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.
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.
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.
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.