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.