Behind the Swinging Doors (local grub)

written by Marty Camberlango, City Gardens farmer

Midnight. January 1, 2008

People all over the city are kissing at this very moment, champagne goblets clinking, plans for the future being professed. I’m at the Café de Paris, a little French bistro with one of the best patios in Boise, Idaho. I’m not on the patio. I’m in the kitchen. It’s freezing outside; there’s probably no one on the patio tonight.

But maybe… a couple cuddles in the corner of the empty patio, holding each other to keep warm, gazing up at the giant clock on the Key Bank building, counting down the seconds and excited to ring in the new year with a first kiss. For weeks the two, separately, were giddy with anticipation for this new years encounter.

I have no idea what’s going on outside the swinging kitchen doors, and the patio is completely beyond perception. Sounds are my only immediate experience of the dining room. Tonight there’s a French pianist. The chef’s father. He’s wonderful. Tonight is truly magical. The couple on the patio finally take a breath.

Table 9, a 7 top. 7 Apps. 3 spinach, 2 scallops and 2 hor’dourves plates. Starches 2 mash pot, 2 rice, 2 risotto, and 1 red pot. Cheese plates for 4. All night this code guides my every move. The kitchen reminds me of the pilot house of a navy ship: skunk bravo barring 30 degrees, turn rudder right 10 degrees, steer course one six zero…

From the other side of the swinging kitchen door come sounds more like chaos. Laughing, dancing, shouting. From my side of the door, nothing’s coherent except the piano. Hot behind! Fire plate. 86 tomatoes. “Drop 2 Fondants, please Russ!”

I’m spending new years with Russ the dishwasher and Dave the sous chef. Russ is a big guy whose python-sized forearms are covered with tattoos. On his left arm, the hunk of muscle that faces me all night is a sleeve of blue and red flames shooting up his arm from the wrist. A spider web covers his elbow like he’s spent a number of years in prison. Russ is only 23. He’s got crooked teeth and dirty blond hair. He loves metal and has never been to prison.

“Knife behind.” Dave’s the platoon leader, cooking and cutting the meat. Dave hates metal. Dave and I have a lot in common. Dave is 45. Damn good at his job, but isn’t fulfilled by the work and often claims to hate his job. I’m starting to hate this job too. On my first day, I grabbed a knife off the magnetic strip in front of Dave’s station. He promptly walked over and said, “Don’t fucking touch my knives.” Took the knife from my hand and walked away. Dave’s into fencing. I haven’t touched his knives since.

Back by the stove, Dave sautés and sauces all the entrees along with a million other things that need to be done. I’m by the swinging doors decorating plates, making salads, starching entrees, cooking desserts. At the actual stroke of midnight, I am plating a chocolate fondant.

I carefully place two half-heart shaped slivers of Granny Smith apples next to a pile of thin triangular slices of kiwi in a corner of a little square plate I’ve “artistically” splashed with mango and strawberry coulee. Surgically, I cut around the circular mold holding the brownie tower.

Lifting the brownie and mold off the baking sheet with a spatula, I think, “I hope this doesn’t break,” drop the mold and brownie into the middle of the fruit painted plate and take a deep breath. With bare fingers, I lift the red hot mold off the brownie and the plate, dust the entire thing with powdered sugar and ring the bell.

All night fondants have been breaking and it’s pissing me off. I am obsessed over it. The Fondant is the crème brulee’s decadent rival. It’s a brownie, however, not a custard. What makes it the crème del a crème is the chocolaty goo center that spills out onto the plate when lightly touched by the fork. It is here where art and chocolate mix, very French. Ideally, the chocolate consumes my fruit painting and the customer melts. I’ve never seen anyone eat the chocolate fondant. All I see are the two dark squares, supposedly windows, on the swinging kitchen doors as they snap closed. Another one out the door and another ticket completed, mission accomplished.

The sugar high must be something akin to French kissing in the freezing Boise air. Shivering from the cold, embraced in a lover’s arms, looking deep within him for warmth, she believes the tingling to mean, Yes, Yes, Yes, I’m going to have really great sex tonight. This is what I aspire to inspire with the chocolate fondant. The amount of sugar and butter used is sure to induce some kind of euphoria. On my second day at the café, the owner tells me (with an authentic French accent), “Marty, we use our hands. We make love to the food. Make it sexy!” as he showed me how to plate a salad. Le Cafe de Paris is not comfort food, it’s a romance.

At midnight, I just want to plate the last three fondants and get the fuck out of here. I don’t want to talk with Russ and Dave, and I don’t give a fuck about the foreplay of my food. My alternative reality has been ruined by a brownie…but then the maestro tickles the keys in a kind of piano player joke and everyone in the dining room laughs, even the couple on the patio. The kitchen door swings open and Taryn appears looking for table 9’s fondants. I try to catch a glimpse of the action. All I can see is gold, a guy wearing a tie, goblets of red wine and champagne and a flash of light that at first I think, diamonds? And settle on camera flash. Two fondants break and one is perfect. “Happy new year, Dave. Happy new year, Russ.”

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