|Seelbach Chefs for a Day Barb Freda (at top) and Robin Garr - photos cropped to minimize damage to their restaurant-critics' anonymity - show their knifework skills as they prep a bowl of mushrooms for the Oakroom's soup du jour.|
It amounted to a test run for a program that Oakroom Chef Walter Leffler created at his former post at a Hilton resort in New Jersey and that he has now instituted in Louisville. For a $175 fee, anyone - accomplished cook or novice - can join Leffler and Oakroom Chef de Cuisine Todd Richards and their staff for a Wednesday afternoon "Chef for a Day" visit in the Seelbach's kitchen. Participants receive a thorough tour of the facilities with Leffler, followed by a chance to get hands on - with supervision and training, of course - in preparing dishes for the evening meal. Participants wear official Seelbach white chef's jackets, which are theirs to keep at the end of the day.
Of course I couldn't resist the opportunity to check it out; my anonymity at the Seelbach already being "blown" from previous visits, I gleefully accepted, and invited my friend Barbara Freda, a fellow food writer who's done years of service in professional restaurant kitchens, to join me. We reported for duty promptly at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday before Thanksgiving, were fitted for our white jackets and the dark-blue baseball caps that Seelbach kitchen staff wear in lieu of tall white toques, and found that we were to be the inaugural couple. Call it beta testing, if you will, but happily there were no program crashes, and things went surprisingly smoothly, even if we sometimes had the sense that our hosts were making up the agenda on the fly.
|Seelbach Executive Chef Walter Leffler|
We spent the first hour of our visit getting a chef's-eye view of the century-old hotel's entire kitchen complex, an interconnected maze of large, tile-floored rooms that includes catering, convention and room-service operations and a large pastry kitchen - even a separate, chilled kitchen for garde mange preparations like the lovely food-as-art designs that decorate the Oakroom's dessert plates - as well as Richards' domain, the relatively compact section devoted to the Oakroom.
"We serve food 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Leffler said, charging briskly through the kitchens, pointing out items of interest and tossing out facts of interest like tiny, delicious amuses bouches. A battery of convection ovens bake food 17 percent faster than conventional ovens, we learned: "From a production standpoint, that's important." Indeed, efficiency is key in Leffler's kitchens, we were told: "If you're cutting 1,500 filets of beef and every one is 1 ounce off, that adds up to a big difference."
The tour went on, and so did that parade of facts: Leffler makes a conscious effort to purchase "indigenous" products from local and regional suppliers, but quality is paramount. They'll make it a point to use Capriole and Mattingly cheeses from artisanal producers in Indiana and Kentucky, but they also go to Virginia for lamb, shipping in meat three times a week because, he says, "It's the best." Leffler sends Kentucky Bourbon to a New Jersey processor to make Bourbon-smoked salmon to his order; but he turns to Louisville's own Shuckman's Smoked Fish for its unique Kentucky paddlefish caviar.
The Seelbach's drinking water is pure Kentucky limestone water, specially bottled for the hotel by a firm in Ashkamp, Ky.; curiously, though, its cooking wine is decidedly downscale, Livingston brand California "Burgundy" in gallon jugs. "Don't cook with anything you wouldn't drink," Leffler said. I nodded, keeping my own counsel.
"I think of food from an Asian perspective," Leffler went on. "Contrast of flavors, contrast of textures, contrast of colors. There's nothing worse than going into a restaurant, ordering a hamburger, and getting a pickle that goes like this," he said, doing a remarkably good job of mimicking a limp pickle with a hand gesture. "If the little things are wrong, how can you expect the big things to be right?"
|Oakroom Chef de Cuisine Todd Richards|
Much of the rest of our day was spent shadowing two particularly personable young chefs, Eric Black at the pantry/salad station, and Adam Tenhundfeld at the grill station, watching and learning as they made dishes that ranged from parsnip puree (for an appetizer) to an impressive venison-shank ossobuco destined to be an Oakroom lunch special later in the week.
|Eric Black works on mushroom soup (left), while Adam Tenhundfeld stirs venison-shank ossobuco in an oversize rondeau pan.|
They also favored us with tastes, lots of tastes, a little-known but delicious perk of kitchen service. Black, who keeps a large bowl of plastic spoons at his station for sanitary tasting (each spoon is discarded immediately after a single use) gave us samples of everything he was making. Then someone walked past with a sizzling pan of chunks of silken, Midas-rich pan-seared foie gras and invited us to grab a bite. No further arm-twisting was needed.
We were having a blast, but somewhere around 4 p.m., both Barb and I started feeling the "Tom Sawyer effect" strongly. Enough of this watching. When were we going to get to do something? Finally Barb spoke up, seconds before I got to it: "Is there something we can do to help?"
That seemed to broke the ice, and Eric gave us a chore involving a large bowl of fresh white mushrooms and two chef's knives. Trim them, halve them, quarter the bigger ones. I noticed that he watched pretty carefully at first, but he seemed to relax after discovering that we both knew how to hold the knife and could tell the sharp side from the dull side. We got through the batch quickly, even tidied up after ourselves, and came back looking for more work. At this point the relationship seemed to shift ever so slightly as they realized that we were actually able to handle some grunt-work chores, and best of all, enjoy it.
Accordingly - and this might be helpful information to any of you who sign on for the program in the future - the more work we asked for, the more we got. We trimmed and split a big bag of pretty little red brussels sprouts, and then, in a somewhat more advanced challenge, were invited to cut red bell peppers into neat brunoise, neat, tiny squares that should be of as nearly even size as possible.
|The Oakroom kitchen staff assembles for an afternoon planning session.|
As the end of the afternoon and dinner time approached, the pace picked up. People were moving faster and things got a little more noisy. Todd called together his staff for a meeting, and things started to seem a bit more businesslike. It was about time for the "Chef" session to wrap up, but neither of us wanted it to, and I think Todd saw it in our disappointed expressions. Nice guy that he is, he suggested we drop in the pastry kitchen, where the staff wouldn't be under time pressure until later. He didn't have to ask twice.
|Chef Barb demonstrates her prowess at pouring straight and even caramel straws.|
(Wine: Mason 2002 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc)
(Wine: Dr. Loosen 2003 Riesling Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)
(Wine: Penfolds 2001 South Australia "Kalimna" Shiraz)
(Wine: Royal Tokaji 1996 Tokaji)
As it turned out, dinner was the Seelbach's regular five-course prix fixe tasting dinner, and few of the dishes that we had helped prepare were actually on the menu, except for the dessert "buckle" and a little taste of the venison that Leffler sent out for us to try. But it didn't matter. The experience was a memorable one, at least for serious food enthusiasts, and both Leffler and Richards came out during the evening to chat about the day. It was quite an adventure, and a real change of pace for a critic who usually dines as anonymously as possible or at least with a very low profile.
If you have any would-be chefs or serious food hobbyists on your holiday list, the gift of a "Chef for a Day" experience would be a perfect treat. Highly recommended.
(Nov. 17, 2004)