Ex Marks the Spot
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.
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.
As a bonus -- and apparently because it takes some time to construct this high-end highball -- the floor man came schussing up to our table on his soft-soled shoes while we waited, cracked the bottle of Veuve in front of us and poured us a flute, compliments of the house. For a moment, the ex-chef was silent about my expense account and newfound appreciation of fine service. Good booze will do that, no matter what side of the swinging doors you're from.
With the drinks came an amuse -- a demitasse portion of cream of leek soup served in small, white cappuccino mugs, warm but not scalding, with a tease of glowing flavors cloaked in rich cream and butter. We drank it like cocoa, cupping the mugs in both hands, tasting the work of a smart chef who understands that the sharp smell and taste of lemon, garlic, onion, leek and vinegar will activate the appetite and open the tastebuds like tannic wine.
Aquarela brought in chef Jenival Santos from his longtime post at the Maksoud Plaza hotel in São Paulo to lend authority and authenticity to a kitchen that was tragically saddled with a Brazilian-French-fusion label from the get-go. Santos had worked with some big names (most notably Jean-Louis Paladin) and over the years earned a rep as one of Brazil's top chefs. At Aquarela, he attempted to tether the lightweight fusion concept to the simpler peasant foods of Brazil and France, and I could see his effort in the plates he put out, sometimes taste all fifteen years of his hotel experience. But the ex-chef could also see and taste what was missing.
Our first appetizer, the confit de canard (duck confit) with spicy-sweet mango relish, was a jazzed-up classic, nicely mounted around a bed of greens drizzled with aged, bittersweet balsamic. The confit was done perfectly, fat-packed and meltingly smooth, with just a touch of dark gaminess; the mango relish did for the plate what the art did for Aquarela's walls, brightening them and adding a bit of reckless joy. But the plate didn't come together. Each element was separate from the others -- excellent as it stood, but standing alone. The ex-chef ate all the confit, tasted the relish and left behind a plate full of greens -- a straight-out-of-the-bag mesclun mix, right off the back of the Sysco delivery truck. With roughly a million kinds of field greens available to a chef these days, and thousands of suppliers offering good product, fresh from the earth, there's no reason for a kitchen not to take advantage of that bounty.
The star of Aquarela's entrees was the magret de canard aux pomme d'arbre -- tender duck breast, as skillfully and delicately handled as the confit, pan-roasted to preserve its flavor, then dabbed with a ginger-honey glaze spiked with more aged balsamic vinegar. Surrounded by caramel-sweetened apples and potato gallette, this plate showed the kitchen at its best. The ex-chef took a bite, pointed with his fork, nodded. "Innovation," he said. "This is done right. This is good."
But much of what the ex-chef and I ate at Aquarela on that night in late June was not good. The Riviera scallops salad was a wreck. Six jumbo scallops -- each squeakingly fresh, full of a delicate sea-green flavor -- surrounded another mound of that same fresh but overworked mesclun. The salad was gritty with sand from improper washing, and it tasted tinny and bitter, a condition the miserly drizzle of balsamic vinegar didn't help. A rack of lamb over a portobello, shiitake and cheap button-mushroom panache (menu-speak for a ragout, which is chef talk for a mix) hit the table like a brick. The garlic-breadcrumb gratin crust was soggy and flavorless, soaked down with a carelessly added demi. The lamb was mild and well-handled, but totally overpowered by the smell and woody punch of the mushrooms. Taking a bite was like falling down in a rain-damp forest, then standing up with a mouthful of dank earth. I could understand the point of the dish: A huntsman's standard, it's one of those French farmhouse recipes salvaged from maman's cookbook that's intended to invoke the weight of nature and changing seasons. But while the flavor succeeded, the texture and balance did not.
The ex-chef was more direct. "Bad," he said, offering his gut reaction after just one bite. "A failure. The mushrooms are overcooked, the lamb crusted too early, the sauce slopped on carelessly."
And he was right, of course. Two years before, I would have murdered a saucier who ham-handedly ladled a sauce over the top of a crusted meat: The sauce goes on the bottom of the plate, so that it doesn't soak through the gratin. That's culinary-school 101, the kind of thing a well-controlled kitchen shouldn't miss.
And Santos didn't. In the week between my first visit and my second, Aquarela not only changed its menu, but shored up weaknesses in dishes that were holdovers. The lamb was much better this time. The garlic gratin was gone, the meat now simply pan-roasted, and the workhorse (and fairly tasteless) pan sauce was replaced with a thick, blood-warm and rich mint roti that beautifully matched the meat. The mushroom panache had been eighty-sixed entirely in favor of a simple, rough-cut ratatouille niçoise of sweet onions, red peppers, green squash, garlic, garlic and more garlic.
The hideous scallops salad was gone, replaced with a yellowfin-tuna appetizer and an old-school classic salmon-and-asparagus terrine given new life with a lime vinaigrette and a sprinkling of salmon caviar.
But the rough-cut poulet granmère-- its solid, dark sauce studded with small white potatoes and pearl onions -- was no more interesting than it had been the first time around. At both meals it was technically perfect, flawlessly executed and absolutely uninspiring -- Dinty Moore with a little rosemary thrown in for flavor. But does a chicken stew have to be anything more than that?
"Yes," the ex-chef insisted. "It should have life. A passion. Without that, why cook it? Why would anyone bother eating it?"
He was right again. And after six months in business, Aquarela reached the same realization, recognizing that it wasn't enough to have a great front of the house. There comes a point in any meal, somewhere between the presentation and the second, third or fifth bite, when a plate must stand up for itself and say something not just about its culinary heritage, but about the chef who conceived it and the kitchen that put it together. Those cups of scratch-made soup made themselves heard. And while the chicken stew was cuisine struck dumb, robbed of passion and meaning, changes in other dishes showed that Aquarela's chef is finally finding his voice in this new house, this new country.
After 733 days away, I can appreciate that.
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