What It’s Really Like Cooking Behind the Counter at BLT Steak
If you can’t stand the heat … It’s cool and casual in the dining room of BLT Steak. In front of the kitchen’s 1,500-degree broiler? That’s another story.
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Johan Svensson and Heckathorn assemble an order.
Photos: David Croxford
It’s hot back here. The heat I can stand; the intensity is starting to get to me. At 8:15 on a Wednesday night, there are about 80 paying customers out in the cool, casual dining room at BLT Steak, not to mention people at the bar ordering pūpū.
Not an outstandingly busy night, but back here in the kitchen, things are starting to blur.
“Salt!” says Dan the runner.
I’ve got the simplest job in the kitchen, and I’m screwing it up.
The finished steaks pop up on the counter in their black cast-iron pans. The pans are hot; I’ve learned to fold my towel double before grabbing them. Carefully, you lift them down to the tray, onto the cover plates someone else has already set up.
All I have to do is choose the right color little plastic cow—red for rare, pink for medium rare, white for medium, brown for well done. I jab the correct cow pick into the corner of the steak. Lay on a pat of maitre d’ hotel butter, which someone else has made hours before. Garnish the steak with sprigs of deep-fried thyme and sprinkle it with coarse salt.
Except I get so busy disentangling the twigs of thyme and placing them precisely, that I forget the salt.
Dan the runner gives me a look: Table 34 is waiting for these meals. Once I salt, he hefts the heavily loaded, 27-inch-diameter tray, and accelerates out of the kitchen.
“Fun, huh?” says Johan Svensson, BLT Steak’s 38-year-old chef de cuisine. This is his kitchen, his crew, his responsibility to make sure that the customer at Table 34, who’s paying $45 for that 22-ounce, bone-in rib eye, gets it exactly right. Including salt, which Svensson himself never forgets.
Svensson also has to ensure that, at exactly the same time, the other customer at Table 34 gets her sautéed Dover sole, meticulously filleted off the bone, in a soy-caper brown butter that’s not too brown. “Put more butter in that sauce,” Svensson tells Jayson, his guy at the fish station. Right away.
Svensson grew up on a small island in Sweden. He had a traditional European initiation into kitchen life. When he was younger, a chef once came at him with a pen knife. “I kind of brought it on myself,” he says. “I was talking too much.”
JAYSON MENOR FILLETS A DOVER SOLE.
Still, he doesn’t run his own kitchen that way: “Management by fear doesn’t work.”
For a chef, he’s short on invective. At his worst, he calls the guys behind the hot line “Ladies,” as in “Ladies, you’re doing good tonight, but could you work a little faster?” He takes stock of where the orders are. “How long on that porterhouse?” he asks.
“Eight minutes,” says Jeremiah the broiler man.
“Eight minutes!? What do you have to do, shoot the cow?”
Time, it’s all about time. When Svensson cooked in New York, at the famed contemporary Swedish restaurant Aquavit, the only answer anyone wanted to hear to question like that was, “Two minutes.” Any more than that, he says, and the response would be: “You want the whole world to wait for you?”
Svensson spends the night with his eye on the clock, and on the little printer on the counter. At BLT, servers don’t set foot in the kitchen. “You want to keep waiters out of here,” says Svensson. “Otherwise, it gets messy.”
In the dining room, a server enters the order on a computer touch screen. The little printers in the kitchen whirr and screech. Out pops a ticket, orders in blue and detail in red. Svensson grabs the ticket and rewrites the time on it, very large, so he can see it at a glance. He checks it against the reservation sheet. Is it a walk-in, a reservation, a VIP party? Is it a two top? Two tops order and eat faster than large parties. “Big parties will drink and talk before they order.”
While he’s doing that, the entire kitchen jumps into action. Dan the runner will stack the mise en place (the various plates, the napkins or Kraft paper pieces that sit under the cast iron platters). On the stack of plates, he puts another copy of the ticket, this time with table number written in black marking pen. Then Dan will hustle over and dish up the amuse bouche that every table gets, the duck liver pâté with toasted baguette.
Caroline at the pastry station immediately heats up popovers. (Running short? She’ll make more.) Dan and Ed, the other runner, have earlier filled ramekins of unsalted butter, covering each with a round of paper on which is printed a tiny picture of a cow. Onto the tray with the pâté and popovers go the butter and a big shaker of kosher salt. Then: Bang, out on the table, now.