Force of nature: Inside the kitchen of Chef Gilbert (part 2)

This is part two. Click to read part one first.


Roughly 24 hours later, and I’m back in the kitchen, ready to see this ‘magic’ happen. I’m greeted by Chef, who’s working a mortar and pestle full of garlic and herbs. “Oh, we’ve got something good tonight!”

He excitedly beckons me back into the kitchen, where I’m introduced to the extremely fresh razor clams. He runs down how they’re caught in the wild, and, as usual, I’m impressed by the depth of his knowledge. There are some more run-of-the-mill, incredibly fresh clams soaking nearby. David goes to work preparing them for a dish that, after yesterday’s experience, I’d guess isn’t yet completely decided upon.

The kitchen is bustling. The energy is palpable in here today, much more so than yesterday. Today’s menu will be almost entirely new and based on what’s just come in this afternoon, whereas they’d had a few days to get used to most of what was on for yesterday. In the four minutes I’ve been here, Chef’s tasted and adjusted two different mixtures being prepped, along with delivering the mollusk exposition. He’s also writing up the menu in between everything else. He and David are talking about sweetbreads, asparagus, and various burratas that might make it on tonight’s menu—going live in less than ninety minutes. “Maybe scallops with tomatoes?”

Frites, piles of fresh ones, keep growing next to the fryer. More are cooked; more are stock piled. Steak frites is a staple for any French restaurant, and the four o’clock bar patrons also order up these fancy fries by the fistful, so being prepared is key. Likely also making tonight’s menu: salmon with curried yogurt, scallops with aioli, spiced chicken wings, brochette of lamb with mini lamb burgers, and many more delectable treats.

 

“How much miso in the boulangère?” David asks. Little notes like these bely the contemporary side of Chef’s cooking. This haute cuisine isn’t so avant-garde that you wouldn’t recognize it, but it’s definitely not simply traditional French fare. You’ll find phytoplankton, for example, used in several of the dishes. It’s even in tonight’s aioli. Chef talked to me at length about his supplier for the oceanic superfood, how they’re revitalizing lagoons in Spain, how it’s sustainable, how it affects the flavor of dish, and how it’s trending in top kitchens the world over.

“Throw some cayenne in there and two grinds of pepper,” Chef directs after stealing a small spoonful from an enormous bowl. Everyone’s working at full speed, stirring, chopping, mixing, layering, grinding, frying—things are picking up.

As he flits around the kitchen, Chef talks fluently about what each person is prepping with them. He gives detailed instructions on roasting carrots and charring eggplant, checks in on the sorrel sauce, and all the while he’s going back to his laptop to adjust and add to the menu. He jumps over to show David precisely how he wants the potatoes cut, explaining the rationale behind it as he does, pointing, “You can tell. This part is why it tastes good.” He takes over a line cook’s job and does the same thing, then he’s back to the potatoes because David’s tending something else. There’s no down time in this kitchen. They work, not like a team, but like a complex organism, ever evolving and adapting.

Containers full of yesterday’s house-rendered duck fat and ghee sit above the stove, getting added to this and that as things bubble away. David and Chef are chatting about an old cookbook, referencing a laundry list of recipes. Eventually it’s agreed that the carrots should go with the sorrel sauce and that both are now accompanying the wild salmon. The aioli is going to join asparagus on the plate with Hokkaido scallops, too—I think. I try to confirm with David, who laughs. He’s not entirely sure either. “Sorry,” he chuckles. “There’s been a lot of switching around today.”

It’s 3:57, three minutes until open and sixty-three minutes until the menus go into the hands of guests. The wait staff has had to enforce a strict five-o’clock deadline with Chef Gilbert, who would likely keep adjusting the menu all night long. I’ve heard stories from Trisha, his wife, about dinner parties at their home when guests arrive and he’s still out trying to track down some specific vegetable. “That’s just Bill,” she tells me. “I just pour the wine and tell them dinner’s on its way.” She laughs.

Chopping tomatoes with a speed and precision that clearly comes from decades of practice, Chef lays out how the roasted grapes, going with the Chicken à la Diable, are to be spiced. Within seconds he’s stripping grapes off the bunch and into a frying pan, while confirming the roasting process with David. For such a tiny kitchen in a constant state of flux at this point, everyone is surprisingly upbeat and cordial. One line cook explains to another, “When I said ‘don’t touch that,’ I meant that it’s really hot, sorry. Of course you can touch it if you need to.” From their professionalism and demeanor, you wouldn’t know that the clock is ticking away.

“Yes, Chef,” echoes throughout. Everyone is executing their ever-shifting duties with such skill that it’s more than clear how well trained they all are. Chef’s grabbing tastes here and there, adding spices, stirring, instructing, and then, with a sly grin, he pulls a small whistle from his pocket and blows. Everyone pauses and looks up.

“It worked!” He laughs, showing me the whistle. “It’s new. I got it at REI this morning.”

We’re outside. It’s 4:07. Items are being added to and removed from the menu. Quantities are ascertained, and new arrivals are discussed, including trout roe. Chef is still instructing, even out here. It’s probably the tenth recipe I’ve heard him dispense from memory in the last hour. He’s making sure the eggplant on the lamb burgers will be properly roasted and gently reminds a line cook about following directions during service tonight.

“Do you know which president is on the million-dollar bill?” Chef asks. Some confused guesses follow. Hayes? Rutherford? “Hmm. The last one I got had Garfield.” He drops the straight face, and they all laugh and head back inside, the night’s menu finalized. It’s time to get serious.

Servers have been meticulously setting up tables on the lawn and porch around us. After the kitchen staff leaves, the tables are put back in order with some grumbling. This always happens. “So,” a server asks me, “are you getting a sense of the organized chaos back there?” I just laugh. A sense? Yes. Any idea how it all works so well? Not on my life.

By the time I get back to the kitchen, Chef’s already whipped up the phytoplankton aioli. He gives me a taste. The taste is complex, layered. It finishes with phytoplankton’s signature not-quite-fishy flavor, and the garlic sings on my tongue. The energy in the kitchen is climbing now that everyone has their new marching orders. The dishwasher loads stacks of frying pans like ammunition on a battleship. Amidst the fervor, things are wiped down and brought back to a kind of order in preparation for the night’s service.

Today happens to be Trisha’s birthday, and Chef takes a moment from the kitchen to present her with a large bouquet and a kiss. It’s sweet—and short. He tries to outsource carrying her to the car, grabs a brimming hotel pan, and goes to finalize and print the menus.

A new layout for the menu is in the works. The single-page affair currently in use is bursting at the seams with new additions. One of the newer servers is an old hand at this kind of thing, and he’s working to make a menu that can simultaneously fit every new idea Chef has, be edited up until the eleventh hour and printed minutes before service, and look good doing it. It’s an onerous task.

Ten minutes to service, 4:50 p.m. one of the waiters and tonight’s bartender, Bondi, are running through the reservations. They lost a table of six, but aren’t worried about filling it; it’s Friday, after all. Other than that, the place is at capacity. The kitchen crew eats lamb tacos with potatoes, a dish that was somehow produced alongside everything else this afternoon. Chef fixes the menu one last time—the first version that was printed didn’t reflect all of the last-minute changes and some side dishes are wrong.

The kitchen will be in the more than competent hands of David tonight. Chef is spending the evening with his wife. They’re going out to dinner at another restaurant, where neither of them have to cook, to celebrate her birthday. An old friend of his sits next to him at the bar and demands to buy him a drink. They talk about the next time they’re going cycling together, landscaping woes, and about plans for Trisha’s birthday. The new menu, hot off the printer, is checked against the version sitting on the laptop just to be sure, and servers roll silverware, eyes trained to the door.

It’s a normal Friday, booked solid with a menu that wasn’t set until minutes before the first tables arrived. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ink hadn’t dried by the time it was handed out. The ingredients are the freshest available, and that freshness dictates the menu, the recipes are culled from Chef’s encyclopedic knowledge on the spot. The kitchen seems chaotic in the same way that nature does, hinting at a deeper pattern, a structure too complex to fully grasp from without. Every member of the staff here at Beaujolais understands it. It’s Chef’s evolving vision. It couldn’t happen any other way. And after a decade of being voted the city’s best French restaurant, it’s clearly working.

 


 

Written by Karl Fendelander, with thanks to the Beaujolais staff and the Gilberts.

Force of nature: Inside the kitchen of Chef Gilbert (Part 1)

“When I started out, early on,” Chef Bill Gilbert of Beaujolais Bistro tells me over a beer after the night’s menu has been finalized at long last, “the chef never wanted to be there at the restaurant—and so he wasn’t,” he chuckles. “Everything on the menu was dumbed down, so that anyone could make it. It wasn’t fresh and exciting like we’ve got here.” It’s 5:00 p.m. Dinner service officially commences, while menus for it are still being printed in the basement of the renovated house Beaujolais calls home. Chef’s attention shifts back to the kitchen, now full of a clamorous cacophony of pans and plates. Over the noise, Bob Dylan’s harmonica peeks through now and again, sharp but subtle, like the dining room’s been gently zested with lemon.

Chef Gilbert has what he calls an “evolving vision of a French bistro,” which is a lovely way to understate the creativity that goes into every menu, which changes nightly. Smashing myself in the corner of the kitchen for hours at a time, trying to stay out of the way of zooming servers, cooks, and staff, I got a sense of the order in and method to the chaos, the madness that infuses each dish. ‘Fresh and exciting’ only begin to describe it.

 

It’s Thursday afternoon, roughly 2:30 p.m. I’m in the way almost immediately, not surprising in such a small kitchen, and I try to tuck myself into the corner. On the stove, three stock pots bubble away next to four frying pans being expertly handled by Anell, the pastry chef, who is adding to an ever-growing stack of crepes. Chef enters from stage right and immediately begins soliloquizing as he points. “Those are duck and chicken stocks. That one’s veal stock, velouté, the ‘mother sauce.’ We make it in-house. We’re also rendering the duck fat, and David,” he motions to the sous chef, “is making ghee.” David turns to smile.

I get the rundown of the different sustainable farms from which the duck, apparently a waiting-list kind of product, and chicken are sourced, Sonoma County Poultry and Fulton Valley Farms, respectively. Bubbling away with the stocks I can see herbs and vegetables, many of which, I’m told, come from local farm Spanish Springs Greens. At the thought of this, Chef instructs one of the line cooks to add beets, fresh dill, lettuce, and sorrel to the order, coming in tomorrow.

There are labeled and dated containers everywhere, each packed with prepped ingredients, and many more being filled. These are the creative foundation, the base upon which Chef will build when tomorrow’s order comes in, “when,” he tells me with a smirk and mischievous spark in his eyes, “the magic happens.”

The sinks are piled high with the tools of the prepping toil. The kitchen is quiet, surprising considering the number of people and the volume of work being completed before my eyes. “Let’s take a look at that rouille,” Chef says as he motions to one of the line cooks. “It looks different to me.” He samples it, pondering. “Leave it.” He hops over to guide in other prep being done nearby, clearly more pressing. Chef Gilbert is consumed, rapt. He and his team balletically avoid eviscerating each other or colliding with hands full of produce, hot pans, cutting boards, and more. It’s now 3:00 p.m., T minus sixty minutes until open.

Chef steps out of the kitchen for a few moments, and a light chatter breaks up the kitchen’s quietude. Plans, family, recipes, and restaurants are discussed quietly as everyone tends to various tasks. Alex, a line cook, asks Anell her feelings about crème fraiche ice cream. Savory flavors that seem outlandish are laughed about. “Maybe with white garlic,” Anell says, “but not black.” More laughter. The crashing of bar ice into metal bins up front thunderously punctuates the chitchat, and Chef bursts back in, clutching a bottle of Backhouse Pinot Noir, which he seems to open with just a practiced wave of his hand. “Red wine reduction,” he tells me and deftly chops an onion for the pot.

At 3:15 p.m., the kitchen staff files out to the front porch to firm up the night’s menu. Each one has working knowledge of every dish and a running inventory of their particular refrigerators and pantries. “Is the mushroom soup vegetarian?” Chef’s answered with a nod from David. “That’s a good soup for vegetarian,” he laughs, and they continue going down the line. Is there enough of this? Order more of that. And so on, until a waiter pokes his head out from inside.

“I don’t know if it’s supposed to be on fire, but—I mean, I know we boil things.”

“That’s the remoulade,” says Alex without hesitation, hopping up to tend to the situation.

Menu items are brainstormed openly at these meetings. Chef will later tell me that the meetings are a relatively new thing for them. “You can imagine that if I just sat here and changed the menu by myself, there’d be a lot more room for error. It’d be more likely.” There’s active participation in these meetings, and I can’t help but be impressed by how everyone knows precisely how much of what ingredient can be found where—down to the cup and section of kitchen.

“We usually make bacon-wrapped dates,” Chef says, turning to where I’m perched in the corner, trying not to intrude, “but we have to send these back because they’re too little.” I’ve heard many stories about Chef’s high standards for produce. It’s said that the produce section looks like it was hit by a tornado or a cyclone, that Chef is a very discerning force of nature—and vegetables fly. “Let’s swap out the dates for hake brandade-stuffed piquillos à la plage.”

As we filter back inside, one of the servers tells me about how most of these dishes include a vegetable, a fat, a starch, an acid, and a stock. “I’ve literally seen Chef turn back a plate that was about to go out because it didn’t have the acid,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of chefs do that—which is why the food is so flippin’ good.”

Chef is putting the finishing touches on the menu, and, with their marching orders, the kitchen staff is busy creating all of it for the night ahead. Prices are calculated on the fly, such is his depth of knowledge about the inventory. The level of devotion here is obvious. Like a trained orchestra, all the players here follow their conductor.

“It’s not about ‘this is my job; this is your job’ in the kitchen,” Chef tells me. “Everyone’s willing to do what needs to be done. David’s a sous chef, but he’ll come in early to prep most afternoons.” He’s flipping through a stack of invoices, reading through inventory. “One rule we have here,” he says, looking at me square on, “if you sign for a shipment, I send the invoice to your house.” He’s unwavering for a moment, deadpan as I wonder how this could possibly work in a bustling restaurant like this, but then his face fills with laughter and he moves back into the kitchen.

Chef’s humor is often like this, dancing along that line between reality and the absurd. He toes that line until the last possible second, clearly delighting in your uncertainty about whether or not he’s joking. It’s a playfulness that complements his cooking. You wouldn’t trust someone who’s too serious to be truly inventive in the kitchen, but as with most things Chef Gilbert does, the balance works wonderfully.

“Lights, camera, action,” a server says as he passes by me on his way to collect the first batch of printed menus for the night. It’s 3:50, ten minutes to open. The dining room is immaculate, with every table set perfectly. The kitchen clinks and clangs away. The wait staff stands alert. They’re ready.


Written by Karl Fendelander. Part two coming soon.