Great big dishes can come from tiny restaurant kitchens, and we're not using those adjectives loosely.
At Daniel's in Hamburg, for instance, where the kitchen measures approximately 216 square feet, four men put out labor-intensive entrees like Tenderloin of Veal with Lobster and Lobster Sauce and appetizers like Escargot with Tomatoes and Baked Garlic Butter over Pasta.
The restaurant seats 45 people and there are at least 12 other entrees and nine other appetizers on the menu, so the staff is never sure what they'll be preparing.
"Every night is different," says chef/owner Daniel Johengen.
At Little Talia on Hertel Avenue, the main kitchen is approximately 60 square feet. Two cooks turn out entrees like Marinated Chicken Breast sauteed in Veal Demiglaze atop Angel Hair Pasta and Wilted Field Greens.
And, over at Hutch's on Delaware Avenue, where the kitchen is exceptionally narrow, averaging about 12 feet, five cooks manage to prepare up to 16 different specials in addition to the printed menu. They might include Young Pheasant with Soft Polenta and Asparagus with a Pheasant and Porcini Demiglaze or Duck Salad with Apples, Walnuts and Field Greens.
All it takes is steady nerves, steadier hands and, oh yes, organization.
Without a plan of action and teamwork, you might as well lock the front door and direct the customers to the nearest Burger King.
Think of the meal preparation as a choreographed experience.
"During service, everyone sets (themselves) just where they are supposed to be," says Mark Hutchinson, chef/owner of Hutch's, which seats 85 customers in the winter, 100 in summer.
He or chef Michael Haefner stand at the six-burner stove that is in full view of the customers on the other side of the pass-through to the dining room. Directly under that pass-through, there's a "board" or rail on the wall that holds the written orders in place. The orders are moved along the board as each course is served.
At the counter below stands sous chef/pastry chef Chris Gibney, who takes what has been cooked and plates it along with the proper accompaniments and garnishes. Darin Schwabe stands around the corner preparing the salads. And there's constant motion as the two dishwashers, stationed in back, keep coming forward to gather the used pans that have been placed a large box.
"We try not to cross over in front of each other," says Hutchinson. "It's easier to stand where you don't have to go anywhere. And it's also easier to see what's going on."
At Daniel's, the kitchen movement resembles a ballet as the servers drop off orders at a counter in the center of the kitchen, a line they never cross. Johengen is at the stove; grill man Steve Devlin beside him. Sous chef Jason Bielinski stands behind the central counter where he plates the food as soon as it is cooked. Jason Knips, who is in charge of appetizers and desserts, stands at the left in his own station.
Meanwhile, the dishwasher is at the sink in the corner. Counting the servers and the maitre d', there can be as many as 10 people in the kitchen at one time or another. (The cash register is in a small alcove in the corner.) No wonder the two most commonly heard words in this place are "behind you." There isn't room for a misstep.
Little Talia has two cooks in the kitchen in full view of the customers because the space is actually part of the dining room. Of the 12 tables, No. 10 on the mezzanine, which looks directly down at the kitchen, has the best view.
"The curtain goes up at 5 o'clock," says owner Charles DiGaudio. Head cook James Lohnes stands at the counter, Michael Simpson is at the range immediately behind him. Servers carry up desserts from a small prep kitchen located down a steep flight of stairs.
Those are the same stairs that the dishwasher climbs to pick up the pans; the other dishwasher stays put at the sink below.
"When you have a set-up like this," says DiGaudio, "you can't have too many appliances or equipment." Little Talia boasts a six-burner stove, a convection pizza oven, a sink and a small cooler upstairs. There is a large cooler downstairs, the dish washing set-up and exactly one mixer and one large Cuisinart. But there's not a microwave or deep fryer in the place.
Still, DiGaudio doesn't think that's much of a problem. "A smaller kitchen is easier to keep clean," he insists.
A small kitchen can definitely determine the design of the menu. Hutch's, for instance, doesn't serve roasts because there is no room for a slicing station.
"We like to do things fast and fresh," says Hutchinson. "You have to be aggressive in the kitchen and keep a fast pace."
Hutch's kitchen is built around a 36-inch grill, a convection oven and a standard oven plus a high-energy, six-burner stove.
Probably the most luxurious features are the cooler drawers beneath the counter, where meat and fresh vegetables are stored. The drawers are completely stocked before meal service begins and are easy to reach without the cook taking an extra step. Also, their contents are easy to view.
At Daniel's, Johengen says his menu is limited because the restaurant doesn't have a steam table, a convection oven or a deep fryer. Still, almost all the food, including the rolls, is prepared from scratch. "We have two ovens," he says, "We keep one at 450 degrees and one at 325 degrees. We have a small cooler upstairs and we also have a 10-burner range."
That huge stove looks impressive but as it turns out, it usually ends up being closer to six working burners because Johengen uses two of them to keep a large pan of water hot. He stands containers of sauces in the pan to keep them warm during service. One burner is for poaching liquid; another is used for stock.
"We do manage to do some prepping in a basement kitchen, but we're still limited as to our garnishes. Although that may be all to the good anyway. Some of us probably try to do more garnishes than we should," Johengen says.
What's the most stressful thing that can happen in a small kitchen during service? DiGaudio points out that big parties can be difficult. "If you have a table for 10 in a small restaurant, you should expect to wait a little longer to be served," he says.
The Daniel's kitchen staff says it's sometimes difficult to prepare a vegetarian meal without prior notice on a busy Saturday night. If informed ahead of time, they say, it's not as big a problem.
For Mark Hutchinson, stress is when a server inadvertently brings food to the wrong table. "Then you have to explain it and start all over again," he groans.
He adds that when the restaurant is busy, it's practically impossible to serve a dish that requires more than one saute pan. "Say you have one for fish, one for a vegetable and one for a sauce," he explains. "Once in awhile I make a mistake and put one of those dishes on the menu and I find I really can't do it. So then I have to talk to the servers," says Hutchinson.
He uses the classic restaurant slang that since the beginning of time is supposed to indicate that the kitchen has actually run out of an item.
"I say to the servers, "Hey - 86 that dish.' "