood first in the conventional oven, and then light the logs on the gas range beside it before loading them in.
It was soon time to say goodbye when Chef Allen reemerged. We spoke in the office kitchen about his inspiration for the program, while I gushed about his staff, and thanked him for so graciously inviting me inside his world for an unforgettably fun opportunity. I hope to see Allen, Danny, Andy, Lindsay, Kyle, Samantha, Chris and Henry again soon, both in the front and back of the house. To be the star of your own reality cooking experience email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-935-2900.
And below, to watch Pastry Chef Andy’s stellar folding technique, as he combines beaten egg whites with the vanilla souffle batter base of egg yolk, milk, butter, flour, sugar and vanilla bean:
And my attempt with the chocolate one: