Upland stage

Upland is a restaurant in mid-Manhattan. It serves California-inspired cuisine food, in what I would call a semi-casual setting. I felt pretty underdressed in a t-shirt and jeans, everyone else was in a suit coat and slacks. I think that’s just how people dress in Manhattan.

The staff looks immaculate. They are polite, knowledgeable and perfect. Everyone is in uniform in this restaurant and you can taste the professionalism in the air. This is something that is common in New York and its strange and lovely how upscale even a “casual” restaurant can be.

Porcetta upland

This space is big for NYC, it seats around 80 and has a decent sized private events space downstairs. Every table is made for community seating. The dining room looks like a couple of large wood backed couches with large wooden tables. All of the tables are set lower and it has high ceilings, so the entire space feels big.

This is something New York institutions do a lot. They want it to feel big because nothing feels big in NYC. It’s really impressive to see the different ways people play with their aesthetics to make space feel large and inviting.

The restaurant has a very modern yet rustic appeal. The walls are covered in shelves for wine and preserved lemons and everything in the space is either wood or copper. It looks, like a lovely gay man I overheard, “It’s not over-decorated.”  I thought that was perfect.  Upland has just the right amount of decorating.

Chicken UPland

The kitchen is set at the back of the restaurant. It is a large, French-style kitchen.  Think vertical, not horizontal.  It stands behind the stairwell that leads to the bathroom. It’s entirely open, but if you weren’t looking you could easily miss it. It makes a great backdrop for the guests and it doesn’t throw the kitchen in your face like a lot of open kitchens.

The kitchen itself is big and beautiful, Upland has only been open for a couple of years, and the kitchen is clean. It works on an order/fire system that is very fine tuned. Every dish has been timed out and the chefs call back times for every ticket. There are a handful of stations that include pasta, grill, and pizza (yes there is a pizza oven, it’s tits).

This kitchen is professional. There is a lot of “yes chef” and that helps this place be the machine it is. This place is run like an incredibly tight business. Protein counts are done a couple of times a day, and all of the ordering is monitored closely. The Sous Chef’s (there are a lot of them) keep track of how the stations are doing compared to other stations. They keep the numbers up to date so you can see if a station has started to do less business than other stations, or if that station is losing the restaurant money.

It’s insane how tight this ship runs. To me, it’s incredibly eye-opening. I love knowing that this is something that is not only possible but, I believe, necessary. With something run this tightly, you would think that the food would suffer. It does not.

Duck liver pasta upland

The food is made for groups. There are a couple of items that are made for groups of people, Including a whole Bronzino and well, pizza. Everything is made fresh and the proteins are handled incredibly well. The menu feels very Italian, but it has incredible flair of other cultures, Polenta is very northern Italian, but it feels like something you would get in the deep south. The whole fried Hen of the Woods is seasoned with chives and espelete, and a swoosh of cloumage (It’s like French ricotta, it’s delicious).

The pasta is amazing. All of the pasta is made in-house, including my new favorite, estrella, which is a star-shaped pasta. All of the pasta is made to order and they are perfect. they are finished with two different kinds of cheeses, or herbs, or in one very special pasta, a crazy amount of bottarga. They are all simple and perfect.

Upland dinner

The food is exceptional. You can tell that it has been well thought out and crafted with years of intense study and discipline. I never had the opportunity to meet the Chef Justin Smillie, but it is obvious from his staff that he knows exactly what the fuck he’s doing.

Tørst stage

Tørst is a beer Bar. Tørst is also known for its Scandinavian tasting menu, Luksus. Sadly Luksus is no longer a thing, and the Chef that brought Luksus to light, Daniel Burns no longer works there, and the Michelin-starred Luksus is no longer a thing. They closed at the end of 2016.

Fret not, because, under Chef Jesus Cervantes, Tørst is still awesome.

Torst Bar.jpg

(The bar at torst)

First off, the crew is tiny. We’re talking four people run the whole BOH. Although they do have a small space, maybe twenty seats including the bar, everything on their menu is made from scratch, with few exceptions. and everything is made well, there’s no slacking in this kitchen, no cutting corners and everyone has similar goals and gets along incredibly well. They are the epitome of a family in the industry.

There are a lot of interesting people at Tørst. Including Tae from Korea, Max who is from San Fransisco region, Mike who was off that day (I’m sure I’ll catch him later) and Chef Cervantes, who is much better known as Chuy (pronounced Chewy, Which is an awesome nickname), from Al Paso.

Torst Nori Bun.jpg

(Delicious little nori parker house buns)

These are incredible guys who really care about what they do. They are all into it, and Chuy gives them an incredible amount of space to make the place theirs. Just to give a few examples Max runs the bread program, Tae created the incredible Kimchi dog and the entire time I was there Chuy was asking everyone what they wanted to do for the new menu.

This kitchen runs the way I dream of kitchens running. There is no yelling, everyone is there to learn and they keep each other honest without being giant dicks. Everything is clean and the stress level is manageable. There is a lot of prep, but they don’t rush through it because they are prepared. This is a great kitchen just to be in, it feels nice.

Torst Char dish.jpg

(Char, spicy and acidic)

The menu is delicious. I think they are still trying to figure out who they are as a restaurant, especially after Luksus closed, but they are moving in a great direction. They still hold on to the Danish a little bit, but honestly, I hope that turns into accents and they can just make what they want because that food is strong. I want that food in my mouth.

The line is very small, but they are doing what they can with what they have. It’s not incredibly efficient, there is a lot of grabbing things out of the lowboy, but I think it works for them. After a second you get the feel for it and it works. I’m also impressed with just how much diversity of food they push out of that little kitchen.

They make their bread out of their Combi Oven. Which to me is amazing. This is a perfect example of deciding you want to make something and then working with what you have. For anyone that doesn’t know a Combi oven is a Combination oven, it bakes, and steams or does both. They are not made for bread, and it is very hard to make bread in one without a good amount of practice and patience.

Torst Bread 2.jpg

(House made loafs)

The bread is great, It looks awesome, it’s obviously well cared for and it tastes fantastic. the nori Parker house rolls are buttery, seaweedy(sp?) and delicate, the Sourdough has a great crumb and crust and is perfect for any amount of whipped butter, and the rugbrød is just as good, if not better than the rugbrød I ate in Copenhagen.

The other food is delicious. It’s just really well thought out, seasonal and tasty. It’s the kind of place that if I lived in Brooklyn I would go every day and just grab a plate or two and hang out.  It’s just the stuff I want to eat. Between the kimchi hot dog, the burger and the Torta. Oh my god the torta. This is the best veggie sandwich ever, toasted puffy soft buttery bun, grilled Oaxaca cheese, and a healthy amount of avocado. It kills.

Everything else on the menu is delicious, and it feels super midwest to me. A lot of places in NYC I feel like have a very, we are this, kind of menu, and Tørst doesn’t do that. They are kind of like, we like it, put it on. And that’s great.  They have a dish that’s Asian pear balls, that are compressed in delicious liquid with turnips, that are also pressed in delicious liquid, and then they finish it with greens and ranch and throw it in a bowl. I mean, how can you get mad at that? That’s a great dish, it’s simple, I love it.

Torst steak tartar.jpg

(Steak Tartar)

The tartar is delicious as well. It’s made with New York strip (they also have a steak dish), salted plums, and green walnuts (sometimes green almonds). Just like everything else on the menu, it just feels good, It works. That’s how the rest of the menu is as well.

I staged on a slower day, I didn’t get to see the kitchen in all of its glory, slinging a good amount of food with just two people (three at most) on that little line. But I did get a good feel for what that would look like. Chuy, and then later Tae showed me how to do a good amount of the dishes, and they were all very simple, very pretty and exceptionally well thought out.

The line is simple. a small flat top, a couple of induction (electric) Burners and a combi oven. Everything is very clean and the mise is very tight. They use a medium-sized pot with oil so they can fry. and that’s about it. This line is very bare bones. I think that makes it more fun. It means that in order for them to do a dish they really have to figure out how it’s going to work on their line.

Torst Kim Chi dog.jpg

(Kim Chi Hot Dog)

Toward the end of my stage, Tae Kicked me off the line, told me I worked enough and I needed to have a couple of beers. Then he went and got me a beer because I was being stubborn. My point is that these guys care about the people around them. If I lived in Brooklyn, I would do my best to work here. I just like the vibe. It’s the kind of place that just feels right.

This restaurant is a place that I think, with some time, is going to become somewhere very special. I think they need some time to get loose of the luksus shadow and show that their food is different and fun and that they have their own Identity.

I can’t wait to go back.


Giant Pt.2

Let’s get back to Giant for a second.

There is some real pride and thought that goes into every dish at Giant. It’s more than just solid cooking, It’s years of experience with a twist. It’s fun and playful. It’s like your mom had a stroke while making dinner and it came out incredible.

The best part about the food, for me, is that it’s not afraid to be simple. There is a dish that is literally onion rings, chili salt, and grated parmesan. It’s that simple. Fuck yes.

The plating is awesome. It’s not stuffy, there are no rocks on the plate. no inedible garnish. The plates themselves were different. they look like my grandma’s old china. If I found out that the plates were Ben’s grandma’s I wouldn’t even blink, and I love that.

Giant puts quality and proper cooking above looking cool and being suave and this makes them both cool and suave. This restaurant is cool because they want to be themselves.

The plates are simple. No foam, no fluid gel, no bullshit. good for them, and if some day the decide to put those things on a plate, it will be because it needs to be there. The work a style that I love. Put it on the plate and make it look like it’s never been touched.

No dots, no layered terrines, no excessive, tedious or rigorous plating. Just let the food be pretty plating. We’re talking put a sauce down place cauliflower on it and garnish with herbs. We’re talking put a pot of baked beans down and lay the ribs next to it.

Giant does things because it tastes better. They don’t have to make their own bread, but it tastes better. They don’t need to make orzo, but it tastes better. They don’t need to make all of their pasta to order, BUT IT TASTES BETTER.

Giant feels to me like a place that cares more about the food than it does about the image.

If Giant is one thing, It’s honest. Giant feels like a place that cares more about the food than it does about the image. They know what they want and they know who they are, and they’re packed because of it.

And they fucking should be.

Giant pt. 1

Giant is a tiny restaurant with big flavors.

Located on Armetage in Logan square.  Giant has gotten a good amount of critical acclaim, and for good reason. The food is delicious, the space is small but comfortable, the atmosphere is mellow and controlled.

Lets start at the line.  There are four stations. Starting from the back, Oven, Pasta, Protein, Fry/expo. Oven bakes stuff and does cold dishes, pasta does pasta stuff, Protein cooks most of the big protein dishes ( Think Swordfish, Scallops, pork), and fry does all the fry things and expos.

This line runs incredibly smooth. Everything is incredibly fast. They run an order fire system (blog coming about that soon), and everything is fast. The menu is small and well thought out.  Everything is made in house, Including the bread.  It is obviously a love song to food.

The Chef’s/Owners are Benjamin Lustbader and Jason Vincent. These are some serious heavy hitters. They were both at Nightwood, a restaurant that was in pilsen, it’s closed since. J.V. Won a Food and Wine award, and Ben has also worked for One Off at Publican Quality Meats. These guys know how to cook, and it shows.

The food itself is best described as Americana with a twist. There are a lot of items that feel really homey. Like mom made it, but mom loves big spice exotic ingredients. There is deffinitely an asian undercurrrent that runs through the menu as well.

The menu is super unique. It feels like the Chefs put all of the things they like on the menu, from ribs to orzo, grilled swordfish to fried butter. A lot of the dishes have a really really cool twist. Fried butter is made with uni and then paired with an acidic cucumber salad,  The scallops are made with orange oil and Cojita. Or they are just really solid cooking, like the pork ribs, done with pickles, baked beans and killer slightly spicy BBQ sauce.

The food is awesome, but the Pasta is where everything really comes together. They make all of their pasta in house, down to the orzo. They cook the pasta to order and make the sauces for the pasta with the water. This is how I like my pasta. It takes a lot of skill to make pasta like this in a busy restaurant. Every pasta has to be tasted and adjusted, and you are relying heavily on the skill set of that specific cook. It’s fantastic.

The thing that I took from Giant was that Ben and J.V. rely on the raw talent of their cooks. They spend most of their day guiding the cooks into the best path to succede and then they let them go, watching carefully as they grow, getting them back on the best path as they stray away.

Just so everyone gets the Idea of what kind of restaurant this is, the plating is rustic, ment to look untouched, like it just fell onto the plate and J.V. , one of the chef owners, was running food in his hoodie.

Giant is a magical little restaurant.


El Che pt. 3

My stage started easily enough.

It was a lovely Tuesday. There was only three people in the kitchen when I walked in. Brian was doing R&D for Bacon fest and some menu changes. The dishwasher was shucking oysters, I didn’t catch her name. Danny, the super green prep cook was slightly shaking as he cut up some mise en place. Dave was working on a couple of projects, trying to get everything set up for the night.

Brian pointed out quickly that he was roasting a ham in his wood fired oven box. Every once in a while he would pull it out, smell it, brag about how good it looked (It looked very, very good),temp it,  and put it back in to roast longer. He was also helping with some prep for that night.

They got me to work pretty quickly, the kitchen isn’t that big and I got a little mini tour. Dish line is in the back, prep/ deserts is right after that, then the hot line is in the dining room, nice and open: on the hot line there is an adorable little garmo nook that fits exactly one person.

The line is split up into three stations, Harmon, grill or middle ( mostly seafood and poultry), and  meat ( mostly meats).

The fire was already started when I came in. And the first thing I started doing was to grill the lamb. Needless to say I was pumped. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that grill. Dave did a wonderful job showing me how the grill worked, and the proper way to use it.

The lambs took a while to cook (there were eight cases, think 100#+, enough for a couple of days. They were rubbed with oil and herbs, they smelled amazing when they went on to the grill and even better when they came off.

Brian and I got the chance to talk for a while the lamb was cooking.  Brian’s a stocky short guy with a lush beard. He has a certain warmth and comfortable personality that is punctuated with his minstrelsy sense of humor and incredible energy. We spent a lot of time talking about food, laughing and yelling. He is totally my kind of dude.

Eventually his crew started sprinkling in. Garmo came in first he has the most prep. He is a quiet younger guy who is fighting a career in medical sales to do what he loves and work on the line.

Marinara came and set up. She’s the Pastry Chef. She’s super goofy, hilarious, and full of awkward charm. We used to work together, and she is super talented and organized. She has a lot of fun desserts, Little penguin ice cream sandwiches and Ice cream that’s lit on fire at the table.

Next came in Alan. Alan is a friend of mine. I worked with him when he was new like Danny, incredibly unsure of what he was doing, but never waning on what he wanted to be.

Alan strutted in and started busting out family meal. Pasta and meatballs. It was just good food. Nice and simple, nothing flashy, just a solid, let’s have a good service, meal.

Felipe is not quiet. He’s the tournant and he was constantly motivating the cooks. It was great. He hopped around making lists, checking with the other guys, getting his station set up then helping out anyone else.

Everyone sat down for family meal, Including John Manion, who had been running around all day. John is the Excecutive Chef/Owner and he’s a very nice guy. He took the time during the day to talk to Danny, and ask him some questions that need to be asked of a young cook.

The service was killer, It was a little slower. but everyone held themselves well and kept busy., The food looked great. and tasted even better. The was food was super cool. It was well thought, really nice and simple and everything felt good to eat.

The style is really fun, it isn’t heavy not a lot of butter or heavy fats, there was a lot of meat, but there was just as much vegetables. All of the product was top-notch. The oysters with fried leeks, and celery root puree was warm and crazy tasty.  The lamb ribs were bright and fresh and meaty. The pork chop was super cool because it was so simple. It’s mustard and grapes to give like a sweet spicy thing, and it’s topped off with some peanuts to add some earthy nuttiness. It’s great.

I had an amazing time. The food was good, everyone was amazing. One of the things I like so much about the restaurant is that everyone who is upper management, at least in the kitchen, didn’t have a ton of experience in upper management. They treat their employees with respect and kindness and I think a big part of that is because there isn’t that much separation between them and their cooks. I find it really refreshing to see that in a high-end restaurant.

This  gave me a huge amount of respect for John Manion. It takes a lot of confidence, perception and trust to put people in the big positions without a ton of experience and have them do so well. It really shows he knows what he’s doing.

If you get a chance to stage at El Che, or to eat there,  do it. It’s awesome.


Grill Life at El Che Pt. 2

I have to talk about the grill.

The entire working line is a fire pit. It has two Geared Grills (grills that allow you to adjust the height with a giant gear at the top), three chapa’s (fucking awesome wood fired flat tops) and a fire-box, used for smoking and roasting.  on the back wall behind the grills is a large metal rack.

This is super cool, I wasn’t sure what was happening when I first got there. instead of burning wood directly under the grills, which is something I”m accustomed to, they burn the wood along the back wall about mid way up. At first I thought they were cooking steaks and other foodstuff with the fire on the back wall.

I was so wrong, They burn off the wood for the coals. Then they take the super hot coals and rake them under the grills! This is probably standard practice with this type of grill, but I thought it was so cool! What a smart way to cook with wood!

Let me explain. I have worked with wood fired grills and ovens in the past. At a couple of different restaurants. Usually you set up a hot spot, usually a back corner, but sometimes you make kind of a U shape around both the sides and top of the grill. Anyways, you have this range of heat that gets distributed from the hot spot down to where it’s just warm. so you cook close to the fire and hold away from the fire.

I know what you’re thinking, “I understand that fire is hot, Nate”, But I want you to understand that it is way less simple when you are cooking for a couple of hundred people and you need to keep your fire cranking and you are constantly adjusting to how the wood is burning spreading the fire out, because in your haste you got it entirely too hot. You have a ton of tickets swimming around your head and at the same time, you are constantly fighting with the fire, trying to make it behave!

It is much nicer just keeping the super hot coals underneath the grill. and it makes a lot more sense.  There is no fighting, you need more heat? rake the coals under the grill. You need less heat? Move the coals away from the grill.


El Che, a grilling dreamland PT. 1

This restaurant is made with fire.

I got the opportunity to stage at this fine restaurant the other day. The concept is super cool. The whole restaurant circles around the grill. It feels like everything is made with fire in mind.

First let’s talk about the flow of the restaurant and how the kitchen works.

It’s a pretty simple system, on any given Tuesday there are two prep guys,  one CDC, one expo (Happened to be John Manion on this particular Tuesday) , four line cooks, a pastry professional, and four dishwashers. Not to mention a good amount of FOH staff.

During service a good portion of the prep kitchen gets transformed into pastry. The Pastry Chef (Marianna {Marinara} Reynolds) Holds it down, while also making bread and doing other pastry projects.

This kitchen was busy. Everyone moves with purpose and electricity. These guys are pro’s, there was no hanging out, or wandering around. Everyone knew their job from the moment they arrived and rushed to crush the night. The stations and kitchen were clean and tight. Everything had a place, and everyone knew the steps. This invokes a kind of electric calmness in the back of house.

This is the sign of great leadership. Both the Executive Chef (John Manion), the Pastry Chef (Marinara Reynolds) and the Chef De Cuisine (Brian Szwaya) were both professional and Inviting. They keep tabs on their kitchen with more of an intense pride than ego or fear. These are guys who genuinely want their employees to succeed, and push them to meet their potential.

The entire time I was talking to Brian we always moved back to what his guys were doing. He explained to me that he was giving them partial ownership over programs he wanted to start in the restaurant, effectively letting the cooks be creative and push themselves to learn, while at the same time elevating the restaurant as a whole.

I love this style of management. It makes total sense, you give the responsiblity to your employees and hold them accountable. They get a sense of ownership and they gain confidence and understanding. Sometimes things are not going to work out, but you’ll learn and move on.

It’s undeniably some of the best training you can get.