Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tin Fish - Chef for a Day

Last month, Hackknife Jr.'s school had its annual evening fundraiser party, featuring copious alcohol, standard banquet fare (with the exception of some macarons secured from a mystery bakery in the city that were delicious), and numerous auction items, some desirable (3-night hotel stay in Spain), and some not so much so (White Sox memorabilia). I had my eye on an offer from a decent local restaurant (Tin Fish, which I've written about in this blog) to shadow the chef for a day and see how a professional kitchen is run - lo and behold, after a brief bidding war, I won the item for the small price of $150 or so. Giddy with anticipation, I called up the restaurant and scheduled my visit for this past Monday (my logic was that a night early in the week would be slower, leaving the chef more available to spend time with his interloper).

I have to admit I was a little surprised that the receptionist told me to show up anytime after 5pm, thinking that during the dinner service would be the worst time for some foodie schmuck to be hanging out in the kitchen, getting in the way of hot orders while asking dumb questions about mise en place (not to mention that, in my twisted mind, the best stuff to see - fish gutting, vegetable prep, stock making - would happen before noon). In any case, wanting to be a good guest, I followed orders and arrived at the hostess stand at 5:05p for my tour. After a brief conversation, Chef Mike (who had no idea that he was slated to have a visitor that evening) welcomed me into the back and got me a spare chef's coat, which I proceeded to misbutton, leaving no doubt to the casual onlooker as to who didn't belong there.

Anyway, to my delight, Chef Mike (who is actually the restaurant's sous chef, as Chef/Owner Curtis and Executive Chef Tobias were off that evening) and his staff were nothing but gracious and accommodating to me. I had stowed a spare granola bar in my pocket just in case I was so preoccupied with kitchen duties that I didn't have time to eat dinner; as it turns out, eating was about all I did while I was there (apparently, the house forbids tour recipients from actually doing any food work due to liability issues - no chopped-off digits for me), including the following indulgences:

-A platter of spicy sauteed shrimp with a to-die for creamy buffalo sauce (Chef Mike told me that Chef Tobias brought the sauce recipe back with him from a job in France)

-Spicy ahi tuna rolled in black peppercorns

-A fantastic bowl of roasted pepper and crab bisque (they were trying to clear space out for the next soup - I was happy to help)

-An equally-fantastic bowl of white clam chowder

-A plate of grilled halibut placed atop a bed of smashed potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and prosciutto, all drizzled with lemon butter sauce

-Chef Mike's caramel apple and vanilla ice cream pie with a graham cracker crust

-Even a bite of the staff meal, an impromptu Mexican "calzone" stuffed with nopales (cactus), chicharron (fried pork skin), and cheese, topped with a spicy green salsa (obviously not for the customers, this being a seafood-focused establishment).

I was offered more to eat (and also drank 2 beers) beyond that, but had to refrain from doing further damage lest I explode. When not stuffing my face, I was busy quizzing Chef Mike about his background, the provenance of the restaurant's ingredients, various cooking techniques, menu selections, and staff operations, all of which he answered thoroughly and patiently. I'm grateful that he spent so much of his evening with me when, clearly, he didn't have to (it probably did help that it was a relatively slow night, but no matter).

All in all, I came away from the experience pretty impressed with the way Tin Fish is doing things. My initial fear was that I'd see how they went about the business of making food and would be put off by short cuts, shoddy ingredients, etc., not wanting to eat there again. If anything, I feel even better having seen that they make nearly everything (except breads and pasta) in-house and are very quality-driven, as opposed to the local Applebee's trying to turn a quick buck. I'll certainly keep them near the top of my list of places near the Commissary to get a great meal and entertain family on special occasions (that is, if I'm allowed back on the premises)...

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