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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Dan Chipchase runs a heavily laden tray out of the kitchen at BLT Steak to a waiting table.
The table needs appetizers, salads, so the action moves to Sam Souza, the garde manger. Garde manger? Nobody here speaks French—Souza’s from Brazil—but the terminology of haute cuisine is still French.
In English, Souza is in charge of the cold station, which has taken him two hours to set up before service started. Meticulously trimmed and into little stainless containers go his perfect romaine lettuce leaves, tomatoes, several kinds of sliced onion, arugula, assorted cheeses, hardboiled eggs, on and on, all over ice. His salad dressings are lined up like soldiers in plastic squeeze bottles.
Not all his food is cold. He warms crab cakes, sears ‘ahi, sautés lobster for the lobster salads. Between the bar and the dining room, he’s cranking out a lot of small, carefully presented plates.
Svensson is watching Souza, checking the time on the tickets. “If it takes him more than eight minutes to get out an order, I worry,” he says. “At 10 minutes, I jump in.”
At nine minutes, Svensson jumps in, slicing hamachi for sashimi, arranging a special charcuterie plate for a VIP table. By the chef’s definition, it’s a good table: It has ordered lots of food. He hates it when people ask to split orders.
Souza has two Caesar salads, anchovies on the side, a tomato salad, a crab cake and an ‘ahi tartare—a solid cuboid of chopped ‘ahi pressed into a base of avocado, topped with toasted shallots. “That ‘ahi preparation’s a beautiful thing,” says Svensson, pouring a shoyu-citrus sauce over it. “It was designed by the chef who came up with this restaurant, Laurent Tourondel.”
Souza has caught up, though the tickets keep coming. He looks tired. He started his day at 5:30 this morning, cooking breakfast at Jimmy Buffet’s. “I love to cook,” he says. “I loooove loco mocos.”
Later in the evening, he’ll ask Svensson for a 5-minute break, which he’ll get, grudgingly. Everyone starts at 5 p.m., nobody takes a break.
In addition to Souza and Svensson (and perhaps me, if my feeble efforts qualify), the kitchen includes the three guys on the hot line, the two runners and, in pastry, Caroline, who handles desserts as well as popovers; a barista who makes and delivers coffee to the tables when she’s not taking the last drops of water off clean dishes and silverware; and a chef at the raw seafood station out in the bar, who will send back into the kitchen the platters of raw oysters, six, 12 or 24 at a time on ice, so Svensson can see them before they go to the tables.
Out in the dining room, the servers are monitoring tables. As people finish their appetizers, they are supposed to send a computer command to fire the entrées. “Hopefully, they’ll tell us a few minutes early, to give us time to cook,” says Svensson. “But sometimes they wait until after they clear, and sometimes they forget. I hate people waiting for food, that’s why I keep an eye on the clock.”
It’s a noiseless electric clock, but still, somehow, you can almost hear it tick.
Time to fire: The action moves to the three guys behind the hot line.
A RIB EYE AND A PORTERHOUSE START ON THE GRILL.
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD
Marshall handles side dishes. Orders at BLT Steak are complicated. Entrées include only the central protein. There are no set plates. Sides like roasted tomatoes, onion rings, creamed spinach, onion-leek hash browns, sautéed Brussels sprouts, gnocchi in pomodoro sauce, are all ordered separately. All these things take varying times to cook, and they all have to be ready with the porterhouse or the onaga or whatever anyone orders. Marshall works quietly—he’s got a lot to keep track of.
At one point, food for a four top is about to go out on a tray. “French fries. Where are the French fries?” asks Dan the runner. If it’s possible to say, “Oops,” in body language alone, that’s what Marshall says.
Dan takes the food out anyway, and, if he’s good, he’ll make it sound like he’s doing the guest a favor. “Wanted to make sure you got your fries fresh out of the fryer,” he’d say. By the time he gets back, the fries are sitting on the counter in a stylish little cone. “I just blew it,” says Marshall. “Didn’t read the ticket.”
Jayson the fish guy spends his night grilling lobster tails and piling them with sautéed baby bok choy. Or cooking up a Kamuela tomato and cipollini onion ratatouille to serve under his ‘ōpakapaka fillet, the flesh moist, the skin crispy. Or making sure he’s removed every single bone from a delicate Dover sole while keeping the fillets intact and perfect looking.
His most elaborate creation is a whole, crispy fish for two. He scales, flours, seasons an uku—“it’s ugly, but it tastes good.” Finally, he skewers it so it will keep an artful curve when it’s done. “Go back in the refrigerator and get the bigger one,” says Svensson. No problem, he starts all over.