Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Restaurant Gary Danko

On a recent trip to Northern California I had the opportunity to work at one of the best restaurants in San Francisco, and the country for that matter: Restaurant Gary Danko (www.garydanko.com). Through the cookbook author and culinary world traveler Joanne Weir (she and chef Danko studied under the culinary legend M. Kamman) I was able to line-up what the restaurant industry refers to as a "trail" or "stage", spending a day observing the action behind the kitchen doors. Trailing is both a courtesy and a requirement throughout the restaurant world, in the states and abroad. Since restaurants began chefs have allowed, even encouraged, their peers to explore their kitchens, observe the staff, the technique, food, etc.. It's considered an opportunity to share ideas and see a different way of doing things. And while restaurants often utilize similar systems to produce their product, there are always facets that are unique to each system. (For example at Restaurant Gary Danko, they have a waiter, instead of a chef, act as the expeditor, the person who organizes all the plated food and ensures it goes to the right table and is properly prepared.) Trailing also is a practical way to weed-out prospective cooks who want to gain entry into a kitchen. Most good restaurants require cooks to work several shifts "trailing" an established line cook, often without pay, at a restaurant where they'd like to work. It allows the staff to assess the applicants abilities, temperment, cleanliness, etc. The more successful and respected the restaurant, the higher the demand for trailing opportunities. So when the chance came to spend a day at Gary Danko, I jumped at it.

I arrived at the restaurant and entered via the sliding door around back. Restaurant Gary Danko is located in the Russian Hill section of San Francisco, a beautiful, ritzy neighborhood overlooking the bay. I met with Colin, the ranking sous chef, and he preceded to give me a tour of the restaurant. Their kitchen is consistent with those of most nice restaurants located in the heart of expensive cities. It is compact and every inch of space is occupied. The pastry station on one end, butcher's corner on the other, with the various stations in between. Colin explains to me that the kitchen was refurbished several years ago, when new formal Garland ranges were installed and the line set-up to more efficiently accomodate the 170 to 200 patrons they serve nightly (Restaurant Gary Danko typically fills its available reservations two months out; after all it has a higher Zagat rating than The French Laundry). The dining room is very formal (a meal for two, with wine, will easily surpass $200)and Northern California modern, with a lot of exposed dark wood. By the time we finish the tour the kitchen is abuzz with activity (the night cooks arrive before 1pm and are lucky to be done by midnight) as the line cooks and daytime prep chefs jockey for space. Despite the overall size of the kitchen (about half the square footage of several kitchens where I've worked) there appeared to be twice as many cooks scheduled to work as I was used to (for the size of the restaurant). Like a good liberal arts college with its low student to professor ratio, the true mark of a exemplary restaurant is the ratio of people working to people eating. Where a high-quality midrange restaurant might expect to schedule 5 cooks to serve 170 guests, Restaurant Gary Danko had 11 working. Another distinguishing trait between really good restaurants and "special" restaurants is the service staff. At Gary Danko these individuals, a well-starched, confident and professional looking group, seemed to know they were a part of something important and world-class. They had a laidbackness born from complete confidence in what they were trying to do. As if they were so sure of themselves and the kitchen that they didn't have to be stuffy.

The food at Restaurant Gary Danko is understated and prepared with great technique. Surveying the kitchen you could see that each cook had been taught the intricacies of their station: the fish cook knew how to handle delicate seafood, the meat guy let his beef rest before slicing it, etc.. It was exciting to watch this competent group work their way through an ambitious menu during a busy dinner service. The menu parity was impressive as well. With each wave of 'courses' each item from the menu seemed to get ordered (Gary Danko offers the option of a 3 course/$61, 4 course/$77 or 5 course/$92 prix fixe). Things like Guinea Hen with Clam Ragout and Moroccan Spiced Squab sold in unison with Beef Tenderloin and Herb Crusted Loin of Lamb. Another mark of a superior restaurant, having a clientele willing to try unusual dishes knowing that they will not be disappointed.

As is the tradition with trailing in the restaurant world, I came away from my experience at Restaurant Gary Danko with an idea of how to do some things differently as well as with affirmation that I do many things in the kitchen exactly as they should be done. The exhilaration of watching some of the best in the business do their work and witnessing them do it just as you would is supremely satisfying. I left knowing that my culinary journey is not yet complete, but glad to know at least I was on the right path.