ARTICLE BY BENJAMIN HOWE || FALL 2015
Take a trip behind the scenes of David Chang’s Má Pêche
Pandemonium was a palace, once. When Lucifer was cast out of heaven in the old testament, his number one priority was setting up a home in Hell for himself and the other angels to kick it. He elected to name it pan (all) demonium (of the demons). Naturally, it was a bit of a madhouse .
I get up at 5:30 every Saturday and Sunday. I wake up a few minutes before my alarm has a chance to ring, and I wait with the anxious excitement of a sprinter listening for the gun.
Coffee and bland, boiled oatmeal vanish in silence. Even though I’m forcibly operating my jaw, breakfast is a welcome moment of calm.
The coffee hasn’t kicked in enough by the time I hit the subway, so I settle into a seat like all the other sleepy souls. A disembodied squawking penetrates my napping to tell me:
“…Columbus Circle. Next stop…!” My stop is deeper down the line than Columbus’s circle, but I start to shuffle my feet and run a mental list of the morning prep routine. In ten minutes, I’m standing in front of Má Pêche. The dawn is just starting to set the sky bright gold–like the first few stage lights throwing gentle illumination across an empty set. It’s sure to be a good show, but my lot lies below. Nonetheless, even at the cost of the sun, I’m glad of the warmth I feel as I descend two floors down into the steamy, cacophonous kitchen.
For the first hour or so, I busy myself by chopping, steaming, dressing, tossing, and mixing at the salad station. For breakfast, we serve broccoli salad topped with toasted pumpkin seeds,togarashi spice blend, and lime-miso dressing. That means I must juice about thirty limes into a squeeze bottle, trim the woody exterior off of a few pounds of broccoli stems, steam three hotel pans-full of florets just until they are crunchy(but not so long as to start their transition from green to yellow-grey), and finally make the dish-defining miso-mayo. Two more salads wait for their morning primping before I turn my attention to fifteen pounds of pork belly, two hundred steam buns, another fifteen pounds of szechuan pork ragu, egg cakes, maple bacon, and the cornucopia of garnishes and mise en place required by each dish that leaves my station.
As I work my way through my prep list, the other kitchen characters start to trickle in. Miguel arrives first. Miguel is small–perhaps 120 pounds–and wears a tightly rolled red bandana as a visor to keep the sweat from his eyes. He moves nimbly through the kitchen and has an astonishing capacity for keeping many projects running at once. Perhaps that has something to do with his pursuits as a 20 year old semi-pro featherweight boxer. Despite his formidable abilities in either arena, he is meek and always eager to help a struggling coworker.
The deepest pocket of the kitchen, the dish pit, is perpetually foggy. Even now, in the earlier part of the day before the dishwashers have arrived and start to clean, the poor ventilation traps humidity and concentrates the garish smells that propagate from a growing heap of dirty dishes. By the time Tony and Phuluso arrive to their aptly-named pit, the tower of encrusted pans and greasy utensils have formed an intricate organic architecture. Those two will spend all day struggling to conquer their mountain of dirty dishes. Every time they get close to cleaning the pile, one of us from the line will supply them with more filthy pots. Unlike the plight of Sisyphus, however, they sing along with Taylor Swift and Drake.
Finally, Chef Jose ambles in. He isn’t angry yet, but he is ready to apply pointed pressure on whomever is behind schedule. Today, that’s me.
“Benjamin, where are the salads? Let’s see some urgency; it’s almost ten and you’re still playing with broccoli. Are you going to be ready?”
“Yes, chef,” I reply. I have trained the tone of my voice for those exchanges; I speak mostly with deference, but I tuck just enough edgy conviction into my voice to let him know that I will damn well follow through. I snap my wrist up and down a little faster: my knife flicks cleanly through the fibrous stalks.
The order machine makes a strained whirring noise and spits out an order from the front of the house: a chorizo biscuit sandwich, which comes from my station. From top-to-bottom, the sandwich is constructed as follows: flaky bottom half of a buttermilk biscuit; loose chorizo (‘loose’ meaning it has the consistency of catfood, an unfortunate yet accurate comparison); crumbled queso fresco, sunny-side up egg, pepper, salt, scallions, biscuit top. The egg is the trick: In the Momofuku dictionary, the entry for “sunny-side up” names precisely two colors: yellow and white.
The first pair of eggs I plate were beautiful, or so I thought. The body of the whites was soft, the yolk exhibited the jiggly, promising tension of a water balloon, and the edge was a tantalizing crispy golden-brown. Chef, clearly, is possessed of a different set of aesthetic criteria; the eggs went in the trash.
The second time around, I swapped the pans from the flat-top to the oven about fifteen seconds sooner than before, however, I delayed in removing them in order to finish off a steamed pork bun. By the time I had them out, the yolk was shrouded in a film of cooked white, like the sun behind summer clouds.
My hands were trembling as I cracked eggs five and six into my pans because they tend to do that when orders pile up and the list of dishes to cook grows so long it becomes difficult to keep from trembling, and the tank in my head that captures and regulates stress starts overflowing, and the surplus seeks out the nearest physical outlets available, and my damn hands can’t get the egg out of the pan sweet Moses me SLIDE ONTO THE BISCUIT YOU INSOLENT–
“Benjamin!” barks Chef. He is standing next to me, observing my unravelling. I glance up, fearfully.
“Those are some good-looking eggs.”
And they are. Flibberty white around a glorious, smiley-face-ripe-banana-caution-tape yellow. I plate them, garnish with scallions, and savor the three steps it takes to drop the finished dish off at the counter. It is the pursuit of this moment that sustains me through the early hours and endless prep, through the sweat and heat and strain of service, and through the knackered, grimy cleaning that will soon follow. I made something beautiful.
There is little money in cooking. There is little job security. The hours are both brutal and inconsistent. The stresses are great. So, too, are the health risks. Kitchen work has no superior quality with which to attract labor save one: the fierce pride that comes of survival and beauty in pandemonium.
Má Pêche is located at 16 West 56th Street. For more information call (212) 757-5878.