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It had been two years and three days since I last put on my whites and checks, and the ex-chef was convinced I was getting soft. I used to love my chef's clothes: the clean white jacket -- heavy cotton, starched stiff as a board -- and loose-fitting check pants that would puff dust with every step from the fistfuls of cornstarch everyone throws down the front when the temperature on the line starts to climb. In the old French brigade system, support personnel wear all white, like virginal surgeons: white short-sleeved jacket, white pants, white apron. Line dogs, station cook through sous chef, wear black-and-white check pants as a symbol of their liminal nature, and executives -- head or exec chef, exec sous -- wear black pants and rarely get them dirty. I was a working chef, not a clipboard carrier, so I never gave up my check pants. I was proud of them.
Salmon terrine: $9
Yellowfin tuna: $10
Confit de canard: $10
Passionfruit shrimp: $9
Magret de canard: $26
Poulet granmère: $17
Rack of lamb: $26
It had been two years and three days since the last time I pulled a triple double shift -- three days in a row of shuffling in bleary-eyed at 9 a.m. (or 7 a.m., or 5 a.m.) to stand proxy for a prep cook I wouldn't trust to make soup -- cutting my own mise, babysitting my own stocks, then turning around at 3 p.m. to relieve the lunch crew, setting for dinner and working the sauté station till 11. For 733 days, I hadn't felt that wild surge of mingled fear and excitement inspired by the machine-gun chatter of the ticket machine spitting out paper. Dinner rush, first seating, Saturday night -- that meant 88 covers staggered in five-minute intervals if everything went smoothly, but nothing ever went smoothly. The feeling was raw adrenaline, like a needle in the heart.
Now the ex-chef thought I was going soft -- and he was right. My calluses have vanished. My knife skills have gone to shit. Eight hours on a 110-degree hot line would probably kill me. But that's not really what he meant. The ex-chef thought I'd gone soft because my experience at restaurants is now 90 percent front-of-the-house. Two years and three days before, I'd been a cook with a cook's sensibilities, who didn't care about decor or silverware or piped-in Muzak. Sure, I understood the stage magic of the dining room -- the magnetic power of crystal stemware on white linen and how peach-tinted lights make everyone feel pretty -- but to me, front of the house was a cinch gig, a place for out-of-work actors and well-scrubbed transients who would work one day, make their money and never show up again. The only thing that mattered to me was the food.
I'd like to think that I've matured since then and developed a finer appreciation for the restaurant business as a whole, an understanding of gestalt over deconstructionism, but the ex-chef just thought I was a pussy. Desk job, expense account: I'd sold out the true faith.
At Aquarela, the ex-chef and I had a whole room to ourselves. The front seating area was packed with swells, Denver's money crowd relaxing amid the trappings of Cherry Creek luxe. The deep-mustard-colored walls were hung with bright, striking art that appeared to have been painted by Picasso's ghost; the tables were set with sparkling silver, white plates, fresh flowers and long cloths cascading at the corners like bridal veils. In the back room, exposed brick, a wooden wine cage and a few too many sideboards gave the impression of a space a little long on the stage dressing, but I liked it. It was comfortable, not overly stuffy -- the kind of space that's different enough to be memorable and just fancy enough to feel special. Well-balanced, I noted on my internal Dictaphone.
The ex-chef was unimpressed. "Gramercy lite," he muttered, industry shorthand for a place that wants to be formal, wants badly to echo the style of those old-school Eurocentric rooms where our grandparents dined, but is afraid to put off the casual eater with too much glitz.
I loved our server immediately and deeply. Smiling, attentive but not smothering, she was educated enough on the menu that her discussion of plates and pairings sounded natural, not like a canned, brainless spiel read from a hidden TelePrompTer. Her timing was flawless, with plates arriving before want became need, and she made every extra seem like it was made just for us, and not simply handed out to every Tom, Dick and Harry who waddled in with an open wallet and an appetite.
She brought bread, some good (like the tiny Brazilian cheese puffs), some standard (like the workhorse, bias-cut baguette and rosemary boule), and all attended by a tiny plate of oil and balsamic vinegar, softened butter and an herbed queso fresco compound, each in its place. "Anyone can make bread," the ex-chef said around a mouthful of buttered boule. "My alcoholic Russian baker can't remember where he lives half the time. He can still make bread."
Drinks followed, and we passed on the extensive and fairly priced French-Californian wine list in favor of the exorbitant Ultimate Aquarela. Twenty-five dollars bought us an oversized martini glass, crusted with red sugar, filled to the lip with a mix of Rémy Martin VSOP, clear white grape juice, a touch of bitters and a lace of Veuve Clicquot champagne. As Ferris Bueller said, "If you have the means, I highly suggest picking one up," if only for the over-the-top thrill of being served the best and knowing that sip for sip, it's probably the most extreme cocktail you'll ever try.
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