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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JEREMIAH QUERODA PLACES CURRIED CAULIFLOWER ATOP THE SHORT RIBS SPECIAL. THESE TWIN BROILERS GENERATE 1,500 DEGREES AND GIVE STEAKS A NICE CHAR.
The most important station belongs to Jeremiah, who’s 23 years old, with tattoos up one arm and a red bandana tied around his head. If you saw him on the street, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious how skilled and focused he is.
A 40-ounce porterhouse, as thick as a college dictionary, costs the customer $85. This is a steak house; the whole health of the restaurant depends on Jeremiah doing his job. He’s not allowed to mess up.
He checks the tickets, slathers a steak in butter, seasons it with coarse salt and cracked pepper, pops it first onto the grill and then under the 1,500-degree broiler. The kitchen’s hot, but the broiler station is an inferno. Out of a plastic cup as big as a flower pot, Jeremiah keeps sipping an iced energy drink. The red bandana keeps the sweat out of his eyes.
“Where’s that porterhouse?” asks Svensson.
“They ordered it well-done,” says Jeremiah. There’s a general groan. If you order your steak well-done at a steak house, don’t expect the kitchen to approve. “Why would anyone ruin a beautiful piece of meat like that?” asks Dan.
Svensson, undeterred, moves another ticket ahead of Mr. Well Done’s. “We’re doing Table 18 first, everyone,” he says. We’re back in action.
Another one of Jeremiah’s handiworks pops into a serving pan, a 22-ounce bone-in rib eye, rare, with the perfect charred crust created by a broiler that’s perhaps 1,000 degrees hotter than the one in your kitchen.
There’s no ticket. “Who’s this for?” asks the runner.
“Them,” Svensson says, gesturing at me and our photographer, David Croxford, who’s been running around the kitchen all night, trying to catch people moving rapidly in varying light conditions.
We feel guilty. Everyone else got a “family meal” at the head of the shift, but isn’t allowed to eat the restaurant food.
John Svensson checks an order of appetizers.
The guilt isn’t enough to keep us from eating. One of the managers, Jameson Junk, drops by the kitchen, asks if we’d like something to drink. I look at the steak, a piece of certified Angus prime beef an inch thick. The steak begins to whisper to me, insistently: Red wine, red wine. I end up with a massive California cabernet, since charred steak and cabernet go together better than Checkers and Pogo.
I interrupt eating to garnish a couple of steaks headed for the dining room. “That’s what I like to see at the expeditor’s station,” says Dan the runner. I look up. He’s smiling at the glass of red wine. “That’s the kind of thing this kitchen definitely needs more of.”
Svensson also has a glass of wine, sent in by a customer who clearly liked whatever he ordered. Svensson doesn’t touch the glass. “Chefs,” he says, “I’ve known some who kept a keg of beer in the kitchen and drank all night long. Here, we drink after.”
By 9:30, it looks like we’re pretty close to after. Everyone’s still moving fast, but wrapping food in cling wrap, putting things away.
Damn. A party of five just walked in the restaurant, we’re still open, we’re not done. You can just hear what everyone’s thinking: Come on, please, order right away.
Finally, the ticket pops out of the printer, a big order, three porterhouses, a rib eye, a fish, lots of potatoes. We’re back in action.
And, whoa, what is this? There’s a server in the kitchen, an attractive young woman, asking Svensson to go out and talk to the table. “They’re Swedish,” she insists.
“I moved 12,000 miles so I wouldn’t have to talk to Swedish people,” he says.
“Swedish. From Sweden.”
“There are 9 million people in Sweden. We don’t all know each other.” But he wipes his hands, brushes back his hair and goes. Apparently, the visit is more enjoyable than he expects, because he’s gone a long time.
Long enough for Jeremiah to have the porterhouses ready. Except.
Adding to complications of getting the right food to the table is that BLT offers a dozen different sauces for the steaks, and a customer can have as many as he or she wants.
The sauces haven’t seemed like a complication for me, because the runners are efficient at dishing them up into gooseneck pitchers. They’re always on the tray, ready to go. To make me feel better about the salt, perhaps, Svensson’s told me he often forgets the sauces. To compensate, the runners are compulsive about them.
Dan the runner is dishing up the sauces for the final order when he starts apologizing profusely. He needs three orders of béarnaise sauce and there’s only one left. Jeremiah and Jayson pull the steak and fish off the fire, swing into action. Jeremiah takes charge, Jayson hustles for the eggs, the melted butter, Jeremiah whisking up a storm over a burner.
“I should have told you earlier,” says Dan. “No problem,” says Jeremiah. The sauce is thickening slowly.
“How are we doing, ladies?” Svensson is back in the kitchen.
“Two minutes,” says Jeremiah.
In two minutes, everything is on a tray, ready to go out. Well, almost ready.
“Salt?” asks Dan the runner.
Oh, yeah, salt.
BLT Steak, Trump International Hotel, 223 Saratoga Road, (808) 683-7440, bltsteak.com. Dinner nightly, Sun. to Thurs. 5:30 to 10 p.m., Fri. to Sat. until 11 p.m.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.