Daniel Skurnick is the executive pastry chef at Buddakan in New York City.
When I tell people I work at a place that churns out almost 1,000 covers during a single meal period, the knee-jerk response it to say, “How horrible! What sort of cook with any artistry or passion would want to be stuck in a monstrous machine like that?”
And certainly there are days and nights when it can feel like working in a big, noisy, crazy factory—something akin to being chained to a sinking submarine on fire, without any sign of the end in sight. To some cooks—especially some of the old breed, who were both militant and masochistic—this sounds like heaven.
At Buddakan in NYC, and at so many other Stephen Starr restaurants like Le Diplomate in D.C. and Parc in Philly, we take care of people—a lot of people. We are cranking out food and drinks and trying to make a full experience for customers the moment they walk in the door. It can be loud at times. It can be crowded at times. In order to manage the madness and create the right environment for our guests, we have an army of dedicated personnel working behind the scenes to make a polished product.
The Buddakan prep kitchen opens at 8am. Deliveries start arriving immediately, seven days a week. We do not have a lot of storage space, so most ingredients are coming in the door fresh in the morning to get prepped for that night’s service.
At a place that only has to prep 20 orders of cod a night, or 12 orders of pork, this process might be relatively easy; but we have 50-plus dishes on our menu, and we prep more than 100 portions of certain items every day. Moreover, a lot of our product is coming in pretty raw from Chinatown, or our farmers and purveyors. Every day we are peeling ginger and chopping it by hand; washing water chestnuts; frenching lamb racks; and scaling and breaking down whole fish. The amount of effort it takes to clean, stuff, inflate, dip, dry, and roast a Peking duck is not something many places feel like doing. We do more than 60 on an average night.
“We have 50-plus dishes on our menu, and we prep more than 100 portions of certain items every day.”
On the pastry side of the kitchen, we try to produce desserts amid all this chaos. Our entire space in located in an aisle between the receiving area and the stock kettles. All morning we are dodging carts flying past with three dozen crabs destined to become soup-dumpling filling, or 40 pounds of pork belly being roasted for our steamed bao buns. Our desserts are not traditionally Chinese, but we do borrow many ingredients and techniques from Asia. So we will be baking off 40 delicate egg custards in the morning, while also sculpting twice as many shredded filo cages to fit around them.
As prep cooks are shouting in Cantonese and singing in Spanish, we are rolling 90 paper-thin meringue tubes and placing them in the dehydrator. We are making batches of ice-cream base in recipes that yield 25 quarts (12 flavors total; the base is made and spun on rotation every other day). We are getting in six cases of rhubarb from Massachusetts, four pounds of Peruvian black mint, and 300 of the tiniest carrots grown for us to our specifications by a farmer. We order chocolate by the 25-pound box. We get in sugar 250 pounds at a time, and four cases of butter for the weekend. Other pastry chefs love to show off their little “drug” scales when they are making recipes using hydrocolloids, like kappa carrageenan or locust bean gum. They need them because, for their recipes, they need only 0.18 grams for a correct balance. We make the same recipes, but we need 8.0 grams for the amount we are prepping.
All of this can sound exhausting to a certain type of cook who is drawn to the romance of the monastic, tweezer-food sort of restaurant. But at those places, things aren’t always rosy as they seem. Equipment breaks, deliveries don’t show up, dishes fail. There is certainly an amazing freedom to be adaptive and creative, but too often it is out of sheer emergency. What if your cod turned bad and your fish delivery isn’t coming until Monday? Or you only had enough Japanese knotweed to make four portions of sauce and someone left it out overnight? Do you make up something new on the fly? Do you go “foraging” in the alley out back?
“You won’t find people posing for magazine covers or comparing unfortunate tattoos that spell out “mise en place” in flaming letters. Instead you’ll find cooks, in the proudest sense of the word.”
In a large restaurant, we maintain a certain stability. We’ve had a quarter of a million people walk through our doors annually for the past nine years. Because of this, we can buy some of the best ingredients, and we can buy a lot of them. We will work with local farmers and try to get them on a schedule where they can keep a steady flow of purple-veined baby bok choy, or Hampshire pork shoulders, or heirloom apples. It is nice knowing that although some small restaurants may be buying a handful of “artisan” farm-to-table products—and perhaps not making a profit and then shutting down after a year or two—we have been steadily building a network of great producers for almost a decade.
That sense of security is not lost on the countless line cooks and culinary students who come through our kitchen. Due to the volume of prep work, the executive chef here relies on his cooks to get the work done. The line cooks actually have a chance to fabricate 40 chickens every day, or break down and portion 20 (200lbs.) of cod, or form 300 tart shells. When the tickets start piling up, and the machine keeps spitting out new dupes, a line cook learns to make each plate perfect. There is nothing worse than having the chef throw a plate back in the window and demand the cook re-plate an entree, or rescoop a quenelle because it is not up to our standard. The cook has 40 more dishes lined up ready to go; a re-fire can cause a horrible traffic jam that can ruin a night. You learn to not fuck up pretty quickly.
For me, the profession has always been about feeding and taking care of people. And at Buddakan, we get to take care of 1,000 people a night. We are a kitchen filled with people, young and old, who hate to stand around. If there is a lull in the action, or if there is nothing left to be prepped or wrapped up or portioned, invariably they will be racing around. Maybe the fish cook from Venezuela is learning to use the 22-inch wok from the 70-year-old man from Guangzhou. Maybe the baby-faced pastry cook is roasting chiles to make salsa for 2am tacos. But in the end, this is a busy kitchen—loud, smoky, crazed, and seemingly chaotic. You won’t find people posing for magazine covers or comparing unfortunate tattoos that spell out “mise en place” in flaming letters. Instead you’ll find cooks, in the proudest sense of the word.